Dante Bichette Jr. and Cito Culver back for second stint in CharlestonOne year wiser, the Yankees top picks in 2010 and 2011 hope to hit their stride in 2013
One year later, the Yankees used their first round pick on a baseball legacy, third baseman (and former Little League World Series participant) Dante Bichette, Jr., putting together an infield that could grow together for years to come as they headed toward the Bronx.
The trio first hooked up in Staten Island at the tail end of 2011 as part of a squad (which also featured Mason Williams, Tyler Austin, Mark Montgomery, and Vidal Nuno, among others) that won the New York-Penn League title, and they all reunited last year at Class-A Charleston.
This year, however, things are a little different; Gumbs has moved up a level to Tampa, but after tough first seasons in the SAL, Bichette and Culver are back in Charleston once again, looking to prove that they, too, deserve to continue to rise through the ranks.
Though they were chosen out of high school, it still may seem strange on paper that two players as highly regarded as Bichette and Culver would struggle and have to repeat Low-A, especially in an age where fellow high schoolers and 2010-11 draftees like Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and Jose Fernandez have already made their way to the Majors.
In reality, however, 2012 was more of a learning experience for Bichette and even Culver, with the former – who grew up around the game and has been in the spotlight for almost a decade – admitting he truly didn’t know the grind of professional baseball until last summer.
“Last year was my first full season, so I learned how long the season really is, but now that I’ve been through it once, I know how to handle it,” Bichette said in Spring Training. “The energy level you have to bring every day can’t be too high or too low, and I think the biggest part is just having a daily consistent routine.”
Bichette’s numbers tell that tale of stamina the hard way, as he hit .342 in 52 Gulf Coast League games his rookie year en route to being named GCL MVP and started 2012 by hitting .262 over the first two months in Charleston. However, he tailed off in the second half and finished with a .248 average and just three home runs in 477 at-bats, a decline that he hopes he has found the answer for.
“In the offseason I focused on getting bigger and stronger, and this year, during the season I want to have a consistent relentless approach day in and day out, and everything will take care of itself if I stay on it,” Bichette said.
Hitting has also been the knock on Culver, who said he “hangs his hat” on his defense but hit just .2156 in Charleston last year after back-to-back short seasons of hitting .250. The slick shortstop has abandoning switch hitting as of 2013 and will bat solely from the right side, and he hopes that will help him at the plate as he continues to work on his all-around game.
“I think my strength is my defense, and it’s important to me to have my pitchers comfortable with me behind them, but I know everything has to improve for me to move on,” Culver said, adding in a later conversation with Josh Norris of The Trentonian that “I was hoping my lefty swing would come around, but I want to be able to hit for a good average, and my right-handed side is better for that.”
One thing the pair won’t let happen to them, however, is let the pressure of being a top pick of the Yankees get to them.
“As far as on the field, there’s not really any pressure; (being the son of a Major Leaguer) puts a little on me, but honestly I enjoy it and perform better under it,” Bichette said. “It’s been that way for me since I was 10 years old so I’ve gotten used to it. Being the first pick of the Yankees, I want to be the best person I can be off the field; that’s a big name, and you strive to be Jeter-esque.”
“There’s always going to be a title, but the Yankees do a really good job of keeping pressure off you and not making you feel like you have to be great right away; they know it’s a process,” Culver added. “Coming from upstate New York I didn’t face the type of competition I’m facing now, and they understand that, so that’s made it a lot easier.”
The subject of being “Jeter-esque” is one close to Culver’s heart, as he grew up idolizing the Yankees Captain; being drafted by the Yankees was a “dream come true” for the long-time fan, and while he hopes one day to have the same job as his idol, he knows he can’t let that potential added pressure of maybe being an “heir apparent” get to him either.
“Coming from New York I’ve always wanted to play for the Yankees, so it’s just a crazy experience…but you can’t ever replace a guy like Derek Jeter,” Culver said. “Anyone who plays shortstop is a gifted person, because it’s a hard position to play, so I just want to try to do my best and get there and maybe put up half the numbers he has.”
For now, though, both Culver and his left-side mate are back in Charleston. Through the RiverDogs' first 20 games, the duo are hitting just .247 and .173 respectively, but they are tied for the team lead with two homers each, and Bichette leads the club with 16 RBI. It’s only late April, so they have plenty of time to turn in a good season, and with the Tampa roster already besieged by injuries, Bichette and Culver could still find themselves promoted sooner rather than later – a prospect that Gumbs, for one, would love.
“(Cito and I) have great chemistry; when one of us goes for a ball up the middle, the other knows what we’re going to do with it,” Gumbs said, “and Dante’s great...it was awesome to play with them.”
And, all told, repeating the South Atlantic League isn’t all bad; after all, as Culver can tell you, his own idol spent parts of 1992 and 1993 in Greensboro, and things seem to have worked out well for him.
Follow Lou DiPietro on Twitter: @LouDiPietroYES