The Mariners are trending upward, but if they hope to continue their ascent and subsequently remain a perennial contender, a strong farm system will be a prerequisite. Much of that responsibility rests on the shoulders of Pedro Grifol. The club’s director of minor league operations since November of 2008, Grifol is in charge of a variable smorgasbord of intriguing talent, one that includes mega-prospect Dustin Ackley and a distinct international flavor that features the likes of Greg Halman, Alex Liddi, and Carlos Triunfel. A former catcher who played nine professional seasons, the 40-year-old Grifol has been in the Seattle organization since 2000, having previously served as a scout, minor league manager, and field coordinator.
David Laurila: How would you rate the overall quality of the Mariners farm system right now?
Pedro Grifol: Well, we lost three good prospects in return for a Cy Young Award-winner who is going to solidify the top of our rotation in the big leagues. But we believe we had a good draft this year, especially position player-wise with [Dustin] Ackley, [Nick] Franklin, and [Steven] Baron, so in the midst of us losing three prospects, we feel that we were able to replenish the system with this draft. That’s what we’re here for. We’re here to develop players to facilitate the major-league club. Overall, we’re not really deep in any one position, but I think we’ve got some versatility as far as prospects are concerned. In the past, when we had [Jeff] Clement, [Rob] Johnson and [Adam] Moore, we had all of these catchers, and we don’t have that anymore where I can say that we’re three or four deep at catcher, or at first base, or in the outfield. But we do have one or two prospects at each position. They’re not all upper-level guys, but they’re throughout the system. So, overall, I think we’re pretty solid. I think that we’re doing pretty well right now.
DL: When did Jack Zduriencik first approach you with the idea that he might be dealing prospects for Cliff Lee?
PG: We have meetings throughout. We have meetings throughout the offseason, and throughout the year, and this one obviously transpired during this offseason, but the questions are asked and my role is simple. My role is to facilitate Jack with insight and information on our players, the way I know them. I’ve managed a lot of these guys, and I’ve coached them. I was the field coordinator with them. I’ve been on the field with these guys, so I can give him information that pertains to their makeup, how strong they are, their aptitude, how they face adversity-stuff that some scouts see, but others don’t. Some are able to see it because of what happens during a game, but some don’t because of what doesn’t happen in a game. I’ve spent a lot of years with these guys, on the field and in one-on-ones, so I’m able to give Jack information beyond their tools, like what kind of teammates they are and what kind of workers they are, and so on and so forth. So, like I said, my job is plain and simple. My job is to give Jack information so that he can make the decision.
DL: What is your relationship with Tom McNamara regarding the June draft? Do the two of you discuss who is being targeted and what role they will fill within the system?
PG: No. Jack and Tom’s philosophy is to get the best player available. We try, as an organization, obviously, not to… we don’t just draft for need. We draft the best player available in the draft. That’s Jack’s philosophy and that’s how we go, but what I do do is give them kind of a rundown on our system every year, such as what we are deep in and what we are not. If it fits that way, great. If not… if there are three shortstops that are available, and they’re the best players on the board, then that’s what we’re going to take. Then our job is to develop them. But we have a good relationship between player development and scouting. We’re constantly communicating and I think that is the only way to go.
DL: Dustin Ackley obviously has great potential with the bat. What is his future defensively?
PG: We are in the process of working with him at second base, and he’s been in Arizona since the beginning of the month, working daily with Darrin Garner, our infield coordinator, and Andy Stankiewicz, our field coordinator. Mike Brumley even came in this past week for three or four days. We are extremely happy with his progression at second base. We all feel that he has a very good chance to do this, and if it works out for us we’re looking at an offensive guy at second base who is athletic with some range and some quickness. But, at the same time, it’s a new position for him and it’s going to take a little time. But we’re extremely happy with where he is right now with his progression.
DL: Where did the idea to try Ackley at second base originate?
PG: When we first drafted him… the North Carolina coach always thought that he could play second base, and we took him, obviously, with the mind set of, “OK, he’s going to play the outfield.” But our philosophy here, in the minor leagues, is to try to create some versatility to where if there is a hole in the big leagues we have someone who at some point has played, or can play, that position-we have someone who can fill that hole in the big leagues if their bat is special. Case in point, you’re looking at all of our guys, like [Matt] Tuiasosopo went up and played second base and everybody was like, “He’s playing second base for the first time,” but he really wasn’t playing second base for the first time. I mean, Tuiasosopo has been practicing second base on the back field for four years. He’s played numerous inter-squads and instructional league games, and done numerous drills, so he wasn’t a stranger to second base. In Ackley’s case, he was a shortstop in high school, and in college he was a first baseman, so he obviously knows what a ground ball looks like on both sides of the diamond. He was constantly seeing balls come off the bat, so he’s not a stranger to a ground ball. His athleticism indicated to us that he would have a chance to do this. Now, originally the idea, or the suggestion, came from North Carolina. His coach said, “Hey, I think he can play in the infield, at second base.” So it was just a matter of exploring it, of us using that suggestion within our organizational philosophy. It was a no-brainer to at least give it a shot.
DL: With the emphasis your organization is putting on defense, it would seem that Ackley becoming a better-than-average second baseman would be almost a prerequisite for him to play there in the big leagues. How long might it take him to reach that point?
PG: You know, David, there’s really no telling. OK? And do you know why? I don’t think that anybody could answer that question, but what I can tell you is that Ackley is athletic, he’s got balance, he’s got great feet, he’s got good hands, his arm works. Everybody had a question about his arm, but we think that his arm is good. He’s healthy and feeling good, and he can throw from different angles. Right now, if you see him on the back field, you’re going to say, “This is going to come pretty quick”. But, you know, you’ve obviously got to go in a game. You’ve got to get that live ground ball, you’ve got to turn that live double play when somebody is bearing down on you. Instincts start to play, and we feel that he’s got instincts, and we know that he has athletic ability, but how fast is he going to pick it up? Who knows? Really, I don’t think that anybody would be able to answer that. It could be one year, it could be two, it could be 50 games. I just know that the tools are there, as are the instincts and the aptitude. Everything is there. Now all it’s going to take is live ground balls and live game situations.
DL: There is obviously a lot of value in having an elite bat at a middle infield position. Is that the driving force behind the move?
PG: I think that his bat is going to have value wherever he plays. I think Dustin has a special bat. Obviously, it’s no secret that if this kid can play second base, you’ve got something really special there. It’s just like you’d have something really special in the outfield, but to have that kind of bat in the infield… I mean, infielders with that kind of bat are hard to come by. They don’t grow on trees. So yes, that was the whole idea behind it. He’ll be special anywhere he plays, we believe, but if we can have that bat in the infield, and open up a spot in the outfield where you can… I’m not going to say that it’s easier, but there are more guys out there who swing the bat in the outfield than there are in the infield. If we can get an offensive second baseman with the potential to hit 50 doubles, and with some power, who is a run scorer at the top of the order, those guys aren’t easy to find.
DL: Do you see the organization as being more on the aggressive side, or more on the conservative side, when it comes to promoting players within the system?
PG: We’ve done it both ways here. When I became the field coordinator we were really aggressive, and I’m going to venture to say that I personally, and speaking with Jack, we’ve slowed things down a little bit. We’re more about keeping guys together and letting them have good years. There’s no…the idea is that when you get players to the big leagues, you’d like to keep them there. You don’t want to just get them there. We can get anybody there if we really want to, but are they ready to play there? We don’t want guys to just put on a big-league uniform and then all of a sudden find themselves back in Triple-A the following year because they weren’t ready yet. That’s not what we want. The old philosophy of a certain number of at bats, or a certain number of innings, continues to hold true; you need experience at the minor-league level in order to be able to stick at the major-league level once you get there. So, our philosophy has slowed down. Obviously, the player will let us know, but we’re not in a rush to get anybody to the big leagues if they’re not ready.
DL: Alex Liddi stayed at High Desert all year despite tearing up the California League. Was there not a strong temptation to challenge him at a higher level?
PG: Not at all. We feel that we had a very good club there with a lot of talent. Those guys played together all year, and they played in the playoffs at the end, together. And they’ll go to Double-A this year, together. One thing that I always mention, that people sometimes forget, is that these international kids, and not just international kids, but most kids that don’t come from North Carolina, Miami, Florida, Florida State, that are used to playing in front of 5,000, or 7,000, or 25,000 in Rosenblatt-when do these guys get tough games, playoff games? When do they get them? They never do. And I’ll give you a perfect example, which I’ve told many times. Michael Pineda, who is one of our top pitching prospects, has got great composure and his approach to a game is slow and relaxed, but I went to see him pitch against Rancho [Cucamonga] in the playoffs and his breathing patterns were different, his emotions were high, and his command was off. When I asked him after the game what was going on, what did he say? He said that it had been the biggest game of his career. OK, well that put everything in perspective, and it teaches us a few things. Number one is that we have to get these guys in a winning environment to put them in positions to play tough games, because for Michael Pineda, that was the biggest game of his career. For Kyle Seager, at North Carolina that was just another game because he had just finished coming from Rosenblatt. So that changes, number one, our philosophy in the minor leagues, where winning becomes extremely important to expediting these guys to the big leagues. You need to put them in position to play those tough games. And number two, to do that you have to be able to keep these teams together and not rush these guys, so that they learn how to win together, and hopefully get to the big leagues together. Obviously the whole team isn’t going to get there, but if you can get three or four players from one team to the big leagues, and these guys have gone through that before… I mean, what are you going to get from these guys when they get there? You’re going to have good teammates, and you’re going to have continuity, so what you’re creating is a winning atmosphere. There is a lot to be said for winning in the minor leagues and keeping guys together, and not rushing them to the next level. The other thing is, we can get young kids to Triple-A early. They get there at 21 or 22, but then all of a sudden, David, they’re doing just okay; they’re hanging in there as just okay Triple-A players, but they aren’t ready for the big leagues yet. Year one goes by, year two goes by, and they’re still not ready to play in the big leagues. Suddenly they’re 24 years old in Triple-A and they’ve been there for three years and everybody is wondering why they can’t get to the big leagues. Well, they were rushed. There’s a difference between getting somebody to the big leagues and getting someone there who can stay there, so we want to slow things down a little bit.
PG: No. If you watched Jeff Clement… if you would have seen Jeff Clement, and he played for me-I managed him in Everett-if you had seen him when he first came in as a catcher, and saw him when he left, you wouldn’t have asked that question. You would have said, “No, he developed as a catcher.” The problem with Jeff is that he had some injuries that kept him from catching 110, 115 games a year. He needs to go back there; he needs to catch every day. In my opinion, can he do it? Yeah, he can do it. I believe that we have the best catching instructor in baseball [Roger Hansen], and when we got those guys-we got [Rob] Johnson, who was a right fielder in [the University of] Houston, we had Clement coming in, and we had Adam Moore from Texas Arlington, with not that much experience, and they’ve all become pretty damn good players. I think that Clement is going to be able to catch. I really do. He just needs to stay healthy.
DL: You’ve run a number of catching camps, and one of the players you worked with is Tony Sanchez, who the Pirates took fourth-overall last year. How surprised were you that he went on to become a first-round draft pick?
PG: I first got him when he was 12 years old, and to be honest with you, he really… he had some tools, but you never really thought that he would… his tools were just average. They were maybe just a little below average, or average. But the one thing that he had was the desire and the passion to be great. Whatever you asked this kid to do, he’d do it, and not only when he was with you for the lesson-he’d do it during the week. I’d notice, when he came back, that he had been working on those things throughout the week. So his desire and his passion to be good were always there, and his aptitude is second to none, so when you ask me if it surprises me, or how much did it surprise me, it was not at all, because Tony wanted to be the best in the country, and he worked to be the best catcher in the country. Did he maybe have to work harder than everybody else? Sure. He wasn’t the most athletic kid on the block. He didn’t have the strongest arm, but he worked more than anybody else and he wanted it more than anybody else. Then, when all of those tools came about, he had the good arm, he had athleticism. All of those things came together, so it doesn’t surprise me that he was the first catcher picked in the country. Not at all.
DL: Given your reputation working with young catchers, and the fact that you consider Roger Hansen to be the best instructor in the game, do you feel that the Mariners have an advantage when it comes to developing at that position?
PG: Well, I’ve been a catcher all my life. I started when I was 10 years old, and I can teach catching. That’s all I’d done, really, before I became a field coordinator. I had obviously managed, but my thing was catching. But once you become a field coordinator you have to learn every position and everything about the game, so I kind of backed off a little bit, because we have Roger Hansen who has been doing catching for over 25 years. That’s really all he’s done, and in my opinion, and seeing a lot of the catching coaches around the country, and seeing a lot of instruction behind the plate, I feel that we have the best in baseball when it comes to developing catchers. Roger just gets it done. You’re talking about Dan Wilson, and [Chris] Widger, and [Jason] Varitek, and Adam Moore, and Johnson, and list goes on and on and on. So, in my opinion, he’s as good as they come.
DL: Moving back to infield prospects, can you talk a little about Carlos Triunfel?
PG: Carlos obviously had the injury, so he missed a year and we tried to get some of those at bats back in the Fall League, but he was still getting over the injury. But we did get him in uniform, and I couldn’t be prouder with Carlos and the way he worked to get his weight back down to 196 pounds before he left. That’s down from 220. When you have his type of body, which is a strong, just muscular build, and you can’t do cardio and you can’t work, you tend to put on weight, and he put on like 20 pounds. To his credit he took ownership of his career and battled his way back, not only on the field, but with his weight and everything. He left here at 196 pounds, ready to play, and we’re all excited to have a healthy Carlos Triunfel next year.
DL: How do you see him defensively?
PG: He’s practicing all three: shortstop, second, and third. He’s really, really comfortable at third, which is the one position that he has played the least. He came up a shortstop, and he’s learning how to play second base. Defensively, he’s got to continue to work, so that whenever Jack and Don Wakamatsu need him up there in the big leagues, hopefully at that point he’ll be ready to help that club at any of those three positions.
DL: Can you say a little about Nick Franklin?
PG: Nick Franklin is an advanced high school player with tremendous instincts and he knows how to play the game. He’s got ability, he’s got arm strength, he’s fluid, he has good hands, and he’s got good, good feet. He’s got a nice swing from both sides. He just needs to play; he just needs to get out there and get his at bats and continue to develop.
DL: Where is Greg Halman developmentally right now?
PG: Greg Halman, in many eyes, had a disappointing year, and in ours, statistically maybe he did. But developmentally, we believe that he grew. He faced adversity all year and was still able to hit 25 home runs, which was tied for the [Southern] league lead. You know, you’re going to struggle in the big leagues, no matter who you are, and if you faced those struggles in the minor leagues and were able to overcome those struggles, you’ll be more equipped to deal with it at the highest level. And he dealt with that in Wisconsin when he struck out 150 times and we sent him down to Everett. He hit .300 and had a great season; he dealt with it. And again this year, he came down to instructional league, and we had a program for him. He was tremendous in instructional league, with a great attitude. I believe that the struggles he had last year are only going to benefit him moving forward.
DL: How do Joshua Fields and the recently-traded Phillippe Aumont compare?
PG: Well, they’re totally different. Aumont, not only in size and strength, but in stuff-Aumont has that power sinker, that 95 to 98, and that’s his bread and butter. And Fields has that power, high fastball, that rising fastball, at 95-96, without not nearly as much movement as Aumont’s. But Fields has that breaking ball. And there’s obviously the size difference; the size is totally different. But what’s most encouraging about Fields is that this was his first full year, and it was in Double-A, and he was another player who faced adversity. In the Fall League, the way he bounced back was great. He came back in a league full of prospects and he performed, and he also learned. Every day he was learning something new, whether it was how to get himself warmed up, how to get himself ready, how to attack hitters, pitch selection-you name it. Every day he was learning something, and it was great to see his development throughout the Fall League.
DL: How important is development from the neck up?
PG: You know, development from the neck up is by far one of the most important pieces in this organization. We have two mental skills guys, and we hired Steve Hecht in the big leagues. We spend a lot of time developing the mental part of the game. It’s really everything. A lot of people say that the game is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical. I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I don’t think that’s a true statement. I mean, this game is probably 95 percent physical and five percent mental. But the five percent that is mental is bigger than the 95 percent that is physical. Really, you’re playing the game on the field, so everything is physical, but the five percent that is mental is so powerful that it can mess up the 95 percent. That’s how I think about it. Every time I hear somebody say that it’s 90 percent mental, well, you can’t go out there and just, with your mind, think your way through a ballgame. You have to play the game. You have to run, throw, and do all of that physical stuff. But the five percent is so powerful that it can make or break a player. So we spend a lot of time on the mental side. Like I said, we have Steve Hecht in the big leagues, we have Rafael Colon and Jack Curtis down here in the minor leagues, and our coaches are constantly in our own organizational seminars on the mental side. We’re constantly teaching our coaches how to not only communicate with our players, but also about all of the mental stuff that they’re going to be dealing with and how to handle it. We spend a lot of time on the mental side of baseball here in this organization.
DL: Any final thoughts?
PG: Well, we added baserunning to Darrin Garner’s title; he is now the baserunning/infield coordinator. But baserunning is really coordinated by a team effort, and everyone must be involved to get it right. The instinct when watching a baseball game is to follow the ball. The discipline in teaching baserunning is to watch the base runner, and to at times take your eyes off the ball to make sure the secondaries, the turns, the angles are detailed and that there is good timing. There is nothing better than watching a well pitched, good defense and solid baserunning club. It is very hard to accomplish, but it is a task we will relentlessly pursue as an organization. Having John Boles as a part of player development, and remembering the Marlins‘ minor league clubs in the 90s when he was the farm director and field coordinator, and seeing how they ran the bases, has been a great asset to all of us as we work to perfect an area that can determine the outcome of the game, and at times is lost in the big picture. We attack this area as soon as the players report and it is the first thing we do after we stretch. The legs are fresh and it instills the level of importance. Remember, pennants are not won in April, but they can be lost April.