Reappearing Acts: Three minor leaguers with long absences and unique comeback stories

Two infielders and a reliever, ages 25 to 26, playing in Class A ball. One drafted in the 25th round who struggled in rookie league, another taken in the 42nd round, and a third who wasn’t drafted at all. None with even a full season of pro ball under their belts.

Minor league filler, right? Too old for level and no pedigree, so they must be like all the others in the parade of “org guys”.

As it happens, their stories are far more complex than that, and you might need to throw age and draft history out the window on all of them.

These three minor leaguers have something in common – they were all completely out of baseball for at least three years. They’ve all begun play with the White Sox organization in the past year. Each has a compelling story to tell about their time away and return to baseball, and you might just decide they’re worth keeping an eye on as players or even prospects despite outward appearances. Either way, you’ll find it hard not to root for this trio after learning how they got here.

Case 1: Eddy Alvarez

eddy-alvarez

In the pantheon of excuses for missing class or homework, telling your teacher you were busy winning an Olympic medal ranks right up there with the best (if you can prove it). Eddy Alvarez went three and a half years without picking up a bat after just a year of JuCo ball. The time off culminated in a world gold medal and Olympic silver medal at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi as part of the US national speedskating team. Not even two months after returning from Russia, Alvarez signed a minor league contract as a free agent to play with the Chicago White Sox.

Baseball-wise, Alvarez arrived at the AZL affiliate in June as an unknown commodity to virtually everyone outside the team. Given his 3+ years away from the game you’d expect some significant rust and inconsistency, so showing even mediocre results would have been a pleasant surprise. In 27 games with the rookie level AZL White Sox, this Pedroia-sized infielder posted a .291/.400/.409 line with nearly as many walks (20, 15.4% BB/PA) as strikeouts (24, 18.5% K/PA). Promoted to Class A Kannapolis, he was scorching hot at the plate in a short 18 game stint: .431/.488/.639, 3 HR, 7 BB and 10 K in 80 PA. Needless to say, at the plate, his performance exceeded expectations.

But the biggest clue we’ve seen so far as to Alvarez’ ability is that the club gave him the starting shortstop job in Kannapolis to open 2015. There were other middle infield options available for that gig, and the White Sox would not have gone this route if they didn’t think there was something there. Intimidators’ manager Tommy Thompson was quoted as saying he “can play the s*** out of shortstop.” In-person reports from a couple scouting types at early games echoed the positive sentiments about his defense.

It’s clear how the time away from baseball could be bad, but can some good come from it as well? We’re talking about a guy who spent time training and competing at the highest level and on the biggest stage in another sport – that’s experience none of his cohorts have. When we interviewed Eddy late last year, he had this to say about the strengths he feels he brings to the table:

“…my strongest suit is the mental part, with what I’ve been through to get to this point. In speed skating you have just one chance. You can train for 4 years, but one skip or fall, and it’s over. In baseball, you have 4 or 5 [hitting] opportunities each day. Mentally, I went through a sport that is more demanding, because of the need to constantly be on my ‘A Game’. That has helped me immensely. If I do miss a pitch, or roll over one which happens in baseball, I get over it quickly.”

In terms of major league prospects, does the 25-year old Alvarez have something? He’s got good speed, seems to be adjusting at shortstop well, is very mature (in age and life experience) and has shown the ability to hit at some levels – giving him likely the best chance at it among this group. The question seems to be whether or not his bat will be enough to push him into the higher prospect ranks, and we’ll find that out as the year goes on. But without a doubt his high level athletic experience can’t help but aide his progression, and be a positive presence around his younger teammates.

Case 2: Ethan Wilson

Ethan-Wilson

This 26-year old infielder who just got added to the Winston-Salem Dash roster has the strongest draft pedigree of this trio, being selected in the 25th round. But that was in 2010, and he didn’t perform too well in his brief stint in rookie ball. Then he seemed to disappear from the professional baseball world.

That’s not an uncommon story, but in this case there was a lot more to it. After being hesitant to talk about it publicly until recently, Ethan opened up to Future Sox in a recent interview and gave us a look into a tough few years for the infielder.

Ethan Wilson felt fine during his rookie campaign with Bristol. He had no way of knowing his kidneys were already beginning to fail him. It took a routine blood test during Spring Training in 2011 to tell him his kidney function was decreased. Further tests told the full story – Focal Segmental Glomerular Sclerosis (FSGS). In his case, the condition was manifesting as slow renal failure, and this 22 year old athlete would eventually need a kidney transplant or face life-long dialysis treatment among other scary prospects.

There were medications at first, but the side effects were “horrible”. A dozen people were tested for a possible match, but the process is very stringent and none were eligible. So he waited…

“It took almost three years for a match. Just a waiting game, it was tough sometimes. But baseball was always in the back of my mind. Finally in the first week of August [2014], they called and said they had a match.”

The matching donor turned out to be a woman named Lori Lord, a close friend of his mother’s. She stepped up to help by donating a kidney to a friend half her age. While it was the moment Ethan had been waiting for, fighting through his condition and the side effects of medication, he was more nervous than he let anyone know:

“I asked if I could take a week’s vacation first, so I just went to Florida by myself. Even though I downplayed it, it was a serious operation, with 5 and a half hours of surgery. But I knew when [the trip] was over, it was go time.”

A medical team led by surgeon William Goggins went above and beyond. The surgery took an hour and a half longer than usual. While in recovery, the doctor told Wilson that he’d done something the experienced physician had never done before. Usually for kidney transplants they slice right through the muscle to get straight at the area. But since the patient made clear he wanted to play baseball professionally again, the lead surgeon opted to pull back the whole abdominal musculature instead, thus preventing the need for significant muscle rebuilding after.

Seven days after surgery, Ethan was back home from the hospital and already starting his workouts. Having already had TJ surgery, a torn ACL and left ankle ligament injury over the years, the physical recovery from this procedure was actually easier, thanks in part to the unusual surgical maneuvering. But getting to truly 100% is an ongoing process – there are still regular blood tests, protein intake has to be monitored and hydration levels carefully maintained.

Then there’s this interesting coincidence. Wilson was a college teammate and roommate of Josh Phegley‘s. They hung out at times as White Sox minor leaguers as well. Phegley of course suffered his own unusual medical scare around the same time, in Josh’s case ITP Syndrome. Wilson says he considers Josh a friend even today.

Now its back to baseball, with Wilson making his professional comeback official in his first game with the Winston-Salem Dash today (April 22nd) at third base. As for his baseball future, Ethan knows the score:

“I realize my role moving forward as a player – more to be a good teammate than focusing on performance. I’m a competitor, and I’m going to compete. But given what I’ve been given, I’d like to try to be a role model for some guys. To help [teammates] keep things in perspective, knowing that it can be taken from you at any point.

Its given me perspective. It was very humbling, but I’m glad I got to experience at a young age. There’s not a lot moving forward that will knock me off track if this didn’t.”

A mature young man, Wilson wants to finish his degree in sports communication, and maybe explore coaching. But for now, he’s a role player, on and off the field.

The White Sox stuck by this Indiana native all along, and he’s very thankful to have the opportunity to be back.

Case 3: Brett Bruening

Brett Bruening

Right-handed reliever Brett Bruening was drafted in 2010, just like Wilson. But unlike Wilson, Bruening never appeared in a game his draft year. Or the year after, or any year until 2014. Here’s what we wrote on Bruening in 2010 when he was drafted (from our draft tracker):

Another big college junior (6’7″, 230). Transferred to Red Raiders after two years at Grayson CC. Won 2008 JuCo World Series. Used mostly as a reliever. 29 K, 26 BB in 38.1 IP with a 7.51 ERA.

There wasn’t much scouting information out there at the time, which isn’t unusual for a 42nd round pick. When he didn’t appear in any games and went to the Restricted List, he dropped off the radar.

Brett is the only one of these three players I didn’t get to speak with directly for this article. So for the in-between story, I’m going to borrow heavily from a very good piece written by Dan Hayes of Comcast Sports Net. The big Texan right-hander walked away from an assignment to Great Falls, and went back to school to finish his education. But that’s not the whole story – he also dealt with anxiety and some other off-field issues. From that Hayes article:

“I just wasn’t mentally prepared for the grind of the every day being in the minors,” Bruening said. “Deep down inside I never stopped loving the game, but also I wasn’t prepared to succeed. I think I just needed to step away. I had some things outside of baseball that I wanted to improve upon and needed to go to take care of those first and foremost.”

After graduating from Texas A&M – CC, Bruening felt ready to give pitching another shot. A workout was arranged in March 0f 2014. Having no idea what to expect, the White Sox were blown away by what they saw – a big righty throwing legitimate heat. More material from the CSN article:

“The first pitch out of his hand was 94,” [scout Keith] Staab said. “The sliders were out of whack, but they were 84 to 86 and they had the right tilt and dip to them.”

Bruening recalls he felt good, but he was nervous. He had only been throwing for two weeks.

“When Staab was flashing numbers out when I was throwing my pen, he was holding up three and four and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m throwing 84 miles an hour,’ ” Bruening said. “After the bullpen he was like, ‘No, that was 93, 94.’ I was freaking out.”

After some further workouts, Bruening’s fastball got as fast as 99 mph, and the team signed him to a new minor league deal. He pitched just six innings across rookie and A-ball last year (after some time in extended Spring Training), but having been out of the game that long as a pitcher, he needed to work up his strength.

Now here we are today, with Bruening on the roster of the Kannapolis Intimidators to open the 2015 season. He’s already pitched more pro innings this year than he did all of last season, so he’s fully engaged in the job. Brett is a 26 year old reliever with an intriguing but very raw arm. He may be behind the development curve, but like Wilson and Alvarez, he brings experience and wisdom his teammates can learn from.

Player development is not linear, and like any young professionals, prospects need the right influences. Even if the major league dreams for these three players are long shots, the players around them are all better off for having them as teammates.

***Special thanks to Eddy and Ethan for taking the time to talk with us, and to the Intimidators and the Dash in helping set up the interviews.

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