The Stockton Ports have gotten off to a slow start during the second half of the 2017 season. After finishing three games back of first place during the first half, the Ports are five games back of the Modesto Nuts 32 games into the second half. To make the post-season, the Ports will need a red-hot finish.
For the past two months, Stockton has dealt with a constantly shifting roster. The Ports’ offense bid farewell to Sean Murphy, Tyler Ramirez and Branden Cogswell shortly after the All-Star break, and runs have been tough to come by at times, as a result. The Ports are fifth of eight teams in runs scored. Home run power hasn’t been an issue, even with the loss of Murphy and Ramirez, and the Ports remain second in the league in homeruns, although their team slugging percentage of .398 is fifth in the league.
Brett Siddall has been a force for the Ports since the start of June and is now tied for third in the league in homeruns with 16. Seth Brown has 14, Mikey White has 11 and Skye Bolt has 10.
The toolsy Bolt was a mid-season Cal League All-Star. A poor July has dragged Bolt’s overall numbers down to .235/.334/.433, but the North Carolina alum has still shown the ability to impact the game with his power, speed and throwing arm.
“I just call him the poor man’s Josh Reddick, except he offers the switch-hit,” Magnante said. “The first thing with Skye is tools. He has the tools. That puts him in a prospect category immediately. He also has the skill-set to play the game, so now it’s a matter of what kind of player can he become by utilizing the tools and the skill-set. Certainly, he’s had his little hickies along the way physically and a couple of illnesses during the season that have caused him to take a step back, recover and come back. But when he’s playing like he’s capable of playing – and I can only point to what he did in Beloit a year ago, which was not very remarkable and what he has done this year at a higher level – it’s an indication of what he can be.”
Magnante enjoys the versatility that gives him in terms of setting up his line-up.
“He either hits at the top of the line-up and what makes you think he can do that is early on, his on-base percentage was pretty good. He was taking his walks and he was getting on base. That’s the key for him just to stay at the top and the switch-hit offers that versatility for a manager to say: I don’t care if they are throwing a lefty or a righty, we can compensate because this guy switch hits and we can leave him alone,” Magnante said. “Or if the on-base and the run scoring really doesn’t materialize, then he hits at the bottom of the line-up and becomes your second one hitter.”
Defensively, Bolt has shined all season in the middle of the outfield.
“He runs the ball down. He throws well and he throws accurately. He gets a good first step out there, so there’s nothing to say that this guy doesn’t stay in the center of the diamond,” Magnante said.
Shortstop Eli White was one of the Ports’ top defenders early in the season, but he has seen his error total rise significantly over the past month. Magnante still likes what he has seen from the A’s 2016 11th-round pick.
“Eli White, I’m extremely pleased with him, taking into account that this is his first full season and he jumped a level. There were some challenges there to be met before the first pitch was thrown. He embraced the challenge and had a terrific first full month hitting and fielding,” Magnante said. “He’s had a few issues with the catching and the throwing of late. I don’t know if that reflects on the problem that he had with some bone chips in his elbow earlier on. We tried to watch him closely in the beginning and we tried to rest him a little bit. I have no doubt that he can handle short.
“I think just like with hitting, sometimes players go into fielding slumps. It’s really more apparent when you are in the center of the diamond and are in the middle of the action. When you are some place where the ball isn’t finding you all of the time and you aren’t exposed inning by inning, you don’t see it as much. But when you are in the center of the action, and involved in a lot of plays and you aren’t making them, you can start to doubt your abilities and you question your confidence. I think he might have gone through what we might call a fielding slump, but I have no doubt that the tools are in place for him to stay in the middle of the field. I don’t know if he will ultimately move to second or stay at short or become a super-utility guy – I’m not clairvoyant – but I’m pleased with his overall play based on where he went in the draft and where he was last year as to where he is now.”
White hit .265 during the first half but is batting .233 since the start of the second half. Magnante says White is working hard with Ports’ hitting coach Tommy Everidge on making mechanical adjustments at the plate.
“His hitting is improving. He’s going through a little bit of a learning curve here under Tommy’s tutelage to make some major adjustments to his swing in the middle of the year,” Magnante said. “Some people can’t make those mid-season adjustments. They fall back into what feels comfortable and what they know. Change is hard to grasp for a lot of young players and he’s has really shown the ability to embrace change and try to make a real difference in how he does things. I think we will really see that develop over the long haul.”
The biggest change for the Ports has come with their pitching staff. Stockton started the season with an eight-man tandem rotation that included 2016 high-round draft picks A.J. Puk, Daulton Jefferies and Logan Shore. The Ports lost Jefferies in April when he injured his elbow and had to have Tommy John surgery. Shore injured a lat in late May and just returned to the Stockton rotation last Friday. Puk earned a promotion to Double-A Midland at the All-Star break. In addition, the Ports lost starters Casey Meisner and Dustin Hurlbutt to promotions to Double-A. Evan Manarino also spent time in Double-A but returned to the Ports in late June. Only Angel Duno has remained in the Stockton rotation all season.
The Ports’ eight-man rotation system only lasted five weeks, but Stockton has returned to a traditional tandem rotation for many of its rotation days. Stockton manager Rick Magnante says the changes to the rotation have presented some challenges.
“I guess the word I would use to describe our pitching staff is ‘in flux’. I think that’s the best I can describe it,” Magnante said last Thursday. “We are trying to figure it out again here and trying to give people an opportunity to pitch. It’s difficult because if everything goes as planning, it works out fine for nine innings or eight. If it doesn’t, you’re into the bullpen. I think sometimes the bullpen suffers because they don’t get the needed work they should get. Not everybody has an opportunity to stay sharp. Far be it for me to be judgmental about it. I understand that development is the key here.”
Several new starters have joined the Stockton staff recently, including Norge Ruiz and Miguel Romero – both signed this off-season as international free agents out of Cuba – and Dalton Sawyer, Brandon Bailey and Brendan Butler, who began the year with Low-A Beloit.
Butler joined the rotation from Beloit in early June and he has mixed brilliant starts with poor ones. He has a 5.40 ERA in 41.2 Cal League innings. Butler has struck-out 39, but he has walked 21. Magnante says the key for Butler is consistency.
“With Brendan Butler, the stuff is the key and the command is the question. It’s getting ahead in the count and consistency,” Magnante said. “For him, it’s the consistency of being able to go out and repeat the pitches, repeat the delivery to have success.”
After posting a 2.25 ERA in 56 innings for the Snappers during the first half, Sawyer has a 4.15 ERA and a 33:10 K:BB in 30.1 innings with the Ports. He also made two spot starts for Triple-A Nashville in June. Magnante says Sawyer is still settling in with the Ports after his whirlwind June.
“I think it has not been easy on him. He’s left us twice to make spot starts in Nashville. He hasn’t really gotten his feet on the ground here yet,” Magnante said. “I think he’s fit in well here. He can compete at this level. I like the way he goes about it. Hopefully, he’ll be an asset to the staff.”
In addition to all of the official roster changes, the Ports have had an influx of rehabbing big leaguers join their roster from time-to-time this season. Most recently, Matt Chapman and Bobby Wahl made appearances with the Ports.
Magnante says that the young Ports’ players have benefited from having big leaguers in their midst this season.
“Everybody who has come here over the course of my three seasons has been very helpful. If it’s not verbally, it’s more by their actions and how they go about their job. To show minor leaguers their routine and how to overcome adversity because they are down here trying to get back their swing or they are overcoming something physical where they need to take care of at this point in time, so they are down here but they are down here because something is wrong,” Magnante said. “With minor leaguers, there is always something wrong. They are always struggling with something to some degree, so for them to see how a big leaguer goes about it, is helpful. And then if they have the wherewithal and communication skills to really reach out and talk to them a little bit about how they prepare and how they deal with different aspects of the game, more the better.
“Shame on the Stockton players if they aren’t paying attention because this is an opportunity to see what it takes to get there and what it looks like. Sometimes, in all honestly, it doesn’t look any different than themselves looking in the mirror. It’s not that these guys aren’t as talented or have the potential. When I’m here and I say I had Matt Chapman here in 2015 or Bobby Wahl or whomever it might be – Sean Doolittle – you can look at it and say, ‘you’re not that far away.’ No one is really that far away. The distance is made up with the ability to be consistent and come out and be able to come out and give a good performance regardless of how the results wash out everyday. That’s what the difference is. It’s consistency of play, of pitch, of performance, of being a complete player and I think I encourage all of them to think, ‘if he can do it, so can I.’”
Magnante served as a manager for both Chapman and Wahl when they were minor leaguers. He says seeing players he coached reach the big leagues is a treat.
“It’s just the fruit of your labor and you kind of bask in it a little bit because you think maybe you had a little bit to do with this young player making it to the big leagues and what you are doing down here in the minor leagues is helping players reach that goal,” Magnante said.
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