Recently, Josh Norris and I sat down with Yankees pitching coordinator Nardi Contreras.
For a really, really long time.
Q: Where have you been so far this season?
A: I started the season off with the Empire State Yankees, where it was a lot of cold and bad weather. The 30s, rain, some snow, wind. It wasn’t pretty.
Q: So you’re happy to be here, is what you’re saying?
A: Well, Erie (the Thunder’s second stop on their road trip) was pretty ugly too, pretty freezing. Yesterday here was pretty nice, last night got nippy.
Q: So how hard is it for guys to pitch in awful weather like that?
A: It’s really tough. Warren’s first game was in that cold. D.J., it was freezing the day he pitched. Manny wasn’t good. Dellin (was) for the first two or three innings and then he wasn’t (good), so it seemed like everybody was having problems with that weather, and the scores let you know it.
Q: Do you think the cold contributed to Manny’s injury?
A: I would think that. It was a lat muscle. It was hard to stay warm. I know that when we’re in the stands and he’s doing charts, he was freezing. He was just shivering all over the place, and that was just sitting in the stands. When you’re out on the mound, it just makes it tough.
Q: Is there a way to better prepare them for that stuff?
A: Spring training is in Florida, how can you prepare them? You’ve just got to hope for real warm weather (when the season starts).
Many years ago, when I started doing this for the Yankees, my first stop was Trenton. It was in the 30s, windy, and I said ‘I’m never going to do that again,’ so every year after that I would start at Tampa, Charleston, somewhere warm.
Now, with my new scheduling I’ve (only) got Triple-A, Double-A and the Dominican Republic, that’s all I’m doing, so I had to start up north anyway.
Q: Who’s going to be in charge of watching Tampa and Charleston?
A: Greg Pavlick, who’s our rehab coordinator, he’s going to take care of that for me. I still talk to the pitching coaches and stuff, but I don’t have to go visit.
Q: What role does the cold weather play in dictating his assignment or whether he gets promoted here at some point early in the year?
A: It doesn’t. Toronto, they don’t send their best pitching prospects to (Triple-A) Vegas. They send them to this league because of how crazy it is there. What can you do? Are you going to send all your best guys to Tampa and Charleston when they should be at the higher levels? That’s not going to happen.
We’ve got lot of young, real good pitching at younger baseball, so you just deal with it. Warren, now, he’s pitching well. D.J., last time out he pitched eight shutout innings, so it’s real warm. I think Rick Down (Yankees hitting coordinator) just came from there and said it was 80 degrees.
Q: With Warren, which of his secondary offerings has improved the most?
A: His change-up is really, really good. His curveball was a tremendous improvement this spring training. I think it was a major league average-quality pitch, so that’s improved, and he’s always had the slider. The change-up came first, and now the curveball has come.
Q: I assume improving those offerings are what he needs to do get himself to the next level?
A: He may be a starting pitcher for some other organization right now. Noesi’s a No. 3 guy in Seattle, and he would have been our No. 5 here if everything had stayed the same.
Q: How far has D.J. Mitchell’s change-up come?
A: D.J. Mitchell’s change-up has always been good, from Tampa days. He’s just more in command of it now, so he had the pitch from his Tampa days. He didn’t have it when he first signed. Once he got to Tampa he really developed the change-up.
The command of it (has improved), same thing now with command of his curveball. Now we’re waiting on the command of his fastball. Once he commands his fastball to go with his other two pitches, he’s going to help us in the big leagues.
Q: In terms of big-league readiness, when you compare Mitchell and Warren, is there someone who has an edge right now?
A: David Phelps is there now. He’s ahead of them, and he’s pitching really well, and then we’ve got Mitchell and Warren. As a starter, if we need a starter, it’s going to be one of those two. (If there’s a decision to be made), I’ll just tell them what I feel and what I saw, but it’s hard to tell them what I saw because the weather was so bad.
Q: Is it safe to say that better command set Phelps apart from Mitchell and Warren in big league camp?
A: He commands four pitches. His curveball was the last to come, just like Warren. He was predominantly a slider guy in college, so that’s come, and he’s always been a strike thrower.
Q: How do you project how well a guy will fare in the big leagues based on what you see in the minors?
A: It’s just command of their pitches. Do they have pitches to get major league hitters out, and can they repeat their delivery to be able to command those pitches? Of course David Phelps leads the three. Warren is pretty close to doing that — he was the last guy cut, I believe.
Q: Have you guys changed the way you assign workloads for your prospects? I’m noticing more 90-pitch counts for the Thunder rotation this April.
A: It’s all depending on how many pitches we get them to in spring training. If a pitcher goes out and he has a pretty good outing, and there’s no rain — it’s all about weather and how they pitch that day. He may have 50 pitches (suggested), but if he throws 38 or 39 in the first inning, that might be the end of what he does. He’s going to have to hit that 50 level again (in his next outing).
Q: I ask because I saw, in a two-game stretch, Shaeffer Hall pulled after 70 when he was cruising, and then Brett Marshall left in for 90 when he was getting hit around.
A: Marshall was in major league camp, so he was at 50 pitches when he came to us. So we started him at 65 and not 35. Those are things that happen.
Q: Have you seen Marshall this season?
A: I saw him just the other day, and he was very good, so hopefully he repeats that outing.
Q: What do you like about him?
A: He has an air about himself and he attacks the zone, great power change-up, sinks the ball, and now his slider has improved.
Q: He’s said he’s adding a curveball around June or July. What do you want that to add to his overall game?
A: A fourth pitch, as a get-me-over, so he doesn’t have to use his change-up and slider, which are the two better-quality pitches, earlier in the count. So instead of throwing all fastballs or throwing that slider or change-up first pitch, he can throw that curveball first pitch. Or if he gets to 1 ball, no strikes, he can the curveball in that count. It just gives him a fourth pitch that hitters will have to think about.
Q: With Pat Venditte, how unique a challenge is that for you, to take an ambidextrous pitcher and try to develop him for the major leagues? In other words, how long does it take to develop two arms?
A: It’s just using it, that’s all it is. I’m ambidextrous. I’ve got an inning in pro ball left-handed. I’ve played outfield and first base in pro ball left-handed. I grew up doing it. I didn’t pitch much doing it. I was a switch-hitter and a switch-pitcher.
My catcher growing up, who went to the big leagues for the Cardinals, Giants and Expos, John Tamargo, was my No. 3 hitter — I was the No. 4 hitter — and he was the same way, ambidextrous and a switch-hitter.
Q: So how’d you develop that ability?
A: Just growing up doing it with my father. Since I pitched a lot, he saw a lot of power in my right arm, so he said ‘Let’s use your left arm so you can play other positions,’ and a lot of practice. That’s what Venditte had to do too. His power arm is his right arm and he tricks them with his left hand.
Q: How long did it take you to believe you were going to be able to do things ambidextrously?
A: I don’t that. I screwed up my son growing up. He was a lefty, a complete left-hander, and I know (because I’m) in professional baseball, what they’re going to see in a left-hander, and maybe with my genes, they’re going to put him on the mound, so I changed my son from a lefty to righty so that he could play baseball completely right-handed.
He’ll shoot right-handed and left-handed in basketball, golf lefty-righty. He’ll write left-handed. It’s funny how does things with both hands, but that was the practice growing up.
Q: How difficult, then, is it for Pat not to just rely on his power arm or focus on it. Would it benefit him to focus on one arm?
A: His arm is his power arm, but it’s not a powerful arm. It’s a tick below average. But he kind of tricks guys from the right-hand side, but he’s got more velo from the right side than the left side. He still does some things right-handed that he does left-handed, but he’s got more power with the right hand.
Q: Could he a big league pitcher with both arms?
A: Yeah he can, but he’s got to be in command, that’s the key. Guys who are not blessed with that 94, 95, 96, they’ve got to be able to pitch a lot more, a lot better, than someone who doesn’t have that power.
Q: You mentioned earlier that you’ve got a lot of arms coming from the lower levels. Who might the Thunder see, if everything goes right and there’s space, toward the second half of this year?
A: There’s a kid named Turley, there’s a kid named Nuding, there’s a kid named Pinder. Those three are on the top of my mind. Ramirez, he’s got a power arm with great stuff, Dominican kid. One day, if it clicks, there’s no limit.
Nuding’s big power, Turley’s a lefty — 6-5, curveball, downhill, sinks it. His velo’s come up now from where it was as a young kid. We’ve got Shane Greene also at Tampa, who’s throwing the ball really well. He’s mid-90s guy, slider, change-up, hard sinker. It’s just being consistent, that’s all.
Q: Did you see Campos at all?
A: I saw him in spring training. He’s a guy that, when we make changes, he’ll probably go to Tampa, when Turley or Nuding or both or whatever we’ve got going there (come to Trenton).
Q: To go back to something you mentioned earlier, you said that Marshall needs to get the slider before he gets the curveball. What does he need to do to refine the slider enough?
A: Use of it, that’s all. He likes to go with his two fastballs — four-seam, two-seam — and he puts that slider in the back. Well, we’ve spent time in the bullpen with the slider.
We know he has the change-up, we know he has both fastballs, but needs to develop that slider and the use of it and how to use it. He used it a few times that last outing there in Erie when I watched him, but not always at the right time. There’s not only right times, but right locations. Those are things that he’s got to learn how to do with that slider.
Q: You saw Romanski yesterday, yes?
A: Romanski was pretty good. He had that rough first inning, but with his new (arm) slot, he had one left-hander face him, and he made that left-hander look ugly. That’s the key to Romanski. He’s a situational-type pitcher in the big leagues. He has that slot, he can sink it, he has a change-up, he has a cutter that he can throw against right-handers, and he has that hard breaking ball to lefties. Strikes, getting consistency with that new slot of his, and he’s got the breaking ball to go with it.
Q: When you have to change arm slots as a pitcher, is that something that he organization tells him to do, and how do you get him to buy into the change?
A: That is something I asked him to do last year, and he really wasn’t very sure about using it last year. He came to spring training sure that he probably could do it. I gave him reasons why — I always give these guys reasons — and he’s capable of doing it. Not everybody’s capable of making those changes. I couldn’t tell Dellin Betances, let’s become a submariner, he couldn’t do that. You’ve got to know the pitcher and what are the upsides and what are the downsides when you make these suggestions for them, not for us, for them.
Q: If a guy’s come over the top his whole career, how difficult is to make him go to, say, high three-quarters or even sidearm?
A: It’s the individual. Everybody’s different, so some guys will take on (the challenge). Some guys, you say, it’s not going to work, so don’t even try it. You’ve got to hope he makes something out of what he’s at, and that’s it. Some guys — Romanski was an outfielder, he was an outfielder, he did some things — I know if I asked him to drop down submarine, he’s capable, because he’s limber enough to do that stuff.