Dodgers host first winter mini-camp
Minor Leaguers undergo training session at Dodger Stadium
LOS ANGELES -- Pitchers and catchers report to Dodgertown on Feb. 14, but De Jon Watson couldn't wait for that.
Watson, assistant general manager for player development, has the cream of the farm system crop at Dodger Stadium this week and next for the organization's first winter mini-camp. Halfway through, it's a big success.
"There's already been a lot of positive feedback," said Watson, recently promoted to his new title after being hired as farm director only a year ago. "This is something I've always wanted to do, something I mentioned during my interview process. I just thought it was a great tool to implement in helping our young players with the transition from the Minor Leagues to the Major Leagues."
Generally, club officials are hesitant to confirm which players among hundreds are their favorites, but here's the roll-call of the mini-camp: pitchers Mario Alvarez, Scott Elbert, Clayton Kershaw, James McDonald, Jon Meloan, Greg Miller, Justin Orenduff, Ramon Troncoso and Cory Wade; infielders Josh Bell, Ivan DeJesus Jr., Blake DeWitt, Chin-Lung Hu, Andy LaRoche, Josh Paul; catcher Lucas May and outfielders Delwyn Young and Xavier Paul.
That group of students includes four -- Meloan, Hu, LaRoche and Young -- that have already tasted Major League service time. The teachers include all of the organization's Minor League roving instructors.
But even some of the Dodgers' Major Leaguers have turned out, from coaches Don Mattingly and Rick Honeycutt to players Andruw Jones, Matt Kemp, James Loney and Brad Penny.
Each day begins with a spring-like workout at the ballpark, but the afternoons include classroom sessions ranging from strategy to personal security to dealing with the media. Among guest lecturers brought in: legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, Hall of Fame outfielder Duke Snider, Hall of Fame manager Tom Lasorda, former MVP and Cy Young winner Don Newcombe and longtime Southland sportscaster Jim Hill. There will be a farewell dinner next week with an unnamed celebrity guest.
"The idea," said Watson, "is to bring in guys recently promoted to the 40-man roster and the core of our younger players who might reach the Major Leagues in 2008 or 2009 and get them prepared and accustomed to the surroundings -- where to go to eat, how to get into the ballpark. It can be overwhelming and intimidating the first time. We're trying to create a comfort level and make the transition easier."
Watson said the mini-camp also allows club officials to get a line on each player's conditioning prior to Spring Training and to "tweak" flaws in a pitcher's delivery or a hitter's swing prior to the start of the real camp, where the player is focused on making a club.
"It's easier to make that kind of adjustment in a setting like this, with less pressure," he said.
But Watson said the mental part of the game is addressed at least as much as the physical. Longtime organization instructor Guy Wellman met with the staff to discuss teaching tools. Six-time Gold Glove first baseman Wes Parker spent a day working with Loney. Special assistant Bill Mueller also spoke to the group.
"When you bring in someone like Mr. Wooden, it helps the players get a feel for the historic importance of playing in Los Angeles," Watson said.
Players must keep a daily journal to document what they take away from each classroom session for a discussion the following day. Watson said he intends to make the mini-camp an annual event. During Lasorda's tenure, the club held January voluntary workouts at Dodger Stadium for players living in the area and rehabilitating from injuries.
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.