Blue Rocks outfielder Whit Merrifield played 70 games during the 2010 regular season at South Carolina during his senior year and participated in the College World Series and captured a title.
By contrast, he has already played 74 games with Wilmington during the 2011 season, and he may play close to a total of 140 games once it ends in early September.
The longer schedule and increased workload, Merrifield said, is what separates the Kansas City Royals’ High-A affiliate from his collegiate team.
“You get a little bit of [the increase in work] at the college level, but nothing like the minor league level,” Merrifield said.
Merrifield, 22, is currently one of 25 players on the Blue Rocks roster with hopes of getting promoted to a higher level of professional baseball and getting a chance to play in the major leagues.
Just over a year removed from his series-clinching RBI single in the CWS, Merrifield has already had a taste of success, but said the biggest challenge that he faces in the minor leagues is the adversity that comes with failure.
“You’re going to go through some big time peaks and valleys, but it’s learning to cope with [failure] and shorten those slumps and get back on the right track.”
Developing consistency despite a longer and more challenging season is the most important thing his players can accomplish in the minor leagues, according to manager Brian Rupp.
Rupp, who has managed the Blue Rocks since the 2009 season, said players on his team often have the skills but have to work at developing the way they react to more demanding competition on an everyday basis in order to progress in their career.
“Obviously everybody’s got the talent—otherwise they wouldn’t be here—but it’s about learning to deal with the day to day grind and adjusting to that,” Rupp said.
College and high school seasons don’t have as many games as a Carolina League season, and don’t require the same level of work, according to Rupp. Players have to put in extra work and effort just to be successful.
Often times, he said, this involves extra batting practice or time in the field to improve their defense. The repetitive nature of those drills may seem monotonous, but tends to produce better players, according to Blue Rocks vice president Jack Minker.
Minker said the club’s goal is development, which may involve improving smaller, but no less important, parts of their game. Despite the fact that some activities may appear more relevant to players’ development than others, coaches try to help players work on their deficiencies and refine their strengths.
“Sometimes we don’t understand why they’re doing this or why they’re doing that, but there’s a reason for everything,” Minker said.
Among the players who have made it to the major leagues, Minker said that Royals 1B Eric Hosmer and 3B Mike Moustakas
demonstrated the results of talent development in Wilmington.
Both players were highly touted prospects in the Royals organization who reached the major leagues in June. Both Hosmer and Moustakas played with the Blue Rocks in 2009-2010 and were managed by Rupp.
Since the modern day Blue Rocks began playing games in 1993, the organization has produced 113 major league players, including Jon Lieber, Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran. Minker said tracing the development of players back to Wilmington is rewarding because it helps the organization recognize the success of techniques which assisted them in their progression to the major leagues.
“That’s when it’s fun to look back and say ‘that’s why they were working so hard,’” Minker said.
At the High-A level, Rupp said, players are often receptive and willing to learn from the coaching staff. Their efforts often culminate in an “a-ha” moment and they witness a player understanding a new technique and another step in their progress as a baseball player.
Those moments, he said, are rewarding for the athlete and the coaches. Realizing a player’s development encourages them to keep pushing their players to become even better.
“It could be for a day, a week or a month, and finally that light kicks on and that’s when you feel good as a coach and a staff member,” Rupp said.