The latest installment in the five-part Brewerfan.net Q&A series with the Milwaukee affiliate broadcasters leads us to Charleston, West Virginia, home of the West Virginia Power, the Brewers' low class-A squad of the South Atlantic League. It was my pleasure to chat with Andy "Bull" Barch, who is entering his fifth season with the club, and thus has been there for each year of the Power / Brewer relationship, which began in 2005. To learn a bit about Andy, visit this link at the Power site:
If you missed the earlier installments of this series, you can catch up with Nashville's Chuck Valenches, Huntsville's Brett Pollock, and Brevard County's Kirk Agius via the sidebar links to the right of this text. Be sure to check in with us in one week as the series wraps up with Helena play-by-play voice Steve Wendt, who has been patiently waiting in the # 5 spot in our lineup all month.
Brewerfan: While the 2007 West Virginia season fell just shy of a championship, it was certainly still a season to remember. 48-20 in the first half, are you kidding? Andy, we can't tell you what an unexpected thrill it was to pull up the thunderous Power lineup numbers in the box score each day. The core of this squad was from a 2006 Helena squad which had hardly overwhelmed. Please share what you experienced being with this team both at home and on the road (where they were 25-8 during the first half). Was it a matter of early success just manifesting itself in increased confidence each day?
Andy "Bull" Barch: Your assessment is spot on. I'd say a lot of it was, as you said, early success manifesting itself in increased confidence each day. When you set a franchise record with a 14-game winning streak that starts in the second week of the season, you make it easy to establish a winning mentality. I'd venture to guess that nobody saw that coming. Winning is one thing, but this team did more than just win, they dominated.
Perhaps what was more impressive than the early winning streak was the run they went on when they were faced with adversity in the middle of May. The Greensboro Grasshoppers had taken the first three games of a four-game series with the Power, and had a chance to both sweep and take the division lead from the "Boys of Moss, Green and Gold" on May 16th. The Power avoided that sweep with a 14-10 victory over Greensboro and then went on a 22-9 run to finish up the first half and won the division by a LANDSLIDE. It was the greatest single half that I've ever witnessed in my five years of minor league baseball. Even if you had these guys on the ropes, you still couldn't knock them out. They had this never-say-die attitude that made them so fun to watch. Even when they lost games, more often that not, they at least had the tying run at the plate or on the bases.
BF: Nobody, but nobody, could have imagined last April that the first individual player I'd ask you about would be a kid coming off a .636 OPS 2006 Helena season, who would then post a .922 OPS as a 20-year-old in Charleston, playing third base for the first time in his career. But what better way to begin that to get your thoughts on the Brewer Organization Player of the Year, Taylor Green.
AB: Taylor Green was simply phenomenal last season. He's one of those guys that you find yourself rooting for because he's such a good person. He had an average month of April, before his explosion in May. I think he really turned the corner when he hit a grand slam against the Hagerstown Suns on May 11th. He stepped in with two-outs, a tie game at 4-4, and the Suns had just brought in a lefthander out of the 'pen to face him. Greenie absolutely crushed the first pitch he saw to give the Power the lead and they never looked back. From that day forward, I felt he was a completely different hitter. He went on a tear in May to win the Offensive Player of the Month Award in the organization. It was amazing that he was hitting ninth during the first half of the season, and he was hitting well above .300.
Everyone gawks at Greenie's offensive numbers, but he was equally impressive, if not more so, with his glove. From what I heard, he was told that he was going to play third base here just a couple of days before the team arrived in early April, which makes his story even greater. He's a very humble and friendly individual. His parents are great people too. As a matter of fact, during the season they sent us chocolates from their hometown and a few days ago they sent me an autographed picture of Kim Cottrell from Sex and the City. I'm not an avid watcher of the show, but hell, she's hot and it always looks good when a personalized autographed picture of a smokin' hot blonde is on your desk!
BF: 19 - 42 - 170 - 53. That's the good and bad, in terms of age, stolen bases, strikeouts, and errors for shortstop Brent Brewer in 2007. Do you think Brent would benefit, as likely did Darren Ford last season, from repeating at low-A to begin 2008? The sky seems the limit, but it could be a turbulent ride in getting to the final destination, it appears.
AB: I don't think there is any question that Brewer would benefit from beginning the year in West Virginia. The 53 errors don't worry me as much as the 170 strikeouts. The difference defensively at the beginning of the season and the end is more than night and day. He looked confused and a little uneasy during the first week of the season but (Manager) Mike Guerrero did one hell of a job with him throughout the year. What was amazing to me about Brewer defensively was that he became so fluid and so comfortable so quickly. I mentioned the difference was more than night and day, but I think I noticed the difference in early May. He picked it up very quickly and as athletic as he is, it's scary to think about how much ground he can cover at that position.
Offensively, it's pretty obvious that he has to put the ball in play more, and that's why I think another year or half-year would benefit him down here. Fordy cut down on the strikeouts and hit about 60 points higher during the first half here last season before his call up, and I think that's what Brewer needs to catapult him offensively. If he goes down to the Florida State League, I'm not sure that it will help him at the plate because of the way that league is. I think he can build some confidence at the dish with another 70 games down here.
BF: When you heard Michael Brantley was going to get bumped directly to AA Huntsville at mid-season, did part of you say, "wait, that makes perfect sense", or "wow, that's a big leap"? In addition to discussing his apparent wonderful plate presence, could you maybe project as to where he would be of most benefit to a squad on the field?
AB: I wasn't surprised at all. He hit .300 (finishing in the league's top 10) here during the 2006 season and he hit .335 here in the first half last season while showing a little more pop. He hit his first professional home run in '07 and it was a walk-off bomb against Lexington. He was 20 years old last year and he displayed the maturity and plate discipline of a ten-year big league veteran. He knows how to work the count, he doesn't look for a pitch to hit, he looks for THE pitch to hit. That's something a typical 20-year old at the low-A level doesn't usually do. I thought he was far too advanced for this league mentally at the beginning of last season. He is terrific in left-field and at first base. I sometimes wonder if you are wasting his athleticism at first base, but he played the position so well I can't argue against putting him there. His speed is also EXTREMELY underrated.
BF: With the 2007 Power, it seems we could discuss these position players all day and night, but I'll certainly ask you to provide at least brief thoughts on Charleston-franchise HR king Stephen Chapman, what having a guy like Chuckie Caufield around for the full season meant to the team, and my oh my, what has happened with Charlie Fermaint, who you first saw back in 2005. And if you don't mind, what did the Brewers lose in batting champion Andrew Lefave (the Ray King trade) - we sure wish the soon-to-be 24-year-old undrafted surprise well with the Nationals.
AB: Steve Chapman had a remarkable season. In speaking with Steve, he told me that he sees himself as more of a line drive hitter, but line drive hitters don't hit 24 bombs a season and set franchise records. To be successful at the next level, he will have to become more of a line drive hitter because a lot of fly balls that leave the yard in the Sally League often end up being long outs in the Florida State League. Steve has a nice stroke and like Brantley, his speed is a bit underrated. His versatility in the outfield is also an asset. When you look at his numbers you want to say he should cut down on the strikeouts, but that's the kind of player Chapman is. It seemed like he was all-or-nothing last year. If he can provide consistency, he will go a long ways.
Chuckie Caufield was in the running for team MVP during the first half of the season. He was a bit out of place batting clean-up (where he had never really hit previously) but he took advantage of the situation by driving in Ford, Brantley and Brewer who were constantly on base in front of him. It's hard to believe that nobody picked him in the first 38 rounds of the 2006 draft. He's an exceptional athlete who was a high school quarterback in Oklahoma and threw a lot of passes to Jeremy Shockey. His father played in the NFL and his sister played in the WNBA. Everyone asked me what happened to him in the second half of the season, and I think he just got burnt out. I don't think he got a day off until we were 100 games deep. Believe it or not, that will take its toll on you, especially in your first full season of professional baseball. I don't see any reason why he won't have a great run in Brevard County this season. Chuckie was also a big hit in the community. During one of our school days he had an ENTIRE section cheering for him. The section was full of school kids whom he'd gone to speak to the day before.
I don't know what to make of Charlie Fermaint. He started out playing well after the demotion, but then his numbers dropped off significantly during the second half. He's one of those guys that doesn't show much emotion, which can be a good thing. You have to wonder how much longer he'll be able to put up the numbers he has and be content with his place in the organization because he's getting passed by a lot of other great outfielders. He did a good job defensively in center field but the offensive production was a major concern. It became so much of a concern that Mike Guerrero had to take him out of the leadoff spot in the playoffs because he needed someone else who could get on base and make things happen. It's tough to forecast where he will go at the beginning of this year, but at the very best he'll begin the year in Brevard County again.
Andrew Lefave was fantastic, and he was certainly a feel-good story. For a guy that wasn't drafted, he's accomplished a hell of a lot in his first two professional seasons. When I had him on the pre-game show he didn't shy away from the fact that he uses that (not being drafted) as motivation. Tearing up the Arizona Rookie League is one thing, but winning the South Atlantic League batting title and smashing a 10-year old franchise record with a .345 batting average puts him in an elite category in franchise history. You have to wonder what might have happened if he had stayed healthy and played in the postseason. I spoke to him about a month ago and he said his wrist feels great. He expects to report to camp with the Nationals at the end of February, a little earlier than everyone else. That is a great sign for him. Because of his age, I'd expect the Nationals to move him through the system quickly. Lefave's approach is very much like Michael Brantley's. He is very patient, works the count, and waits for THE pitch to hit. He can also play multiple positions (LF and 1B) which will help him out in the Nationals' system.
BF: At just 32 years old and coming off an eight-year minor league career, Hitting Coach Corey Hart (not to be confused with the current Brewer right fielder) seemed to have a great feel for working with the Power kids, and now he'll follow them along with Manager Mike Guerrero to Brevard County. Did you get a sense of how cohesive Hart's work with the squad was?
AB: Absolutely. Corey had a lot of energy and he spent a lot of time with the guys last year in the cage, on the field and in the office. The guys were always anxious to work with Corey and I think a lot of them felt like they could relate to him simply because he's not that far removed from his playing days. As a matter of fact, when I interviewed (Hitting Coordinator) Mike Lum early in the year, one of the first things he mentioned to me was how well Corey Hart was doing. When a guy like Mike Lum goes out of his way to say something like that about you, then you know you're on the right path. He was able to get the guys to believe what he was teaching them, and he helped all of those guys execute their plans individually, which is much tougher than it sounds. On a side note, when the boys went on the road, Corey's son Camden kind of served as the team mascot. He's an adorable little kid that the entire team loved to be around. Corey's wife Stacy took Camden to just about every road game, which is pretty impressive considering all the traveling we do in this league.
BF: Andy, before touching on the pitching staff in more detail, I have to ask. Jeremy Jeffress - do you get it, or is seeming willingness to choose marijuana (repeatedly, apparently) over a brilliant pro career beyond comprehension? Can you make us feel better about this story - and then, oh yeah, talk about the kid when he's on the mound too, thanks.
AB: Jim, I was hoping you would ask this question. Anyone who thinks Jeremy Jeffress isn't a good kid, hasn't taken the time to get to know him. JJ is a fantastic individual and I truly believe he has learned from his mistakes. I received a few comments about the statement I read on-air on JJ's behalf just before the first playoff game against Hickory. JJ came to me and told me that he wanted to apologize to all of the fans for his actions. I told him that I would be more than happy to relay that message, and I think we should applaud him for doing such a thing. I don't know how many 19-year olds out there would have displayed that kind of maturity in that situation after being so thoroughly disappointed and embarrassed. He has taken responsibility for his actions and he is ready to move on.
On the mound, he displays the same kind of maturity. He was calm, cool and quiet on the hill, which is amazing considering the fact that he throws in the mid-90's consistently with a delivery that appears effortless. I saw a lot of similarities between he and Will Inman, in that they really seemed to take their game to another level when they got themselves into trouble. While a lot of guys at this level panic when they pitch in pressure situations, Jeffress stepped up in adverse situations to make things happen. He struck out 95 batters in just over 86 innings. He is extremely athletic and fields his position extremely well, which is sometimes overlooked as a hurler. Despite the setbacks, I still expect JJ to be in a big league uniform in a few years.
BF: In the midst of all that early-season offensive thunder, you had the opportunity to call ten outings for then 19-year-old lefty Zach Braddock, in which he simply posted a WHIP of 0.91 while striking out 68 in 47 innings. What kind of dominance were you looking at here -- pre-injury, unfortunately?
AB: I'm not going to try to make excuses, but as I mentioned with Lefave earlier, you have to wonder what might have happened had Zach played all year long. The opposition had no chance when Braddock was on the hill. You mentioned the numbers, and the numbers don't lie. He was every bit as dominant as the numbers indicate. The offense gets a ton of attention for the first half push, but guys like Zach Braddock on that pitching staff who contributed a great deal as well should not get overlooked. He throws a very heavy fastball that was extremely tough to hit. I hope he's healthy enough to contribute a full season during 2008, no matter where he ends up. Zach was a terrific guy, and he's also one of the funniest guys I've ever been around. He can do a million different impressions, very much like Frank Caliendo. Like most of the guys Milwaukee sent to West Virginia this year, he was a great person and handled himself with a great deal of class.
BF: The rest of the members of the pitching staff were overshadowed a bit by all the offense, but certainly had their own moments. Reliever Omar Aguilar reportedly threw near 100 MPH at times. Alex Periard didn't strike out many, but guiled his way to a successful season. Donovan Hand dazzled with control and effectiveness in his late-season stint. Lefty Brae Wright performed better in Brevard County after a promotion. Roque Mercedes can't seem to translate Helena success into solid performance at West Virgina. A comment or two on each, please...
AB: Omar Aguilar has the mentality and the demeanor of a closer. Like many guys, it seemed like his arm got stronger after surgery and he was throwing some serious gas throughout the year. He had a great month of April and appeared to be the clear-cut choice to close games for the Power but then struggled in May and surrendered the job to E.J. Shanks. It was his first full season and he had to battle a few injuries, including a sprained ankle which happened while he was playing catch in Hickory, NC. If he's healthy all of next year I think he'll be just fine in Brevard.
You mentioned that Alex Periard didn't strike out many batters, and that's because he didn't have to. He took on the role as the ace of the staff after the Jeremy Jeffress suspension. In the first game of the post season he shut down the Hickory Crawdads through seven sensational innings. Periard pitched to contact, which is what he was taught to do. That was one of the main pitching philosophies, pitch to contact and trust your defense. Periard induced a team high 14 double plays. Physically he has matured over the last few seasons and last year he really burst onto the scene. I expect 2008 to be a breakout year for him.
Donovan Hand tossed three strong innings before the rain came during the final game of that Columbus series. He did an outstanding job matching Jeremy Hellickson pitch-for-pitch until they were both taken out of the game due to the two-hour delay. Hand was very successful in the starting role and he was outstanding in the closer's role. I believe they wanted him to close games during August to save his arm because the organization was worried that he'd thrown too many innings before he was drafted. Like Periard, Hand didn't have many strikeouts, but that's because he pitched to contact and was able to get guys out without having to strike them out. I don't see any reason why he won't be able to do the same thing in Brevard next year.
I enjoyed watching Brae Wright last season. He was another one of those guys that was a lot of fun to be around. On the mound, there were games where he looked untouchable, then there were games where he struggled to get through five innings. He shut down Hickory on June 11th where he held the 'Dads to a run on four hits over eight innings. That was his finest outing of the season, but he had several other outings that rivaled that. I think at times he would over-think things, instead of just letting his natural ability take over. After looking at what he did in the Florida State League, it's obvious that he was more consistent, and it sure looks like a AA appearance could be in his 2008 future.
Roque Mercedes had a few issues with his vision while in West Virginia. They tried to correct that by issuing him a pair of prescription M-frame glasses (much like the ones K-Rod wears), and that seemed to help a little bit. However, the organization felt he needed another year in Helena, which was probably a good idea. It's tough to go 0-4 on a team that won 48 games in the first half, but you certainly could see some promise in Mercedes. I think he was a bit overwhelmed while he was here, but hopefully that changes in 2008.
BF: Momentum just seems to be building in Charleston in enthusiasm and appreciation for the affiliate, your wonderful facilities, the gameday atmosphere, and it's a given the Brewers would love to extend with Power management beyond the upcoming season. Because the Brewer / Power relationship began in 2005 and is low-A, the first fruits of that relationship are starting to approach the big league level. So while Power fans may have missed out on Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy, etc., I'd say that having Ryan Braun and Yovani Gallardo represent the Power as their first two big leaguers is well, let's say, impressive. (Currently a Padre, Joe Thatcher is the other West Virginia Power big leaguer.) With a very competitive big league club, do a few Milwaukee hats make their way into the stands now?
AB: There are a lot more Brewer fans down here now than there were a few years ago. The success of the Brewers has certainly helped, and seeing guys like Braun, Gallardo and Thatcher succeed has helped as well. That's one of the best things about minor league baseball. My most frequently asked question every single year is "which one of these guys is going to the big leagues?" At this level, these guys are so raw and most of them are new to the professional game that you really don't know. Granted, there certainly are some exceptions, but that's why these games are so fun at this level. You get a chance to meet these guys on a personal level when they are still accessible, and on top of that, ten years later when these guys are in the big leagues, you can tell all of your buddies that you saw these guys when they were 20 years old at the class-A level.
BF: 88 AB's, 18 extra-base hits, including ten home runs, and no errors in his 23 Power games, is it safe to say that Matt LaPorta won't have to wait long to join Braun and Gallardo at Miller Park? How'd the young man - man among boys, it seemed -- look in left field (he's expected to see action in both corner spots this season).
AB: Well I'd like to think that he'll have no problem getting there in the next two years. I think he exceeded expectations (which were pretty high to begin with) in his six weeks here. If he's healthy to begin the 2008 season, he could begin the year in Huntsville, and who knows, maybe make his way to Nashville before the end of the year. He's on the fast track, there is no question about that. If they were willing to take their time with him, they probably would have kept Geoff Jenkins, but since they let him go, I think that tells you they're ready for LaPorta in the next year or two. I don't know that many people noticed what he was doing defensively because they were mesmerized by the bombs he hit. Defensively he looked fine in left field. He didn't really seem to have any issues out there. He made a few nice throws from left and never looked confused, which is pretty unusual for someone making the transition from catcher and first base. I think he's a much better fit in left field, but then again, I didn't see him play right field at all.
BF: Your media relations and broadcast staff really embraced web video more than any of the other affiliates, providing some nice features and profiles, as evidenced by this link:
Can we look forward to even more in that regard in 2008?
AB: I appreciate the compliments and so does the rest of our production staff. The only thing that will change is the format of the pre-game show. It has been discussed through the off-season. Instead of having a 16-minute interview for each pre-game show, we will split it up a little bit in the second half of the show. We will still have a few profiles and we will use just a single eight-minute interview. This will help me avoid asking questions during a 16-minute interview like: "What is your social security number? What is your mom's maiden name? Do you enjoy long walks on the beach? How many days did it take you to beat Assassin's Creed on the XBOX 360? Etc." As far as I know, we will put these up in the same form/fashion we did last season.
BF: Andy, the West Virginia audio feed which is archived via MLBAM (MLB Advanced Media) hasn't included your pre-game show in the past. We understand there is a "Bull on Baseball" pre-game show that often includes interviews. If so, will you attempt to have MLBAM archive this portion of the broadcast as well for 2008?
AB: That's a discussion I've yet to have with MLBAM. I will talk to those guys about that later this month to see if that's a possibility. I've received a few requests to have the show available via the internet and I think that would be a great idea. "Bull on Baseball" is the pre-game show I referenced in that last question. It's a one hour pre-game show, done before home games only. The first half hour is done live at the ballpark. Usually, it's myself, Matt Gatjka and my producer Josh Exline talking baseball for the first half-hour of the show. In the second half of the show, we had two eight-minute interview segments last year, but this year we plan on doing it differently. This year there will be one eight-minute interview segment, followed by a four-minute sports update (scores and stories) which will be followed by a four-minute preview of that day's game. I don't see any changes there for next year, and it would be great if we could archive that, and make that available on the internet. Stay tuned, we'll see what we can do.
BF: As I have asked the other Brewer affiliate announcers, I'll ask you if there's a special or favorite on-or-off field story you'd like to share from 2007 that may not have been noticed in print or on the airwaves. Thanks again for your time, Andy. May 2008 be one big Jack-Jackety-Jack of a season!
AB: Anytime you are part of a team that wins as much as the Power did last season, you are around guys who are in great moods, are constantly loose and a pleasure to be around. Being a part of the clinching celebration in Lexington last year was an absolute blast. I think that was my favorite part of the season. However the very next day when four guys were called up, it was kind of a wake-up call as I didn't even get a chance to say good-bye or good luck to Brantley, Fordy, Shanks and Mac (Mike McClendon). But that's the life in sports though, you're here one minute, and gone the next especially at this level. I'd like to take this last bit of space here to say thanks to you Jim, and the rest of the staff at brewerfan.net. You guys do a terrific job and I have often used you guys as a resource when I'm searching for information on a player within the system. The team appreciates the publicity you have provided us. On a personal level, every radio announcer wants his voice to be heard, and when you link my broadcast every single night, that does nothing but help me. I appreciate that, because I need all the help I can get!