Prune Packer Prompts Bidding War

SANTA ROSA, Calif.—On July 15 at Healdsburg's Rec Park, Brandon Poulson threw his first pitch and the dozen major league scouts in the stands looked at their radar guns. Then they looked at each other, peeking over each other's shoulders to see the other electronic numbers. Then they looked back at their radar guns.

Nah, they all assumed. Must be a glitch. A sun spot probably. Or a cell phone with its ringer on loud. Something caused it. It happens.

But the radar read-out was the same for all of them: 96 miles per hour.

Brandon Poulson (Photo by Rob Garcia).

Brandon Poulson (Photo by Rob Garcia).

“And it was only a warm-up pitch," Twins scout Elliott Strankman said. “I've never seen a 96 warm-up pitch."

The scouts now were leaning forward, intrigued. Poulson certainly looked the part of a power pitcher. He's 6-foot-7, 230 pounds of lean meat, his body shape perfectly proportioned to deliver the five-ounce product, big shoulders, narrow hips, long arms and legs, every inch a pitching catapult.

But it was going to take more than one pitch for the scouts to think Poulson was the real deal. If Poulson was such a hot prospect, why wasn't he drafted? Why was he pitching for the Healdsburg Prune Packers, a developmental team for aspiring high school and college players? Poulson didn't even make the baseball team at Santa Rosa's Piner High as a freshman. He became so discouraged Poulson stayed away from the game for most of the three years after his 2008 high school graduation. At 24, Poulson was pitching for Academy of Art University in San Francisco.The hitters for the Nevada Big Horns stepped in, swung and soon stepped out. Poulson's fastball hit 99 mph; four times he did that on Strankman's gun. The ball was over the plate, not bouncing off screens or catcher's shin guards.

Poulson's fastball never dipped below 96. The scouts went silent.

When Poulson finished that inning July 15, the scouts lined up, one behind the other, each one asking the same question, as Poulson remembers.

“What is it going to take for you to sign with us?"

The Athletics, Braves, Cardinals, Giants, Marlins, Nationals, Phillies and Yankees all got in on the action, but the Twins and Braves were the teams at the end. The day after the Healdsburg performance, the Twins called Poulson and said they could go up to $250,000. Poulson told Minnesota he felt he could get a $350,000-plus offer if he wanted to extend the bidding war. “The Twins told me I had 30 minutes to make up my mind," Poulson said.

Brandon Poulson ($250,000) and former Vanderbilt outfielder John Norwood ($275,000, Marlins) were two expensive nondrafted free agent signings this summer, with Poulson's the more unusual. Both NDFAs will try to buck the odds and make the majors after going undrafted. Here's a Top 10 list of the best draft-eligible NDFAs of the 21st Century.

Mike Adams, rhp: First signed by the Brewers, Adams was a stellar middle reliever for the Padres and Rangers and has a career 2.37 ERA and 408 strikeouts in 406 innings.
Rod Barajas, c: A durable catcher out of Cerritos (Calif.) JC in 1996, Barajas came into power in a regular role and banged 136 homers in nearly 3,800 plate appearances.
Heath Bell, rhp: Bell had three 40-save seasons with the Padres as Trevor Hoffman's successor and still has more strikeouts (637) than innings pitched (629).
Greg Dobbs, 1b/3b: Dobbs has compiled a long career as a lefthanded corner bat and pinch-hitter and was a key reserve for the Phillies' 2008 World Series champs.
Eric Gagne, rhp: A Quebecois who signed out of an Oklahoma JC in 1995, Gagne ranked among the majors' best relievers in his heyday with the Dodgers.
Ryan Hanigan, c: Like veteran Corky Miller before him, Hanigan reached the majors for his defense but showed enough offensive ability (career .354 OBP) to stick, though his bat has taken a dive the last two seasons.
Bobby Kielty, of: Signed by the Twins in 1998 after being named MVP of the Cape Cod League for $500,000, Kielty made more than 2,000 plate appearances as a platoon outfielder for the Athletics, Blue Jays, Red Sox and Twins.
Cory Lidle, rhp: Lidle's unique career started as a prep NDFA out of West Covina, Calif., and included 82 wins and 199 career starts. It ended tragically in 2006 when the plane he was piloting crashed into a Manhattan apartment building.
Darren O'Day, rhp: Originally signed by the Angels, O'Day found his footing wight he Rangers in 2009 and has been the game's most reliable submarine reliever ever since, with a 2.36 career ERA and 336 strikeouts in 366 career innings.
Pete Orr, util: The Braves signed Orr in 1999, and he's played more than 400 big league games while becoming a fixture on Canada's national teams. He's had a better bat than Elliot Johnson, though Johnson offers a better glove and shortstop ability.

There was one problem: Poulson was sitting in a patient's chair at the office of Santa Rosa dentist Dr. Vicente Chavez. He was about to have a tooth extracted. The dentist and his assistants were ready to go to work. Poulson put up his hand as a stop sign. Wait, please. He could tell they weren't pleased.

“I knew they thought I was a jerk," he said.

Poulson called back the Twins and accepted the offer. He then told Dr. Chavez and his staff what happened. He was immediately forgiven. The doctor and his staff should have been there the day before in Healdsburg. They would have applauded then as well.

“It was the easiest 99 I have ever seen," Strankman said. “To tell you the truth I was blown away. Brandon has the best pure arm strength I've ever seen. It was unbelievable actually."

“Unbelievable" is a word used all too often in sports, to the point nothing is unbelievable anymore in the industry. Except for how Brandon Poulson came to be a $250,000 prize. His journey to this point is like this weird connect-the-dots puzzle that has no straight lines, no logical points that follow each other, nothing that makes a lick of sense . . . until last December. That's when Poulson bumped into Riley Sullivan, one of the owners of the Prune Packers, at a Santa Rosa deli.

“That's the day that changed everything for me," Poulson said. “Riley had lost my contact information, plus he thought I had quit baseball. And the players on the 2014 Prune Packers would be invitation only."

Sullivan insisted that Poulson come out for the team, managed by former minor leaguer Joey Gomes, with ex-pro Caleb Balbuena as the pitching coach. They can help you, he said. Specifically they can help you find home plate.

Poulson always had the cannon. When he played linebacker for Santa Rosa JC for two years, he'd goof around and throw the football 70 yards. He couldn't throw strikes when he threw a baseball. He'd strike out three and walk four in an inning. He became so depressed by his lack of control he quit the game for his two SRJC football years.

And then along came Gomes and Balbuena, who pitched at Long Beach State. He took one look at Poulson's delivery. “He was like a newborn fawn learning how to walk," Balbuena said. “That, and like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, stiff, awkward."

When Poulson threw the ball, it was like he was falling out of closet, all the moving parts going in the wrong direction. Balbuena and Gomes recognized the athlete inside all that gawkiness. Poulson ran a 4.38-second 40-yard dash at SRJC. He ran a 6.58 second 60-yard dash while at Academy of Art. Poulson is addicted to being healthy, to the point he can bench 275 pounds 25 times. He had all the equipment. He just had to learn how to move it fluidly in the same direction.

“In six months Brandon went from a high school pitcher to a professional pitcher," Balbuena said.

“His success would all depend if he was willing to learn. And he did," Gomes added. “That's what surprises me. Not that he can throw like this but that he listened, paid attention, and worked hard. This is all on him. His arm is ready for the big leagues. All he has to do is learn a few skills, like holding runners on better and decreasing his time on delivering the ball to home plate."

Poulson flew to Minnesota for his physical, then reported to Rookie-level Elizabethton, where he walked five, struck out three and gave up two hits against the first 18 batters he faced while recording 11 outs.

“I think I can go another two-to-three miles an hour," Poulson said.

To break 100 miles an hour, he would join the very fastest of the fastest in the major leagues, to do that when your last amateur team was the Academy of Art University for gosh sakes, it would take the imagination of Leonardo da Vinci to put Brandon Poulson where he is now.

“It was like a movie, that night in Healdsburg," Strankman said.

And who would play Brandon Poulson in this movie? It would have to be Poulson himself. No actor could pull this off. Heck, probably no actor would even want to take the job. Let's be real here: Brandon Poulson makes “Field Of Dreams" look like a documentary.

Bob Padecky is a columnist for the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat