From the Big Apple to the Windy City

kevin_cornelius_7csbhf74_tum04k7tWritten by Mark Nikolov Photo by Gordon Donovan

Kevin Cornelius was drafted by the Yankees in the 31st Round of the 2013 MLB Draft.  Since then he’s worked his way up the ranks in their very large and competitive organization (Yankees have the biggest farm system of all MLB teams).  Recently, he was picked up in the rule 5 Draft by the Iowa Cubs.  I got a chance to talk to him about it just yesterday.  This is how it went:

Real McCoy: What has been your experience been like, thus far, playing in the Yankees farm system?

Cornelius: “It’s been awesome.  I’ve had some ups and downs, dealing with some injuries in the past but the Yankees stuck with me and they’ve been very supportive and understanding.  The way I look at it, the Yankees gave me an opportunity.  They kept giving me opportunities and I’m still playing baseball because of it.”

Real McCoy: Last season in Tampa you played with a lot of highly touted prospects i.e. Gleyber Torres, James Kaprielian, Jorge Mateo, etc.  Do you think that being surrounded by high level guys has made you a better player?

Cornelius: “Absolutely (he emphasized)…even though injuries have been something that have plagued me in the past, I’ve gotten the opportunity to learn from some highly talented players that were also rehabbing at the same time.  One of em was Greg Bird.  I was able to learn a lot from him.  I like to find out what makes players better, what makes them great.”

Real McCoy: What was your initial reaction when you found out that you had been picked up by the Iowa Cubs?

Cornelius: “I was surprised.  I didn’t know about the rule 5 Draft…other people knew before me and they started sending me text messages telling me that I’d been traded.  At the moment, I’m excited.  I’m looking at it as a new start, a fresh beginning.”

Real McCoy: I could imagine it would be tough to leave the Yankees organization but the Cubs aren’t a bad team to land with.

Cornelius: “Not a bad team to land with at all (he laughs).  When I was in Tampa I got a chance to play with some of the guys that came over from the Cubs like Gleyber Torres and Rashad Crawford.  So this has been an interesting switch for us.”

Real McCoy: In an MiLB.com article you mentioned about having played at Grayson College.  Why did you choose to go to Grayson as opposed to TCU?

Cornelius: “I actually went to TCU for a semester and I transferred out in the Spring.  I was going to redshirt there but I really wanted to play baseball.  I had the opportunity to do that at Grayson so I took it.  There were no hard feelings when I left TCU.  When I told coach Schlossnagle that I was leaving he was really cool about it and he even encouraged me to go ahead and play at Grayson.”

Real McCoy: Tell me about coach Dusty Hart from from Grayson College.

Cornelius: “Coach Hart is an awesome guy.  He’s one of my favorite people in the whole world.”

Real McCoy: What are your goals for the upcoming season?

Cornelius: “Recently, one word that I’ve been using a lot is consistency.  I want to be healthy and consistent in my hitting and in my all overall game in general.  In the past I’ve torn my meniscus and I’m part of the 1% of all infielders that had to have Tommy John surgery.  Right now, I’m only looking toward the future.”

Real McCoy: I briefly spoke with your agent Phil Terrano at Primetime Sports.  He seems like a really good guy.  Is there anything you want to say about him and the guys at Primetime?

Cornelius: “Yeah (speaking with conviction), before I was with Primetime I was with another agency and they kinda put me by the wayside.  Since I’ve been with Phil that’s never happened.   Phil and the others at Primetime genuinely care.  I have nothing but good things to say about them.”

Real McCoy: Lastly, Do you have any hobbies outside of baseball that you want to talk about?

Cornelius: “I go hunting a lot with my dad, mostly deer hunting.  Sometimes I like to just go out and shoot.”

Kevin Cornelius strikes me as the type of player that you really want to root for.  He’s a nice, respectful and well spoken young man.  I don’t think he has ever made an enemy in his life (except for maybe a few deer).  Before this interview I didn’t know much about Kevin but I’m glad I do now.  I think a good MLB comparison for him would be Brandon Drury from the Diamondbacks.  Hopefully he’ll have the same kind of success as him at the next level.

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Gerson Moreno is a Man with a Plan

gerson-moreno-sick-ass-photo-better-colorWritten by Mark Nikolov  Photo by unknown

At a very young age Gerson Moreno devoted his life to the game of baseball.  When he was only 5 years old his father, Mateo, noticed his son had talent for the sport.  It was at that time that his father developed a plan for him.  His plan eventually turned Gerson into a professional athlete and the man he is today.  I believe it’s safe to say that Moreno has made his father proud.  He’s currently playing in the Detroit Tigers Minor League farm system and he has a bright future ahead of himself.  In 2015, he helped the West Michigan Whitecaps win the Midwest League Championships.  Then just this past year, he was named as a mid-season All Star for the Whitecaps.  He just recently graduated college.  Oh, and he also can throw a 100 mph fastball.

In a recent conversation I had with Gerson, he mentioned that he had a great time playing for the Whitecaps.  “Everything went really well in West Michigan,” says Moreno…“2015 was a great year for me.  That was when I started throwing the ball really hard.  Everyone on the team stepped up for us and we won a Championship.”

Moreno is a firm believer in hard work.  He credits his faith in God for all of his success.  “I’ve spent many years with the Lord.  I put God first in my work and in everything I do,” he added.  When I asked Moreno about his relationship with the Tigers organization he mentioned that they’re a hardworking organization.  For that he is very grateful.  “They have been very helpful and responsive anytime I’ve needed anything,” he said of his current team.  Gerson has enjoyed all the hard work because “the results have been rewarding.”  When asked about his goals for 2017, he told me that he wants to work even harder than he did last year.  He hopes to start off the season in AA and make his way to the MLB one day soon.

Gerson has a bright future ahead of him and others have noticed.  On March 2, 2016 Mark Anderson of Scout.com talked about “his impressive fastball between a pair of A-ball levels in Connecticut and West Michigan.”  Then recently, only a few days ago, FoxSports.com reported a full story on Moreno’s performance from this past season (see here).  In “[o]ver 23 appearances with the White Caps, Moreno was simply dominant.  In 25 innings, the prospect turned in a 1.08 ERA and 11 saves while striking out 9.7 batters per nine frames.”  Ben Rosener, a writer for FanSided via Motor City Bengals, suggested that Moreno “could develop into a mainstay in the Detroit Tigers bullpen.

Gerson seems to be a strong, intelligent and confident young man.  He knows where he’s going and he knows what he has to do to get there.  I don’t anticipate anything getting in the way of his Major League aspirations.  Luck can only get you so far.  In the end hard work is what prevails.  During this offseason Moreno has been working hard to maintain the velocity on his fastball.  He’s also putting a lot of time into his slider.  Only time will tell us what his ceiling will be as a player.  Though I suspect that with the help of God, his family and close friends, his father’s plan will reach fruition.

Please follow Gerson Moreno on Twitter – @GreidyMo and check out my online baseball card store REALMcCOYSPORTSCARDS.COM

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Albert Abreu is… “The Centerpiece”

albert-abreu-photoWritten by Mark Nikolov  Photo by unknown

Albert Abreu is a high velocity pitcher in the Yankees farm system.  Some people in the media have labeled him as “the centerpiece” of the recent trade involving Brian McCann.  This was the trade that sent Abreu and Jorge Guzman to New York from the Houston Astros this past November.  Mostly known for his power fastball, Albert is an interesting prospect because he has a full arsenal of pitches.  Aside from his fastball, Abreu has a strong curveball, a slider and a changeup.  His current nickname is “Bebo”, an affectionate name that his mother gave him at birth and has stuck to this day.  Perhaps “The Centerpiece” will catch on as another nickname once he cracks the MLB roster.

In an article written by Jason Burke in March of 2016, Albert was heralded as an MiLB breakout candidate “with a fastball that averages between 93-96 miles per hour, but can touch 99.”  Recently, Albert told me that he wasn’t satisfied with his performance when he first started with Quad Cities this past year.  A look back at his stats showed a very high strikeout rate but also a high ERA.  Halfway through the season he stepped up his work ethic and made adjustments.  As a result, he allowed only 6 earned runs in his last 10 outings while still producing a high K rate.  His improvements landed him a spot playing for Lancaster in the hard hitting California League.  In his first appearance he threw 3 Ks in 3 IP allowing only one walk, 1 hit and 0 ER for the W.

Albert will be in Major League camp this spring and should start next season with the Tampa Yankees.  When I asked him if he had any New Year’s resolutions he told me that his goal for this year is the same as his goal from last year and the year before that.  He wants to play in the Major League.  I think all of his aspirations will eventually come to fruition.  However, at least one more season in the MiLB should do him a lot of good.  Currently Albert is 21 years old and he has a lot of baseball left in his future.  I’m guessing the Yankees will exercise caution bringing him up.  This should work out well for him and for his future team.

Similar to the other prospects that I’ve interviewed thus far, Abreu seems to have strong family ties.  He spoke to me of his mother, Cristellia, as someone who has been very supportive in his baseball career.  Albert also relies heavily on his faith for guidance.  He’s a devout Catholic and he attends church services regularly.  Outside of baseball, Albert spends a lot of time hunting birds (something we later had a laugh about).  The closest I’ve ever come to bird hunting was in this video game on Nintendo: www.youtube.com

When I asked Albert what his feelings were when he found out he’d been dealt to the Yankees, I wasn’t surprised by his response.  He told me that he was “a little bit frustrated.”  I can imagine it would be difficult to change teams even at the Minor League level.  You have to get used to new teammates, new coaches, a new location, etc.  I think that initially he was caught by surprise, but now he’s fine and he’s very content with his new organization.  One has to believe the Yankees are happy with Albert as well.  They gave up Brian McCann and a big chunk of cash to get him and Jorge Guzman.  They call Gary Sanchez the “Sanchize” in New York, but Albert Abreu will always be remembered as the “Centerpiece.”

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*Jason Burke’s article can be found at www.scout.com

The Good, the Bad and Salvador Justo

justo-twitter-photoWritten by Mark Nikolov  Photo by MLBpipeline.com/rockies

Salvador Justo started playing baseball at the age of 14 in the Dominican Republic.  As an overweight teen he started off as a designated hitter.  When he was 16 ½ he was moved to the mound.  Currently, at the age of 22, Justo is signed with the Colorado Rockies and he’s looking to work his way up the Minor League ladder.  His nickname is “EL Feo”, meaning “ugly” in Spanish, and his claim to fame is his 100 mph fastball.  Here is a transcript of a recent conversation that I had with him:

Real McCoy: “Why do they call you El Feo?”

Justo: “(starts to chuckle) When I was practicing for baseball as a teenager, my trainer used to push me very hard because I was fat.  He would always tell me to ‘run hard’ and to do extra work.  So I would look over at him with an ugly look on my face.  People then started to call me EL Feo.”

Real McCoy: “So how do you throw a baseball 100 mph?”

Justo “(again starts to chuckle) You have to work hard everyday and you have to focus.  Also, I’m 6’6, so having long arms helps a lot.”

Real McCoy: “Okay, we know you can throw some serious heat.  Have you been working on any other pitches besides your fastball?”

Justo: “Yes, I’m practicing my slider right now.  It’s a new pitch for me.  I’ve been working on it for about two years.  My changeup is getting better as well.”

Real McCoy: “That’s awesome!”

Justo: “(eager to speak more) Yeah, Mark Brewer was my pitching coach in Asheville last season and he has helped me a lot.  He made me understand the importance of having a secondary pitch and my slider has improved thanks to him.  Edison Lora is my pitching coach in the Dominican Republic and he’s the one that helped me develop my fastball.”

Real McCoy: “Nice.  From what I can see online, you have a strong relationship with your family.  Is this true?”

Justo: “Yes, I’m very closely connected with my family: my mother, my brother, my daughter and my wife.  My father died in 2008 when I was 13 years old.”

Real McCoy:  “Sorry to hear about your father.  Can you tell me more about your mother, Maribel Feliz?”

Justo:  “My mom is a school teacher in Santo Domingo.  She teaches English and French there.  She has always been around for me throughout my entire life and I love her dearly.  My goal is to be able to buy her a new home one day.”

Real McCoy:  “It seems like you have surrounded yourself with the right people and that you have a bright future in the Rockies organization.  Keep up the good work.  I’ll now be rooting for “EL Feo.”

Justo:  “Thank you (after some more laughter).”

My overall impression of Salvador Justo is that of a nice young man with a good sense of humor.  However, there are times when he can’t afford to be nice.  One thing that we spoke about that I didn’t include in our conversation is how fearful batters can get when they step into the box to face him.  I haven’t seen Justo pitch yet, but when I get the chance I expect to see at least one reaction similar to that of John Kruk’s when he faced Randy Johnson in the 1993 All Star Game (for further interest check out this video www.youtube.com).  The Colorado Rockies, on the other hand, have nothing to fear so long as Justo keeps throwing gas.

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Bradley Zimmer is ready for the Big Leagues

bradley-zimmer-draft-photo-newWritten by Mark Nikolov  Photo Courtesy of Ben Platt MLB Network

Everyone experiences a day in their life that will forever remain in their memory.  The day that Bradley Zimmer will never forget was in the Spring of 2014 when he was drafted by the Cleveland Indians.  It was not an ordinary day of celebration for the Zimmer family.  It was also an experience of deja vu.  Two years earlier, Bradley’s older brother Kyle was drafted 5th overall by the Kansas City Royals.  “MLB Network was in the living room just two years earlier.  It was so exciting and unbelievable,” says Cathy Hutchins.  Hutchins, mother of Kyle and Bradley, ran track at San Diego State University.  Apparently, Bradley gets his speed from her.

Bradley’s father played collegiate baseball at the University of California in San Diego.  He currently works as an anesthesiologist.  His background in baseball helped groom two of his children into professional players, though at times, Bradley would do the grooming himself.  At the age of 3 he would head out to the backyard to play tee ball, a game he then called “whack-a-ball!”  His dad would constantly set him up to bat on the right side of the plate, but Bradley would always cross over to the left.  Because of his persistence, he can now experience the benefits of being a left handed batter in the MLB.

Bradley played college baseball at the University of San Francisco before entering the Indians MiLB farm system.  In an interview that I had with him, Bradley expressed how appreciative he was to his former team and coach Nino Giarratano.  “I’m really happy with my experience as a player and student at USF.  I’m also very thankful and grateful to everyone that helped me over there,” he told me.  His decision to go to USF and follow in his brother Kyle’s footsteps was a good one.  In 2011 Bradley was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the 23rd round out of La Jolla High School in San Diego.  At that point he considered going pro, but instead (based on advice from his older brother Kyle) he opted for college.  This decision would later pay off when he got drafted in the 1st round by the Indians.

Bradley has always had good relationships with his coaches and he’s always been a team player.  That would explain why he is currently ranked as the Indians top prospect by several publications.  He did however have to pay his dues in the Minors.  According to Bradley’s mother, Cathy, “he enjoyed his time there…”  In both Mahoning and Lynchburg “he lived with a really nice host family.”  During his time in Class A, Bradley was immediately able to show off his speed.  He had a combined 56 stolen bases at that level.  Zimmer’s batting average did, however, drop off a little bit in AA.  Something that he sometimes gets criticized for.  However, if you look at his OBP. this past season you’ll see that he has a knack for getting on base, and when he does he moves from 1st to 3rd extremely well.  When Bradley is playing at full health he should be able to produce at a high level in the MLB.

I followed Bradley recently while he was playing in the Arizona Fall League and noticed an increase in power from years past.  Apparently this was not an accident.  Zimmer told me that lately “he’s been working on driving the ball to all sides of the field.”  As a result, he won the AFL Bowman Hitting Challenge this past October.  Then in November, he was named to the MLB Pipeline All-AFL Team and was chosen as one of  Baseball America’s 2016 Arizona Fall League’s Top 20 Prospects as well.

Since the AFL, Bradley has been taking it easy and spending time with his family in San Diego.  This Spring he will be in Major League Camp with the Indians and, if all goes well, I suspect he’ll get the call from them in mid-season.  One thing that stood out while we spoke on the phone was his loyalty to the Tribe.  He told me that he is “very happy with the Indians organization” and that he wants to play his entire career with Cleveland.  I’m sure the feeling is mutual.  Rumor has it that his name was mentioned a few times during trade negotiations with the Yankees in the Andrew Miller deal.  However, the Indians were insistent on holding on to him.

After speaking with Bradley, I get the impression that he is “aggressive”, a word that he has used in past interviews to describe his style of play.  He’s eager to play in the Majors and excel at that level.  What impressed me the most was his willingness to do an interview even though he was sick as a dog.  He was constantly sniffling and sneezing the entire time we talked.  Halfway through the interview I started to feel guilty and asked him if he wanted to postpone.  He refused and gave me a good chunk of his time.  In a day and age where team loyalty has become more and more rare in the MLB, Bradley epitomizes the concept of a team player.  To this day he still keeps in contact with friends and teammates that he has known since childhood.  I believe the Indians have made a great investment in a great person.

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