By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Player development is often considered more important at the lower levels of professional baseball than a winning record.
Don’t tell that to Bluefield Blue Jays manager Dennis Holmberg.
“When I go over my rules when I meet with the guys on Saturday, rule number one is win the Mercer Cup championship, rule number two is win the Appy League championship — any other questions,” said Holmberg, who will be in Bluefield for a third straight summer of Appalachian League baseball beginning next week. “It goes hand in hand. The players get better, the team gets better, and you win and that is how that happens.”
Holmberg and the Blue Jays, who are in their third season as an affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, will arrive in Bluefield on Sunday, with the Appalachian League season slated to begin next Thursday at Bowen Field against the Greeneville Astros.
“I am as excited as I was the first year for sure,” Holmberg said.
It will be a refreshing change for a collection of Blue Jays who arrived in Dunedin, Fla., in February, and have worked under the hot Florida sun in extended spring training since the major leaguers and higher-level players left at the end of March.
“It is a long winding road for a lot of these kids,” said Holmberg, during a phone interview on Tuesday just moments after leaving a dentist’s office. “They have been through some really tedious hours and they have put in a lot of hard work.
“It is all part of the maturation process, about them growing and maturing, and understanding the philosophy and the rules of the organization. It is a first or second step in the right direction, and hopefully that direction is going to take them right to the big leagues.”
Holmberg has been successful in two seasons in Bluefield, leading the Blue Jays to the Appalachian League championship series in 2011. Even though his club struggled to a 27-39 mark last year, more than a dozen members of that team did help Toronto’s affiliate in Vancouver claim the Northwest League title.
“After the first year, we had a great run, we had a good, nice team that really competed and hustled and got after it and last year we had some things that kind of surfaced on and off the field,” Holmberg said. “We sent a lot of guys to Vancouver. We sent 13 guys to Vancouver to help push them along and help them win that Northwest League championship so myself and our coaching staff take a lot of pride in that.”
Holmberg is currently in his 43rd season in professional baseball since being drafted in 1970 by the Milwaukee Brewers. He has been a part of the Toronto system for the last 36 years, winning his 1,300th game as a minor league manager last year with Bluefield.
“It is a labor of love, every coach and every manager and every pitching coach, every roving instructor has years and years of knowledge and wisdom to share with all these young players that are signing and coming into pro ball,” said Holmberg, who has 1,308 wins in 25 years in the dugout.
“It is so very important, I hate to call it age, but to have maturity and the experience with all these young guys and kind of point them in the right direction and get them of to good start and really continue that during their minor league careers.”
Holmberg said the roster of future Blue Jays won’t be released until Friday or Saturday, and couldn’t comment on reports that Tazewell product Zak Wasilewski would be among those coming to Bluefield.
Wasilewski was a 14th round draft choice by Toronto last June, and spent last summer in the Gulf Coast League. Holmberg did say he has seen improvement from the hard-throwing southpaw while in extended spring training.
“He has shown a lot interest, a lot of promise here in extended spring training,” Holmberg said. “It is always nice to bring a young kid back home in and around his area where he has grown up.
“I think it is good for him and his family, I think it is good for the ball park selling tickets. He made a lot of strides and made a lot of improvement, I would like to see him come to Bluefield, but I don’t make that decision.”
Holmberg does expect Bluefield’s roster to be stacked with pitching, much like it was last season, although several recent high picks — Noah Syndergaard, Kevin Comer, 2012 opening day starter Joe Musgrove —have been traded for veteran players.
“When you have players of interest from other organizations that have their eye on, it helps you maybe make a trade and get something you need and maybe you don’t have to wait four or five years before that pitcher develops, especially the high school kid,” said Holmberg, who explained the difference in an established college starter and high school pitcher. “If he is a No. 1 or No. 2 guy (in college), he is developed, he is ready to go.
“He is developed at 21 or 22 years of age, he can go out and pitch for two years and make it to the big leagues if he is that good. A high school kid, it takes about four years, he is really crawling before he is walking, it is all part of philosophy and player development.”
Toronto is definitely focused on young pitchers, with eight of its first 10 picks in last week’s draft being high school hurlers. Most won’t be seen in Bluefield, at least not until late in the season, but Holmberg said the Blue Jays will be stocked with live arms.
“There will be a few returning players, I think I can speak to that, but I think it is going to be an exciting ball club, it is going to be a young ball club,” Holmberg said. “We are going to have a very talented pitching staff, some very young starters, especially some Latin and American kids with some really tremendous upside...
“You have got to have pitching, it doesn’t matter if it is rookie ball or in the big leagues...you have to have pitching.”
The players won’t be the only new faces at Bowen Field. Holmberg will have his third different general manager — Jeff Gray — who follows in the path of Chris Maxwell last year and Jim Pettus in 2011, with George McGonagle serving on an interim basis at times before the arrival of Gray.
“I am excited, I am happy I am returning...,” said Holmberg, who has known Gray since his nine-year stint in Auburn, N.Y. from 2002-10. “I know Jeff Gray, we go back to Auburn way back 15 or 18 years ago. We have a good relationship, he has got some ideas.
“It is a good spot for him, he is young, he is energetic, he is trying to learn and he wants to be a general manager and it is a good place for him to start.”
Holmberg will also be working with his third hitting coach, athletic trainer, and video coordinator and second strength and conditioning coach since his arrival in Bluefield.
“It is just the turnover and where a lot of guys start their careers, and I am here to help them too,” Holmberg said. “I take a lot of pride in helping to bring along those younger guys, rather it is a trainer or strength and conditioning coach...It is all part of the process.”
The Blue Jays will arrive in Bluefield on Sunday, and will have three days of workouts and two fan functions prior to the season’s first pitch against the Astros on June 20.
“I think we are going to be a young, exciting and what I would call a ‘get-after-it’ type ball club,” said Holmberg, whose Blue Jays lost the Mercer Cup series last season to the Princeton Rays. “I am really going to encourage these players to get out in the community and continue spreading Blue Jays news and Blue Jays gospel throughout Bluefield and the surrounding area.
“We are going to get that Mercer Cup back too.”
—Contact Brian Woodson