The Brewers expect 2001 3rd rounder Jon Steitz to deliver big dividends down the road
Brewerfan.com recently interviewed Milwaukee Brewer Area Scout Tommy Tanous. Tanous (pronounced Tay'-nus) scouts throughout the six New England states, much of New York state, portions of New Jersey, and up into eastern Canada. Tommy's been with the Brewers since 1996, and earned his first job in the professional scouting ranks with the Brewers at that time as a 25-year-old. Tommy relayed numerous anecdotes with us during our in-depth conversation, and his passion and knowledge of the game he so loves was clearly evident. All of us here at brewerfan.com thank Tommy for the time he gave us, as what was to be a quick lunch extended into a much longer get-together.
brewerfan.com (BF): Tommy, you're about to share so many great insights with us. Perhaps the readers should get to know more about you first. How does a young New England guy end up in the scouting department of the Milwaukee Brewers?
Tommy Tanous (TT): Well, I played two years of college ball as a shortstop and closer at Community College of Rhode Island, where major league pitcher Rheal Cormier was a teammate. CCRI had become a well-established nationally known power under the development of my coach there at the time, Art Ponerelli. Upon graduating from CCRI, I went on to play for American International College in Springfield, Mass., where we had tremendous Division II teams in '90-'91. So I got to participate in National World Series while at both schools. After AIC, I coached a JV high school team close to home for a season.
It was at this time that Art Ponarelli, my coach at CCRI, accepted a scouting position with the Colorado Rockies. His assistant took over at CCRI, and asked me to be the pitching coach and to work on recruiting. Now in the dozen or so years that Art had established CCRI as a national power, about 15 players had been drafted from the school. So in my new coaching stint at the school and while recruiting, I got to meet all the scouts who would come by, and I would just ask them all questions that would help me learn about what they do.
Now it's 1995-'96, and there's an opening for a New England scout on the staff of the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Among those I had pumped for answers to my questions over time was a Massachusetts guy, J.P. Ricciardi (then the Oakland national cross-checker, now the Toronto Blue Jay GM). I interview for the Tampa job, and don't get it. Devastation. But I continue to leave messages with J.P. to thank him for the help he had provided.
Two weeks later, J.P. calls and says that he had talked to Ken Califano of the Brewers, and that Milwaukee was looking for a New England scout. (Ken was Scouting Director for the Brewers at that time, and is now a scout on the major league level for the organization). Ken wanted J.P.'s input on several candidates he had on a list he was working from, and J.P. told Ken basically don't bother with the names on that list. That he had "the guy", and that Ken should call me. J.P. told me to expect to hear from the Brewers. Well, I put down the phone, and there's a light indicating a message had beeped in. Sure enough, it was Ken Califano.
It's funny, I'll always remember asking J.P. where should I send my resume. And he said, 'Look, I've got 17 years in this business....I'm your resume'. So even though I had worked hard to get the chance, and worked very hard to make sure I knew what I needed to get started, it did help to know someone who had that clout.
BF: For everything you will share with us today, I know that you have to be secretive about certain issues as well. Can you explain?
TT: Well, it's not so much about being secretive as it is about being fair to the young players we are keeping an eye on for the 2002 draft and beyond. It just wouldn't be fair to a kid to see that I mentioned him as someone we really liked at this time, building up hopes perhaps unnecessarily. And you probably understand that I'm not going to discuss in great detail some of the financial issues involved in the whole process. But other than that, I'll answer your questions as best as I can.
BF: I understand that you are quite a popular figure locally, I mean with people tracking you down.
TT: Well, yes, I did have to take my name out of the phone book. I'll go home from this lunch meeting today, and I know I'll have messages (phone or mail) waiting. Everybody wants you to know about "their kid". People will get to me anyway they can, through my neighbors, whatever. And when people do contact me directly, I'm very professional about each and every dialogue, as I'm representing the Milwaukee Brewers and their interests, and you never know, that one true "tip" may be right there waiting for you. But yes, it's a lot to sort through and it does try your patience at times.
BF: Give us a sense of your calendar year.
TT: In January, the entire scouting department gets together to discuss our plan of attack, if you will, any changes in the way we are to do things. By February, I'm in the Carolina's and Florida providing second looks and support to our scouts in those areas on their players. But by later in February, my targeted New England college players are down south on the opening road trips with their teams, so I get to focus on "my" guys from that point. Certainly by March, I'm back up north as the college seasons begin, quickly followed by spring practice and the high school season. Around the time of the draft, we invite draft-eligible prospects to a pre-draft tryout camp locally, and non- eligibles (such as high school juniors or college freshmen and sophomores) to a post-draft workout. Once the high school and college spring seasons have ended, I'm still involved in scouting the Cape Cod League, Cranberry League, the Independent Atlantic League, and in recent years, the New York / Penn Rookie League as part of my July / August schedule. In September, I'm at the instructionals (this past season in Florida scouting the Cardinals and Expos among others), and then the college fall season picks up again as well right through well into October and November.
BF: As fans, while we can appreciate your efforts year-round, the focus seems to be with the work you and the other Brewers' scouts do in order to be best prepared for the June amateur draft. As an area scout, how many youngsters are you targeting to see as you gear up for that February through June stretch?
TT: You're referring to our "follow lists", and the number of prospects on those lists can vary year to year, and from scout to scout. For some, there may be 100-120 names, others 60. I've had years where my initial list was 90, 70, 100, and you lay out your planned schedule hoping to prioritize those visits from top to bottom. In the New England states alone each year (not counting upstate New York and other areas in which I'll see players), 30-35 kids are drafted each year. Some we really like; others, no. But every team has a presence here, and you get to know all the other scouts at one time or another. And it's important that you do get to know these other scouts, because you need to know your competition. I may know that a particular scout is very aggressive, or that another hasn't been able to sign a kid in several years. So that helps me determine what approach I may need to have with a particular player that I like.
BF: You're a relatively young guy; do you think that extra energy level gives you an advantage over some of the senior scouts?
TT: I used to think that initially. Gee, I can get to more games, so that must be an advantage. But where one scout might bounce between three local games, seeing one pitcher pitch for two innings here, another for two innings there, and a third prospect for another inning, it's often more advantageous to just set camp for the one game. Watch the kid coming off the bus. Watch all the warm-ups. Talk to the coaches. Talk to the assistant coaches. Make face-to- face contact with the kid after the game. Lennie Merullo is an 83-year-old legend of the scouting business who I'll run into. And everything in the scouting business is about comparisons. Len will tell you that every year it's the same players that are out there. It's just their names and faces that change. You just have to figure out who these guys are. Can you compare his skills with a Thurman Munson? With a Roger Clemens? And in that regard, the older guys have an advantage because they've seen so much more; they have more candidates that they can compare to.
BF: What goes into grading all these potential draft picks?
TT: You're really focusing on tools, and you're basing your ratings as if that prospect was in the big leagues right now. Dwight Evans is an example of a guy who would have had a plus outfield arm even in high school. Now he would have hit .100 in the bigs out of high school, but his arm would have projected as major-league ready. We don't over-analyze as far as future projections go. You can to some regard, because you can choose to project the outfield arm, for example, of a 17-year-old differently than that of a 21-year old, in terms of potential improvement with proper tutelage and body growth. But as far as current grades, you are marking down what you see at that time.
BF: You were hired while Sal Bando was General Manager. Were there any anxious moments for you when the team's administration changed, and do you see any differences in the overall scouting system under Dean Taylor and Jack Zduriencik?
TT: When a change at the top happens like it did, at first you don't know if Jack has someone he's known for a long time in mind for your area, or if he'd be more comfortable working with more of his "own" people. So Jack had reports on the Brewer scouts like myself, and we were all flown in to Milwaukee in September of '99. Jack knows lots of people in this business, so I'm sure he was able to learn what he needed to about the staff he inherited, including myself. I've had nothing but a fantastic experience under both Ken and Jack. If I had to identify a difference, it may be that there's a bit more emphasis on the home visit, getting to know the player's family, and a bit more about his personal background, under Jack.
The Brewers are inviting me into Boston Thursday night / Friday (to the recently held owners' meetings). Now they're doing that out of a courtesy to me, which I appreciate, because I'll have little to add (OK, nothing to add) to what's going on in Boston this week. But seeing that I'm local, it's an opportunity for them to touch base with me. The team has always maintained good people and treated me with respect.
BF: The very first Brewer prospect that you signed, Allen Levrault, a 13th rounder in 1996 who pitched at your school, CCRI, made it all the way to the big leagues in 2000, and had an extended stay in 2001. Some scouts, as you told me, work for 15 years or more and sometimes the pieces never quite fall into place for them as far as having a player reach the big leagues. Your very first signing did. What was your day like when Allen got the call to the majors?
TT: The day Allen got called up, I'm up in Maine watching our eventual 2000 21st rounder, Jeremy Shorey. Kate Geenen of the Brewers' front office leaves a voice mail that we all pick up which includes any transactions, any player movement. Well, I drop the phone when I hear the news, and my knees buckle. I'm alone in the middle of Maine, and there's not a living soul for me to hug or high five or anything. But it was a huge moment for me, and it was certainly a nice selling point when I sat with Jeremy later on.
BF: Do you keep in touch with Allen and your other signees?
TT: During their first season of professional ball, I'll check in with my players to make sure things are going OK, but after that first season, it's kind of like when your parents don't hear from you while you're at college, and they know it's because you're OK. So we won't talk nearly as often now, but yes, Allen in particular is a good friend.
BF: You currently have five players in the Brewers system: Levrault, Shorey, lefty's Justin Gordon and Ben Wallace, and your highest draft signing to date, 2001 3rd rounder Jon Steitz. All pitchers - coincidence? What's easier to scout, pitchers or position players?
TT: Pure coincidence. Pitchers are easier to scout however. I might see a pitcher throw 120 pitches in a single game. I might be scouting a position player who gets intentionally walked twice or doesn't have balls hit to his position in the field. So often you have to make extra visits to see the position player. That's why warmups and BP can be so critical as well.
BF: What does the term "shut out" mean to a scout?
TT: There is a very good chance, not a remote chance, but a very good chance, that your organization may not select a single player you recommend on draft day. Heck, you could have stayed home and accomplished that. Now in a particular year, I may have four guys drafted and another scout in the organization zero. Does that mean I worked any harder than the other guy? No, the draft can be screwy, guys slip and slide, and nearly always, getting shut out is not a reflection of the scout's work ethic. But you have to prepare yourself for that possibility, and it's something scouts say amongst themselves every June: 'Man, I just hope I don't get shut out.'
Prior to '96, the Brewers hadn't drafted a New England player in five years. Since then, 15 players, and other organizations know that Milwaukee is an entity in New England. All that being said, could I get shut out next year? Absolutely.
BF: Scouting is not a profession for those who need a daily "atta-boy" from their boss, is it?
TT: You are truly like a private contractor. There is no one asking you 'What are you doing?' 5-10 times each day. You make your schedule, work your follow list, prioritize as best you can, deal with the weather (especially here in New England). The days off are few and far between, probably none during the peak season. You're not going to fool anyone; if you're not doing your job, it will end quickly for you.
BF: Talk about the stigma surrounding the 5'10" right-handed pitcher in the scouting world.
TT: It's just such a tough sell to your organization. If he's 190, he's fat. If he's 160, he's frail. There is just such a history of those guys breaking down. Now people will tell you, 'What about Pedro Martinez? Tom Gordon?' Of course there are some success stories. But check out most starting rotations, including the Brewers. 6'3", 6'4", 6'5". Now of course lefty's are another matter altogether. Everyone's looking for that lefty; only 10% of the population, you know. Let me tell you, I'm one of those 5'9", 160 lb. guys. When I first joined the Brewers, I meet Fernando Vina, and I figure, here's a small guy. Forget it. Biceps like Arnold. These guys are men. Nearly all of them at the big league level.
Sometimes parents just don't understand. I was at a game, and the pitcher I went to see was hit pretty hard. I'm heading out of the park after he gets removed, and fans are asking me why I'm not sticking around to watch the opposing pitcher, who's pitching a shutout. Well, he's a 5'8" righty barely touching 80 on the gun, but mixing his pitches well. You can't be fooled by an impressive record, either. A top prospect could be getting knocked around because his coaches know that he needs to work on his curveball or slider, and he's only going to throw that pitch that day, no matter the situation. You need to know that kind of information going in.
BF: Can you be anonymous while doing your job? At the ball park, I mean?
TT: Well, the radar gun always gives it away. You definitely try not to advertise yourself, because if everybody's coming up to you, distracting you, talking with you and at you, that takes away from what you're trying to do.
BF: Justin Gordon has been profiled on this web site. You "discovered" him in a pretty unique experience, with no other scouts around for his coming-out party, so to speak.
TT: That's what you dream about, but boy, you can really get fooled in that type of setting also. You really have to ask yourself, if 30 other scouts were here, would I still take this kid? By the time we drafted Justin later that spring, there were probably 25 other clubs that said 'who?'. But in fairness, I've said 'who?' as well. A kid gets drafted in my area in upstate New York, and maybe it's because someone got a tip, or it was a situation similar to Justin's, very unique circumstances. It happens.
BF: Are you in the Miller Park "War Room" on draft day?
TT: We're home. I'm monitoring the draft on the internet just like you fans. We need to be able to get to our picks ASAP. To them, I am the Brewers. I am the sales person. I had to sell my bosses on the player. Now I have to sell the player on the team, and of course, some of that has been done earlier during pre-draft workouts, etc. But it helps to get to them quickly. You can't just show up two weeks later dropping of a Brewers' hat. Colleges at all levels use the draft to do their work for them. 'Hey, the Brewers drafted this kid, he must be pretty good.' They'll be in contact with that player quickly as well.
We can't lose picks. And as much as it's great to have players I scouted drafted, it means nothing if they don't sign. So I can be as much value to my bosses by making sure they know not to take a kid I like if it's at a point in the draft when signability becomes an issue. Not to mention the money a scout can save the team when he suggests that so-and-so isn't worth being drafted in a higher round than where he should fall. All that input from the team's scouting staff is critical in the big picture.
BF: Do you keep an eye on players you scouted who were drafted by other teams?
TT: Absolutely, and I'll tell you why. If a prospect doesn't do well, and you really liked him, you have to look back and say, 'Hey, I really liked that kid. What happened?'. Or maybe, you notice that a player that you should have liked more than you did is doing very well, so you are constantly learning about your evaluation skills. You're constantly making comparisons. You hope that there aren't too many instances of the two types of examples I just described.
BF: Do you have a story about the "one that got away"?
TT: Doug Clark, U-Mass center fielder. Broke my heart. Weird story.
In September, it's scout day at U-Mass. Division I school. The players run, throw, BP. You get your read on any serious prospects. Fine.
Now it's months later, a freezing cold day in the spring, the only other scout there is my former coach, Art Ponerelli, now a Rockie scout. We've got big winter coats on, it's miserable, it's game day. Watching warmups, and we see this kid, incredible body, muscular, perfect waist, shoulders, he has an awesome BP, line drives, moonshots. During IF/OF warm-ups, you evaluate the arm, he can't throw a lick, but still, you're intrigued. Now Division I prospects don't just pop up. I say hello to the assistant coach (now a scout with Detroit), and I say, who's this kid? 'Well, that's Doug Clark.' Who's Doug Clark? Turns out he's a WR on the football team, and that's why he wasn't around during fall baseball or scout day. He also didn't play high school baseball.
Now it's very rare that a player does everything you want him to do during a series of at-bats within one game. Clark punishes pitches for HR's in his first two AB's; no question about his power. It sounds funny, but every scout wants to see a player hit a double play ball, so that the player has to really leg it down to first base. Sure enough, double play ball, 4.1 seconds to first base, above average speed. He makes a great running-in catch in CF. The kid is a serious prospect. All the while, Art just raises his eyebrow at me, not saying a word. Out in the parking lot later on, he would only say, 'Nice to see a player, isn't it?'.
Clark is listed as a sophomore on my program sheet. Well, players at four- year schools aren't draft-eligible until their junior year. Then I get to thinking about the whole football connection. I make a call, and end up talking to his roommate, who confirms for me that Doug is a redshirt sophomore as far as football goes. But he is eligible for the baseball draft. So throughout the year, I'm keeping in touch with our East Coast cross-checker, and I'm telling him we have a potential Kirk Gibson comparison here, that no one knows about his eligibility, and that you gotta see this guy.
In Boston, they play the Beanpot Tournament at Fenway Park, and U-Mass takes part. I don't go, I don't want to influence my cross-checker at this point in any way. The U-Mass pitcher has a no-hitter and it's down to the final batter, and guess who makes an absolutely incredible catch at the center field wall to save the game and the no-hitter? The kind of catch in the perfect circumstance that is so great that Sportscenter is showing it throughout that day and week. And just like that, because of one catch, guess who wasn't a secret any more? Doug Clark.
We draft Clark in the 20th round in '97. We can't come to terms, we promise school expenses after his career, back and forth, it doesn't happen. Clark tells us that no one knew about him, and that he should get picked higher next season. The Giants choose him in the 7th round in '98, and he's played pretty well for them (Clark hit .275 in 123 games at AA Shreveport in 2001, with 6 HR's, 51 RBI, and 20 SB's in 25 attempts). But regardless of that or how he does eventually, that was a tough one.
BF: We'll wrap things up today by letting you tell us about the process of identifying, drafting, and signing Jon Steitz this spring, the Brewers' 3rd round selection out of Yale.
TT: We knew about Jon in his prep high school days, and had him at a pre- draft tryout camp along with studs like Brian Sager (a future White Sox selection) and Pat Strange, now a Met phenom. Jon is up front with me, and says, 'Mr. Tanous, don't draft me. My parents are educators at Yale; I'm going to Yale.' I thank him very much; he's just saved me a huge headache.
Of course, we watch him closely at Yale. OK first year, but he has the best movement on his fastball of anybody I see. OK sophomore year, still working to master his command., the summer after his sophomore season he pitches in the wooden bat Cape Cod League. Now he's got the beginning of a slider going, and a curve. But the important thing is it's a true slider, and it's a true curve, not some sloppy slurve, and very few guys can throw both well. He's throwing a phenomenal change. And his stuff is working in the zone. A lot of guys will have success through A+ ball because you have a lot of undisciplined hitters swinging at balls in the dirt. Now when those guys pitch in AA, and the best prospects up and down the lineup are facing those same pitches, and laying off, guess who struggles when they're forced into the zone. But Steitz is breaking bats in the zone. In that Cape League summer, he walked 24, struck out 24, but he's still earned a very high "follow" on my list for the Ivy League season in the fall.
We're in Florida early in Yale's spring season (2001), Steitz is facing Florida International. It's a night game, the only show in town, there are twenty scouts there. For three innings, he's untouchable. He's throwing 90-94 with hellacious movement. In the fourth, the wheels come off, a walk, base hit, error, his night wraps up, but I can't get those first three innings out of my mind. He gets a very good report.
I tell my cross-checker that he's gotta get in here (the cross- checker is a senior scout who will come in for these additional looks on better prospects). Two weeks later (March), he meets me at the Yale Bowl and asks, "What do we have here?'. And I tell him that he's going to see the most energetic, best bullpen (pre-game warmup) that he's going to see this year. Guaranteed. Nothing will be straight. Steitz doesn't disappoint. Incredible bullpen. And then he pitches lights out for seven innings.
Two weeks later, our scouting director Jack Zduriencik flies in to see Steitz pitch against Brown University in Providence. If Steitz doesn't pitch well in front of Jack, it will be tougher to sell him on Jon, of course. Now I have to be in Utica, NY, seven hours away, and I've got the cell phone working: 'Are you sure how to get there? You got the directions I left?' I know the game starts at 12:30. I call at 12:45. 'How'd he do? How's he look?' 'He's still pitching. It's the bottom of the first. Call back later.', comes the answer.
Final story that day. Shutout. 2-hitter. Awesome.
Just before the draft, potential draft picks come to Milwaukee (they must pay their own way) for a pre- draft workout in front of Dean Taylor. There were 60 players there; I assisted with the workouts. The players are not necessarily all potential high picks; often you want guys there like a Justin Gordon who hasn't had much exposure. (Unfortunately, Justin was unable to attend.) Steitz gets in an inning, he strikes out our eventual 2nd round pick, J.J. Hardy, and two others. I've got a little 'See, see, I told you so' working for me.
It's a couple of days before the draft. We can't play our hand or tip our cards. You can never tell a kid if/where he'll be drafted, particularly a potential high pick. What if other players fall that we hadn't expected to? Now all of a sudden, your guy is asking, 'What's the scoop?', and you've got hard feelings. And that's just a terrible way to get negotiations started.
But I need to make sure of Steitz' intentions. Because of his family's background, there could be intangibles. There's that Yale degree waiting. But Jon gives me every indication as he refers to himself as a "baseball rat". He says he's ready for pro ball.
BF: Tommy, thanks for the time and the great stories and insights. In true brewerfan.com tradition, here's your brewerfan.com bumper sticker, worth tens of thousands of dollars on the open market, I'm sure. I know that your very understanding and supportive better half is home with your 4-month old firstborn (Samuel), and here's wishing you and your family a great (and productive, right Brewer fans?) 2002.
Jim Goulart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.