Making the Club
By Darren Fenster
Spring Training is always one of the most exciting times of the baseball calendar. Hope springs eternal, as the saying goes. With the season in front of us, there is always an anticipation and optimism for the months to come. An unbridled enthusiasm fills the air on that first day pitchers and catchers are out on their respective sun-kissed Florida and Arizona diamonds, while there’s a distinct energy when the calendar turns to Day One of college practice or high school tryouts. Players, coaches, and fans alike are all pumped for baseball to be back.
But for most teams and programs, the anticipation and joy of the new year on the field is dampened only by the fact that there are usually more players than there are spots on the team. Stiff competition is found all throughout every level of the game in the early days and weeks of workouts. Professionals may be vying for one of 25 spots on a Major League roster, while some may be simply battling for a job in A-ball. Playing time is won and lost in the college preseason, just as varsity, junior varsity, and freshman teams are filled out at the high school level.
There are countless variables at each level of the game and for each team at those levels, but every coach should have a good idea of what exactly it is going to take to make that squad well before the first day of workouts. Communication is a vital aspect in coaching and articulating the expectations to the players individually and the team as a whole for the upcoming season is a great start to leaving no question as to how to make the club.
In the weeks and months prior to baseball season, it’s important for coaching staffs to get together to determine exactly who they want to be as a team in creating a collective identity of sorts. Once that has been established, it comes time to let those who will embody that identity on the field know what being a member of the team will truly represent. Long in advance of that first day of practice or tryouts, it’s a good idea to gather every single potential player- returner and newcomer- to lay out what is in front of them, allowing them the best opportunity to prepare and be ready for what is to come. Coaches can set the standards for what they are looking for on the field from the start with respect to things like work ethic, focus, energy, and execution. They can piggy-back off of the year prior, marking specific goals for improvement, and can set the bar for what kind of shape – baseball and physical – players are expected to be in on the first day of workouts. The more that is communicated, the better understanding a group will have as the foundation for the season is built.
Communication is one of our strongest suits and highest priorities with the Red Sox. Every Spring Training, our farm director and positional coordinators hold player plan meetings with each and every Minor League player – all 175-plus of them – to not only talk about the upcoming season, but to also give the players a clear idea of where they stand in the organization. For players coming off of productive years, much will be discussed about what went right and how they can improve to take their game to a higher level. Players who just signed the year prior will have a focus of establishing the foundation for their professional careers in what is about to be their first full season in professional baseball. Some players may be on the bubble between Single-A and Double-A, just as others are fighting for their baseball lives as potential cuts. All of this is communicated honestly to the players so that when final rosters are set in early April, no one can say they were surprised by being sent down to a lower level or released from the organization entirely.
As the on-field work progresses, which may be weeks in the case of professional teams and college programs, or days for the high school level or lower, coaching staffs have to constantly be in evaluation mode, keenly watching for players who will fit the desired identity of the club. That evaluation can be in the scope of raw athletic ability, the players who can just flat-out play. The look can be a developmental one from the year prior, with marked improvement from last season’s end, where a player might not be where we want him to be but is clearly going in the right direction. Potential is another way to determine the role on a team, asking the question of how good a certain player can become down the road. It may make more sense in the long run to keep a lesser-talented player with more potential over one who may have already hit his athletic ceiling.
As every player’s every move is closely watched by coaching staffs, a less-considered trait must also be given a serious look: attitude. Baseball rosters can be made up of anywhere from 15 (high school) to 35 players (college). Not everyone plays, and often times you’ll have far more guys on your roster NOT getting significant action than those who are. That fact means the identity so carefully drawn up will be carried out by many who aren’t playing. Every team needs great makeup players who will embrace a backup role or even simply being a member of the team even though they might not get the time they’d like on the field. In some instances, it may be worth keeping a player with a great attitude but limited ability over a more athletically gifted one who might be a cancer for the sake of the team as a whole. Rest assured, those who don’t play have their own significant value to the club as those who are in the lineup every game.
By the time cut-down day arrives, and it’s time to set final rosters, hopefully coaches have given themselves the best opportunity to make the best decisions for the season to come. It begins with knowing what you want to be, communicating that vision to your players, and then evaluating the particular pieces to that championship puzzle to determine who will make the club and embody everything you want them to be.
Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is currently the Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.