Retherford Excels After Slipping Through Draft
CHICAGO—C.J. Retherford isn't surprised that Birmingham has been one of the best teams in the minor leagues this season. He knew they were going to be good, really good, when he saw the talent gathered around him at the White Sox's minor league complex.
Gordon Beckham, a first-round pick in 2008, was at shortstop. Dayan Viciedo, a Cuban émigré with a freshly minted $10 million contract, was at third base. Center fielder John Shelby III batted leadoff, with catcher Tyler Flowers and first baseman Brandon Allen batting third and fourth.
"You could just tell we were going to have a really good team," Retherford said as the 88-46 Barons headed into the final week of the regular season. "I wouldn't be surprised if every position player in that lineup played in the big leagues. One through nine were awesome players."
Forgive Retherford if he blows his own horn a little bit. Nobody else ever has.
Overlooked From The Start
Retherford, the No. 9 hitter on Opening Day, has climbed into the No. 2 spot in the order. He was one of five Birmingham players named to the Southern League's postseason all-star team, the only player on the team whose selection was unanimous.
Credit the power of motivation, among other things. Retherford was eligible for the draft five consecutive seasons yet never was selected after playing on strong teams at his Chandler, Ariz., high school, at South Mountain (Ariz.) CC and at Arizona State.
The day that the White Sox called to offer him a spot on a rookie team as a nondrafted free agent in 2007, he was headed toward an office job at a milling company in the Phoenix area. He's been happy to continue working outside in the heat, rather than in the air conditioning.
"I knew I could do it," Retherford said. "It is satisfying to put together numbers that sort of back you up, show that you can do what you feel like you can do . . . I'd rather be in my position than to have been a first- or a second-round pick and be three years into my career with people wondering why I'm not putting up numbers."
Retherford is moving through the White Sox system in a hurry. He jumped from Rookie-level Great Falls to high Class A Winston-Salem in his first full season, skipping low Class A. He figures to move to Triple-A next season, where he'll be one phone call away from Chicago.
"His approach at the plate is outstanding," Birmingham hitting coach Andy Tomberlin said. "His hand-eye coordination is hard to miss. His bat stays in the hitting zone a long time. You can't sit there watching him and say, 'There's a hole.' He's a guy who can handle inside pitches, away, up, down. He's a very athletic hitter."
Retherford has hit .301 in 312 games in the Chicago system, with 38 home runs and 191 RBIs. He has 42 of his 100 career doubles this season.
Retherford led the Pioneer League in extra-base hits his first season as a pro, then earned all-star honors in the Carolina League in 2008. He played third base both seasons, and this season has continued to hit while making the move to second base.
Moving Across The Diamond
A possible position change was suggested to Retherford at the end of last season. He spent the winter working at second base, including sessions with Andy Stankiewicz, the former big league infielder who now is an assistant coach at Arizona State.
"It hasn't been too bad," Retherford said. "In high school, I played shortstop when I didn't pitch, and I've really played all over the field, almost every position.
"Andy helped me with the turn (on the double play), those kind of things. And (Birmingham manager) Ever Magallanes was a second baseman. He has really reinforced things to me this season."
Retherford was voted as the Southern League's best defensive second baseman by managers in Baseball America's annual Best Tools survey.
"He has made all the plays,'' Tomberlin said. "When I think back to spring training, sometimes I can't believe the range he is showing now. He covers ground and makes plays, like it's becoming second nature to him.''
Retherford is listed at 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, but those numbers would probably shrink if he had to go to the NFL combine.
He is considered a good baserunner but doesn't have great speed. Even at Arizona State, he had to show a utility man's mindset because his skill set did not make him a big man on campus.
Retherford will get another chance to earn playing time this fall. He was on the list of players the White Sox are sending to the Arizona Fall League.
"That's amazing," Retherford said. "It's one of the highest honors a player can have, one of the best things they can ask any minor leaguer to do.
"You're going to be playing with really good players every day, and I get to do it at home, with my family and friends able to come out and watch a game. That's really special."
So is Retherford. When Tomberlin thinks about him, his mind's eye flashes to Dustin Pedroia, the American League's reigning MVP.
"He's the first guy I think of (for comparisons to Retherford)," Tomberlin said. "It's really not a knock on C.J. that he wasn't drafted. Scouts miss a lot of players. I know for myself because I have been a scout. That's a really hard job. I signed out of a tryout camp myself, as a pitcher, and I got to the big leagues as an outfielder. This game is full of surprises."