GLENDALE, Ariz.—Marcus Semien is not likely to forget his first major league game with the White Sox.
Now playing with the Glendale Desert Dogs of the Arizona Fall League, the 23-year-old infielder was coming off just his second full professional season, a year in which he broke out with strong seasons at Double-A and Triple-A.
“My debut was at Yankee Stadium,” Semien said, “so that was a great place to start. I got to see a lot of players I watched growing up, like Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez . . . that was a pretty fun night.
“I liked it, and I want to do everything I can to get back there.”
If Semien’s 2013 season is any indication, he should have plenty of more fun nights in big league ballparks across the country. The White Sox’s sixth-round draft pick in 2011 out of California started the year with Double-A Birmingham, batting .290/.420/.483 with 15 home runs and 20 stolen bases in 393 at-bats. Semien was then promoted to Triple-A Charlotte, where he hit .264/.338/.464 with the Knights before making his big league debut Sept. 4 with a pair of hits against the Bronx Bombers.
Prior to his fine 2013 season, the former college shortstop carried the label of being a potential utility infielder, in part because he’s capable of handling both middle infield positions as well as filling in at third base. He played all three positions during the regular season, but wound up spending more time at the hot corner during his month with the White Sox. He’s got good hands and enough arm strength to handle all three positions.
Glendale manager Jeff Smith doesn’t believe that the “utility” tag is representative of Semien’s potential.
“I like to use ‘versatility’ instead of ‘utility’,” Smith said. “Utility means ‘plays once in a while.’ For me, versatility means you play a lot—just different positions.”
Judging from his 2013 results, it looks like Semien will have the bat to be an everyday player. His numbers are down in the AFL, likely because of the fatigue and wear and tear from not getting a break after the minor league season like most other Fall League participants. But that doesn’t mean Semien isn’t learning and improving this fall, just like he’s done at each minor league level.
“The higher you go the better guys are at throwing strikes with all of their pitches,” Semien said. “A lot of guys out of the bullpen are throwing 95-plus with a good offspeed pitch, so they keep you off balance a lot. You’ve got to utilize your resources, watch video, get scouting reports and do your homework.”
If that sounds like someone who took their Cal studies serious, Smith says Semien takes his AFL time seriously as well.
“He’s probably been our hardest worker in terms of going out early, taking ground balls, and getting acclimated to all three positions,” Smith said.
What made Semien’s 2013 even more impressive was the power boost compared to the early part of his career. After hitting just 10 homers in three years at Cal and three longballs in his first pro season, the righthanded batter hit 14 homers in 2012 and then 19 combined at the two levels in 2013. He also went deep twice in the big leagues.
It’s not like Semien’s trying to be a big power guy.
“I think I’ve gotten better the more I’ve played, the more at-bats I’ve gotten,” Semien said. “I’ve played two full seasons now and I’m starting to run into some balls . . . I never try to hit it out. I just try to let it happen.”
Smith has his own idea on how Semien gets so much power out of his 6-foot-1, 190-pound frame.
“He definitely has the ability to drive the ball, especially in the gaps and pull side,” Smith said. “He has pretty good pitch selection. When he gets himself in offensive counts and when he works hard he gets himself in 2-0, 2-1, 3-1 counts, he’s up there and looks to do a little more damage, which good hitters do.”
Semien will head to big league camp next February with a legit chance at earning a spot on the White Sox’s Opening Day roster. Conor Gillaspie doesn’t have third base locked down in Chicago, and Gordon Beckham has a career .249/.314/.380 line at second base. But Semien, the son of a former Cal football player, takes nothing for granted, even after his breakout season.
“I’ve always been the type of person that tells myself I want to improve on everything,” Semien said. “Defense, plate discipline, just my overall swing — I think everything could be better.”
Smith, who manages the Twins Double-A team in New Britain during the regular season, believes Semien’s big league cameo gives him a head start on that goal of staying in Chicago.
“Going up there in September,” Smith said, “I think what it’s really done for him is seeing what he wants to accomplish in the offseason to stay up there and make that his career right there.”
• Nebraska head coach Darin Erstad, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1995 draft and author of a 14-year big league career as a player, will be the next inductee into the Arizona Fall League Hall of Fame before the Wednesday night game at Scottsdale Stadium. Erstad played in the AFL in 1995 as a member of the Tempe Rafters, led the majors with 240 hits in 2000, and earned two all-star nods. He also batted .339/.368/.492 with three homers in 29 postseason games and helped the Angels win the 2002 World Series.
• The annual AFL championship game will be held on Saturday, Nov. 16 at 3:10 EST at Scottsdale Stadium. The game will be broadcast live on MLB Network. With four games remaining in the regular season, the Mesa Solar Sox lead Salt River by a half-game in the East division, while the Surprise Saguaros lead the West by 2 1/2 games.