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Q&A: Ross Atkins talks about Minor League spring training

Q&A: Ross Atkins talks about Minor League spring training
Indians Vice President of Player Development Ross Atkins looks on during spring training. (Photo: IBI)
March 13, 2014
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Please note, I originally posted this on the Fox Sports Ohio website last March and I am re-producing this here today in order to expose more to it since this is such an important topic at this time of the year and the conversation is very informative.

For anyone who has been to minor league spring training the first thing you notice is the abundance of players in camp as there are close to 180 players at any given time.

But even with players pouring out of the fields like water in a flooded stream, things somehow, someway run smoothly every day as players move from field to field, from drill to drill, and from coach to coach with near precision.

So how does all of this precision come about in spring training? How are things even coordinated to get players from all areas of the United States and various parts of the world to Goodyear, Arizona for spring training? How do the Indians prepare their staff members and players for spring training?

All of that and more is answered at length in a sit down interview that I had in the office of Indians Vice President of Player Development Ross Atkins.  For almost 30 minutes we went through all of the details that make up spring training and how everything comes together to provide the best learning environment possible for the Indians’ bright young stars of tomorrow as they embark on a new season.

To provide Atkins’ comments in unabated fashion and to focus on everything he said this piece was put together in Q&A format.

Q: How soon after the end of a season do you begin to prepare for minor league spring training?

Ross Atkins (RA): It is like anything else where as soon as something is over you are thinking about what’s next. As soon as the season is over we start thinking about the next year, and that starts in Instructional League where we are thinking about developmental plans. You are thinking about timelines in reference to the Major Leagues and not necessarily A-ball and Double-A. You think about how far away a player is and then you think about where the next logical progression is for them. That starts immediately, but it never really stops as you are always thinking about those timelines and progressions.

Q: What goes into the planning and preparation for minor league spring training?

RA: Some of the more formal benchmarks happen during Instructional League [in October] when we meet with all of the coordinators and we also meet with all of our professional scouts. We gather all of the information on our best prospects and think about whether it is a roster-protect decision, when that player is ultimately going to be ready for the Major Leagues, and where our depth is, and as you are sorting through that you are always at the forefront of thinking what is best for that player. In the fall you are gathering information with that group and you are always working on their strengths and limitations to try to help them put one step forward whether it be with nutrition, strength and conditioning, or a fundamental aspect or a mental aspect. Then you go into the offseason with a plan that they have, then we make 40-man decisions and where they will play, then we place our prospects to the best of our ability, and then we build around them. That happens over the entire offseason. Then in January when we have the Winter Development Program we will have another meeting which is a spring training preparation meeting with our staff and coordinators, and we include the entire front office and scouting department and just revisit those decisions and plans. Then when our player development coaches and staff come into spring training we bring them up to speed and that typically in most cases is almost a month before our minor league players are here. Before we sit down with each player individually [in spring training] we have met as a group and as an organization.

Q: When you have those organizational meetings in October, is that when you determine areas of need to sign minor league free agents not just for the big league roster but in the upper levels of the minors as well?

RA: Yes. As you look at your depth and look at where your holes are and where you can add, you meet with your pro scouts and look at all of the minor league free agents and determine where there is opportunity. For the last ten years we have certainly been that team that has added guys like Casey Blake, Shelley Duncan, Jack Hannahan and a litany of pitchers that have come into the bullpen and rotation. Then there are the minor league free agent signings that really probably aren’t squarely in the mix to make the Major League team and will be legitimate depth for us. We as an organization try not to sign minor league free agents that are not Major League depth. We don’t just want to fill rosters as we would rather give opportunities to our drafted players.

Q: Before pitchers and catchers report in early March for minor league spring training - and the position players report shortly after that - you have several early camps throughout January and February. What are these programs for?

RA: That is all they are, just opportunities for us to give players [an opportunity to get better]. We are never closing the door on anybody; it is just a matter of resources and who we are paying to give those opportunities. There is the Winter Development Program in January, there is the strength and conditioning camp here in January, and the early spring training camp [in February] is really just extending a regular minor league spring training for our better prospects for two reasons:  one, to get them more accustomed to a longer spring training, and two, to get them more individualized work.

Q: At the outset of spring training, do you have a good idea where players will be placed?  How much goes into what these guys do over minor league spring training which for most players is about three weeks?

RA: We try not to put a lot into it. The guys that have really put themselves into position to be considered our elite prospects, they are here for well over three weeks as they are here for close to five and six weeks and the guys on the 40-man are here for the whole time. We have plenty of information by the time March 30th rolls around to have a good feeling where everybody should at least start the year. I think there are two things that occur here. One, the reason we do need to factor in the information is because of how young these players are. Sometimes the learning curve can be so steep and sharp that all of sudden something in his physical or mental maturity clicks and a guy will make strides that were unexpected. A guy can make strides in weeks that we maybe have been trying to help him with for months. So we can’t just say we don’t factor in spring training as we have to factor in all of the information. But the second component that we are always thinking about is whether a guy starts in Zebulon, Akron or Columbus; it really is not that significant in that player’s career because how we look at it is that there are the Major Leagues and the Minor Leagues. Let’s put guys in a position to have success and then they will tell us in very short order if they are in the right place. We are trying to put them in the right place, but it is not the end of the world if a guy tells us he doesn’t belong there and outperforms that level because then we move them. Their performance will dictate that and we will adjust. That is the beauty about the minor leagues as it shouldn’t be seen as six levels, it should be seen more as a school. Here is where I am currently at versus I am two levels away or one level away [from the big leagues].

Q: So some notable growth either physically or mentally can certainly impact things in the spring?

RA: Because of their youth we see such significant progress with these players mentally and physically that we have to factor in all of the information. A guy that comes to mind is actually Francisco Lindor. He came in faster and stronger and more prepared for the season, and he had one of the highest benchmarks that we could possibly have for him. He continues to exceed our expectations and really probably his own as he really does set the standard bar high for himself. On the flip side there are disappointments too. It is typically not guys going in the wrong direction; it is the guys staying at the status quo. This game is just too hard that if you are a minor league player and you did not get a little bit better in the offseason and a little bit better than last year, somebody else is coming up and taking your spot.

Q: These players all need help getting to the Major Leagues, and hence that is why player development is so important. At the forefront of that is a development plan that you put together with the staff. What goes into making a development plan and how do you come up with it?

RA: It is nothing more than when you sit down with a group of people and talk about how we can help a player and come to a resolution on prioritizing what are the most important things for him to work on, what are his strengths, include that person in the process, and then put it on paper. That is all it is. It is not complex. It is a very simple process. It is just the diligence to do it. The hardest part is actually including the player in the process. You can assume and become a little presumptuous that your information is just the way it is going to be and what needs to happen based on our experiences and you know it so clearly that this is what this player needs, that a staff member can realize from time to time that he did not fully include the player in the process. The most important and hardest piece to do is fully getting them to buy in. It is one thing to say ‘are you okay with this?’ it is another thing to say ‘no really, what are your thoughts on it? Genuinely tell me.’ Sometimes you are dealing with an 18-year old young man who does not yet understand how to do that, so it is helping them learn how to challenge authority, how to challenge someone that has 30 years of wisdom and experience, and there are also some cases where a guy has had a lot of success and are set in their ways. Even still, for that guy, we fully include him in the process and if he doesn’t buy in, then we don’t put it in the plan.

Q: When spring training starts, do you sit down individually with each player and tell them their plan?

RA: Yeah we do meet with all 180 or so players. The best interactions that are going to happen with our players are with the guy in the uniform. These are the guys in the field that are standing behind the cage, in the dugout after something happens, and in the bullpen. Those are the most significant.  The instruction and the guys that are with these players for a 144 games on the bus trips and with them in the clubhouse every day, that is where the impact is going to be made. So this is a meeting where we are breaking down barriers and letting them know we are available and how much we care.

Q: Who comes up with the daily routines for what the players do each day and what kind of input do you have in that?

RA: Yeah, [Field Coordinator] Tom Wiedenbauer is leading that charge. There is no doubt that he is doing the heavy lifting there. But, we have had meetings where we have prioritized things with him where he knows he should be playing this person or that person, and should this person be in this position or that position. Also, our Pitching Coordinator Ruben Niebla knows who needs to be stretched out and knows where the tough decisions are. So we have framed how they are going to make their daily decisions, they make them, and in the morning they run them by the staff and we make sure that everybody is on the same page. Niebla and Wiedenbauer will rely on [the other coordinators] to work together at the beginning and end of every day to make sure we are aligned and on the same page and every single staff member is in on those meetings. But the heavy lifting is done beforehand, and the taking of all that information and putting it to paper is done by Tom Wiedenbauer.

Q: Is the release process one of the tougher things you have to do in spring training?

RA: No. I may be a little bit callous and you certainly never want to be the guy to inform someone that it is the end of the line with us, but the players already know. They know they are 24-years old in A-ball and not playing every day so they know it is going to be an uphill battle for them. It is very rare that we sit down with a player and they are shocked and can’t believe it has happened. It has happened, but it is rare. In a lot of those meetings it is me telling them how proud we are of them and how impressed we have been and how happy we are in the man they have been become, so those in some ways can be fulfilling. But they are never easy.

Q: So what is the hardest thing for you to do in spring training?

RA: I would say the hardest thing about spring training is probably prioritizing. It is the only time you have over 180 players and over 300 people at one place that all work in baseball. If you let the day dictate what you are going to accomplish the day will do that. One person is asking you for this, the next person is asking you for that, and the next person asks you to do that, so if you don’t plan and prioritize what is the most important thing to get done that day then you did not get it done in an ideal way. It is just the prioritizing with all of the numbers, all of the people, and all of the desires and all of the things that you can react to. Often times just telling a player he is not making a Major League roster and being a part of that discussion as they are immediately coming to me and helping a player through it and getting him refocused. The difficult aspect of that is during spring training I am not having the good conversations.  We are not taking the time to say nice job, great going, or way to go. We don’t have time for that. We want to spend the time with the guys that got the difficult information, and that can wear on you where over and over you are just handling the difficult conversations. But it is part of the minor leagues and is part of what we do.

Q: One of the amazing things is the logistics involved of bringing in players from all across the country and different parts of the world, setting them up with housing, getting them to and from where they need to go, and so on. How much work is involved with all of that?

NA: It is all [Administrative Assistant of Player Development] Nilda Taffanelli and [Director of Baseball Administration] Wendy Hoppel. It is unbelievable the amount of work, time and energy they put into it. A big part of it is we try to get that message across to our players how difficult it is, and our players are great about it. It is difficult for them to fully understand they are 1 of 180 when all of that information is transpiring, so getting them to be responsive immediately and follow up on requests and questions in order for their job to be a little bit easier is very difficult for us. But it is a challenge that everybody has, but it is an unbelievable task. Nilda is at the forefront of it with Wendy helping her in Cleveland. It is not just spring training. We are doing it for Instructional League, we are doing it for all the camps, and we are doing it for the Winter Development Program. We are coordinating not just the players, but the 50 staff members, the guest instructors that come in, the coordinators that come in and out, the scouts coming and going, and we have a staff seminar where we are bringing in guest speakers and consultants. It is constant. Our demands and standards are high as we don’t want people to feel like they are 1 of 180, which is why it is never going to change. We want them to feel like they are 1 of 1 and that they are being treated as an individual and with the utmost respect and attention to detail.

Q: In closing, I would have to assume that the end of spring training is probably the most exciting time of the year. The players more or less have a clean slate with which to work from and have five months to make some strides in their development. How do you feel about the end of spring training?

RA: Other than competing for the playoffs, it is the best time of the year because 300 people have come under one roof to spend 50 days together all day every day without exception to start our season. It is a very fulfilling accomplishment each year because of how much you have to rely on one another to get that done. It is just extremely fulfilling because of just the amount of work and time and energy that goes into doing something together. We can then at least for a day or two just sit back and watch. That is all you can do once the season has started is just watch them play now.

Follow Tony and the Indians Baseball Insider on Twitter @TonyIBI. Also, his new book the 2014 Cleveland Indians Baseball Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.

User Comments

dick
March 14, 2014 - 5:41 AM EDT
Thanks for recycling the interview. Setting aside the sabremadricks, you and your protégés are like the Studs Terkel of baseball reporting
pathofkindness
March 13, 2014 - 6:55 PM EDT
Wow, that is so interesting. Great stuff Tony!

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