Toregas Is In The Zone
Indians catching prospect Wyatt Toregas is "in the zone". You know, when the ball looks like a beach ball and everything they hit is right on the screws and finds a line, a gap, or goes over the fence for a home run. Akron fans saw this happen for about a month with outfielder Trevor Crowe, and for the last three weeks it looks like the baton has been passed onto Toregas.
"Yeah, this is probably the best stretch I have ever had," said Toregas this past week in Akron. "I hope it keeps going because it is fun right now. I am not a big power guy, but just lately I am getting pitches to hit and I am not missing them. It makes it awesome. I am having a really good time right now and got a bunch of guys in here that are fun to play with and be around. This team is awesome. It is fun to show up everyday and hang out and kick some [butt] during the game."
Toregas should be having fun as he is on a power and extra base hit binge that is quite uncharacteristic for him in his career. Coming into the season, Toregas had 26 career minor league home runs and a .395 slugging percentage in 341 career games. From June 24th to July 11th, a span of 16 days and 11 games played, Toregas did not hit a single in any game, but he still hit .342 (12-for-35) as he piled up five doubles and seven home runs. He racked up a ridiculous 1.086 slugging percentage and 1.520 OPS in those 11 games. His streak came to an end last night when he "only" went 2-for-4 with a double and single.
"I know that I have like six home runs in the past seven days or something like that, and I feel every other hit I have has been a double and I don't think I have had any singles," recalled Toregas. "I don't know, I don't normally hit like that but things are just rolling my way right now and I am feeling pretty good at the plate."
And rolling he is. After being reassigned from Triple-A Buffalo to Double-A Akron on June 19th, Toregas has taken the demotion in stride. Instead of sulking he has come out on a mission and smacked the ball over the place. In 18 games at Akron, Toregas is hitting .333 (20-for-60) with 15 of those 20 hits for extra bases. He also has eight home runs and 25 RBI in those 18 games, and combined with the two home runs he hit in Buffalo earlier in the year his home run total of ten on the year is a career high with two months of the season still left. His efforts last week won him Eastern League Player of the Week honors for the week ending July 6th.
His success at the plate is a far cry from where he was at in Buffalo. In 50 games (219 at bats), Toregas only hit .219 with two home runs, 25 RBI and a .610 OPS. He was performing so bad, the Indians actually passed him up for a promotion to Cleveland when Victor Martinez went on the disabled list a month ago because Toregas was just not ready.
Toregas knows he blew an opportunity to reach his big league dream, and is determined to not let that happen again. As for his issues in Buffalo, for various reasons he just could never get his season going and never really felt comfortable in the box while he was up there. He is certainly disappointed with his performance there, but acknowledges that it is an experience he can learn from.
"I don't know [what happened in Buffalo]," said Toregas. "I haven't really changed much [here in Akron]. There is a little bit of a difference from level to level, but not to the point where my numbers should change as much as they have. I just think I hit a rough road there and I am coming out of it now. I feel a lot better where I am going now compared to where I was then. It is a little harder to play early in the year, and it is starting to heat up now and I am starting to feel better. It's tough when you go home and you think about two months of your life, is it going to determine your career? Well, no, but baseball is such a "what can you do for me now" sport. I just wasn't getting the job done earlier, whereas now I am feeling better. Yeah, I am disappointed, but I mean it is a full season and you gotta play the whole thing and see how it all looks in the end. I am trying to finish strong, and hopefully the .220 or whatever I hit the first two months can be countered by the .300 I hope I can hit the rest of the way out. I just gotta keep working hard and hope that at the end of the year everything is where it is supposed to be."
It is quite possible the pressure of landing on the Indians 40-man roster in the offseason may have had some affect on his play. To some, it was a surprise that Toregas was rostered in the offseason. Toregas himself was even somewhat surprised (and of course happy about it). The Indians ended up leaving outfielder Brian Barton unprotected, and he was promptly picked up by St. Louis in the Rule 5 Draft as a result and is still playing with the big league team to date hitting .246 with two home runs and 11 RBI in 122 at bats (63 games).
There was a lot of negative talk among fans about the Indians decision to roster Toregas over Barton, but with a roster already overstuffed with outfielders it was the right call to roster Toregas. For those angry with that decision, what the Indians actually should have probably done was trade or release one of David Dellucci or Jason Michaels to clear a spot for Barton. With only two catchers on the 40-man roster, Toregas filled a need. Plus, he was exactly the kind of catcher a team would have taken a shot at in the Rule 5 Draft, which is a backup catcher who is a defensive specialist that can hit a little bit.
"I think anybody who gets put on [the 40-man roster] is surprised, no matter how good you are," said Toregas. "Just because the Indians are so rich in talent at the lower levels. I mean you look at Brian Barton, people were saying Brian should have been on over me, and I can't say that they are wrong or right. He is in the major leagues right now and it just shows you that you are going to make it if you are going to make it. But, catchers are hard to come by, and I do offer a lot of things from the defensive side. It's the way it works out and the way the game goes, certain guys get put on and it doesn't really mean anything until you get to the major leagues anyway."
Toregas is an excellent defensive catcher. He can control a running game with throws that average out at 1.85 seconds to second base, which is much better than the major league average of 2.0 seconds. Toregas is the best defensive catcher in the Indians system, and he has been ranked as the best defensive catcher in the league he played in the last two years. He moves well behind the plate, handles a pitching staff well, and calls a good game. He is an outstanding leader, and he will fight to the very end.
Defense has always been his bread and butter as a player since he was in Little League, and it will be his specialty when he gets to the big leagues.
"Right now the thing that seems to keep me afloat and rolling is my defense," said Toregas. "I am able to throw a lot of guys out, I feel like I work well with the pitchers, and I always give them a very good opportunity to win a game and keep our team in a game. I still need to work on some things there, but the defense is really what kind of gets me a job and keeps people interested. If I can hit consistently, then I will be right where I need to be."
Toregas is an ideal backup big league catcher, maybe even a starter someday. But for now, with Victor Martinez manning the catching spot in Cleveland for the foreseeable future his best chance at breaking in with the Indians is as a backup catcher. He has a tough job ahead of him in replacing current backup catcher Kelly Shoppach, but things this offseason may play out to where it will give Toregas a legitimate shot at the backup catching job in Cleveland sometime next season. Perhaps even to start the season.
Right now though, the key for Toregas is to get a little more consistent with his bat. He has some pop, especially pull side. Toward the end of last season Toregas learned to hit the ball to right field and made strides in using the whole field, and he became a good situational hitter moving runners.
"I have my times where offensively I can actually really do well," said Toregas. "If I can get to the point where I can be consistent with that, with what I bring to the field defensively I can actually be a really stand out defensive catcher that can hit a little bit. I think I am starting to get better at it. Last year I had some trouble with some injuries, I was in and out of the lineup, so it was really hard to get something consistent going. I think the Indians kind of recognized that, and that is one of the reasons why even though I was hitting .250 I was able to get on the 40-man roster."
One of the things that has helped Toregas get his offense going is the return of some familiar faces for him. Hitting Coach Lee May Jr. worked with him all last year in Akron, and manager Mike Sarbaugh has now had Toregas for parts of three different seasons. If anyone in the Indians player development system knows Toregas and how do get him going again, it is these two.
"When he first came down, Lee had him all last year and I had him for three years before from rookie ball up through Kinston," said Sarbaugh. "We noticed a little something in his setup in his stance that we had not seen before. Lee has been working with him trying to get him to spread out more and use the whole field. I just think he started to hit a few balls well early on, and now his confidence is really good and he feels good at the plate. So hopefully it can continue."
The small adjustments have worked so far, and Toregas has taken off. His goal for the remainder of the season is to finish strong, be it in Akron, Buffalo or Cleveland, and re-establish the value to the Indians that they felt was so important to protect last offseason.
"I am working with Lee here, and he has seen me play a couple years and he is helping me get back to where I ended last year," said Toregas. "Last year I ended pretty strong offensively. I am starting to feel more comfortable, and I am hoping I can finish out the year real strong here and kind of get my name get back on the map offensively."
"It's a tough game."
Photos courtesy of Carl Kline