Charleston RiverDogs roster becoming a melting pot of old and new

Veterans pitching in to help the many getting their first taste of full-season ball
05/11/2013 9:19 AM ET
By Lou DiPietro

Outfielder Taylor Dugas is one of many getting their first taste of full-season pro ball in Charleston this season.(Daily News)
Through the first five weeks of the 2013 season, the Charleston RiverDogs sat at exactly .500, going 15-15 in their first 30 games on the South Atlantic League schedule.

Being at the lower of the two Class-A levels often means a lot of flux for the RiverDogs’ roster throughout the season, but with six players from their initial roster already having been promoted and two more having spent time on the disabled list, that flux has already had a big impact.

Each year, many of the players on the RiverDogs are encountering “full-season” pro ball for the first time, and the transition from Short-Season Class-A or Rookie Leagues to full-season ball is different for everyone; a lot of that depends on how many seasons they may have been in the system or, in the case of previous year draftees, whether they came from college or high school – and for some, the “full season” moniker is actually a step down of sorts.

“Last year in Staten Island was a long season for me coming from college; we had a long fall, then spring games, and then I got drafted and played all summer,” said outfielder Taylor Dugas, who was an eighth-round pick in 2012 out of Alabama. “It was a grind, and my body got a little tired toward the end, so really having an offseason to have some time off and get away a bit was nice.”

Dugas took about three months off before beginning baseball activity again in December, and he went down to Spring Training a little early for some one-on-one instruction to get back in the swing of baseball. It seems to have worked out well so far, as he has already reached his 2011 total in homers and stolen bases, and the outfielder hopes that will continue over the next four months.

“Spring Training went really well and I worked on a lot of things there, and so far this season my body feels great,” Dugas said. “I know we still have a long way to go, but I think the work I did in the offseason is going to help me as summer goes on.”

Pitcher Taylor Garrison, the Yankees’ seventh-round pick out of Fresno State last year, agreed with Dugas’ take on the offseason.

“Coming out of college, we play from August to June; you do a bunch of baseball activity in the fall, then play in the spring, and then it was all summer after being drafted,” Garrison said. “So to get that three months off for the first time this winter, you get to come out here fresh.”

Garrison, who is one of those that has already been promoted beyond Charleston, cited the biggest difference as being in the weight room, where he is trying to add more size and strength to his 5-foot-11, 165-pound frame that he feels can help him hold up to a longer schedule.

“I got to Spring Training on January 14 and have been doing stuff five, six days a week ever since,” he said. “You definitely have to prepare yourself a little more physically to play 140 or more games instead of 70 tops in college, and because I’m a smaller guy, I want to get bigger physically so I can compete and last through a full season and erase any doubts I can stay healthy and last.”

For others, like 2012 second-round pick Peter O’Brien, the difficulty in transition from college to short-season ball to the full season isn’t as much about the length of the schedule as much as it is about learning the ins and outs of pro ball.

“Last year helped me out a lot because I didn’t know what to expect, but I got into a routine in Staten Island,” the catcher said. “I worked on that this offseason, so I feel good about it.”

Pitcher Gabe Encinas already had that routine down somewhat, as he spent 2011 in the Gulf Coast League and 2012 in Staten Island before moving up, but the righty knows that eventually, the differences in levels will kick in.

“It hasn’t been a big change yet; you take the same preparation, it’s just that the season is longer, so right now it hasn’t sunk in,” Encinas said. “Mentally you have to stay strong, or else it will get to you the longer the season rolls.”

With only a few of the currently active 25 having at least one full season of full-season ball in their pocket, Encinas is almost one of the “elder statesmen” of the team, but he and the others have credited Dante Bichette Jr. and Cito Culver, two top prospects and former high draft picks who are repeating in the South Atlantic League this year, as being big keys for the adjustment to the longer calendar.

“Cito and Dante are a huge part of the team; we have a lot of leaders on this team and we look to each other a lot, but they’re guys who have been here and know the way,” Encinas said. “For the new incoming infielders, it’s a big deal to have them there to help, and when we need some guidance on anything, whether it is about the Sally League or whatever, it’s great to have them to go to.”

“They have a lot of experience which helps the team and can help us succeed,” Dugas added. “Guys can move up and things always happen, but it’s nice to have guys like Cito and Dante who are growing themselves but can also help us in the transition.”

And, in the case of Garrison, Bichette and Culver could be two big reasons the reliever has already moved up to Tampa.

“They definitely have a lot of knowledge to give to us first time Sally Leaguers – they know if anything stands out, how a ballpark plays, how other guys who have repeated may hit, and such,” he said. “They’ll give us that info and it’s always helpful, and it’s great just to have them to get advice from.”

Perhaps someday soon, it will be Garrison giving that advice to Bichette, Culver, or any others who move up the line to join him in the Florida State League – moves that will open up a whole new world for those below waiting to break into full-season ball and continue the cycle.

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