I always enjoy finding fan blogs of minor league teams. There is a passion needed to cover a team not too many fans know about. And if done well, an independent minor league team blog can quickly become the alternative voice for people looking for news on a prospect or on the team.
As I mentioned last June, there are few really good fan-based blogs of teams in the Florida State League (yes, the failed flotsam and jetsam is still out there). Last year, I interviewed Jeff Crupper of Threshers Nation. Shortly after I talked to Jeff, a new blog joined the scene: Claw Digest, a blog on the Charlotte Stone Crabs, the Tampa Bay Rays High-A affiliate out of Port Charlotte, Florida.
I emailed Jim Donten, webmaster and lead blogger at Claw Digest and asked him a few questions about his site. He was kind enough to reply. You can also find him on Twitter at @ClawDigest.
BusLeaguesBaseball: What is Claw Digest and how long has it been active?
Jim Donten: Claw Digest is a site I created at the end of the 2010 season. I wanted to create the site prior to the start of the inaugural season but a lack of time and experience caused (it to) be to put the project on the back burner. But then after last season, I took a leap and created the site. The site is a collection of news, stats, photos and inside looks at the Stone Crabs organization as well as periodic updates on the careers of former Stone Crabs.
BLB: What is your blogging background and baseball fan background?
JD: I have been a lifelong fan baseball fan. I grew up in South Central Pennsylvania going to Philadelphia Phillies, Reading Phillies and Harrisburg Senators game. I relocated to Florida after graduating high school in 1998 and lost interest in going to live games due to the abundance of things to do in Florida, however I still enjoyed watching MLB on TV. But a few years later, I took an special detail with my fire department for a fireworks shoot at Ed Smith Stadium for a Sarasota Reds game. The excitement of being back in the ballpark renewed that love of watching live baseball and we have been going regularly every since.
I began my online work by combining my two favorite things, baseball and photography. I created a web gallery of photos of all the games and players I saw play in Sarasota through the Sarasota Reds and the Cincinnati Reds. These photos appeared on both clubs official websites and various blogs.
When the Rays moved to their Advanced-A affiliate to Port Charlotte, I switched alliances to the newly formed Stone Crabs who are just 7 minutes from my house. During this time, I reached out to Rays Prospects and offered them the use of photos like I had already done for Reds Minor Leagues in the past. Doug Milhoan and I began a great friendship in the process and I eventually took up writing as well.
After two seasons of writing for Rays Prospects, I started Claw Digest. I still continue to write for both sites.
BLB: Why do a blog on the Tampa Bay Rays class high A team?
JD: I have been a season ticket holder for the Stone Crabs since the inaugural season and live less then 10 minutes from Charlotte Sports Park. I covered the Stone Crabs and the Florida operations for Rays Prospects for two years. Then last year I decided to branch out and provide a little more detailed coverage of the Stone Crabs and Claw Digest was born. It was an opportunity to incorporate some of my ideas that were too intense to do organization wide but were easy to manage at a local level.
BLB: The Stone Crabs are a relatively new team. How has the local response been to the club?
JD: The local response to the Stone Crabs has been fantastic and I contribute that to the management of the club. General Manager Joe Hart and his staff do an excellent job of marketing the team in Port Charlotte and the surrounding communities. Their commitment to the community through public appearances and helping local organizations goes a long way in selling the image of the team. They have made the ballpark and organization very fan friendly through special events and it shows seeing how they led the league in attendance in each of their first two seasons. This is evident driving through town or walking through the stores when you see Stone Crabs hats and shirts on people and banners on building and cars representing the team.
BLB: Do you think the team benefits from having the Rays only an hour away?
JD: I am not really sure there is much of a benefit from having the Rays being so close. I think the bigger benefit is that the Stone Crabs play in the spring training complex of the Rays. This allows easy access to first class playing and rehab facilities as well as having roving instructors visiting the club quite regularly. Because of the rehab facility, the Stone Crabs tend to have MLB players rehab with them quite frequently, including BJ Upton, Carlos Pena, Pat Burrell, Jason Bartlett, Scott Kazmir and more have spend time with the Stone Crabs in the past two seasons.
BLB: Who has been your favorite Stone Crab so far?
JD: There has been a bunch of great players that have come through Charlotte in such a short time, it hard to pick just one. One of my overall favorites has been Stephen Vogt. He had performed both on the field and off the field. He got hurt in 2009 and spent much of the season on the DL. During this time, he continued to help out with the team, helping coach and even appeared in a game as an umpire when the FSL ump was injured. In 2010 he made up for lost time by leading the league in hitting and then headed to Columbia for Winter Ball where his hot streak at the plate continued. Stephen was also big in the community and always volunteered his time to helping the club which led to him winning the 2010 Erik Walker Community Champion Award.
A few other personal favorites include Henry Wrigley, Tyler Bortnick and Cody Cipriano. Wrigley provided a big bat in the Stone Crabs lineup and he led the Stone Crabs in home runs in 2010 despite being promoted to Montgomery mid-season. Bortnick is a hard-nose player that is a lot of fun to watch, he only spent a few games with the Stone Crabs last year but I am looking forward to seeing him play this season. Cipriano was another fun player to watch for the Stone Crabs, knocks the cover of the ball and comes through in clutch situations plus the ability to play multiple positions in the infield.
BLB: You saw Matt Moore last year. Thoughts on him?
JD: Moore’s performance on the mound was amazing. His started the year off slow but worked closely with pitching coach Neil Allen to refine his grip. He led the minors in strikeouts for two years in a row while lowering his walk-out rate. Moore had a bone chip removed from his hand during the off-season and is reported to be feeling better and throwing better. So if this minor adjustment will help avoid a slow start, the ceiling for Moore is unlimited.
BLB: You saw Tim Beckham last year. Thoughts on him?
JD: Unlike a lot of other people, I have not lost faith in Beckham. He did not have a breakout season like predicted with the Stone Crabs but he faired average in a predominantly pitchers league. He was able to reduce his errors between 2009 and 2010. I witnessed Beckham make some spectacular plays at short with the Stone Crabs however I also saw him miss some what appeared to be routine plays. Better consistency will help round out his game and push him towards living up to the hype of being a first round pick with the largest bonus in franchise history.
BLB: Who should we keep an eye on this year?
JD: A personal favorite of mine this season is Tyler Bortick. This kid plays the game of baseball the way it was meant to be played. He gives 110% on the field and finds the way to make the play over and over again. He tends to fly under the radar amongst players in the organization but look for him to have a solid year with the Stone Crabs.
I am also interested in seeing how Jake Thompson does in his first full season. He was promoted to the Stone Crabs late 2010 and started two games for the Stone Crabs. But in those two games, his pitched 11 innings and did not allow an earned run while striking out 6 and holding hitters to a .059 average. I am eager to see if the Rays second round pick from 2010 will continue his success in the Florida State League.
BLB: Last year, the Stone Crabs played in the Florida State League Finals. How do you think they will fare this year?
JD: The Stone Crabs have reached the playoffs in each of their two seasons in the league and I don’t think this year will be any different. Under the leadership of Jim Morrison, the club has managed to make it back to the playoffs despite who is or is not on the field. He gets them to play as one and no matter what part of the puzzle is replaced, the team continues to function and win games. This is key with the revolving door that is minor league baseball. The lineup seems to be missing a big bat, but I think the players on this years club will get it done with extra base hits and timely hitting rather then the big fly. Plus you have the strong pitching staff that like the two previous years will help lead the Stone Crabs into the postseason.