Drew Saylor may be the new kid on the block in Pasco, but he didn’t waste any time making fans feel welcome at Gesa Stadium during a Tri-City Dust Devils workout Monday.
When the first-year Dust Devils manager noticed Mick Hokanson sitting over the first-base dugout with his 5-year-old son A.J., Saylor invited the former Big Bend softball coach down on the field to join the team during batting practice. Before leaving the field, the father and son were handed a couple baseballs, courtesy of the engaging skipper.
“To me, there’s nothing better in the country than baseball in a small town,” Saylor said. “That’s how you create bonds with people, win or lose. That’s what our guys need, people who are going to care and treat them like members of the community.”
The on-field visit made a big impact on Hokanson and his son, who got some playful advice from pitcher Jonathan Vargas, a 6-foot-2 left-handed pitcher from Acarigua, Venezuela.
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“You have to come to the park every day if you want to be a baseball player,” Vargas told A.J. “I throw 95 (mph). Can you hit 95?”
Vargas was one of 27 players — most of them from extended spring training — who will comprise the team’s Opening Day roster when Tri-City faces Vancouver for a three-game Northwest League series beginning Friday at 7:15 p.m.
Trent Blank, who went 1-0 with a 3.34 ERA in 16 games with the Dust Devils as a rookie last season, is optimistic about continuing to grow as a player under a new manager and pitching coach Frank Gonzales.
“Drew is one of the most positive guys I’ve met, which is good for a group of young players,” Blank said. “We’ve been kind of cooped up (in extended spring training), so guys are eager to get to the season.”
Saylor is encouraged by the array of talent coming up from the Colorado Rockies’ rookie affiliate in Grand Junction (Colo.), where he served as hitting coach last season.
“(Catcher) Wilfredo (Rodriguez) should have been an all-star at Grand Junction. He came up with three of the biggest hits down the stretch an 18-year-old could have,” Saylor said. “Zach Osborne is a wizard in the field. Marcus Derkes runs a 6.3 (second) 60-(yard dash). He’s fast, an electric guy. Jeff Popick was an all-star at Grand Junction last year.”
Jayson Aquino, a 20-year-old left-hander from San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic, went 11-1 with a 1.66 ERA in 108 1/3 innings between Grand Junction and the Dominican Summer League last year.
This season, Baseball America ranks him ninth among the Rockies’ top 10 major league prospects.
“I want to get to the championship,” Aquino said through an interpreter — fellow pitcher Carlos Estevez. “I want to pitch a lot and have good starts so the team can get the win.”
This year, Saylor is giving the players a bit of incentive that could land them some brand new Rockies gear.
“I have a (Dust Devils) player of the game for things like going from first to third twice in one game or if a pitcher executes a pickoff play. My goal is to make Todd’s (Hoffman, clubhouse manager) life a living hell trying to scrub out grass and dirt stains.”
Gonzales is Tri-City’s sixth pitching coach in the last seven years, but he’s also got a vested interest in a certain St. Louis Cardinals prospect. His son, Gonzaga LHP Marco Gonzales, was the Cardinals’ first overall pick, taken with the 19th overall selection.
“I take it for granted that everybody knows how that feels. I guess not, huh?” the proud father said. “I would have loved to have him with the Dust Devils, but the Cardinals are one of the top organizations around. I have no worries he’ll be taken care of.”Gonzales has not agreed to terms with St. Louis yet.
“I haven’t heard anything committment-wise, but I’m guessing my phone is probably ringing right now,” Frank said.