Ortiz making most of opportunity

Ortiz played just a few high school games

SURPRISE, Ariz. - While most professional baseball players grow up living and breathing baseball, Michael Ortiz rarely played the game until his senior year of high school. Now, the 20-year-old is impressing on the back fields with his bat. Lone Star Dugout caught up with Ortiz for this free preview of premium content.

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From the time Michael Ortiz decided to begin playing baseball at Miami's Palmetto High School, all he wanted was a chance.

After playing just a handful of games at the varsity level in his entire high school career, Ortiz got the opportunity of a lifetime when the Texas Rangers selected him in the 28th round of the 2007 MLB Draft.

When the Rangers drafted Ortiz, they regarded him as a plus makeup, high-character player that was talented, but understandably raw. The club–and area scout Juan Alvarez in particular–liked the potential in his bat, but they also knew he would be a bit of a project.

Ortiz proved himself as a solid line-drive hitter right out of the gates, batting .302 with eight doubles and three homers in just 46 games for the rookie-level AZL Rangers.

The 6-foot-2, 200-pound prospect began his second season at short-season Spokane, but he was sent back to the rookie league after going 0-for-3 with three strikeouts in the first game of the season. He went on to struggle during his second season in the AZL, hitting .256 with reduced power.

Ortiz returned to the AZL once again in 2009, but he made the most of the situation, becoming a more complete hitter. The 20-year-old began going to the opposite field more often, and he looked more comfortable facing left-handed pitching. Ortiz's results also improved, as he posted a .304 average with 10 doubles and two round-trippers in 49 games.

In three seasons, Ortiz has spent almost all his time at the Rangers' complex in Arizona, logging only 18 at-bats with Spokane. However, the Rangers have stuck with the first baseman because of his tireless work ethic and his potential with the bat.

As Ortiz explains below, he has become confident in himself as a hitter, but he is looking to add game power in 2010. Ortiz is a very strong player that consistently lines balls into the gap, but Baseball Time in Arlington's Jason Parks says Ortiz is showing nice power in Spring Training batting practice thus far.

"He is showing some nice power to the pull side right now," he said. "He's using his legs and hips to generate good bat speed, his bat plane has some good lift, and he's getting good extension. Ortiz is strong enough to drive the ball when he extends."

The strides Ortiz has made over the past year, coupled with the Rangers' lack of first base depth at the lower levels, could mean the prospect has an opportunity to open the season at Single-A Hickory.

Regardless of where he begins the season, Ortiz has some potential in his bat, and he has taken endless ground balls to improve his defensive game at first base.

While most professional baseball players grow up dreaming about the game throughout their lives, Ortiz didn't realize he wanted to be a baseball player until much later on in life.

In the following interview, the prospect discusses his unique journey to pro baseball along with his upcoming season and previous years with the Rangers organization.



Jason Cole: Over the offseason, how did you prepare for this year?

Michael Ortiz: Coming off the season and instructional league, I was feeling great about everything I had accomplished. I felt like I had learned a lot and progressed. I'd taken huge strides, which gave me a whole new outlook on the game.

Starting November 1, I got in the gym about six days per week. I was just focusing mainly on hitting for power. In the gym the last few years, I thought I had a plan. I thought I knew it all. But in reality, I see all these guys that are progressing in front of me. I always thought I could've progressed earlier, but looking back now, I didn't prepare the right way. So this offseason was a completely new outlook.

I went in the gym, I was lifting heavy, I was lifting right. I studied my body, I studied the science of weightlifting. I did everything I could to just put as much power behind the baseball in my swing. Right now, I feel great. Then January came around and I started getting on the field, I started running, and doing all that stuff. Six days per week pretty much the entire offseason, I was working as hard as I could just to hit for more power.

The bottom line is that I feel like I've become a better hitter and I feel like I have the right approach. Now I just need to put the power into the equation because I'm a first baseman. I know–they haven't told me–but I know they want me to hit for power. I want to keep my strikeouts low and hopefully bring my power up this year. That's my goal.

Cole: Do you feel like a different hitter right now? Do you feel more power behind the ball when you hit it?

Ortiz: Definitely. Absolutely. All that work I did in the offseason leading up to this first day of Spring Training–I felt it worked out perfectly. Right now I feel a nice short, quick, compact swing, but I'm still hitting the ball hard. I'm still driving the ball into the gap. I want to stick with the same approach–I want to stay up the middle of the field.

You see all these great hitters in our organization–look at Mitch Moreland. If there's ever a guy that I've talked to about baseball–hitting as a teammate–he knows. If I can follow the same plan, maybe I can one day help the big club. I want to stick with the same approach, but just hit for more power.

Cole: You told me you also studied a lot of video over the offseason. What were you watching and what were you getting out of that?

Ortiz: I studied a lot of stuff from a guy named Charley Lau. He used to be the famous hitting coach for the Kansas City Royals. He was George Brett's first hitting coach. I studied him and his idea of what the right swing is. I also studied a lot of Rudy Jaramillo's old methods, and Luis Ortiz–I looked at his book. Also Clint Hurdle. Anything those guys had to say about hitting, I studied. Those guys have been there, and those guys know. I think if I can combine their thoughts with mine, I can become a great hitter. Who knows?

I also studied Albert Pujols and Joe Mauer. I know I'm a left-handed hitter, but if you are a great hitter–whether you're right-handed or left-handed–I can feed off that. I can study you. I feel like studying all the great hitters in the big leagues–how their swing is, what their approach is like at the plate, how they take pitches, what they do with runners on base. Anything about hitting, I was on.

I'd work out all day and it'd be 10:00 at night, and I'd be on my laptop on YouTube just searching all the hitters in baseball. There's nothing more I want than to help the big league team and to be a player on that team one day.

Cole: I know Luis Ortiz is one of the roving hitting coordinators in the Rangers system. Have you been able to talk to him about some of the stuff you read in his book?

Ortiz: I haven't talked to him as of right now about all the things I've read, but he has this one book that is over 100 hitting drill. I'm just studying all that stuff. He's just a giant brain. If you talk to that guy about hitting, he knows it all. And he's great with each individual hitter because he knows that each hitter is an individual. Mike Boulanger and Jason Hart, too. Those guys know that every hitter is different. They can help you individually without changing you. That's why Texas is the best.

Cole: Your results in the AZL in 2008 versus 2009 were pretty much night and day. What made the difference for you?

Ortiz: The difference for me was becoming a man. I came into professional baseball with a lot of confidence and a lot of cockiness. Like Ted Williams said, it's okay to be cocky. All the great hitters are. But you've got to do it in a silent way. I came in and tried to show everybody that I wanted to be a great player and I wanted to work hard, but now I've realized that it's not about just showing them, it's about doing your work the right way and letting it indirectly show on the field. I feel that over the last year, I've developed this quiet confidence that if I do my job the right way, I can help the team win and I can play well.

For me, it was just maturity. The talent and the work ethic was always there. I was always a hard worker, even before I played baseball. When I wasn't playing baseball, I was out hitting a punching bag until 10:00 at night. For me, that's just my mentality. If I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it the right way, and I'm going to have those blinders on. It's like a race horse–they have those blinders. They're not trying to look left or right–they're looking at the finish line.

For me, I always had that, but I didn't have the maturity. I feel like over the last year I've matured and I'm becoming a man and I have to be a man and just do my job. The bottom line is that I love baseball and I have a great time, but it's a job. And if I don't do my job, I'm out. And I understand that.

Cole: You only played one year of high school baseball, correct?

Ortiz: I played when I was a freshman–I played JV or whatever. Then I quit and started boxing. So I boxed for a couple years, and my senior year, I came back. But there was a new coach and because of team chemistry, the coach thought it was better if I DHed and did whatever.

Basically I was a DH for 10 games, because I really only played 10 games during the second half of the year. But we went to states. I had a good time with it, but my high school baseball career was so short and insignificant. The Texas Rangers were my first baseball team.

Cole: With such little experience coming into pro ball, did you feel it messed with your head a bit when you had your first extended slump in 2008?

Ortiz: My first year, when I was in extended and I got into my first slump–I never thought it was because I didn't have enough experience. I thought, ‘I'm here now, and I have to act like I belong here.' And even though I had struggles, and even though I wasn't mature enough and all those things–looking back on it, I can't say that I regret anything.

I don't regret not playing high school baseball, and I don't regret signing to play with the Texas Rangers. They've been great. They have taught me everything I know. I don't regret any decisions I've ever made, and I hope one day I can return the favor they've done for me by showing them on the Major League field one day.

Cole: Being a guy that hardly played high school baseball at all, how did you get discovered and how did you get drafted?

Ortiz: Coming into my senior year, there was a lot of hype about a new kid that was playing high school baseball. This big kid with some tools. The bottom line was that I had a couple tools, and I was one of the bigger guys on my team. So I guess there was a lot of attention there.

But the real reason how I got exposed was–I remember waking up one day. My dad was always trying to tell me to go back and play. He wanted me to go play baseball because he knew one day, if I worked hard, I could be a good baseball player. But I never really wanted to.

One day, I said, ‘Dad, I'm going to the batting cages.' So I went to those batting cages where they throw those yellow balls. And I went to the 90 mph machine. It had been about two or three years since I had hit, swung, or done anything. And I was just smashing the ball. I felt great. I guess that triggered it for me. That made me realize that I really can play baseball. I had no mindset that I'm going to play–I just wanted to go to the batting cage. And I guess after that, I came home and told my dad, ‘Look, I think I can do this.'

So I went down to the high school field, and for about a week there, I was trying to practice on my high school field. But I didn't tell any of the guys on the team, and I didn't tell the coach. I would just sit from three to six. I stopped boxing completely. I'd get out of school, I'd go to the Coral Reef Park–where our high school team played–and I'd sit on the other fields where no one could see me with my bat, bucket of balls, and a tee. No glove–I didn't want to be seen by anybody. So I'd sit on that back field and wait for three hours for the high school team to finish.

Then when they would finish, I would go into their cage and just hit and hit for days. Finally I went to the coach and said, ‘I want to try out. I can play. Put me on the team.' At first, he turned me down and told me they had their team set already. I had that feeling of an apple in your throat. I was totally distraught.

But I kept doing the same program–from three to six I'd wait on that back field where nobody could see me. Then I guess one day, I was on the field and nobody was there, but the coach stayed back to clean something. He came back to the dugout and I was hitting off the tee. He just saw me hitting and said, ‘I think maybe we can give you a shot.' I said, ‘Alright,' but he put me on JV. I played a couple games there and I did well. Then from there, I guess the rest is history.

Cole: Leading up to the draft after your senior year, were you pretty sure you would be picked or was it a complete uncertainty?

Ortiz: It was a complete uncertainty. The place that I'd hit at–with the batting cages–was owned by this guy named Juan Alvarez, who is the scout in Florida for the Texas Rangers. He would see me in there all the time, and I would go back all the time. After I'd hit on the high school field, I'd go to the batting cages and see some live pitching. I'd hit 300 balls per day, and he would be in there.

He would ask me, ‘Why are you hitting so much? Where do you play?' I told him that I was trying to play high school baseball and that they haven't given me a shot yet. Then finally, one day I told him, ‘Hey, they put me on the team.' He was like, ‘Well good for you. Keep working hard and keep coming here. My name is Juan Alvarez, and I'm a scout for the Rangers. You've got a good body and good bat speed. Maybe I'll come out to one of your games one of these days.'

He came out to a couple games, and I had a couple good games. I guess he told one guy and that guy told another guy, because before you know it, there were 10 or 15 scouts at the games. But my high school coach wouldn't let me play on the field. So basically you'd have 15 scouts at the games watching me take infield practice and batting practice. Then game time comes around and I'm sitting on the bench or DHing. Some days I wouldn't even DH–I'd sit the bench.

And everyone was asking my coach, ‘Why isn't this kid playing? Why don't you give him a chance?' But I never knew and nobody knew. Finally, towards the end of the year, I came back and had some problems where I missed a few games–I was ineligible with school. I was so concentrated on practice that I kind of lost concentration on school. I wanted to play so badly. So I signed a letter of intent to Miami-Dade Community College because I thought that was my only option. But the draft came around, and the Texas Rangers picked me in the 28th round.

Cole: Given where you started, just going into the back fields and hitting a ball off a tee, did you ever think you had any chance of playing pro baseball?

Ortiz: I've got to be honest–hitting off the tee after talking to that coach, I remember walking into his classroom and when I asked him the question to play and just him telling me no–that apple in my throat is a feeling I never wanted to feel again. It's kind of like the same feeling I got when I was called back from Spokane after one game and three strikeouts. You just can't breathe, you can't see, and you can't speak. You're just done.

And I remember telling myself that I never wanted to feel that again after he told me that. So I would practice and practice and practice until my hands would bleed. I'd have calluses that would bleed in the shower. It wasn't a good feeling.

But never did I think I would get drafted–no. My goal was to just play baseball because I wasn't even on a team yet. But I guess everything escalated once I met Juan Alvarez–him and another guy named Alex Mesa, who at the time was a scout for the Red Sox that invited me to workouts. Those two guys–without them, I would not be here. I would not be in the Texas Rangers' system.

So they started it all, and the Texas Rangers have taken it from there. I couldn't be happier and I can't express my feelings. These guys have done so much for me. Like I said, one day I will return the favor to the Major League club.



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