'It puts us in a tough spot': Minor League, Independent and Collegiate Baseball players talk impact of Coronavirus pandemic
By Michael Marcantonini
As the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic harrasses the entire globe, almost every aspect of everyday life is on hold, including arguably the world’s and undoubtedly the United States’ biggest outlet from the real world: Sports.
At the professional level, the start of baseball season is delayed without a true timetable for how long the postponement will last. At the collegiate level, student-athletes essentially had their entire season ripped away from them on the diamond.
There are much bigger problems facing the world right now than baseball, but baseball is what I know best. As a sports media professional, I value any opportunity to tell ballplayers’ stories and, despite the unfortunate scenario, there are stories to be told right now.
That’s why I turned to Instagram to find interview subjects. I called out to players in Minor League Baseball, Independent baseball and college baseball, who were interested in sharing their reactions to the virus crisis and how the pandemic has impacted their lives and careers during a time of unprecedented uncertainty.
Here’s who answered:
Zach Wilson - Infielder, Lincoln Saltdogs (American Association); Chris Sharpe - Outfielder, Pittsburgh Pirates org.; Ryan Fitzgerald - Infielder, Boston Red Sox org.; Rio Gomez - Left-handed pitcher, Boston Red Sox org.; Dylan Nolan - Sr. Catcher, Wells College (Div. III); Andrew Carber - Right-handed pitcher, Utica Unicorns (USPBL); Anonymous NL minor-league player
Through a combination of friends in the game and people I’ve never even met, the responses came in and led to this story.
What was your initial reaction to the Coronavirus? How has your opinion changed with more info?
“I didn’t have much of an initial reaction back in January. All the news about it was in China and it seemed so far away, and at the time like it wasn’t going to be an issue here state-side. Quickly after that, I realized how serious this was at a worldwide level and I began following the news constantly. Obviously, at this point everyone must realize how important this is and why all these levels of precaution are taking place globally.” - Rio Gomez
“It never really crossed my mind that it could spread to the United States so fast and have the impact it has had so far. Once word got out of guys on other sports teams saying they have the virus, and NBA games were getting canceled, my opinion [of the situation] changed. Living down at Pirate City, we have hundreds of guys that live together, eat together and train with each other that are constantly touching the same things. Being in an environment like that is what got me to realize how real this is because if one person got the virus, it would spread through the place in no time. A lot of us players were on the same page that it was only a matter of time before we all had it if we stayed [at Spring Training].” - Chris Sharpe
“I first heard about the Coronavirus through an investment group chat that I’m in with my college friends from Clemson University. After seeing a tweet of leaked footage from a security camera in China of pedestrians falling on their faces in broad daylight, I knew this virus was more serious than China was making it out to be during the virus's early stages. However, I never in a million years would have thought it would find its way to the East Coast, or even greater, shut down the state of Pennsylvania (where I live) due to a global outbreak.” - Andrew Carber
“I’m not extremely worried about it for myself, but I understand that I have to be conscious of others and their health as well.” - Ryan Fitzgerald
How is the virus directly affecting you as a baseball player and/or coach?
“Personally, this was my first professional Spring Training. This is not how I envisioned it, but it is the card we are all dealt at the moment.” - Anonymous NL minor-leaguer
“As a player, it’s made it very hard to keep on a schedule for training in the gym and on the field since all baseball facilities and gyms have closed down for the time being. I have been doing some workouts at the park and beach along with hitting and throwing into a net. It’s very limited. On the coaching side, it’s tough because that’s my source of income for the offseason and now giving lessons is pretty much out of the question with nothing open and having to pretty much stay away from people.” - Zach Wilson
“It is now up to me to prepare myself for the season. However, I feel that I have great resources at home if not better than what I had at Spring Training. Sleeping in my own bed, having access to more nutritious foods, more focused baseball training with smaller groups instead of large teams, and a personal trainer to continue building my strength. The only downside is not being able to compete in a game setting. I am trying to get together a group of guys in the Chicago area to play some pickup games.” - RF
“Being from Massachusetts, I spend the majority of my offseason indoors hitting and throwing into a net or with a friend at 90 feet maximum. This is why Spring Training is so valuable...It takes me a week or two to trust my baseball instincts after being inside all winter. I was at spring training for a month and at a point where the season could have started that day and I would have been ready to go, but instead I’m back at square one hitting and throwing into a net.” - CS
“I never would have imagined that my senior season would’ve been stripped away in a blink of an eye due to a pandemic. I have shed countless tears over this because my team and I were just getting started...I am worried about the opportunities I could’ve had, and the summer season I am supposed to play in.” - Dylan Nolan
What is your current situation: where are you staying/were you forced to leave where you were to go home/what are you doing throughout the day to train for the season/etc.?
“I’m lucky enough to have my neighbors’ basement gym to get as much of my lifting in as I can. I say I’m lucky enough because I’ve talked to plenty of guys that went home to no gym at all. For baseball workouts, we haven’t been able to do much, as our usual places are closed. Without knowing when we may return for our season, it puts us in a tough spot.” - CS
“We were forced to leave [Spring Training], provided we were unwilling to pay for a living situation near the complex. The club was unbelievable in the way they were able to quickly schedule flights for all players within the organization, as we had flights the following morning. Since then, I have moved back in with my parents. Throughout the days, I have the ability to go to a local baseball facility. I only have this opportunity because I worked there over the 2019-20 offseason.” - Anonymous
“I’m currently back home in Long Beach, CA. Long Beach isn’t completely locked down so I can still get out and do things I need to do, but the days have gotten pretty boring really. Just finding ways to keep busy and in shape.” - ZW
“My team traveled down to Florida to play in the Russmatt tournament where we were able to play five out of seven games before our trip was canceled and [we were] ordered to head back home. Upon the 26-hour bus ride back to school, we got an email saying that we had to leave campus immediately. When I got home, I started helping my family out around the house, doing chores and getting in workouts in the backyard. It’s bittersweet being back home but I at least can have a catch and continue to throw with my younger brother, who’s a freshman in high school.” - DN
"I was forced to go to my home in Chicago with my family. My day looks pretty much the same as it did in the offseason. Baseball training in the morning, lifting in afternoon, and just hanging out with my brothers at night." - RF
“I am currently living at home, quarantining with my family during the times I am not at the training facility. I’ve enjoyed passing the time with some good, old-fashioned family bonding in these extreme circumstances…Lots of reading, board games, dancing and food. Going to pick up take-out food has never seemed more enjoyable given the simple pleasure of just getting out of the house for a bit and escaping quarantine.” - AC
“Every minor leaguer was told to leave the facility and not come back until told to. Currently, I am home in Phoenix. As of now, the gym I work out at in the offseason is open for us to use and I have plenty of people to throw and keep my arm in shape. Other than that I’ve been getting creative on how to train in the meantime. Since there is time until we go back and there are bigger and more pressing issues in this country, I’m not terribly stressed about my body in the immediate.” - RG
What info have you been given from your team/organization/league/school/the NCAA about your situation? (Pro: salaries; college: eligibility)
“As an independent ballplayer, we are not getting paid by our employer at this time. I day-trade stocks and run an e-commerce website that sells apparel and sneakers online, which has helped provide a source of income for me, but most of my teammates have either been furloughed or fired by their offseason jobs, given the challenging economic environment brought on by the virus. This has left them quarantined in their homes with no income for the foreseeable future. That’s one of the biggest hardships of them all for us Minor League Grinders.” - AC
“I did see in a report that the Red Sox will continue to pay their minor leaguers the normal Spring Training stipend, which could be anywhere from $20/day if you lived in the team hotel to $80/day if you lived outside of the team hotel. I paid for a lease until the end of March, so I lost out on that.” - RF
“The info I received is that the NCAA will grant another year of eligibility to all [spring] athletes, but as a senior who is on track to graduate in May, my concerns about returning to a school with no graduate program for a fifth year of school is frustrating and costly.” - DN
“We have not been told anything since we departed [Spring Training]. However, the night before leaving, they did compensate each player with the following week's per diem.” - Anonymous
“It’s funny how it only takes the whole world to shut down before we fully appreciate our jobs and having a stable source of income to live off of as humans. I think we’ve gained a whole new perspective on a lot of everyday things just from these bizarre times.” - AC
As a result of the virus, what should be done to improve the situation of people in your position? (Pro: financially; college: eligibility/financially)
“Indy ball teams don’t have the financial support and budget that MLB affiliates do. So in my situation I don’t think there is much to do for us. Maybe raise our pay in season to make up for a shortened season. That’s really the only thing I can think of for Indy ball guys. Affiliated guys should be compensated though for sure. They are in Spring Training for a month with no pay, so they are pretty much there on their own dime, minus meal money, which doesn’t go far. And with Spring Training being canceled and not knowing when the season is starting, those guys are pretty much screwed. They were told to just go home and we will let you know when we need you back. Those guys are expected to stay in shape, eat well and be ready to ship back out at any point in time, but until then they are not getting paid, aren’t getting those meals they were getting during the day at camp, or housing.” - ZW
“I think it is a no-brainer that we should get some sort of pay during this time. Obviously, it is not our teams’ fault that we are going through this, but guys have to return home now paying for rent, gas and groceries. Even if it’s not a lot of money, there are guys that have budgeted their lives around these upcoming pay checks and are left with nothing. On top of that, without a time frame for our return, it makes it hard to find a job. I saw recently [MLB] teams are donating $1 million [each] to help employees left without work, but why does that exclude us players? Players sacrifice so much for their organizations and deserve better.” - CS
“I think the normal stipend that we have been receiving in Spring Training should continue to be given to the minor leaguers and coaches until the season starts.” - RF
“I think MLB should give [minor leaguers] something to hold them over. Doesn’t have to be anything crazy, but at least something...MLB has plenty of money to help out their players at this time. If they can take care of the employees at the stadiums, then they can help their players.” - ZW
“Schools [should] refund students’ room and board money who are interested in returning to play another season. And that everyone continues to keep their head up high and have each other’s back, because we are all in this together.” - DN
For pros: What info have you been given from your team/organization/league about when the season might start?
“I have not been given any info on when the season might start. I’ve heard rumors that it would be mid-May at the earliest, possibly even pushed back until July.” - RF
“At this time, there hasn’t been much info about what’s happening baseball-wise moving forward. We are getting paid our Spring Training stipends through April 8th. They have told us they are discussing in season compensation from that date on.” - RG
“As of now, we are still scheduled to start [the USPBL] season the first week of May, with Spring Training beginning the third week of April in Utica, Michigan. However, that is certainly subject to change. Only time will tell how long this epidemic lasts, and that will dictate our start date moving forward.” - AC
“We have not been told anything. I have been extremely reliant on friends from other organizations to piece together some information on when we may resume baseball activities.” - Anonymous
“The team I’m going to in the American Association has been pretty good about keeping me updated on what’s going on...Our manager calls me and fills me in just about every week. There’s talks about the season being pushed back, but since our season starts May 19th, they haven’t really made a decision. I think our season will start on time, but I’m just doing what I can to stay positive with all this...” - ZW
For senior student-athletes: If you are granted another year of eligibility, will you take it? If certain circumstances won’t let you return (Ex: money, family, job, etc.), explain why.
“I am going to weigh out my options. I have the opportunity to play in the [independent professional] Pecos League this summer, if the league isn’t suspended or canceled, but on the other hand, I would love to return to my [college] program to finish what I started. I would be the first four-year class to graduate from Wells baseball. My freshman year we were a start-up program. I would love to take the opportunity to play again if the money was there, but in the meantime I have to continue online class and find a job somewhere.” - DN
**Thank you to all the players who took the time to answer questions for this story, as well as everyone who spread the word about my story idea that led to these interviews**
By Michael Marcantonini
We’re currently in an era in which Major League Baseball teams are spending more time and money than ever before in a variety of areas to improve their respective organizations. That means investing in advanced scouting and data, weight training and fitness, marketing and promotional efforts, and more.
That “more” category could go on forever, as individual organizations all have certain areas of improvement they’re prioritizing to build championship contenders.
For the Pittsburgh Pirates, that “more” category includes health and nutrition, and not just at the Major League level, but all levels of the minor leagues as well. Even the casual baseball fan understands that life in the minors is largely different from a Major League lifestyle, and one of the biggest separators is food.
The Pirates are at the forefront of baseball’s nutrition revolution; They’re quickly re-writing the standards for minor league ball players when it comes to consistent access to substantial, healthy meals throughout a long season. Every Pirates minor league affiliate has its own nutrition assistant responsible for carrying out this mission.
Jesus Raya, a native of El Paso, Texas who earned a Bachelor’s degree in culinary nutrition from Johnson and Wales University in Denver, Colorado, spent the 2019 season working with the Pirates as the sports nutrition assistant with the Double-A Altoona Curve in the Eastern League.
“I’m in charge of getting the guys fueled up throughout the day,” Raya said in an interview toward the end of the 2019 season.
That meant planning out multiple meals a day for every homestand, shopping for the entire team essentially every morning before a home game, cooking a pre and postgame meal for every home game, and overseeing the overall health and nutrition of the team throughout the 140-game season.
For Raya, planning a week-long homestand menu took about two to three days while a shorter homestand of three of four games required a couple hours of brainstorming. After gathering all the food he needed for the day, Raya would then prepare a light pre-game meal for the team followed by a heartier, high-protein, high-carbs postgame meal. Keep in mind, that’s one man cooking two meals a day--and also providing in-between-meal snacks--for more than 30 guys at a time when you count at least 25 players, four coaches, a trainer, a strength coach, a video coordinator, a baseball operations assistant and roving organization instructors.
“You almost can’t put it into words what he’s done,” said Curve outfielder, Jared Oliva. “Just the preparation he’s done, in terms of coming up with the menu for the week, making all the runs to the grocery store, getting what he thinks is necessary but also what we want, and kind of collaborating and making it fun during the year.”
Oliva mentioned how Raya kept the daily meals new and fresh and made food combinations more appetizing to get guys to buy in.
“The biggest thing that I’ve been dealing with is just picky eaters, honestly,” Raya said. “Just trying to make foods that are familiar to them but doing like a little healthy twist is always something good and it’s always a challenge for me, but it’s fun.”
The Pirates minor league nutrition assistants kept a group chat during the season so they could help each other with food planning and preparation ideas. They also worked closely with Allison Maurer, director of sports nutrition for the Pirates, and Tomas Membreño, executive chef at the Pirate City complex in Bradenton, Florida, to improve nutrition around the organization.
“It’s non-stop. They’re always getting better, they’re always getting more insight from players, they’re working on offseason manuals for people who like to meal prep,” said Oliva, a seventh-round pick in 2017, the year the Pirates started their current organizational nutrition plan.
Spreading the blueprint for a healthy life hits close to home for Raya, who became interested in a career in nutrition because he’s lost multiple family members to health complications.
“I wanted to take the next step in showing people that food is medicine, and I want to show them that eating the proper foods can help you throughout your day and you don’t have to rely on McDonald’s and fast food to satisfy you,” Raya said.
He’s done just that as the man in charge of feeding and fueling the Pirates’ Double-A affiliate, even if it hasn’t been an easy task.
“Learning everything, even with these guys at a high caliber, learning their niches and what they like to eat is very intriguing. It’s actually been challenging for me but also something really motivating to do, and do some more research and getting them to the next level."
Raya, who is of Mexican descent and grew up in southern Texas, says Mexican food and barbecue are two of his favorites to cook. As for crowd favorites in the Altoona clubhouse, quesadillas, ribs and salmon were always big hits.
Raya asked for suggestions from the team throughout the season to help with his homestand meal planning, which had a strong influence on the day-to-day menu.
On certain days, it was clear there wouldn’t be many leftovers, if any. For example, pitching coach Joel Hanrahan enjoyed barbecue days, especially when there were ribs or brisket. “He’s always the first one in line,” Raya said. And Oliva made sure to mention one pregame meal right away when asked what he and his teammates liked the most. “Everyone loves quesadilla day” he said.
Oliva then rattled off a list of some meals and snacks Raya prepared for the Curve during the season.
“He made steaks postgame, fish, he made some lamb, which not many guys knew of,” Oliva said. “Everything he’s done from just putting out fresh fruit, making really good yogurt...the menu items just go on and on: pasta, salads, just constantly evolving what he’s done.”
“I’m proud to say that they’ve liked everything that I’ve cooked, so they’re always expecting something good out of me, which is cool [because] I can set a high bar for myself, which is great,” Raya said.
A handful of Curve players spoke with Raya toward the end of the 2019 season about future eating plans. Whether they were looking for tips on intermediate fasting, watching their carbohydrate intake, how to fuel for the offseason or just healthy snacking for a cross-country drive home, Raya was there to help.
Some of his advice based on the players’ questions? Go for water instead of sugary drinks, get a side salad or fruit with a burger instead of fries, pack snacks for between meals. The advice sounds simple, but not everyone can offer those tips; hearing it from a trained professional is invaluable.
“The [players] who have approached me are really liking the results that they’ve had throughout the season and they want to maintain that because they know it helps them play better, and it’s been seen on the field,” Raya said.
Like a professional in any industry, Raya has invested so much time into building his passion into a career. Six-hour labs, four days a week in college learning about nutrition, recipe development and how to feed athletes, led to his opportunity with the Pirates.
“[There were] so many different types of things that I did to prepare myself for this and I’m glad I got to do this because it’s opening the door for me in all aspects,” Raya said. “Not just in nutrition, but food as well.”
Ask any player, coach or team personnel member who came through Altoona this season about the high-quality food they were provided and had access to in the clubhouse and they’ll certainly give you a positive review.
Oliva, who spent the entire 2019 season with the Curve, knows as well as anyone: “It’s like fine dining every night for us.”
When was the last time you heard a minor leaguer refer to a clubhouse spread as “fine dining” without sarcasm? Probably never. That’s because the Pirates put an emphasis on fueling their ball players at all levels, putting them in a position to reach their potential on the field because of what they eat off the field.
With all the work the Pirates sports nutrition team puts in throughout the grind of a season, there has to be some burnout, right?
“Surprisingly, no,” Raya said. “I love what I do, I love cooking and yeah, there are some days where you feel tired, you feel exhausted...but just the faces of the players and the coaches when they eat my food and they tell me how good everything is and how delicious it is, that I’m cooking Big-League food for a Double-A team, that keeps me motivated and that keeps me going.”
By Michael Marcantonini
CURVE, Pa. -- First-year Altoona Curve assistant coach Salvador Paniagua sits in the first base dugout and reminisces about the day he signed his first professional contract with the Boston Red Sox in 2001.
He remembers what it was like to leave home, to be thrown into a new culture with an unfamiliar lifestyle in the United States.
“It really changed a lot. I remember my first year back in 2001. It was tough, but I knew that’s what I wanted, I wanted to continue to grow. I think the opportunity was like a challenge for me,” Paniagua says, almost two decades later.
Now well into his third season as a coach after a 13-year playing career as a catcher, it’s easy to see how much Paniagua has grown as a person in nearly two decades in pro ball. Paniagua, who is fluent in English, thinks back to his early years as a minor-league player when he didn’t know any English at all and struggled to communicate with his teammates and coaches.
“I had people around me that said, ‘you need to start talking, you should start talking more,’” Paniagua says. “I used to hang out with all the pitchers and outfielders during BP (batting practice) and I started talking. I had good people to correct me when I would say something wrong and that’s how I learned. I’ve always been a quiet guy, never liked to go out too much. It was a big change for me [but] I got used to it.”
After years as the student, Paniagua now finds himself as the teacher helping current Pirates minor leaguers break through the Spanish-English language barrier. More than half a dozen native Spanish speakers have played for the Curve this season and many of them do not speak much English. Paniagua knows exactly what it’s like to be a young ballplayer from another country trying to learn a new language on the fly.
“My first time that a manager [of mine] was an American guy and he didn’t know how to speak Spanish, he said, ‘you need to learn how to speak English, it’s gonna be hard for you if you don’t speak English,’ and that’s the same with these guys,” Paniagua says, in reference to the Latin players in Altoona. “I always challenge them to speak [English]. I’ll always be there for them but I’m not gonna be there for every time [they need to speak English]. Sometimes I let them know they’re free to go and talk because that’s the way they’re going to get better, that’s the way they’ll learn a little bit and they’re still learning every day. I’m here to help them but I want to challenge them to get better with the language.
“Everything they say, even if they don’t say it correctly, it’s okay to say it, don’t be afraid to say it,” Paniagua continues. “One thing we’re using this year is don’t be afraid to make a mistake. If you’re thinking about making a mistake, you’re gonna make more. Just make it and you’ll learn from it. That’s the biggest thing that I like here, don’t be afraid to make a mistake because we’re all going to make [them] every day.”
Paniuagua’s guidance of the Curve’s Latin players alone makes him an incredibly valuable member of this team and coaching staff.
“To be honest with you, Panny has been the most versatile coach that I’ve ever had on a coaching staff,” says third-year Curve manager, Michael Ryan. “Being bilingual is such an advantage, especially because of all the Latin players that we have. It helps us be able to communicate with them, it helps us know that they understand what we’re trying to get them to do, because he can let them know.
“You can see how comfortable they (the Latin players) are when they come in those doors that they have somebody (Paniagua) they can rely on and a lot of the worries go away,” Ryan adds.
Paniagua’s value to the Curve goes way beyond his bilingualism. Ryan values players and coaches who can contribute to a team in multiple ways. He has exactly that in Paniagua.
“Not only what he does with the catchers, but offensively, coaching third base, he just knows all about the game so it just makes him so versatile and we’re lucky to have him,” says Ryan.
Paniagua spent the majority of his playing career as a catcher. After signing with the Red Sox in 2001, he played first four pro seasons in Boston’s farm system followed by parts of two seasons in the minors with the Mets. The Dominican native reached as high as Double-A with both organizations and played in the Eastern League with Portland (Red Sox) in 2007 and Binghamton (Mets) in 2008 and 2009.
But that wasn’t the end for Paniagua.
“Panny” went on to play parts of six seasons for the York Revolution in the Atlantic League, the highest level of independent ball. He hit .251 in 419 career games for the Revs from 2011-2016, was an Atlantic League All-Star selection in 2013 and most notably, was a key piece to York’s 2012 championship club. Three seasons after his last game in York, Paniagua is still the longest-tenured position player in team history.
Through it all, Paniagua’s experience on a baseball field made him an ideal coaching candidate following his playing days. But his role as a catcher more than anything was instrumental in his transition from player to coach.
“As a catcher you see the game, you have the game in front of you, you learn so much about pitching, hitting,” says Paniagua. “If you see the pitcher is having some trouble throwing strikes or if the hitter is having some trouble, swinging and missing, you behind the plate can see what’s going on.”
Paniagua’s work has meant so much to this year’s Curve team, specifically with catchers Arden Pabst and Jason Delay. The two backstops have combined to catch all but seven innings for the Curve in 2019 (Francisco Cervelli caught seven innings on MLB rehab on August 11) and both Pabst (fifth) and Delay (10th) rank among the league leaders in innings caught, with just three errors between them.
On the higher side of about a 55-45 percent split in playing time, Pabst has logged close to 600 innings and owns the fifth-best caught stealing rate in the league while Delay has been strong defensively in just over 500 innings. Maybe the best defensive duo in all of Double-A, Delay and Pabst have contributed at the plate as well. Delay, who represented the Curve in the All-Star Game in Richmond, hit .339 with 11 extra-base hits and 16 RBIs over 16 games in May. Meanwhile, Pabst’s hot stretch came when he hit .293 with nine extra-base hits and 13 RBIs over a 16-game stretch from May 15 through June 18.
Both players are quick to praise Paniagua for how he’s helped elevate their game.
“Sal’s just a great guy, he knows a lot about the game,” says Pabst. “The attitude he brings to the field every day is very contagious, positive energy. It’s been awesome to have him around and he’s willing to do anything for us, it’s awesome.”
“He’s seen just about any situation we could see. When we’re going through the game and a situation comes up, he’s always in our ear telling us what we could’ve done better and what we did well,” adds Delay, who previously worked with Paniagua when the two were with the Rookie-level Bristol Pirates in 2017.
Ryan echoes his catchers’ sentiments toward Paniagua.
“The way that they call a game, the numbers show how valuable and how important Panny is to them,” Ryan says. “He works hit butt off with those guys, and for them to apply what he’s trying to teach them into a game, it just shows you that Panny knows what he’s doing. He helps them with game-calling, receiving, blocking, throwing.”
In describing the most versatile coach he’s ever worked with, Ryan sums up “Panny” as best as anyone can: “He just does it all.”
And he’s doing it with his family by his side, supporting him on a life journey that started almost two decades ago back in 2001. Paniagua and his wife, who are from the same little town in the Dominican Republic, have been married for 13 years. The couple has four kids: a 10-year-old daughter and three sons, ages six, three and one. All five of them joined Sal in Altoona early on in the season and have been with him ever since. “Being with my wife and kids, they take me out when I start thinking too much. It’s good to have them here,” he says.
Just three years into his coaching career and almost two decades after inking his first pro contract, Paniagua is in a good place with the opportunity to add to a growing baseball legacy.
“I’m still learning every day, I have a long way to go. Especially this year, I’m learning a lot,” he says. “I love what I’m doing right now.”
Story by Michael Marcantonini, broadcaster and media relations assistant for the Altoona Curve, Double-A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates
Photo courtesy of Altoona Curve team photographer, Rob Lynn. Click here to check out his website.
-- That loss really stings. After Wil Lutz missed that 52-yard field goal which would’ve put the Saints up 9 points, I think all of Philadelphia thought the Eagles were going to win that game. They were driving, and everything was set up for that Nick Foles magic again.
-- You can’t even be mad at Alshon Jeffery. One drop from such a consistent receiver that happened to come at the worst time. He’s a good dude and he’s meant so much to the Eagles the past two years, while playing through injuries both seasons. And while we’re sticking with the “blame game” topic, I don’t know how you can hate on Jim Schwartz, either. His defense, which was incredibly banged up, held Drew Brees and the Saints to 20 points in the SuperDome!
-- It really hurts knowing that the last pass of Foles’ Eagles career could be that interception on the pass that went off/through Jeffery’s hands. That’s not how it was supposed to end. Brutal.
-- As for what Foles did the past two seasons, that’s probably the most fun I’ve had watching any Eagles player in my lifetime. Just incredible stuff that sometimes doesn’t feel real and is really hard to explain.
-- That being said, I truly believe Carson Wentz is the future of this franchise, just like most people do too, even after all Foles has accomplished. For Wentz doubters that turned pro-Foles/anti-Wentz this year, I guarantee they all believed in Wentz at one point too, so why not anymore? There’s also no point in being against either of these two guys, you can be pro-Foles AND pro-Wentz, and that’s how it should be.
-- If he gets the chance, Wentz is going to prove all of his doubters wrong next year and after that. He’ll almost be playing with house money next year because so many fans no longer believe in him as “the guy” moving forward. Wentz is going to dominate, and I think health-wise he’ll be fine moving forward.
-- Even if Foles had led the Eagles to another Super Bowl win this year (which would’ve been incredible and the best postseason run of all-time), I have to believe that would’ve been the ultimate peak of his career. At that point the Birds still maybe would’ve had to move on and commit to Wentz, knowing that it couldn’t possibly get any better with Foles than two straight rings.
-- This Wentz-Foles situation is in some ways, and in my opinion, like the Peyton Manning-Andrew Luck decision the Colts had to make in 2012. There are obviously serious differences: Manning was already a future HOF-er and Colts legend coming off a potentially career-threatening neck injury that cost him the entire 2011 season. The Colts had the #1 pick with arguably the best QB prospect (Luck) since Manning himself on the board. The Eagles situation involves a young, franchise QB getting hurt and a veteran backup taking over and becoming an Eagles legend while Wentz has dealt with two significant injuries. Very different. But there are also some similarities here. The Colts knew Manning was capable of coming back from his neck injury, but they also new it was better for the franchise long-term to draft Luck, commit to him as the franchise QB, and release Manning. The similarity for the Eagles is that they now have to RE-commit to Wentz as their franchise QB (because that was always the plan), while also still giving Foles the respect and recognition he’s earned. Foles is not Peyton Manning, and I’m not trying to say he is, but he’s meant as much to the Eagles franchise as Manning did to the Colts. I’m just saying there are SOME similarities to the Eagles’ current QB situation and what the Colts’ went through in 2012.
-- What will make this an easier decision for the Birds than some might think is simply dealing with two good people in Wentz and Foles. They’re both incredible human beings first and foremost before what they bring to the team as football players; they’ve handled this QB situation with class and they’ll continue to do that, regardless of how it plays out. The Eagles franchise and fanbase as a whole has been incredibly fortunate to have these two humble, supportive, team-first guys leading the way, because not all QB “controversies” or “dilemmas” or “situations” or whatever you want to call it play out this smoothly. Like Foles said in his post-game press conference yesterday, it’s a unique situation. But it’s unique in a GOOD way.
-- Speaking of Foles’ presser after that crushing loss... Wow, that was awesome. To be so poised and answer so many tough questions just minutes after taking off his No. 9 Eagles jersey for what could be the last time speaks volumes of his character and who he is. I’m so impressed--and have been for a while--by how he carries himself in interviews regardless of wins or losses. I can say the same thing about Wentz. But with Foles, man, he’s incredible. The ultimate professional who understands his situation and appreciates every opportunity he’s had. How can you not love this guy?!
-- Foles is an all-time Eagle and all-time Philly athlete. Whether that was his last game as an Eagle or not, his No. 9 should eventually be retired by the organization. And to be honest, I have so much confidence in Wentz moving forward that I believe he will eventually do enough to get his No. 11 retired retired as well.
-- Now… after everything I’ve said here about both QBs, if Foles AND Wentz are back next year, how awesome would that be?! From a franchise and long-term perspective, it’s unlikely and maybe just doesn’t make sense, but it’s a unique and rare situation, so you just never know. All I know is both are beloved in Philly, Foles more than Wentz because of what’s happened the past two years, but both are fan-favorites. These things often have a way of working themselves out.
By Michael Marcantonini
The Baseball Winter Meetings are about more than just the 30 Major League teams trying to improve their respective rosters with trades and free-agent signings. That’s the main goal of the meetings, but really, it’s an annual reunion of sorts with the entire baseball industry that allows executives, agents, scouts, broadcasters, writers, entrepreneurs, company representatives, and more to interact with each other.
Attendees make the most of the meetings by crossing off the tasks on their daily to-do list, but the true fun lies within unexpected interactions, and the latter is what led me to writing this story.
In between my busy schedule in Las Vegas in mid-December, I was able to connect with a couple employees from the Palo Alto, California-based startup company, Pando.
I found out about the company through Instagram and as a broadcaster and writer, I was interested in doing an interview to tell a story. As a fast-growing startup that’s already been featured in Sports Illustrated and Forbes’ ‘30 Under 30,’ they were interested in spreading the word about their business and getting the name out there. It was a good match, so we made it happen.
Pando is new, and the company’s main goal is to educate people on who they are and what they do. I sat down with executive assistant Skye Rankin and financial analyst Harris Stolzenberg for a crash-course on the venture-backed startup that’s looking to change the game financially for athletes, one ‘pando’ at a time.
What is Pando?
Even the casual baseball fan knows the game’s top stars make a ton of money, have the ability to live a lavish lifestyle, and have few financial worries. The same can be said to an extent for any established Major Leaguer, with the current Major League minimum annual salary at $555,000.
But what about the thousands of players grinding in Minor League Baseball every season who haven’t reached the Majors and may never get there? Money is a huge issue for those guys, with many of them collecting barely over $1,000 per month.
That’s why Pando exists. At the root of it, Pando is aiming to financially de-risk an athlete’s career (click this link to learn more).
“As people can see in the baseball world, there’s so much career volatility and that’s kind of our angle on this. There is such an issue in the professional baseball space where people are making less than minimum wage, and there’s not always the best chance to make the most (money),” Rankin says. “We decided that there is a way that we can pull together players with similar expected value and have them create a safety net for themselves and believe in themselves, the players that they’re with, and building a community around that.
“We allow the players to choose when they want to contribute, who is in their ‘pando’, and how much they want to contribute.”
The graphic below gives a more in-depth representation of an individual pando's structure.
Pando gives athletes the confidence to bet on themselves, knowing there’s a chance they might break the bank some day, while at the same time offering peace of mind in knowing that even if they don’t hit that big payday in the Major Leagues, which is more likely the case, there could still be a significant amount of money to fall back on from their individual ‘pando.’
Players don’t have to commit any of their career earnings before MLB arbitration (see above graphic), so players who never reach that point in their careers are not at risk of losing any money. Historical data has shown that the average player entering a pool has a 95.7 perfect chance of making money or breaking even.
Most of Pando’s clients are baseball players, but they’re already expanding into football as well. The Pando team is using data, numbers, and projections to prioritize their athletes’ futures and set them up for long-term financial stability in an industry that offers very little stability of any kind.
“I think the data is really what sets us apart,” Stolzenberg says. “You’ve seen these Major League teams in the past maybe five years, they’ve brought on their own data science teams, and I don’t think you’ve seen the rest of the baseball industry catch up to that yet, so what we’re doing is kind of putting data in the players’ hands for the first time.
“We have a team of data scientists that basically look at stats historically going back 20 years, and we’re able to predict with a pretty good degree of accuracy what we think a player might earn over the course of their career. When we show this to them, it’s pretty eye opening and they usually respond pretty well to it.”
Getting potential clients to trust this new type of financial game plan can be tough, but Pando has gotten encouraging responses so far.
“I think at first it was a challenge, because you know with anything new in sports people are skeptical,” Stolzenberg says. “I think athletes gets sold on these ideas every day, and it’s hard to decipher which ones are real and which ones aren’t, and I think as we’ve started to build up our client list, players have given us more credibility and they’ve seen kind of the value we’re able to provide. And as we kind of grow as a company and become more established, it gets easier and easier for players to really buy in to what we’re telling them.”
Like any startup, Pando doesn’t have the luxury of a big staff to lean on to get things done. Pando has only eight employees, including the company’s co-founders, Charlie Olson and Eric Lax, and all eight are exposed to different areas of the business, which Rankin notes is valuable to her.
“I’m able to see such growth from some of the first players that we signed on, to where we are now,” Rankin says. “When I started, there were maybe 50-60 baseball players, and now we have over 170 clients, which really drives me in my everyday work.”
What is the competition like?
With an idea and business model as new as Pando’s there isn’t too much direct competition for the startup to worry about right now, but there is competition, nonetheless. However, Pando is confident in its advantage over potential competitors.
“There are a couple companies that kind of play in the (same) space (as Pando). We think we’re very different,” Stolzenberg says. “The two companies that come up a lot are Big League Advance and x10 Capital, and what those companies do is that they offer a lump sum of money up front for a portion of a players’ future earnings. But the problem there is that they’re backed by institutional money, so hundreds of millions of dollars in these funds go to basically buy a percentage of these players’ income, and the issue there is their whole goal is to make money, which is fine, but to do that you have to offer players deals that are sub-optimal. They’re trying to buy a players’ future earnings cheap so that they earn a financial return on that.
“The cool thing about Pando is that we offer players their fair value. With Pando, you’re pooling with people who in an ideal world are of the same caliber as you, have the same chances of making it to the Big Leagues as you, so you’re not selling yourself short, whereas in a lot of these other deals with potential competitors you have to sell yourself short.”
The graphic below displays an example of how similarly rated players (in this case, top 50-100 MiLB prospects in 2003) can be grouped in a 'pando' and how each member of the group would have made out financially.
Pando is all about putting the players first, and Stolzenberg notes that the team “absolutely” breaks down how and why they’re different from competitors when they’re trying to sell themselves to a potential client.
Pitching the sames ideas to agents is key for Pando as well.
“All in all, we’re very friendly with agents,” Rankin says. “A big piece is just education and kind of just explaining our business model to them, and that’s the best that we (can) do.”
Helping players cash in on themselves in ways that didn’t seem possible before is a priority. Any advantage Pando gives its clients to do that in as cutthroat of an industry as professional baseball (and football) is what separates the startup group from its competition.
Part of that involves building true relationships with clients.
“I think the social component of what we do really sets us apart,” Stolzenberg says. “The fact that in one of those deals, let’s say you go on to make $100 million and you pay 10-million of those dollars to (another company). With us if you go on to make $100 million, that money is getting split up--that $10 million that you put into the pool--between guys who you put blood, sweat, and tears into it with them for your time in the minors. You know them, you’re helping them start their career, start a new life, whereas in these other deals (with competitors) that money goes to guys wearing suits who are just interested in a financial return.”
What else does Pando offer?
Unless you’re a top draft pick or highly regarded international signee with a substantial signing bonus, for example, a Minor League Baseball salary is not enough to live off of year-round. Minor-league contracts only run through the regular season (between five and six months), which leaves plenty of young pro baseball players looking for work and a way to make money the rest of the year.
The Pando team understands that and recently started its own internship program for its clients, which give athletes the opportunity to work for the startup during the baseball offseason.
“A couple agents kind of came to us and said, ‘we think what you’re doing is awesome, we’ve got a couple guys who are starting to plan their careers out after baseball,’ because they realize it would be great if they do make it to the Majors, but there’s also a non-zero chance that they’re looking at a job outside of baseball in a couple years. So we were like, yeah, we’d love to have a guy who’s crushing it at Triple-A come in the office and work with us,” Stolzenberg says.
Pando is turning heads in the baseball industry in multiple ways; Not only are they helping financially de-risk a player’s career, but they’re helping players figure out what’s next after baseball.
“So right now we’ve got one of those guys and we expose him to the whole business. We show him the financial side of it, we show him the baseball side of it, the football side, the data side, and it’s really great having someone who lives baseball day-to-day and having him in the office to bounce ideas off of,” Stolzenberg says. “I think what we’re providing him is professional experience, so if for some reason baseball doesn’t work out, he’s more prepared to go into the workforce down the road.”
Story by Michael Marcantonini
I tell people all the time that the best perks of working in baseball are the places I get to visit and the relationships I build with the people I meet along the way. Both held true during the past week, which I spent in Las Vegas, Nevada for the 2018 Baseball Winter Meetings.
Experiencing 'Sin City' for the first time was cool, hanging out with my 'baseball family' was even better. You see, when I refer to my 'baseball family,' I’m talking about the friends and colleagues that I’ve been fortunate enough to meet through this game.
Thanks to my mom, Angela, and the incredible power of social media, I had the pleasure of meeting (most of) the Dawson family. Some of you might know of them from eight-year-old Hailey Dawson’s 'Journey to 30' throwing out the first pitch with her robotic right hand at every Major League stadium.
Hailey, her mother, Yong, and brother, Zach, stopped by the Mandalay Bay hotel for a chat with me last Wednesday afternoon, and I quickly realized there’s something special about them.
“Baseball is our family,” Yong told me.
The Dawsons, who live in a suburb of Las Vegas, embarked on their 'Journey to 30' with the purpose of informing the world about Poland Syndrome while spreading hope and inspiration through baseball.
And they succeeded.
“Almost 100% of the people I’ve spoken to about Poland Syndrome when they asked what [Hailey] had, they didn’t know what it was. A lot of people know what it is now.
“She’s kind of been like the poster child for Poland Syndrome. There’s not really an organization nationally out there (for it). There are some Facebook support groups, and on those Facebook support groups they all know that she’s the one out there talking about it, getting it on national news that this is what she has, this is what people out there have,” Yong says.
Their journey wasn’t about seeing ballparks or meeting athletes and celebrities; It was about using a national platform to help people… to make a difference while accepting people’s differences.
A mission this large couldn’t be done alone, so the Dawsons took on the challenge as a group.
“From a family perspective, as a mom, it was something for us to get to do together as a family, and along the way we got to talk about Poland Syndrome, which is what [Hailey] was born with, and we got to talk about her robotic hand,” Yong says. “So the school, UNLV, who makes her hand, has already made other kids’ hands because of Hailey, because they saw Hailey. A couple kids locally and nationally, we’ve been in contact with some families who want the hand, so we’ve been able to direct them to go to schools where they’re near to get hands from those schools.”
Hailey used her robotic hand to throw her very first, first pitch at a Major League Stadium in August 2015 when she was five years old. Three years later, a ton of people involved in baseball know who she is. But most people don’t know much else about her and her family.
Hailey likes to draw, swim, dance, play T-ball, and watch her brother play baseball. She likes Taylor Swift and the Backstreet Boys. She's a big Vegas Golden Knights hockey fan. And she can 'dab' and 'floss' as good as any eight-year-old I’ve seen.
When I told Yong that I liked their family's Twitter profile picture of Hailey dabbing after throwing out a first pitch for the Royals, Hailey excitedly told me, “I dabbed because I threw a strike.” And how did it feel to have the crowd cheering for you? "Amazing," she said.
The Dawsons are Orioles fans thanks to Hailey and Zach’s father Greg’s mid-Atlantic roots, and Oriole Park at Camden Yards is where Hailey’s 'Journey to 30' began. When I asked Hailey who her favorite baseball player is, she responded, “Manny Machado,” without hesitation.
Her other favorite players are Las Vegas natives Kris Bryant and Bryce Harper, Anthony Rizzo, Jose Altuve, and Nate Schmidt, a defenseman from the NHL's Golden Knights. She has a denim jacket with all their numbers and team logos.
Hailey will also want you to know that if she can do something, then you can too.
“For her, it’s just all that self confidence and that boost of who she is,” Yong says. “She’s never really hid her hand from when she was born, but I don’t think she ever will.”
“Never!,” Hailey responds.
That vote of confidence is the backbone of Hailey and her family’s whirlwind journey across the Major Leagues.
“I want her to keep inspiring people. She doesn’t realize the impact of it (yet). I do as a mom. Someone like her, she can really inspire people. She may not get it right now, but she will eventually,” says Yong, before Hailey chimes in with “I do!,” getting a chuckle out of her mom.
Other kids have robotic hands because of her and people know about Poland Syndrome. Whether she gets it now or later, Hailey is undoubtedly making an impact. Her rise into the national spotlight has been so important because it’s happened for the right reasons.
When I asked Hailey what was her favorite part about her 'Journey to 30,' her answer was simple.
“I get to meet a lot of people,” she said.
Hailey has made a direct impact on a countless number of people she’s met, especially kids living with Poland Syndrome, so I asked which interactions stood out the most.
Yong thought of one right away.
“The first actual person [Hailey] ever met with Poland Syndrome was at the [Texas] Rangers game. His name is Austin, he’s 12. We had communicated on Facebook, his mom and me, and she said she was going to come down to the game. We had two extra tickets, so they were able to come on the field with us and he was able to meet some ball players too. He had just gotten his robotic hand, and he got his because his mom saw [Hailey’s] story the year before. I told her to reach out to Oklahoma University engineering and she did, and they ended up building him a hand,” Yong said.
How about interactions with players? Hailey mentioned Bryant, as well as his Cubs’ teammate, Rizzo, whom she adores.
“We didn’t get to see Rizzo at the Cubs game. We saw Rizzo when she was pitching for the Brewers and they were playing the Cubs, and he came over during batting practice,” Yong said. “At the World Series last year he got the Roberto Clemente Award, so he was at an event that we were at and spent a few hours with Hailey just hanging out and playing ball and stuff with the Play Ball event, so we saw him at the World Series last year and then when she pitched for the Brewers, [the Cubs] were having batting practice and he came over and he asked her, ‘Hi Hailey, do you remember me?’”
Yong later told me that for Hailey, seeing Rizzo at Miller Park after meeting him at the World Series “meant the world to her.”
How many eight year olds have Major League All-Stars asking if they remember them? It shows how fast Hailey has captured the hearts of so many… and counting.
After we finished our interview I brought the Dawsons through the Mandalay Bay hotel to check out the MLB Network set, which Zach and Hailey really wanted to see. Right before the on-air crew was preparing to go live, Mark DeRosa and Ken Rosenthal stopped by to chat.
“DeRo” was happy to take a picture with Hailey, but he wanted to know if she wanted to take one with him. That’s how it goes when you’re an eight-year-old celebrity. Then it was Ken’s turn.
“I would be honored to take a picture with you,” Rosenthal said.
But we weren’t done, and I was loving every minute of it.
On the way out, Yong spotted a friend: Brewers minor-league infielder, Jake Hager, another Las Vegas native.
“We gotta get a picture!,” he said after a hug. Then as we were ready to part ways, Jake added, “Can I have another hug?”
Wow, that was awesome. And it all happened within the span of about 20 minutes.
I asked Zach what it’s like to see his sister put smiles on so many faces.
“It’s really cool,” he said, just like any big brother would. _____
Whether people personally know Hailey and the rest of the Dawson family, or they just know of them, their story has spread across social media, mainly through their family’s Instagram account @haileys_hand, which took the country by storm during the 'Journey to 30' tour and currently has almost 11,000 followers.
Yong doesn’t know too much about social media, but she knows simply getting their story out there means something.
“I don’t know who sees it, but if it inspires one person, that’s enough for me,” she says.
And keeping their story going is a priority, literally.
“We’re talking about writing a kids’ book with Hailey’s best friend and her first-grade teacher, who is her best friend’s mom. She likes art, so something to do with that. We want to be able to touch other kids so they can be inspired and they can learn to accept diversity and difference.
“There’s about 700 kids that go to her school and nobody says anything to her. If they do, she has a group of friends that all kind of defend her and tell people, ‘this is what she has, it is what it is, she was born with it.’ They’ve all kind of accepted it. Now as she gets older, it’s going to be different because kids can be cruel as they get older. I think as she gets older, that confidence will keep building, that she can deal with this stuff and know how to deal with it,” Yong says.
The purpose of the book is clear, but what will its theme and plot be? Yong has some ideas.
“It’s going to be about a kid that has different hands, and each hand will have a different thing that it can do. If someone is being bullied she can put on her red hand and that’s the red hand that deals with bullying, and the green hand will do something else,” Yong says. “That’s what I envision so that kids can read this book and [know] that Hailey’s out there with this hand and she can help solve problems at her age, and be a kid who can inspire others to look at it this way.”
You never know what someone is going through on a daily basis or what challenges they live with. Hailey and her family are passing along that message on a national landscape.
At eight years old, Hailey is showing the world there’s no age restriction on inspiring someone, spreading hope, and making a difference.
The Dawsons have inspired people on a daily basis for quite some time now, and they’re just getting started… you can bet on that.
“What we’re trying to do is learn to accept,” Yong says. “I want people to look at her and go, ‘hey, if she can do that, there’s hope for the rest of us.’”
Story by Michael Marcantonini
Special thank you to the Dawson family for taking the time to do this interview!
Photo credits to Yong Dawson, check out her website here
The Phillies’ two biggest defensive problems heading into 2019 are shortstop and left field. Rhys Hoskins playing left field is a clear issue, but that can easily be solved by moving him back to first base where he belongs and letting an actual outfielder play left. Solving the shortstop problem isn’t nearly as easy.
The Phillies have a ton of money to spend this offseason with franchise-changing free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado the top targets. I prefer Harper for a variety of reasons, with one being that Machado wants to play shortstop even though he's a better defender at third base. Assuming just for this article’s purpose that the Phillies land Harper, it will likely cost over $300 million, so they’ll need to be more economical in filling holes at other positions, especially shortstop.
Enter Jose Iglesias, who has been an elite defender and solid hitter since his first big-league season in 2013 with the Red Sox and Tigers.
In 2018, Iglesias was 9th in Range Factor (3.80) and sixth in overall fielding percentage (.983), only .04% behind league-leader Didi Gregorious in that category. Iglesias leads active Major Leaguers in career fielding percentage with a .985 mark as a shortstop, and led the American League in 2016 and 2017. Meanwhile, Scott Kingery was last among the 23 qualifying shortstops in range factor (2.93) and 15th in fielding percentage (.975) during his rookie season in 2018, according to MLB.com.
Fielding percentage isn’t the best stat to showcase a player’s impact though, so here are a couple better ones. Among all Major League shortstops since 2013, Iglesias is 3rd in Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) at 37.1 and 4th in Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) with 5 according to fangraphs, and has had a positive defensive WAR every year of his career. The DRS number might look low, but Iglesias is one of only 10 shortstops with a positive DRS since 2013, which shows he’s been a Top-10 defensive shortstop for half a decade.
He's also one of the best in the business when it comes to making the highlight-reel play.
Shortstop is the most important of the four infield positions (excluding catcher) and Iglesias can flat-out pick it. The Phillies need stability there and it’s not a position you see playoff and championship teams use as a platoon, like the Phillies did last season at times. With power coming from other positions on the diamond (especially if they sign Harper), the Phillies should commit to a defense-first everyday shortstop.
But it’s not like Iglesias is a liability with the bat. He hit .269 with a .310 on-base percentage in 2018, in line with his career averages of .270 and .315, respectively. He also posted a .699 OPS, his highest mark since his All-Star 2015 season. Iglesias' .269 batting average would have been second-highest among Phillies' qualifiers in 2018, just a tick below Maikel Franco's team-leading .270 mark.
Iglesias doesn’t walk a lot (his career-high is 28) and he’s not a prototypical top-of-the-order hitter, but he’s never struck out more than 65 times in a season and has whiffed 50 times or less in each of his last four seasons. That’s a really underrated bonus to signing Iglesias in an era where strikeouts are at an all-time high. For comparison, gold-glove-caliber shortstop and former Phillie Freddy Galvis has struck out over 100 times each of the last four seasons, including a career-high 147 in 2018, with a career .290 on-base percentage.
Iglesias is a more reliable hitter and although he isn’t on Galvis’ level defensively anymore, he can be close to it when he’s healthy. Injuries have plagued Iglesias in the past, including last season with an abdominal strain and in 2014 when he missed the entire season with shin fractures. But he’s played in at least 120 games each year since 2015, including a career-high 137 in 2016.
Iglesias can slide right in as the Phillies’ everyday shortstop, replacing Kingery, who manned the 6-hole in 2018 mainly out of necessity.
The Phillies wouldn’t have guaranteed Kingery $24 million and bought out arbitration years before he made his MLB debut if they didn't project him as a cornerstone piece of this franchise. He's just not going to be that guy as a shortstop. Kingery is a second baseman and, like Hoskins, belongs at his natural position for the best interests of both himself and the Phillies.
JP Crawford is another option at shortstop, but the former first-round pick hasn’t shown much with the bat. At the same time, neither has Kingery, but again, the Phillies have already committed to Kingery long-term and giving him a full season at second base could change things. Crawford looks like he can help the Phillies more as a utility player in 2019, splitting time between short, third and second, getting spot starts and being used as a late-game defensive replacement for Carlos Santana at third base, for example.
Iglesias is a good fit because you know what you’re getting: an elite defender with a serviceable bat who has playoff experience, and it won’t break the bank to sign him. At 29 years old he’s not “young” by today’s standards, but he’s young enough to be worth a three/four-year deal and still be a veteran presence as a seven-year Major Leaguer.
By pairing him with the team's current core and other incoming free-agents, Iglesias is the type of player who can quietly help elevate the Phillies from a pretender to a contender. The Phillies should make this free-agent signing happen.
Story by Michael Marcantonini
Throughout the 2018 MLB Postseason, I'll share my thoughts on a specific game or series. Instead of sending out a series of tweets or writing long, in-depth articles, I'll stick to a series or short breakdowns in bullet form. Stay tuned all October for my takes and feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section. Enjoy. -- Michael Marcantonini
Throughout the 2018 MLB Postseason, I'll share my thoughts on a specific game or series. Instead of sending out a series of tweets or writing long, in-depth articles, I'll stick to a series or short breakdowns in bullet form. Stay tuned all October for my takes and feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section. Enjoy. -- Michael Marcantonini
PASADENA, Ca. -- Two minutes. That’s all it took for the entire game to change, for all the momentum to slip away. In one of the best games in Rose Bowl history, and the highest scoring, Penn State came up just short.
Two minutes away from being Rose Bowl champions. Instead, when the clock hit triple zeros the Nittany Lions were the team that squandered a 10-point lead in their biggest game of the season, not the team celebrating on the podium and hoisting the hardware.
And that’s how the season ends, with the one that got away. That’s how it ends in a season in which Penn State played its best and made all the right plays when it mattered most—in the fourth quarter and the closing minutes.
“For all these guys in this locker room, we’re together every day at practice, in the weight room. You want to win it for them. For us to climb back like we did and not finish like we know we can, it hurts,” sophomore quarterback Trace McSorley said after the Nittany Lions 52-49 loss to USC.
But in crushing defeat, the Nittany Lions can hold their heads high, and that’s exactly what they’ll do.
“This whole team all year has been about heart and been about effort, we never bailed out when we got down,” McSorley said. “There’s been so many times this year where we’ve gotten down big early and we’ve clawed back, kept fighting, kept fighting, and just that resilience all year, that’s probably what I’m most proud of this team.”
McSorley, who completed 18 of his 29 passes for 254 yards and 4 touchdown passes, and also ran for a touchdown, was exceptional for most of the game. But after also throwing three interceptions in the contest, including his last with about 30 seconds left in the game that led to USC’s game-winning field goal as time expired, the quarterback was hard on himself and his performance.
Despite the somber mood, McSorley plans to flip the script on the rough outcome and take it in stride moving forward in his career.
“[We’re] really just using this emotion, this pain that we feel right now as a team, [to] use that as our motivating factor for next season,” McSorley said.
Junior wide receiver Chris Godwin, who hauled in a season-high nine catches for 187 yards and two touchdowns, echoed McSorley’s positive outlook on Penn State’s Rose Bowl loss.
“I’m incredibly proud of my guys,” Godwin said. “We fought all year long, and for us to be on a stage such as the Rose Bowl and to put up the points that we did and play the game that we did, it’s a testament to our hard work throughout the offseason, a testament to our coaches and just the resilience of our entire team. I couldn’t be more proud of my guys.
“To be a part of this team that brought Penn State back into national prominence, it’s an unbelievable honor,” Godwin said.
Senior center and captain Brian Gaia ends his career as a key member of the team that helped bring Penn State football back, and he believes the teammates and coaches he leaves behind will continue to grow the program.
“We never really thought we’d be here when we committed and stuck through the sanctions and everything, but now that it’s happened it couldn’t feel more right,” Gaia said. “I’m proud of all the guys in this room, they’re gonna keep building and send us out the right way.”
Being one of the youngest teams in the country, Penn State will return almost its entire 2016 roster next season, including tight end Mike Gesicki and linebacker Jason Cabinda, who have already announced they will return for their senior seasons.
McSorley will be back. Sophomore running back Saquon Barkley, who ran for 194 yards and two touchdowns in the game, including a 79-yard score, will be back. Head coach James Franklin will be back, and may sign a contract extension.
At a time when it’s almost impossible to look toward the future and not dwell on the current heartbreaking loss and the “what ifs”, this Penn State team knows they’ve had a great run and made a lot of people proud.
11 wins, a nine-game winning streak after a 2-2 start, a Big Ten Championship title and a Rose Bowl appearance will go in the books as an incredible season, especially in a season in which most fans were just praying for six wins and a bowl game.
Football is more than just a game, and this Penn State team made that clear.
“It’s just gonna be all the relationships with these guys, you know. All those late nights doing nothing but just hanging out with each other at our house, or stuff like that, just being in this locker room are the things I’m gonna miss the most,” Gaia said.
There’s no shame in defeat, especially when you fight like Penn State did all season, and all night in a Rose Bowl game that will go down as a classic between two elite teams.
The Nittany Lions didn’t finish the job this season, but they have a lot to hang their hats on, a lot of reasons to hold their heads high.
“It’s been a long ride, it’s been a long season for us. We’ve had our ups, we’ve had our downs, but at the end of the day, these are my brothers and I couldn’t be more proud of these guys and how they fought all year,” Godwin said. “I’m grateful to be a part of this.”
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