The Dodgers' Top 11 prospects list includes a pair of shortstops with big-league bloodlines, and few people know them better than De Jon Watson, the team’s assistant general manager and director of player development. The promising youngsters are 21-year-old Dee Gordon, son of long-time reliever Tom "Flash" Gordon, and 22-year-old Ivan De Jesus, Jr., son of former Phillies and Cubs shortstop Ivan De Jesus. Watson discussed the two highly-regarded infield prospects via telephone from the Dodgers' spring training facility in Glendale, Arizona.
David Laurila: Can you talk a little about Ivan De Jesus, Jr. and his development?
De Jon Watson: Ivan is a really talented young man, and one of the things for us is really getting him to slow the game down a little bit on the defensive side. His hands work well and his feet work well, but at times, on certain plays, he wanted to speed up. He would come up out of plays, especially with the pivot at second base, so there were things we were trying to address with him on the defensive side of the ball. I think he had made tremendous stride and watching him now on the major-league side, working with (coaches) Larry Bowa and Mariano Duncan, it looks like things are definitely coming together for him.
He had a little setback last year with the broken leg (that caused him to miss the season), but coming back from injury, this kid seems to have really stepped right back in to where he was prior to the injury. His feet are working well. There’s the transition—we were playing him a little bit at second base, but now we have him back at strictly shortstop and he hasn’t missed a beat. Again, the hands work exceptionally well for him to play the position, and the instincts for the position are really solid.
DL: Why did you decide to look at De Jesus at second base?
DJW: We kind of had a need with some injuries, with Jeff Kent prior to that, so we were looking at it in case there was that opening—we put him over there to get him a little look on the second-base side to get him comfortable with that. We did that in 2008, in Double-A, while he was having a tremendous offensive season at shortstop. We gave him some reps over at second base—again, just trying to get him prepared to play both sides of the bag and increase his overall value for the major-league club.
DL: How did he look at second base?
DJW: Solid. It was really good. For him, it was getting comfortable to make that pivot with a runner on and not being able to see him, and he grasped that exceptionally well. When he was playing winter ball in Puerto Rico, he was voted the Rookie of the Year. He played primarily second base over in Puerto Rico, so it wasn’t like it was a new thing for him. He had done it in the past, so the transition was really smooth and clean. He actually played some second base in big-league camp in ’08, so it was something we had talked to him about, and he was very open and receptive to it. Again, he made the transition relatively smoothly. Matt Martin, our infield coordinator, also spent a little time with him there in Chattanooga to make sure he was OK with all of the different feeds that you have into second base from the second-base side, and he seemed to have those all under control.
DL: You mentioned his need to slow things down. How can you help expedite that in a young infielder?
DJW: It’s really more so the repetition and the discussions that you have to get them to understand the flow of the game, and knowing the runners, knowing the hitters—who are the flyers, and when you have to turn things up and when you can back things down. It just comes with the reps and getting used to knowing your competition. Who is going to put pressure on you when you make a certain play? He’s a very sharp guy and he understands the flow of the game. It was mainly a little dialogue, and when you have that dialogue with him about certain situations, he grasps it extremely quick and takes it with him into the games.
DL: Is he further ahead offensively or defensively right now?
DJW: He’s pretty balanced, man. Right now, it’s just getting him the reps. He missed the whole year last year. We were able to get a little bit in at the end down in rookie ball, and he got a little bit down here in the instructional league program as well as that co-op thing we had here in Arizona last year, and then back playing in Puerto Rico. Then we shut him down to make sure the leg was going be ready coming into camp and he was able to move around like we wanted him to—like the Ivan of old. I think the bat was ahead last year, but looking at him today, where we are in spring training, I think he has caught up on both sides of it.
DL: Where will De Jesus begin the season?
DJW: Looking at it right now, it will either be Triple-A or Double-A, but I’d probably lean more toward Triple-A. Again, it’s just getting those reps and getting back that feel and flow of playing every single day and making sure that his leg is stabilized enough for him to be able to pick up and handle that wear and tear of playing every single day. It’s just a matter of him and his body bouncing back, and we’ll see how that is as we go forward throughout the course of the year.
DL: Jumping over to Dee Gordon, how surprised are you that he has developed as much, and as quickly, as he has?
DJW: Knowing that he was a basketball guy and having not played a ton of baseball, it’s been really fun to watch the overall growth of the player. He has tremendous athleticism. His first-step quickness and the range is above average. If you watch him, he will wow you. If you watch him for five days, there will be at least two or three things that will make you go "wow"—the body control, being able to go in the hole and make the jump throw, like you see Derek Jeter make. Or you’ll see him cross the bag and throw the ball on the second-base side of the bag, and it‘s like, "Geez, how did he get there?" The athleticism that he shows—I think that basketball probably helped him with some of the quickness and his reads. Right now, a lot is trying to get his legs underneath him on his throws. He made some errors last year, but I think predominantly the majority of them were throwing errors to the arm side from just keeping himself closed down. He’s going so quickly and he doesn’t realize how fast he is going into the ground balls, so (he is) working on the timing and gaining that rhythm—and that rhythm has improved tremendously. Even through our instructional league, he was making big strides. We’re looking forward to him having another productive season.
DL: There’s a lot of athleticism. Where is he fundamentally right now?
DJW: I won’t say he’s lacking a ton. He’s so athletic that he can make up for some of the mistakes with the athleticism, so it’s hard to really pinpoint one specific area to say, "Oh, this guy is deficient here," or "He’s deficient there," because he’s toolsy. He has an above-average arm and above-average feet and quickness at the position, so he covers a ton of ground, so some of the errors that he will make will be because he can get to more balls than most guys can. It comes down to repetitions for this guy. This guy hasn’t played a ton of baseball, so for us it’s getting him as many reps as we possibly can to get him comfortable with the flow and the pace of the game, and understanding when to pick and choose when he’s going to steal, and understanding what pitchers are trying to do to him when he’s on the bases. It’s some of those smaller things on the base-stealing side and reading jumps. He’s really explosive, so I think this year will be a good challenge for him.
DL: With a player like Gordon, who has relatively little experience on the diamond, is it harder to determine how aggressively you can move him from one level to the next?
DJW: Not really, because I think that if you look at A-ball in general—as a whole—it really depends on how you’re rating where the player is and where he is in his overall development. You look at his skills and the things that he’ll obtain at a certain level of play. What more do you get if you were to hypothetically—say we were going to send him back to the Midwest League. What more does he need to prove there? He had a ton of extra-base hits, he stole a ton of bases, he played defense. And keeping this young man on the field, one of our bigger goals was trying to add some weight to his frame. He gained about 10 pounds coming into spring training, so we like where he is from a physical standpoint. Again, it’s about the repetitions. If you look at the California League, where we are, and you look at the Midwest League, where we are—if you look at the ERAs of the leagues, there seems to be almost a full point difference in ERA. Now, is that because of the higher elevation or a lesser-caliber talent? You really have to gauge what is it that the player will get out of the level of play or the level of competition in which he’s going to be stacked in. The things that he does on both sides of the baseball, it really forces you to press your mind. Do you push this guy? How hard do you push him? Having a conversation with the field coordinator and the infield coordinator, our hitting guys, talking to our scouts, we all seem to come back to this kid, that he’s showing tools and a skill set where he may be able to progress relatively quick in this game.
DL: How importantly, relatively, is defense when it comes to promoting a shortstop?
DJW: It’s huge. It’s a huge piece for us, but you’ve got to remember, you’ve got to take things into consideration. In Jeter’s first year in A-ball, he made 49 errors—I think that’s what it was—so he’ll get better. They do get better. For us, it’s about being more consistent with what we’re doing with our routines, getting prepared—just the preparation that comes into the game and making sure that he’s getting himself into proper fielding position to execute on all ground balls. That’s one of our primary goals, getting this kid prepared for whatever he may face in the upcoming season.
DL: Is there any one level where instruction is more important than the others?
DJW: I think instruction is important at every level, because there are so many different facets of the game that you’re trying to teach. You’re not only trying to develop the player, but you’re trying to develop the human both on and off the field. There are so many different pieces, but when it comes to the game, you’re trying to teach them how to win and what it takes to win a baseball game and the importance of execution. A lot of people tend to look at the outcome at the end of the game versus what happened in the third or fourth inning. There are situations that come up with runners at first and second and less than two out and they need to get the guy over, so it teaches the guys the importance of executing and the importance of base running. There’s no small detail in a game that should be overlooked. We’re just trying to focus, and gear, on teaching our kids how to play our brand of baseball.
DL: There’s an old saying about dating, which is that you should look at the girl’s mother, because that’s what she’s going to look like someday. With guys like De Jesus and Gordon, whose fathers played in the big leagues, do you look at the character of the parents and expect something similar from the sons?
DJW: You hope. Everybody’s different, and they’re all individuals, but I’ll tell you—Brian McRae, Hal McRae’s son, who is actually related to the Gordon family—I think they’re distant cousins. Playing with Brian McRae and knowing his dad Hal, they were all different in different ways, but both had that same thing, that determination to beat you and do whatever it takes to win the game. That’s one of those common denominators you look at with all of these kids. Ivan’s dad was a hard-nosed player; he played every single day and played the game the right way. You look at Flash, another guy who is a tremendous competitor, and left everything out on the field and always wanted to beat you. I think they both received those gene traits, and the way they go about their business, these kids are both tremendous competitors. They love to play, they love to compete, and they’re both good humans, so that’s what I like about the job that I’m in. We’ve got to interact with these guys so much, and really try to get to know the makeup and the character of the guy. I think both of these kids have tremendous upside, both as players and as quality humans.