MANCHESTER — When it comes to gauging the success of a minor league affiliate, wins and losses are often among the last things an organization will take into consideration. Higher-ups will instead look to the progress their franchise’s prospects have made over the course of the year and will determine whether or not the specific path they are on is beneficial to player and team.
In that vein, the Fisher Cats have had a successful 2019 season. Though their 27-34 record going into Thursday’s game against the Binghamton Rumble Ponies might dictate otherwise to casual observers, the Fisher Cats and their coaching staff have done a great job at developing talent.
Eleven players have made the leap to Triple-A Buffalo at different points this season, with soon-to-be top prospect Nate Pearson headlining a group that includes Santiago Espinal, Forrest Wall, Nash Knight, Patrick Kivlehan, Bryan Baker, Tayler Saucedo, Kirby Snead, Andrew Sopko, Ty Tice and Jackson McClelland. For manager Mike Mordecai, that’s what’s most important.
“Our organization here, I think if you ask the bosses, they would say the most important thing is players getting better,” he said. “More so than winning a championship. There’s a lot that goes into winning a championship where you have to have a lot of pieces come together. They had that here last year. I think there are 13 or 14 players that were in here last year that have played in the big leagues this year. That’s a ton. Let’s see how many of these guys are there next year.
“Personally, if they’ve gotten better and they leave this season knowing what they need to work on and come back next year and you see the fruits of what they did this year and all the learning and struggles they went through, then that will be a telltale sign that we did a decent job here.”
Kevin Smith is one of those guys who will be watched closely come next year. He entered the season as Toronto’s No. 5 prospect but went through a slump that dropped him to No. 14.
Having hit 17 home runs to this point in the year, the power has been there. It’s the average that has taken a hit in his first season in Double-A, batting .207 and striking out 138 times in 391 at-bats. Smith had a monster year with Advanced-A Dunedin in 2018, hitting .302 with 25 home runs and 31 doubles in 129 games. He’s hoping to use the lessons he’s learned this year to get back to that high-average/high-power combination that got him to New Hampshire.
“I learned that it’s a long season and you kind of just have to take it day by day,” he said. “Guys get caught up in how they did yesterday or how they’re going to do today when you have a long season and you kind of have to separate the days and treat every one as its own thing instead of trying to put together weeks and months. Really kind of settle down and get comfortable.
“I think everyone is going to go through (slumps) eventually. I’d rather it happen to me now than later on in my career. It will happen again, and it will happen to other guys, but now I have a few things I can go back to so it doesn’t last as long and hopefully get back on track a little quicker.”
Relief pitcher Jake Fishman echoed a lot of Smith’s sentiments, including the fact that it truly is a long season that’s going to come with ups and downs each and every year.
“It’s how you respond to the failures that’s going to change how your season goes,” he said. “A lot of times I feel like some people can get knocked around and then feel like they can never come back from it. As long as you try to make adjustments along the way, you’ll get back to where you want to be.”
Fishman alluded to a period during the season where he felt like he forgot how to throw a baseball. He was pitching poorly and went back to the drawing board with pitching coach Vince Horsman to iron out an issue with his mechanics. Once that was taken care of, he started performing up to his standards and he feels he’s better equipped now to handle those issues.
It’s little things like that that can go a long way. Smith and Fishman are still young and have more to learn, but progress can’t be measured in a vacuum when it comes to these guys. From position to position each player is different and will improve in areas specific to them.
That’s why Smith can still view this year as a success despite falling down the organization’s list of prospects. He’s been through a lot this year but understands how to address certain issues at the plate should they pop up again down the line.
“I’m always trying to get better at everything,” he said. “Whether it’s in the weight room, getting explosive, or working on areas in my swing and my approach, or in the field and baserunning. Hopefully I’ll just come into next year better at every part of my game and go from there.”