I had the opportunity to talk with Great Lakes Loons play-by-play broadcaster Brad Tunney to review their season and discuss several prospects in the Dodgers organization. Tunney is spending his first full season as the play-by-play broadcaster for the Loons after being with the team part time since 2015. He is also the program manager for ESPN FM 100.9 in Midland, Michigan, the station that carries Loons game.
Part one of this interview covers two top prospects rising in the rankings — infielder Miguel Vargas and pitcher Josiah Gray — and how the trade deadline impacts the players in the farm system. There will be two more parts to this interview regarding more prospects, but with the trade deadline coming later today, this is more relevant than ever.
This interview is slightly edited for clarity.
Q: Miguel Vargas had an incredible first half for a 19 year old in the Midwest League. What impressed you about his game?
BT: “He was assigned to this level last year and it was like, okay he’s a fringe prospect on all of these national prospects boards, but he was 18, so it felt pretty aggressive. He finished season with us in the final month of the season batting .213 with no power. He returned this year and I kind of thought, ‘Okay, it is going to be a successful year for Vargas if he spends the whole year with us and can hit .250.’
“He started a little slow this year and by the end of April, he was hitting a little over .300 and then got better, literally every week of the season. And it culminated in his final couple days with us. He hit four home runs and had eight hits in his final two games with the Loons, to the point where he was pulled out of the game on his final day here and got promoted in the dugout right away.
“He reminds me so much of when Keibert Ruiz was here. Ruiz was 18 here, and very quietly singled his way to a .317 batting average. Vargas left here hitting .325, and for a guy to do that battling April and May in this league was super, super impressive. We have not seen a guy like that at Great Lakes since Ruiz, in my time. I think those are the only two guys that we have seen who have torn it up in that way. Even look at Gavin Lux, he hit .240 here when he was drafted, so it’s tough here, the best guys in the system struggle to hit here sometimes but Ruiz didn’t and Vargas outhit him this year at age 19.
“I just thought Vargas was really impressive and didn’t give me any worry defensively at third base. He held his own as a 19 year old and between the lines, a teenager may be a little immature off the field but between the lines, this guy carried himself like he wasn’t a teenager, just a different guy when he was on the field.
“He was just a treat to watch every day and it was echoed by Shoe [Loons manager and coaching legend John Shoemaker] and some of the Dodgers brass who had come through who just mentioned that Vargas is making improvements day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month, year-by-year, has just been perfect in terms of his progression, so hoping he continues to do that going into next season.”
Q: Josiah Gray has pitched at three levels this season and made five starts for the Loons before being promoted. What stood out to you about his pitching?
BT: “There are guys here who have talent that sometimes you don’t get a major league vibe from. Gray was just even keeled all day, every minute of the day. He was able to give me great perspective on what being involved in that trade meant to him and I think a guy with lesser character or lesser self-awareness would have struggled coming to a new organization or would have at least taken some time to get situated.
“He talked about that trade in December as really introducing him to the business of baseball and just having to go right along with it and making sure it didn’t derail him or set him back at all. A lot of guys who get traded in the minor leagues talk about, ‘Well does the team that traded me trade me because they did not want me?’ and, ‘Did the team that acquired me really want me?’ Mentally it can be tough to juggle those two thoughts. It seemed like Gray showed up to the ballpark everyday and had such great self-awareness and self-confidence and you’re clearly seeing that in terms of the production.
“The fastball and the slider were really all he needed at this level specifically, and I mean in five starts — for one of the first times in my five years here — the Dodgers had under-assigned a player. They over-assign guys a lot, and to their credit, it typically pays off. But a guy that probably could have started in High-A this year and had no problem at all ... that’s probably why we’ve seen him make two jumps now in the same season.”
Q: In 2017, Gavin Lux, Dustin May and Keibert Ruiz all made their full-season debuts with the Loons, now they are the top three prospects in the Dodgers system. Can you give me your thoughts about what their time as a Loon did to get them to the doorstep of a major league career?
BT: “It’s funny looking back at it ... Lux hit .240 with the Loons and was really not all that impressive. So it’s crazy to think he has turned himself into one of the best prospects in all of baseball. But the thing is, when he was here, there wasn’t a harder worker in the building in maybe my five years here. Lux internalized all of the information the Dodgers presented him and did the most with it. He got in the cage early and did the most with the hitting coach. He was a sponge of information, so you’re not surprised he has taken off.
“Dustin May jumps off the page to you because of the size, because of the hair, and it terms of the raw stuff, you don’t see guys with that kind of stuff at this level, so he was special.
“Ruiz remains one of my favorite players we ever had here because of how he carried himself everyday, how good his English got in matter of the few months here was really great. I remember talking to him in the beginning of the year when couldn’t really speak much English and by the time he left here, you could hold a legitimate conversation with him without needing an interpreter, which was just as special as the improvements he made at the plate. And the fact that he’s a defense, receiving, leadership guy first — he was great here.
“We’re at trade deadline time, and just being in the Dodgers system and loving all of these guys, I don’t know how you move any of the top five right now. I don’t know how you move Lux, May, Smith, Ruiz or Gray. I think they are all major league All-Stars at some point of their career, if not many years in the bigs. It will be very interesting to see if they do move any of them what the return is.”
Q: The guys are obviously aware of the trade deadline and what could potentially happen. How do they handle it at such an early part of their career?
BT: “I try to put myself in their shoes sometimes, and if I was one of them at this point of the year, I think it would be somewhat nerve-wracking, but you also have no control over the situation. Guys are smart enough to know that the Dodgers are in talks for a legitimate major league reliever. They’re fans of the game, they know what kind of deals have gone down in the past, but maybe this is just from broadcaster’s perspective. I know they’re aware of the deadline, they know how many days away it is and they know there is a possibility they could get moved.
“But from a broadcaster’s perspective, I’d be thinking, ‘Boy, I’m a middle-tier prospect or I’m a prospect between 10 and 30, I could be potentially be a throw-in to a deal.’ or, ‘I’m a reliever on the Loons team right now and because of my production, I could be moved.’ All of that would go through my head. I don’t think it really goes through their head as much as we think.
“They’re showing up at the ballpark everyday, they’re so busy, I think it goes through media-types heads more than maybe the players heads. But at the same time, they know when the deadline is, they know there’s the possibility and they just have go about their business even though they are 19-23 years old, they’re professionals and they’ve carried themselves in a way for many years now that is beyond how most 19-23 year olds have.”
True Blue LA would like to thank Brad Tunney for taking time out of his busy schedule to do this interview. You can follow Brad on Twitter @brad_tunney.