Last week, first year Boise Hawks manager Gary Van Tol gave me almost 15 minutes of his time before a game to talk about himself and the team. He was very generous with his time and his answers, so I thank him for that.
It's hard to know much of anything from one interview, but I was certainly impressed with the answers that Van Tol gave and the way he handled himself around the team. He certainly seems to me like the type of leader that the Cubs would want handling their younger prospects. He was very humble, and he seemed much more confident talking about his players than when I asked him about himself.
JT: You were working here as an unpaid assistant for four years and you got a call and were asked to manage the team. What was it like to get that call?
GVT: It was awesome. You know, a little unexpected. I was just hoping to stay on board with all the changes and keep my role as it had been. I was bench coach for the last five years and when [Cubs Director of Player Development] Brandon [Hyde] called the day after I got back from the instructional league and said "Hey, do you want to manage the team in Boise?" I had to take a step back. I didn't have to think very long about it and I said "I'd be honored to do it." So, I'm very excited that the organization feels confident enough in me to manage the team here in Boise. It was a great day.
JT: Has it been everything you expected it to be?
GVT: No question. The time that I've spent with the organization, in whatever capacity, I've been treated like a part of the family, and that's what makes it special. It's a great organization with a long history and to be a part of it, I'm very excited about the opportunity and the future and the direction the organization is going. I'm looking forward to the opportunity to do my part here at the lower levels to build a strong foundation for these kids and let them prepare for the next step and eventually get to Wrigley.
JT: Let me ask about a few players. Tonight's starter, James Pugliese, was up here last year. He kind of struggled. Did OK but had some problems. But this year he's been a lot better. What do you think has been the big difference for him this year?
GVT: I think the big difference is he's a year older. And coming back here to Boise, to familiar territory, he knows what to expect. A lot of times, that first year for these kids, it's tough to make that transition. And he did struggle. He'd be the first one to admit it. But he's such a hard worker. Very committed. He listened to what the organization was telling him in regards to making adjustments the second go-round. There's been a few mechanical adjustments that he's made. But just that confidence and being a year older and having that experience under his belt really made all the difference in the world.
JT: Paul Blackburn is another pitcher who's been doing very well this year. What can you tell me about his pitching style? What does he have to do on the mound to go forward?
GVT: He's been impressive. You talk about the struggles that first year players have here and he's been pitching like he's been around the game a while at the professional level. He's got a great approach. He's very serious about his business. He knows what his strengths and weaknesses are already. He understands his pitch plan, what he can bring as a starting pitcher with his fastball command. Challenging hitters early in the count. Pitching to contact. Keeping his pitch count down. And then he's got two pitches to complement his fastball with his breaking pitch and his changeup. He knows when to use them. He doesn't try to trick hitters-he just goes right after guys. Until an opposing team indicates that he needs to make an adjustment, he stays right at it. That's pitching with some savvy and experience for a young pitcher.
JT: What about pitchers who have been struggling a little more, such as Duane Underwood and Trey Lang. What do you do to keep them up and keep them focused on the present and not worry about the past?
GVT: Remind them it's a process. It's a step-by-step process that we're going to take day-by-day. They want to do so much, so early, and they want to impress everybody. It's really a matter of getting them to slow down, because things start speeding up for them, they try to do too much and before they know it, their pitch count is at a point where we need to get the bullpen ready and their outing is over. We just use every outing as a learning opportunity and remind them that they're here to develop and learn from every opportunity that they get. They're learning. You compare those guys to Blackburn and the starts that they've had, everybody's different. We want to treat everyone in an individual way so that you can set them aside and make whatever adjustments that we need to make. So when they go about their work the next four days before their next start, as long as they show us they're making improvements, then that's a good thing. It may not be the outcome that they still want, but Underwood, for example, has taken some baby steps his last two outings and he's getting better. And Trey is a work-in-progress and there's a few things we need to do. From a mental standpoint, we need to be sure they know, hey, keep working hard, listen to what we're telling you and let's go out and make those adjustments and see what happens.
JT: One guy who most Cub fans had never heard of before last month but who has really impressed and has already blown through here is Kevin Encarnacion. What can you tell us about this kid and what impressed you about his so much that he could move up to Kane County so quickly?
GVT: Brandon called me and we were talking about our outfield situation and that's when Jacob Hannemann had signed and was coming in. You look at our outfield then and we had Balaguert, Encarnacion, Dunston and Hanneman, that's a pretty good outfield to have at this level. If there was anyone that was deserving to go up, we thought it was Kevin. With what he had shown early in the season, hitting in the three hole, being a switch-hitter, can run a little bit. He can play all three outfield positions although he's primarily probably a corner position guy. He can play all three defensively. He's a tough out. There were some two-strike approaches that he had-hey, it wasn't pretty but he was putting the ball in play and he just refused to strike out and he did whatever he could. Plus, if he got the opportunity and got his pitch, he was going to drive the baseball, he could hit it out of the park. So guys like that, defensively, you kind of create some havoc. Because he's a guy who can bunt for a base hit. He can spray the ball all over the place. He has some sneaky power if you make a mistake. Obviously, he had a great start to the season and he was worthy of a promotion.
JT: You talked about all the outfielders that you had. How hard is it for you to find at bats for everybody?
GVT: It's tough. You know, the thing with these kids at this level, even though it's short-season, it's still a grind. Every one of them needs a day off to get some rest. Especially with our bus trips in the Northwest League. And so, it's just trying to make sure that everyone gets their rest and then, if guys are going good, you want to keep that momentum going and keep that confidence up. Some of the younger players, like a [Trevor] Gretzky, a [Jose] Dore, who have been in the outfield and maybe haven't seen as many at-bats as they were hoping for, that's when you have to sit them down and say "Hey, you have to look at the guys ahead of you. And when you do get that opportunity, when we rest someone and give them a day off, then you need to take full advantage of that and make it tough for me to decide when I'm making that lineup." It's a good problem to have.
JT: I saw one thing on your bio. It said that you played in the Netherlands?
JT: I'm a big fan of international baseball and the Dutch game in particular. I was wondering if you could tell us a little of what that was like?
GVT: It was a tremendous experience. When I was finished playing college, I was older for my age, didn't get drafted. I had a chance at a possible free agent signing but at that time I was playing for Team Canada. My goal was after playing college ball was playing for Team Canada and to try to get to the Barcelona Olympics. Unfortunately, we didn't qualify for the Olympics or the Pam-American Games in Cuba in '91, and so, a lot of times with national teams, they will start fresh with younger players for that next Olympics. So being one of the older players on Team Canada but who had played internationally around the world, one of the Dutch national team coaches coached one of the teams in the Hoofdklasse and they were looking for a third baseman. And apparently I impressed them enough playing against them internationally. When they contacted me, when they found out I had been released from Team Canada and asked me if I'd be interested in coming over and playing. I went over there and played for two seasons. I had an unbelievable experience and I was looking to stay there. I wasn't really interested in coming back to America because the people there were tremendous. The lifestyle, the culture, it was neat. So I feel pretty fortunate to be able to play internationally and travel all over the world. And it extended my career for a few more years.
JT: Finally, are there any players that I haven't mentioned that you think maybe people aren't paying enough attention to on the team? Someone who has a chance to make some noise at the upper levels?
GVT: One guy who stands out is [Carlos] Penalver, our shortstop. Defensively, he's done some things already early in the season that just make you shake your head. To the point where when he does make an error on a tough play in the hole, you're like "wait a minute," because he's made that play so many times. And he's still young too and offensively, it's a work in progress. But I'll tell you what, he can defend with the best of them at shortstop. I think he's got a bright future.
Jacob Rogers, for a 40th-round pick. Being a converted first baseman, he's learning how to play that position and you'd never know he'd never played first base until he got into our organization. For that guy to still be available, when we got him in the 40th round, was a huge get for us. I've been very pleased with his play, especially defensively. He's starting to understand what it means to hit in the middle of the order. We've kept him in the four-hole. He had a slow start, but now he's a little bit more aggressive, because he's maybe only going to get one pitch. Before he was taking it and hitting with two strikes a lot. Now he's looking to get up there and swing the bat in the middle of the order. He's starting to get a better feel there offensively. So I'm very happy with him as well.
Pitching wise? Let's see. Everyone out of our bullpen has been very strong. I'm very happy with our bullpen. Everybody. I think those are the guys who come to mind right now. I think people will start hearing their names more and more.
JT: Thank you very much for your time. I always wish everyone to make it to the majors and I hope you do too.
GVT: Thank you.