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December 5, 2012

Eric Wedge


Q.  Eric, you've talked about needing to add a veteran presence.  How important is that?
ERIC WEDGE:  I think it's important to add a veteran presence.  I'm kicking the tires in so many different individuals and so many different type of solutions for that.  I think that, when you talk about our young team and just the experience I've gained over the last year or year or two, that's going to help them a great deal.
For the guys that have been through it and experienced it so much more, that's really important.  At some point we're able to do that.  I feel really strong about the fact that we've got experienced position players that we're going to be so much further along this year.  But still want to have the guys that I can look to.

Q.  The leap that a player makes from the first year to the second year, is that immense?  You've got a lot of guys going from second year to third year.  What can you expect?
ERIC WEDGE:  Look at a combination of things.  Some of the young guys started in the end of the year, some came middle of the year.  Same thing last year.  Some came in the middle of the year, whether it be position players or pitchers.  Everybody's on their own path.  They're all in that zero to one to two year range.  They're all establishing what type of big league players they're going to be.
It takes at least two or three years to figure out what kind of big league player you're going to be, and we've got a lot of people on that path.  But I do feel like, from one to two is big, and from two to three is even bigger in regard to being able to take that experience for a drive and just really being a better performer.  Because these guys are further along, they're going to lean on each other a little more.  We've got young position players who have a chance to be leaders in the near future.

Q.  There's been talk about upgrading a catcher at least on a part time role.  How much does the makeup and age of the pitching staff impact the decision to do that?
ERIC WEDGE:  That's real.  When you look at Montero and Jaso, you look at a couple of guys that are both going to catch for us.  Neither have been everyday guys over the course of the full season.  So I like the progress that both those guys made.  Because both of them are probably going to be doing some DH'ing too, you're probably going to have to add another catcher at that time.  I think you would like it to be a veteran guy.  That list is then thin.
One thing you have to be behind the plate, you have to have leadership ability and have to have a feel for your pitching staff and the youth and inexperience with some of these guys.  I've been really pleased with the way these guys have broken in.  I think the experience they gained last year and the year before, and particularly at the end of last year for some of these guys, it should really help them this year.

Q.¬† Is there a tie‑in, though, with discussions of how quickly some of the young pitchers they'd be up.¬† If it is as early as this year, you'd want the experienced guy whereas opposed to a Millwood is in.
ERIC WEDGE:  I don't think we want to get too specific with that.  I think, if we've got a chance to get a guy that's a little bit more experienced behind the plate, we want to do that for multiple reasons.  When it comes to our young kids that have not broken and are still in the minor leagues, we've got a good enough support system up there we'll be able to take care of them.
Jesus is young, but he's learned a great deal.  Jaso has more experience, and he has some leadership ability behind home plate.  But I think you probably do need to add another piece at some point in time.

Q.¬† Can you talk about what you asked Montero to do this off‑season and what you need to see from him.
ERIC WEDGE:  I think the physical part of it for Jesus is the most important thing.  Working, obviously, with his conditioning, but also technique in regard to running, working behind the plate from a fundamental standpoint and staying on his feet more behind the plate instead of collapsing like we saw him do from time to time.  I was really pleased with how far he came with regard to throwing the baseball and really pleased with how far he came with regard to calling a baseball game and having a feel for different situations and different pitchers on a particular day.
But the physical aspect of it, becoming more flexible, being a little stronger, leaning up a little bit, and just technique, whether it behind the plate or on the base pads is something he's working on as we speak.

Q.¬† You seem to ask this every off‑season, but how important is this off‑season for Justin Smoak, and what does he need to do in this off‑season to be able to come back and compete?
ERIC WEDGE:¬† He got better arm strength and leaning himself in the off‑season.¬† He needs to do just as much to add on to that this off‑season.¬† Needs to be stronger because he has the arm to be stronger.¬† He needs to stay lean.¬† His footwork was so much better at first base last year.¬† I thought he was a gold glove defender for us at first base last year.
Then in regard to his swing, we really felt the last five weeks or so it was real.¬† Really made some positive changes with his hands, with his approach, and with his swing that allowed him to drive the ball from both sides of the plate the way you like to see him drive it.¬† Not just driving the ball full side, but being able to drive the ball the other way too and get on top of the breaking ball and drive it away.¬† Whether it be from the right‑hand side or the left‑hand side.¬† I've got a great deal of belief in Justin and feel this kid is going to be a strong contributor for us.

Q.  Eric, another team in the Astros, this division just keeps getting tougher.  Do you feel it's the most underrated division in the MLB?
ERIC WEDGE:  Shouldn't be underrated anymore.  I thought it was the toughest last year as you look at the three teams.  As we continue to improve, and Houston is going to work to continue to improve.  I like the fact that Houston is coming over.  I like that we're going to have another team within our division.
I think it was obvious there, the way we played in July and August and although our numbers weren't real good in September, we battled every team for the last three weeks that were going to be in the playoffs or contending to be in the playoffs.  We gave them everything they could handle.
I know they felt us, and we're going to continue to get better.  So as that happens, our division is going to continue to get better.

Q.  Eric, can you talk about the role that you're planning to give to Iwakuma next year.
ERIC WEDGE:  Kuma is going to be one of our starters.  We looked at what he did last year.  He was in a position last year to where he was far enough along that we didn't feel we were putting him in arm's way.  We felt we were in a position to succeed, and that's what he did.
I was really proud of the way Carl Willis handled him early on as well as our training staff as he continued to get stronger and break into major league baseball.  He took it from there.  He showed us a great deal with his poise, his confidence, his overall feel with different situations.  Toughness at different situations.  Ability to slow the game down, and then you've got to talk about his stuff.  His stuff just kept getting better and better.
As he worked through his routine in that five‑day rotation, we gave him a few extra days from time to time.¬† Just wanted to keep working and doing what he's doing.¬† If he's anywhere near where he was in the second half, we feel really good about having him in our rotation.

Q.  What was the key to the improvement?
ERIC WEDGE:¬† I think it was strength, to begin with.¬† He needed to continue to get his arm stronger.¬† And then it was just getting acclimated to playing ball here in the states.¬† It's a little bit different style of play, but he did a great job of paying attention when he wasn't working‑‑ when he wasn't pitching early on.¬† He kept working on the side.
With each appearance, you saw him develop a little more confidence to the point where we were able to give him a start or two and ultimately put him in the rotation, and he took it from there.

Q.  Getting back to Smoak for a minute, how important is it for you to have somebody that could maybe replace him a couple of games a week at first base if he needs a rest or just to get through the season.
ERIC WEDGE:  I think that's fair.  I think that we'll have other options there when it's all said and done.  Ultimately, when it comes to young kids that have been inconsistent like he has been, that's what you're looking for him to be is more consistent to where you can count on him playing six out of seven days or eight or nine out of ten days.
He has the strength to do that, and he has the toughness to do that, but obviously he has to keep performing to do that.  We gave him plenty of space to do that, and ultimately we had to send him out.  We wanted to see four or five weeks.  Now it's time to take it on from day one and understand there has to be a level of consistency for you to be able to go out there and start each and every day.
Rest assured, we'll have something else in our back pocket, where if we need to give him a break or it's not working out, we have somewhere to go.

Q.  Are you including Montero and Jaso in that back pocket?
ERIC WEDGE:  We worked out Jaso last spring.  We worked out Montero a little bit last season.  So in Spring Training, we'll dabble with both those guys.  We got to the point where we were hitting ground balls to the left side of the infield just to be more athletic and throw the ball across.  Wanted to have options.  Even played Seager there a couple of times.
We want to make sure we have options there, but just know that we are expecting it, and I feel strong that Mr. Smoak is going to get it done.

Q.  With Dustin and the foot surgery and some of the pain he played through, are we going to see a significant difference with him at the plate and some of the things with being healthy?
ERIC WEDGE:  I think being healthy is important.  I think some of the experience he gained will be equally, if not more important.  I was so proud of this guy.  He went up there 600 times or whatever it was, he played every day.  Fought through the pain.  Because he needed to.  He needed experience what he experienced.
And it's going to help him.  I think that, when you talk about Dustin Ackley, just too good a barrel to the ball type of hitter.  He got a little bit out of sync last year, and at times a lot out of sync, but he never gave into the fight.  That's a credit to him.  I expect him to come here and have a solid year for us.
He's always hit, and he's going to hit, and he's a smart kid.  He's a tough kid.  And I think you're going to see him get back on track this year.

Q.  How open are you to the young prospects, first crack in the rotation, Hultzen, Paxton, Walker.
ERIC WEDGE:  I'm open to an extent.  I won't mention who, but you talk about those four young starters that everybody talks about, I think a couple of them have more of a chance than maybe the other two.  And that's just because their path, their experience level, and where we see them.  Mentally, physically, and fundamentally really.  That's how we look at it.
We'll have others coming into camp to compete too.  The signing of Iwakuma is important to us.  And now you've got Felix, Vargas, Kuma and Ramirez and Beavan as we speak.  And Ramirez and Beavan have to make the club.  That's just where we are right now.  The competition is going to be there.

Q.  When Astros make the AL move, they have to figure out the DH.  Just your experience, is it as simple as slugging and hitting or do you want veteran experience?  What works for you when it comes to DH?
ERIC WEDGE:  When it comes to DH, it's been my experience, unless you've got a guy that's thundering the ball and a guy you can hit for average and power and be a run producer, it almost becomes a better situation for you if you can bounce it around a little bit because you can give your guys a break.  Obviously, you always want a hitter in that role.
Maybe it's a guy that's your everyday third baseman or left fielder or whatever it might be, but you want to give him off his feet a little bit, but you still want his bat in the lineup.  I think it will be a little more productive if you can bounce it around a little bit.
If you've got a guy hitting.300 and driving out 35, 40 and driving in 120, that's great.  It's tough to find that.  I think it's going to be a lot of fun just having interleague play in and out throughout the course of the season.  I think that's going to be a lot of fun for the fans.  I think it's going to be a lot of fun for all of us.
You have to build your team a little bit differently now.  I'm intrigued by that.

Q.  You've talked a lot about this, but what kind of expectation do you have as far as the effect of having different dimensions in your park this year?
ERIC WEDGE:  I think the psychological effect is already there, just rolling that out to our players there with a couple of days left in the season, that's real.  You're playing in your home park 81 times.  There is a psychological effect to that.
We have a fair ballpark now.  And that's important to us, to all of us, and I feel good about that.  A team comes in for three days, they leave, there's no psychological effect, they're out of there.  You're there for 81 games, that's real.
I think that, and when you look at the fact that our kids are a year further along, I think that's going to help.  Obviously, we've got a new hitting coach in Dave Hansen.  It's a different voice, a different approach.  I think that's going to help as well.

Q.  Do you feel like you guys were in any kind of competitive disadvantage in the market as far as bringing in hitters because it was known as such a tough place to play?
ERIC WEDGE:  I think there was a degree of that.  Hopefully now that this change has been made, we can put that to rest.  I think you're going to see the ballpark play a little bit more fair.  What do you want?  If you hit it, it's supposed to go.  If you don't, it's not.  That's what I think we have now.

Q.  Are you going to do any extra outfield work with your outfielders or any sort of extra preparation with the field?
ERIC WEDGE:¬† A little bit early on, but I don't think‑‑ we never really worked off the fence.¬† We work off the hitter and the situation.¬† I think you've got to be careful when you're talking about being in big parks to where you work more off the real estate versus the situation and the hitter.
So that's what we'll continue to do, and hopefully that will still continue to play to our advantage.  I think that we've seen that happen here with us with the way we position our outfielders and how we make that work.

Q.  How different are the dynamics of this division, even just since you came?
ERIC WEDGE:  It's different.  You look at just everything that's happened here in my first two years versus maybe the way you looked upon this division five or six years ago.  It is different.  I mean, it is arguably the best division in baseball.  If not at least one of the best divisions.
I think that that's a good thing.¬† I'm not‑‑ we're not looking to back door our way into anything.¬† We want to face everybody head up, and we're doing this the right way.¬† We're taking our time and making sure that we're patient, but yet we're steady and true as we move forward.
If you do that, nobody can get in your way in the end.  You've got to have the discipline to stay patient and stay on the path, and that's what we're doing.

Q.  Obviously, you're focused on your club, but the Rangers and Angels specifically are involved with pretty big names going to the rumor mill.  Does any curiosity take over as to how it all shakes out?
ERIC WEDGE:  No.  Because I have too much faith in what we do.  For me, if we do what I feel we're going to do here, the rest takes care of itself.  Regardless of who we have and or what kind of talent or how it looks on paper, it's those kinds of things.  It's the tangibles versus the intangibles.  It's the way you go about your business and how you build your team.
We're not looking to be a team that wins with one or two guys or try to win with one or two ways.  We want to win whatever fashion we can.  Make sure we want on everybody.  And we want to make sure we have the depth and the system that we can continue to do that.
We're not just building it to get there.  We're building it to get there and sustain a championship level play.  No guarantees you're going to win when you do that, but what we'll be guaranteed is you can compete to win when you do that.

Q.  You obviously haven't been in Seattle forever, but is this the most cautious optimism, when you think back, just with this organization, than there's been the last five, seven years?
ERIC WEDGE:  I'd say the last ten years.  I think that's a good thing.  It's a credit to our ownership and the front office the fact that they're willing to commit to us to build this and build it the right way.  Fans in Seattle should be excited about it.  Are we there today?  No.  Are we much further down the line?  Yes.  Is it real what we're building?  If you look from our system to our scouting to our player development to what we're doing at the big league level and how we're doing it, without a doubt.
Where you get into trouble is where you lose that discipline, where you become impatient, where you push a deal.  What we're going to do is continue to develop our young players, make sure we're playing the way we're supposed to play, and then continue to add veteran players or other players that make sense.  And then just keep going.  Not let our guard down.

Q.  What's fair to expect from Franklin coming up in the season?
ERIC WEDGE:  If Franklin's healthy, he's a good major league baseball player.  You feel so bad for him because he's been through so much.  He came into camp in great shape last year.  Tore the pec and had the mishap at first base and the pickoff throw.  He's working hard again, expect him to come in ready to go.  He's put a lot of this behind him.  He has to feel confident that everything's going to work out for him.
You know what, when he's playing and he's healthy, he helps us win ball games.  I think he's a great complement to our young kids.

Q.  How do you see Andino fitting in?
ERIC WEDGE:¬† He's a nice‑‑ it's a nice pickup for us because right‑handed hitter, I think complements Seager and Ackley well.¬† More of a hitter first.¬† I think a little bit underrated defensively.¬† You can play short, second, and third.¬† He's a nice complement to Ryan as well.¬† He can turn around a fastball.¬† Get a little edge to him.¬† He has some experience.¬† I think it's a good pickup for us.
If you talk about having another guy that can go out there and play and play every day if you need him to.

Q.  Did your eyes pop at all, not just in your division, but what everybody's doing with the contracts and the way the market is kind of shaking down this winter?
ERIC WEDGE:  Well, it's a thin free agent market if you look at it, especially from last year to this year.  You expect guys to get paid a little bit more.  That's just the way it's been.  Some teams are able to do more of that than others.  That's the way it's always been.  No, it doesn't surprise me.
Hey, players work hard to put themselves in position to get those contracts.  More power to them.  From my standpoint, I just try to take care of my own backyard.  Make sure that we're prepared to go out there and compete with every day and compete to get better.  We were better last year and expect to be better this year.

Q.  It's obviously out there that Jason Bay on your radar.  What can you say?
ERIC WEDGE:¬† He's a guy that we've been talking to, but nothing's done yet.¬† It's an interesting story, it's an interesting situation.¬† If you are able to make it happen, you've got to feel good about taking a chance on a guy that's been a great performer at times at the big league level.¬† Add some strength to the right‑handed bat.¬† He's a high character guy, hard worker, good personal.
He's had a tough couple of years.  I think that, if it does come through for us, I think it's a great pickup.

Q.  Is he a DH option at all for you?
ERIC WEDGE:  Not purely.  If we can make it work, he can play in the outfield or DH?

Q.  Sort of platoon with Saunders?
ERIC WEDGE:  I don't think you have to pigeon hole.  I don't want to pigeon hole anybody with that, especially our young kids.  Let's give them a chance to play, and if it works in that direction, then we can go there.

Q.¬† There's some reaction that you're taking a one‑year contract or whatever it is on this guy.¬† It's not like you're guaranteeing him a spot.¬† It's like he's got to come in and earn the spot.
ERIC WEDGE:  We have to see how it all plays out.  Nothing's done yet.  If it does play out, I think we're going to have a few situations like that.

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