FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The experience of being drafted can be one of the most exciting times in a baseball player’s career. After years of work on and off the field, being selected by a major league team with an early pick is validation of a player’s talent and potential future in the game.
Of course, being drafted is also the start of a long journey to The Show. Even the most experienced college players can take more than two years to reach the majors, and for high school players, four to five years is a more realistic time frame from signing to being ready to assume an everyday role.
For the two highest-rated players taken by the Red Sox in June’s draft, first-round pick Trey Ball and third-round pick Jon Denney, that long journey started this summer in rookie ball, specifically in Fort Myers, where they play for the Red Sox Gulf Coast League affiliate.
As glamorous as draft day and multi-figure signing bonuses may seem, life at the Florida complex is decidedly unglamorous (for a primer on the GCL, see this post on SoxProspects News from earlier this week). Players in the GCL are often getting their first experience playing baseball games every day, working out on a set schedule, and doing only that for weeks and months at a time.
It is for this reason that, while neither Ball nor Denney has produced eye-popping numbers -- and quite the opposite, both have underwhelming stat lines -- there is little reason to worry. More important at this stage is getting into a routine and learning the techniques and mechanics that they will hone as minor leaguers over the next few years. With neither player likely to reach the majors until 2017 or so, as we project at SoxProspects.com, there will be time to worry about statistics later.
Ball, the seventh overall pick who received a $2.75-million signing bonus, has been brought along cautiously, as the club tends to do with its draft picks (only one 2013 draftee has pitched more than 20 innings to date, and none have gone longer than three innings in an outing). Ball signed on June 19 and was on the GCL roster to open the season on June 21, but he did not make his debut until July 29.
“From my high school season [to the draft], I was off a month, so when I [debuted], I hadn’t pitched in a game for over two months,” he said. “They were just rebuilding my arm, taking precautions, making sure the arm’s healthy before sending me out there.”
The 6-foot-6 left-hander from Indiana has admittedly struggled in his four starts thus far, giving up seven runs, five earned, on seven hits and six walks while striking out just four in his five innings of work. He will likely make two more starts before the end of the season, but the key gains have come in getting him used to the professional five-day pitching schedule from the once-a-week pitching routine that is the norm in high school.
“It’s an adjustment, not being on a five-day routine before and getting adjusted to how they do everything down here,” he admitted. “But once I get more a couple months down here with that routine, then it’ll get better. I’ve never really been on a set workout program like how the one-through-five day [professional schedule] is. It’s been really good.”
Early in the spring, Ball was seen as a first-round talent both as a pitcher and as an outfielder, although as the spring went on, most scouts -- and Ball himself -- felt that his future was on the mound. Unlike the Red Sox’s last two-way high school first-round pick, Casey Kelly, Ball and the club mutually agreed from the get-go that he would focus on pitching.
“I felt towards the end of the spring I was leaning more towards pitching,” he recalled. “I do miss hitting for sure, I miss it a lot, but I think pitching the right place for me and where I should be right now. ... [The Red Sox] asked me, and I said pitching for sure based on how the spring had gone, so that’s what we both decided on.”
Denney, a catcher out of Oklahoma who was the 81st overall selection, had been ranked as a potential first-round pick by most outlets but slipped past the first two rounds into the draft’s second day. While Ball was mildly surprised to be taken by the Sox -- he had been projected to go in picks 8-14, but had extensive contact with Red Sox scouts, cross-checkers, and front-office personnel before the draft, so Ball's surprise was more along the lines of excitement at being drafted higher than expected -- Denney admitted true surprise at his selection, which occurred while he was flying home from attending Day 1 of the draft.
“It was a surprise, it really was,” he said. “I had an expectation to go between certain picks [on Day 1 of the draft], and didn’t meet that expectation. I was on a plane going home, and we had a deal set up with the Royals, who had the pick after the Sox, and the Sox grabbed me. I’m grateful for it -- they’ve been one of my favorite teams since I was little -- but it was a surprise, honestly.”
Since signing on June 21 and debuting on July 4, Denney has gone through a clear adjustment period at the plate, hitting .203/.379/.243 in 74 at-bats over 26 games. He said that once he grew used to life as a pro, getting comfortable at the plate has been his biggest adjustment.
“At first it was the daily routine of the scheduling. In high school, it’s ‘be here at this time,’ but here, it’s ‘be here at this time, over and over and over, at these specific times,’” he said. “For me, that was the biggest adjustment, but now, it’s routine. Now I’m working on the hitting side. My catching, I’ve done well with the catching, especially on the receiving. It’s there. Just working on hitting now, and that’s my biggest adjustment is the hitting.”
In particular, Denney said that his work has been on his approach. After drawing more than his fair share of walks during his high school season as teams pitched around him, he admitted that he needed to readjust his mindset at the plate.
“Towards the end of the year, around playoffs, my mindset flipped and I was sitting on off-speed [pitches] and adjusting to the fastball, and I kind of carried that here,” he said. “And that’s the completely wrong thing to do. You can’t adjust to a fastball if you’re thinking off-speed because it’s a lot quicker than high school. I’m trying to get out of that, and I think I am.”
Meanwhile, Denney has been happy with his work behind the dish. Unlike 2011 first-round pick Blake Swihart, the last early-round high school catcher selected by Boston, Denney has years of experience at catcher, a position he has played since he was 10 years old. He said he has seen marked improvement in his receiving and blocking since signing, the former being “night and day” from where he was in high school.
Of course, one final adjustment in rookie ball that players must make is to the lack of much to do in a town dubbed “Fort Misery” by some past minor leaguers. Each player has found a downtime hobby to stay busy when not at the field: Ball has watched his fair share of movies (he said "We Are the Millers" was a recent favorite), while Denney bought a fishing pole almost immediately upon arriving and has caught a few bass with teammates.
Any good fisherman knows that patience is important when trying to hook a big one. Surely, the Red Sox are hoping that with a little patience of their own in Ball and Denney, they’ll have hooked a couple big fish of their own.