Denver Native Optiz to Manage Grand Junction
By Jack Etkin
Jake Opitz originally was going to be the hitting coach at Rookie level Grand Junction this year. But Rockies farm director Zach Wilson instead decided that the Colorado native instead will manage the Grand Junctio team in his second season with the Rockies organization.
“That was always something that was in the back of my mind as we went through our process,” said Wilson, referring to the 2018 minor league staffing. “And the more I looked at what we needed there and the type of person we needed there in the manager’s role, the picture became clear to me that Jake’s personality, the way that he relates to players, the way that players relate to him, the fact that he’s more recently out of the game than most and he’s got a different perspective, I think is going to be really helpful there with all the young kids and people that are being introduced to our organization for the first time.”
Wilson also hired Helmis Rodriguez, who pitched in the Rockies’ system, to be the pitching coach at the second Dominican Summer League team the Rockies will field this season, and Tom Sutaris, who will be making his professional coach debut, as the High Class A Lancaster hitting coach. The minor league staff will be completed with the hiring of a hitting coach at Grand Junction.
Opitz, 31, a 2004 graduate of Heritage High School, went the University of Nebraska and was drafted by the Cubs in the 12th round in 2008. He played five seasons in the Cubs' and Phillies' organizations, spending most of that time at High Class A Daytona. He also played parts of four seasons in two independent leagues. Opitz, who saw the most action at first base, second base and third base, finished his playing career in 2015 with the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs in the independent Atlantic League and was their hitting coach in 2016.
“He’s the guy that finally made me feel old in this business,” Wilson said. “I scouted him when he was in high school and then I hired him as a coach.”
That was for the 2017 season at Double-A Hartford where Opitz was an all-purpose coach on a staff that included hitting coach Tim Doherty (now the Triple-A Albuquerque hitting coach) and manager Jerry Weinstein. Minor league managers typically coach third base, but Weinstein, a baseball lifer, gave that responsibility to Opitz last year.
Weinstein, 74, who is entering his 12th season in the Rockies' organization,will be in a part-time role doing special assignment work for both Wilson and scouting director Bill Schmid, Weinstein is extremely high on Opitz and believes he'll do well as a manager.
“He’s going to really be good,” Weinstein said. “He’s a sharp, sharp, sharp kid. He’s got really, really good baseball awareness. He’s got a really good demeanor with the kids. He holds them accountable.”
Weinstein characterized Opitz as very even-keeled, which will help the young Grand Junction players, and said last year at Hartford, “He took charge. He wasn’t afraid to try stuff and do things and was not afraid to express himself. And he wasn’t just a passive guy that was just sitting there and (waiting for) whatever someone asked him to do. He’s a thinker.”
A left-handed pitcher from Venezuela, Rodriguez, 23, spent seven seasons in the Rockies’ organization, his entire professional career, as it turned out. After two seasons in the DSL, Rodriguez pitched at Grand Junction in 2013 and annually moved up one level before 2017 when he repeated the high Class A level. An oblique strain delayed his 2017 debut at Lancaster until May 19. Rodriguez went 4-2 with a 4.21 ERA in 24 games, five starts, with 27 walks and 36 strikeouts in 57 2/3 innings.
Wilson said Rodriguez, a minor league free agent after last season, not surprisingly had his mind initially set on continuing to play before embracing the opportunity to coach as it became apparent that was his best occupational option.
“As the offseason went on,” Wilson said, “and he started to kind of look in the mirror and also realize where he was at in his career, the idea, I think, started coming in his head. ‘Hey, here’s how I can still stay involved. And here’s how I can impact other people around me.’ And the one thing about Helmis as a player is he was a great teammate and he wanted to make people around him better as much as he wanted to make himself better.”
Wilson said Rolando Fernandez, the Rockies’ vice president of international development and scouting, and Edison Lora, the Latin field coordinator and pitching coach of the Rockies’ original DSL team, spoke to Rodriguez about possibly coaching and asked him to help out at the pre- spring training program in the Dominican Republic that the Rockies run at their complex in Boca Chica in January and February.
“He came right out of the gate with energy and just kind of a natural knack to teach,” Wilson said. “And he was fearless about getting in there and teaching and coaching. He kind of fell in love with it, and he showed signs immediately that he could be really good. As the program kept going along, it became pretty clear this was going to be a good addition, if, indeed, he was fully ready to commit to that.
“We had a lot of conversations about that, and at the end of that (program), he realized some realities of his situation and where he was at but also realized ultimately what he wanted to do and what was important to him. So we hired him fulltime.”
Sutaris, 48, was a volunteer assistant coach in 2017 at the University of the Incarnate Word, which is a Division I school in San Antonio. Before that, Sutaris was a special assistant for the baseball program at the University of Texas. Since his extensive coaching experience was at the high school and college levels and not in professional baseball, Sutaris, who had crossed paths with Rockies hitting and bunting coordinator Darin Everson, was hardly a traditional candidate for the minor league staff. But once the Rockies started talking to the Tom River, N.J. native and then brough Sutaris to Denver, Wilson said the fit with the Rockies’ organization and at the high Class A level in particular became apparent.
“His resume’s different from a lot of resumes, because he doesn’t have some of the professional coaching experience,” Wilson said. “But the resume of the person fits remarkably well in terms of our culture and what we stand for and our values. And he’s going to match up really well at that level in terms of his personality. So (we’re) excited about it.”