SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.—Salt River lefthander Kyle Freeland had never before pitched in a game being televised nationally until he took the mound for the East team in the Arizona Fall League's Fall Stars Game on Saturday.
Just like his AFL season to date, there were some highs and some lows. The Rockies’ 2014 first-round pick showed off a lively fastball up to 96 mph and made a very nice athletic play on a grounder in front of the mound to force a runner at second base.
But he also served up a hanging changeup that Surprise catcher Gary Sanchez (Yankees) sent sailing over the left-field fence to tie the game at 2-2 in the fourth inning.
Results notwithstanding, Freeland is just happy to have his professional baseball career moving forward again. The Rockies wanted to bring the former Evansville ace along slowly after he signed in 2014 for a below-slot $2.3 million. So even though he made 10 regular season starts and one more for low Class A Asheville in the South Atlantic League playoffs, he got in 44 innings after signing.
“They (Rockies organization) didn't want to burn me out," Freeland said. “That was tough, especially when I was with Asheville with us going to the playoffs and winning the championship. I have that competitive mentality where I wanted to go out and pitch and help my team win."
However, that was nearly as much work as he got in the 2015 regular season, as he pitched just 46 2/3 innings. His season got off to a late start due to shoulder fatigue during spring training followed by minor surgery to have bone chips removed from his elbow—a condition that helped lead to Freeland's lower signing bonus.
Freeland returned to Rookie-level Grand Junction, where he'd made his pro debut, for his rehab work, finally making his season debut in late July with two starts before being moved up to high Class A Modesto. The lanky lefty finished 3-2, 4.76 while rebuilding arm strength and re-discovering his rhythm.
With less than 50 total innings under his belt during the 2015 season, Freeland was a good candidate for an AFL slot. His first start went poorly—he gave up six runs and didn't escape the first inning—but he pitched effectively in the next three starts leading up to the Fall Stars Game, giving up only one run in 14 innings. Overall, Freeland is pleased with his progress so far and he's meeting the goals that the Rockies passed along to the Salt River staff, specifically refining his delivery and creating repetition.
“He's done a real good job of adapting, just getting to know his mechanics a little bit better, and getting through everything," said Salt River pitching coach Larry Pardo, who works for the Diamondbacks organization. “They wanted him to refine small things and just get his mechanics going the right way, and making sure he executed his pitches."
Pardo added that he's noticed Freeland is all business, getting to the park early and always preparing for the work ahead.
Freeland believes that the maturity he displays and his strong work ethic come from his three years at Evansville. He was drafted in the 35th round out of high school by the Phillies but chose not to sign. He knew then that he wasn't ready for pro ball and is absolutely convinced he made the right decision by going to college.
“If I were to sign with the Phillies back out of high school," Freeland said, “I don't think I'd be at the point where I'm now with the maturity level and the talent that I have. It's definitely something I'm glad I declined . . . I went to college and got those years of maturity."
Evansville, located in Indiana, seems like an odd choice for a youngster from Denver, but Freeland had a connection that got him to take that 1,000-mile journey to the heart of the Midwest.
“My assistant coach at Evansville my freshman year is from Fort Collins, Colo.," he explained. “He was good friends with my coach in high school. My head coach gave him a call and said, 'Hey, come check out this wiry lefthander and see what you've got on him.'"
Going away for school made Freeland especially appreciative to be drafted by his hometown team. While the Fall Stars Game was his first televised pitching experience, Freeland and his family were shown from their living room during MLB Network's coverage of the 2014 draft. The excitement displayed when his name was called by Colorado was one of the many highlights of that night's draft coverage. That exhilarating feeling still hasn't gone away for Freeland.
“I still think about it every once in a while," Freeland said. “I just kind of reminisce on that feeling . . . knowing everything I've been through and getting to that point and moving forward. It's something I'll never forget and I'll hold on to it forever."
• Glendale outfielder Mark Zagunis (Cubs) has continued two regular season traits of interest. He has 17 walks (and just nine strikeouts) in 12 games. Zagunis led the Cubs organization with 80 walks in the regular season (against 86 strikeouts), and he also played in seven games in center field. The former Virginia Tech catcher has played two games in center in the AFL as well.
• Roster turnover has continued as the AFL season winds down, with two weeks to go. The Rangers had 2013 first-round pick Luis Ortiz make his AFL debut on Friday with a scoreless inning. He was one of two new Rangers on the Saguaros, joining first baseman Ronald Guzman, who got off to a 4-for-7 start in his first two games. However, replacement infielder Evan Van Hooiser, who was to report to the AFL, was suspended 50 games for a failed amphetamines test. Ortiz and Guzman replaced outfielder Lewis Brinson, catcher/third baseman Jose Trevino and righthander Adam Parks on the Saguaros roster.