Over the last few weeks and months, you may have noticed Christopher Jackson, baseball writer for the Albuquerque edition of examiner.com, has been dropping by in the comments section and providing some great on-the-ground info about the Dodgers’ top farm club. Earlier this week, Chris was kind enough to spare a few minutes to speak with me about baseball in Albuquerque, the place of the Dodgers there, and what he’s seen from the young Isotopes before the club kicked off their current homestand against Omaha on Monday evening.
MSTI: Thanks for taking the time, Chris. Are you an Albuquerque native? If not, how did you end up there?
CJ: Sort of. I went to middle school & high school here, and my dad was in the Army so we were traveling all over the world before that. So I ended up here, and after high school I went to the University of Arizona for four years, and then it was like, you’ve caused enough trouble, here’s a degree, now go away.
MSTI: How did you end up covering the Isotopes?
CJ: I was working for the Daily Breeze down in Torrance, and I got called into human resources one day, and I thought I’d forgotten to fill out some form, and they were more like, “no, ha, goodbye.” So after a few months of fruitless job searching as the nation’s economy cratered, I ended up moving back here, and some of my friends suggested I take a shot at writing for the Examiner, and so I picked up the job that was available writing about the Isotopes, in, I think it was September of 2009, and I guess I did enough with that that the Isotopes were willing to give me a credential, so I covered them all last season and I’m back out here this year.
MSTI: So the entire time you’ve been covering them, they’ve been a Dodgers affiliate, not a Marlins one.
CJ: Yeah, they switched to the Dodgers the first season I was back here, when I was just coming to the games as a fan.
MSTI: Were you in Albuquerque when the Dukes left in 2000?
CJ: Yeah, I was, I graduated high school in 1996, we used to come out to Dukes games at the old, rotten, crumbling stadium, but it was always a good time out there.
MSTI: The Dukes were in Albuquerque for almost thirty years; was it difficult on the town when they left and there was no team there for several years?
CJ: Yeah, it definitely was, this town revolves around Lobo football in the fall, Lobo basketball in the winter, and then the Isotopes or Dukes would take over in the spring. Those are the three big things here, and I wasn’t in Albuquerque when it happened, but it certainly was weird to come back to Albuquerque in the summer, when I was visiting my folks, and there was nothing to do. There was literally nothing going on in this town, it was just sort of quiet and kind of despondent. Right around that same time when the Isotopes came into existence, when they moved the Calgary team down here and they redid the stadium and everything else, it was right around the same time they were doing a big revitalization effort downtown, and compared to the Albuquerque I grew up in, it’s a lot nicer city now. The baseball team had something to do with it.
MSTI: How much do the people of Albuquerque identify with the Dodgers because of the long history, or do they just mainly care about the Isotopes no matter who they’re affiliated with?
CJ: This is a Dodger town. This is very much a Dodger town. Pretty much, I’d say 90% of the kids I grew up with were Dodger fans. If you weren’t a Dodger fan, it’s because you either lived somewhere else originally, or your dad instructed you, like mine did, to be a fan of a different team. This town is kind of divided between Cowboys and Broncos football, but in baseball there’s no question this is a Dodger town. I think, especially any of the guys who played here, whether it was Mike Piazza, or Tommy Lasorda managing, there’s sort of this connection that forms between the fans here and those guys who move up.
CJ: Yeah, he loves it here. I think the big thing is, this isn’t a place where the fans come out because they’re giving away a t-shirt, or just because there’s fireworks or something. There really are a lot of die-hard fans here in this town, and certainly moreso for the Dodgers. When the Isotopes were a Marlins team, it was more like “we’ll come out and see whoever, we just like watching baseball”, but as soon as the Dodgers came back, there was a definite spike in interest in everything that was going on with the team. The kind of people who would read the Dodger blogs were coming to the games again.
MSTI: On the topic of playing in Albuquerque, we all know it’s a high-offense environment, and every year you get a nondescript minor-leaguer with great stats, like Trent Oeltjen or Jamie Hoffmann this year. We can see that from the stats, but since you’re there watching the games, how extreme is the effect really on a daily basis?
CJ: Sometimes it has nothing to do with it, but if anyone’s been to the park, it’s a big park. This place is like Coors Field, it’s very big. You can’t have a bunch of slow, old guys running around in the outfield or they’re in trouble. We’ve got that crazy little hill in center field, and the wind will whip up here, but this year, I haven’t really seen a lot of wind-aided home runs, which is crazy, because we’ve had a lot of wind. It’s a big park, it plays big, there’s a lot of wind, but you’re more apt to see a lot of hits that are going to fall here just because of how spacious it is. I don’t think it necessarily inflates home run totals as much as people try to make it out to, but certainly it helps. I think the impact is bigger on pitchers than hitters, because obviously you’ve got a pitcher who comes in here with a great curveball, and that thing isn’t going to curve as much. It’s pretty much the same thing you’ll see even at a lower elevation in Arizona because of how dry the air is.
MSTI: Does it worry you that you might miss out on some of the better pitching prospects in the system due to the Dodgers wanting to skip them past Albuquerque?
CJ: I guess the main thing is that we haven’t really had a situation where a superstud guy, I mean, they sent James McDonald here, they sent Scott Elbert here, those two guys came through. If they skip Rubby De La Rosa, or if Chris Withrow ever gets his act together and they skip him over here, yeah, it’ll be disappointing, but I go back to what DeJon Watson told us once – as a Dodger, you’re going to have to pitch at Coors Field, you’re going to have to pitch at Chase Field, and the ball’s going to carry there more than it will at Dodger Stadium, more than it will at Petco. So you’ve got to learn to pitch in any environment. I certainly think the Dodgers, as compared to the Marlins, aren’t afraid to send their guys here.
MSTI: That’s a great point, especially with those other parks in the division.
CJ: And even with the other parks in the league, like Philadelphia and Cincinnati. Just look at what’s happened to Aaron Harang this year, he’s gone to San Diego, and he’s a whole new pitcher.
MSTI: Which was basically the most predictable thing ever.
CJ: Exactly. If you’re a flyball pitcher, go to Petco.
MSTI: That’s why Jon Garland was so happy to go there. You mentioned guys like de la Rosa and Withrow in the lower levels. Last year the Isotopes had 56 different players hit and 42 different pitchers, so how closely do you follow the lower teams of the Dodgers, keeping an eye on who might be coming up to Albuquerque?
CJ: I try to follow them. Usually what I do is when the Isotopes go on the road, when I’m not taking a college class, especially when summer hits and there’s not a lot going on, I’ll always try and start looking at some of the lower teams. Chattanooga is the team I look at the most, trying to keep track of the guys. I try once a month to do a farm report, but I haven’t done one yet for April, and April’s over, so I’ll end up starting with May this year. But I definitely try to keep track; nowadays, there’s so much information out there, people know about the baseball draft now, probably more than they ever have before, so I think people are curious, for example, “where’s Zach Lee? He was the first round pick last year, where’s he at?” Another guy, he’s a good example, I’ve had a lot of people ask me about because he was in extended spring for a while was Brian Cavazos-Galvez, he’s an Albuquerque native, he went to high school here, he played at UNM. He’s someone who’s played in this ballpark a lot, and when he gets here to Albuquerque, he’s going to be a very big deal.
MSTI: Speaking of the lower teams, those teams are generally all younger guys on the way up, but Triple-A tends to be more of a mixture of younger guys coming up and older guys on the way down or stuck there. When you’re in the clubhouse, do you see a divide amongst those two groups?
CJ: I don’t see it much. You do a little bit, certainly – when Sands was here, Jerry, Dee, and Trayvon, the three of them would be sitting there talking to each other. You’ll see the divide of the guys who speak Spanish as their first language, they’re usually talking together, but there are plenty of times where the entire team will be hanging out and doing stuff, and the whole bunch of them are goofing around. I don’t think it makes a difference that John Lindsey is 34, he can still act like just as much of a goofy kid as Dee Gordon. I think the one thing that struck me last year and again now, just because so many guys are back, is that it’s really a fun clubhouse. It’s very loose, and there is a sense of camaraderie, and a lot of the veterans, I think, are very inclusive of the young players. They give them a hard time, but not to the point where the young guys are sitting over there sulking in the corner.
MSTI: It’s an interesting divide on the roster, in that there’s several good hitting prospects, but not much in the way of top pitching prospects. Is there anyone who’s really stood out to you on the mound that you didn’t expect?
CJ: Oddly enough, the most impressive guy to me has been Dana Eveland. He is what is, he’s a lefty, he’s got to be kind of crafty, he’s not going to overpower anyone out there, but he’s definitely a character and a half in the clubhouse, you can tell he’s one of the practical jokesters on the team. He’s kind of stood out, but I think the bullpen guys have been impressive this year. I know Jon Link had a bad game on Saturday, but otherwise he’s been pretty much lights out, Roman Colon, he’s been pitching very well in the 9th inning role. I know the concern right now is Scott Elbert and Travis Schlichting. It just seems like Elbert can mow down every right handed hitter he’s facing, but you give him a lefty hitter, and he’s walking him or giving up a base hit. I know that’s the exact opposite of what the Dodgers want, and then Schlichting has really had an issue so far with keeping the ball down.
MSTI: That’s disappointing, he was at times impressive in his short stints up with the Dodgers last year.
CJ: I know. It’s one of those situations where you wonder with him is it that he can’t get the movement on his pitches here in Albuquerque that he can in LA, and that’s one of those questions I’ll have to ask him at some point.
MSTI: Trayvon Robinson‘s off to a good start, his line looks good, he’s got a good hitting streak, but he’s struck out nearly four times as often as he’s walked. What have you seen from him as far as command of the strike zone?
CJ: I think right now, he’s an aggressive hitter, he’s going to be aggressive, he’s going to stay aggressive no matter what. I think at this point with him it’s a matter of pitch selection; I think he’s going to be okay in time. The first series, against Omaha, who’s back here tonight, he chased a lot of pitches out of the zone, stuff that was a good foot off the plate, and he was swinging at it when he shouldn’t have. He’s settled down with that somewhat, and I’d have to go break it down start-by-start, but especially when he faces the veteran guys, an older pitcher like a Jeff Suppan and those kind of guys, they really seem to be able to get him to chase, and I think if he stops doing that, starts being more selective, starts waiting back for his pitch, he’s going to be able to be even better than he is right now.
The power is there, and he’s fast, though he hasn’t really been stealing many bases, but either they haven’t been giving him the green light or he’s been up in situations where somebody’s at second, so he can’t really go steal anything. But he’s got speed, even though he’s not as fast as Gordon. Defensively, he’s had some really horrific days out in that outfield, but it’s not really his fault, it’s the wind – the wind has been murderous so far this season. He’s had some where he’s got a beat on the ball, that thing’s coming right toward him, and all of a sudden you see him stop, and he’s got to sprint ten feet to his left, because the ball suddenly just hooks. The good news is, the hill that intimidates so many guys, he’s done okay on the hill, he fell down once during BP, and he fell down once during a game, but again it was the wind more than the hill, because the ball corkscrewed on him and he had to suddenly shift. Hoffmann’s been helping him out on the hill.
I think Robinson’s going to be a good player if he starts being more selective, if he settles down a little bit and gets over the whole “I’m at Triple-A” and starts making that adjustment that guys need to make. To me, he’s a potential future leadoff hitter or #2 hitter in a lineup.
MSTI: What about Dee Gordon, who’s hitting .300 but has shown no power, even at Albuquerque, and has made a ton of errors. Do you think even next year is too optimistic for him to be in the bigs?
CJ: It’s hard to say. The thing everyone has to remember with Dee is, he was a basketball player most of his life. He really hasn’t played baseball anywhere near as long as a kid his age normally would have. He’s tremendously athletic, and his speed is breath-taking. But he is far, far from a finished product. He is, I would say, the most raw player I have ever seen in Triple-A. In my mind, I think he should have been back at Double-A for another season, but they decided to challenge him up here. It’s true he doesn’t have a lot of power, and I don’t think he ever will – he is reed-thin. I’m not a big guy, and I’m almost bigger than him. He’s very thin, but he’s strong, he’s fast, he’s got the bat speed, but he really hasn’t bulked up yet, and I’m not sure he ever will, because I don’t know how much that would detract from his speed.
Defensively, he can make the spectacular play, then on a routine play, he’ll air mail it. But he’s getting a little better about that, he’s had games where he’ll make the spectacular stop, and he’s got no chance to get the runner, and he’s swallowing the ball, he’s not trying to make an off-balance throw. He tried to make a throw one time, I couldn’t even say it was from his knees. He was basically lying flat on his stomach, he tried to throw the ball to first base. That thing just shot right between Jerry Sands‘ legs, and you’re just like, oh. I don’t care what first baseman you had playing there, it could have been Albert Pujols playing there, and he wouldn’t have fielded that ball.
I know everyone wants to see him up in 2012 because Rafael Furcal‘s going to be gone, but I don’t know. It wouldn’t surprise me if he had a quantum leap at some point, where things just come together for him, but it wouldn’t surprise me too if he needs another year, two years, even three down here. It’s really hard to say with him. You see the potential, but you just wonder, ‘is it all really going to come together for him’, or is he always going to be this this super fast kid who isn’t quite a baseball player, he’s just an athlete.
MSTI: I hear from so many fans asking about him, and I’m always trying to caution them “certainly not now, and maybe not even next year.”
CJ: You know, I think he might do okay offensively, but defensively, no. Defensively, you put him in the majors right now, and he’ll break Jose Offerman‘s errors record.
MSTI: You mentioned Sands – were you surprised he got called up so soon, and did you think he was ready?
CJ: I will say this about Sands; from a maturity perspective, just in terms of his personality, his attitude, his approach, he was ready. I didn’t know if he was physically ready, but I didn’t see anything about him that made me think, “he’s got to work on this, he’s got to work on that.” He looked fine defensively in the outfield, he looked fine at first base, not so great at third base in that one game where he was the third-string third baseman. As a hitter, he looked very good, he was using all fields. I just thought it was impressive that his first three home runs were all the opposite way. He went deep three times to right field here, as a right-handed hitter, and you don’t see too many guys here, even the veterans who can do that.
Was I surprised, well, yeah, I didn’t think the Dodgers, I knew they were desperate, but I thought they were going to give him at least a little more time. As far as can he handle it mentally, I think he can. He really was sort of an amazing person to talk to, someone his age, his experience, because you’re looking at this guy going, ‘how old are you again?’
MSTI: The production hasn’t come yet, but the big club seems to have confidence in him, he’s hitting second tonight.
CJ: He’s selective. I think that’s the key. Unlike maybe Gordon, or Robinson, he would sit back and wait for his pitch. He had a great eye, and a great personality, and you could tell his work ethic was just unbelievable. Robinson even told me that, that Sands’ work ethic was just off the charts. He outworked everyone in Glendale this spring, there was no one else – major league, minor league – who was even close to the amount of work he put in.
MSTI: Not quite on the same level as Sands, or Robinson, or Gordon, but everybody seems to want to know about Corey Smith, who was a Cleveland first round pick about ten years ago. He’s the new John Lindsey in everybody’s hearts. What do you think about Corey?
CJ: I talked to Corey for the first time the last game they were here, against New Orleans, and the first thing you should know about him is physically, he looks like he should be playing outside linebacker. He’s big, he’s not particularly tall, he’s just strong. He’s one of those strong as an ox kind of guys, the guy you want backing you up in a fight. He’s quiet, but he always seems to be listening, he’s kind of that teammate where everyone else is talking, and he’s nodding and listening, he’s taking it all in.
He’s quicker than you think. I haven’t seen him play third yet, I’ll see him tonight because he’s playing third tonight. (MSTI note: Smith has made three errors, I believe, playing third base since this interview was conducted on Monday. To put it lightly, he’s probably not an option there.) At first base though, he had a couple of plays in one game, one was a tough throw, I think probably from Gordon, that he had to corral and did a really good job on. Another one was one of those real bad hop choppers coming up the line, that thing was shooting at him at about 70 miles an hour and he was able to field that and make a great play on it. There’s some agility there, and clearly the man can hit. He doesn’t hit anything soft – everything is hard. Every ball he hits, even the singles he hits on the ground, are hard, just bullets. It’s a small sample size; of the twelve games he’s played at Triple-A I’ve seen eight, or nine, and it’s hard to say, but I think he’s had some better at-bats, he’s not striking out as much, his errors have gone down, and his walks have gone up. Certainly, he’s definitely someone who’s driven, to have spent eight years at Double-A, and not have thrown in the towel at this point.
MSTI: It’s interesting to have both him and Lindsey, who I know has been hurt, on the same roster, fighting for that same spot.
CJ: Lindsey’s perseverance is astounding, and he’s not bitter. The one thing that strikes me about this entire team is, you’ve got a lot of guys here, maybe not have been in the minors as long as Lindsey, or even Smith, guys who haven’t seen their careers turn out the way they expected them to. But there really isn’t a bitter, curmudgeon, angry at the world, life’s not fair, I got hosed by so and so, and Smith, he probably could have easily fallen into that, becoming an angry veteran guy, saying “I never got my chance”. But he’s not, and the Dodgers organization, they’ve really assembled some great character guys in the minors.
MSTI: I remember reading your story about JD Closser, who’s an older guy, and seemingly at peace with where he is.
CJ: Closser’s the best. Closser and I talk (smack) every day. I think I went two days without and he came up to me and goes, “where the hell have you been?” I’m like, “I’ve been here,” and he goes, “I know you’ve been here, but where the hell have you been?”
MSTI: That sure has to make your job a lot easier.
CJ: It does, and like I said, there’s not a bad apple here, and it makes things a lot nicer, and even over the grind of a season, these guys stay as upbeat as they do, despite all the times they’re stuck at the TGI Friday’s at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, which apparently is the single most common place they visit. It’s a fun bunch, it’s a fun little job to do, and I’ll keep on keeping on out here.
MSTI: One last question, what do you see as the difference, both on the field and in the clubhouse, between the team as managed by Tim Wallach and the team as managed by Lorenzo Bundy?
CJ: I don’t know if I see too much of a difference. I think the difference isn’t necessarily in the two managers, as much as the difference is that they’ve added youth to the team this year. Maybe it tends to be a little livelier, just a little bit, but part of that is that the veterans are just big kids. I think Lo, maybe it’s a little less formal with Lo than it was with Wallach, but not too much. Wallach, he’s kind of a quiet, stoic guy a lot of the time, but he’d joke around with them, he’d talk smack with them too, and the players responded well to him, and they’re responding well to Lo, so no complaints. For me as a reporter, Lo tends to be a little better quote, he gives us more after the game; with Wallach, you talk to him pre-game, he’d give you a good quote, but after the game, he tended to be kind of tired and frustrated, but I would be too if I were on my 40th pitcher of the season in July.
Thanks, Christopher - lots of good info here, particularly in how the people of ABQ really do care about the Dodgers, and it’s a good way to take our minds off the current state of the big club during the day off. Speaking of which, the team is traveling to New York to play the Mets; you can look for me somewhere behind the third base dugout for Friday night’s game.