Padres' Cates Ready To Embrace Challenge

FORT WAYNE, IND.—On the eve of his professional debut with the Fort Wayne TinCaps, Zach Cates wasn't nervous. He wasn't overwhelmed by the big moment on the horizon, the moment he has been waiting for since he first picked up a baseball as a child and threw it toward the plate.

No, this rainy Thursday evening in early April, Cates was relaxed inside the team clubhouse as he talked about his looming first game at Parkview Field.

"This is my chance. This is what I have worked for my entire career," Cates said. "God wouldn't put me in a position that I wasn't ready for. I have to trust in everything and go out and do what I have been taught. If I do that, I'll be all right."

Cates was just fine against South Bend on April 9. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound righthander didn't get credit for the 5-1 win over the Silver Hawks, but his performance was impressive. He worked 5 2⁄3 innings, giving up one run on two hits. He struck out nine, including the first five batters he faced, and walked three.

Not bad for a pitcher who wasn't drafted out of Conway (Ark.) High in 2008, and played two years at North East Texas CC before the Padres drafted him in the third round (91st overall) of the 2010 draft.

Cates could have collapsed with the weight of the expectations on his shoulders. He could have looked as if he didn't deserve the generous bonus the Padres dished out to seal the deal. The $765,000 he received is more than double Major League Baseball's slot recommendation of $380,700 for the No. 91 spot in the draft.

Instead, Cates embraced the pressure, welcomed it with open arms as if it was a friend he had not seen in years.

"I want to give them more than their money's worth," Cates said. "There are a lot of expectations when you go high in the draft, but no one expects more out of me than me. I like the pressure. It pushes me to work hard."

First-year Fort Wayne manager Shawn Wooten noticed the potential in Cates from the moment he saw him pitch at instructional league.

"I saw his competitiveness and he has great stuff. When you have that combination, you have something special," Wooten said. "He is going to go through with his lumps like every young guy and is still learning to pitch. He was lights out in his last two starts in spring training. I expect good things from him."

Path To The Pros

Cates tried out a lot of different sports as a child but learned early on that baseball would be his ticket to making a living playing a game.

"I consider myself to be an athlete, but baseball is where I separated myself from the crowd," Cates said. "As a kid, I realized that. As I got older, I started to understand that is where my success was going to be and I took that road in high school."

The road didn't lead to the draft. Cates admits now that he wasn't ready to be a pro straight out of high school.

"Of course, you have that desire to be drafted, but looking back at it, I wasn't ready mentally or physically," Cates said. "It worked out for the best."

Cates took his talents to the Lone Star State and actually began his career as a catcher. He was forced into action because of an injury to the starter and saw limited time as a pitcher.

His fate changed as a sophomore. Cates went 7-2 as a starter and gave up 26 runs on 45 hits in 67 innings of action. He struck out 91 and walked 32.

Cates had a fastball that hit has high as 97 mph in college and a strong changeup as well. His skill set was good enough to attract the attention of major league scouts, and the Padres jumped on the chance to take him. Cates would have played at Oklahoma State had he not gone pro.

He was honest about his reasons for not continuing his college career with the Cowboys.

"(The size of the bonus) had a lot to do with it," Cates said. "Also, just the fact that you never know what tomorrow brings was a reason to go pro. I had a chance to go out and chase my dream at the age of 20. I couldn't pass it up."

Chasing The Dream

At no point, though, did Cates feel content. He was determined to push himself in the offseason and believes the hard work has paid off.

"I did a lot of work in the weight room and a lot of running," Cates said. "I have had control issues in the past, but they worked with me on that in spring training. My location got a lot better and if I can keep with what they taught me and keep my competitive mindset, I feel like I can be very successful."

Like any young pitcher, there will be peaks and valleys throughout the grind of a long season. Wooten said the key is striking a balance in the development of Cates.

"You have to know when to keep him going and when to pat him on the back," Wooten said. "Being a former catcher, I can relate to him in some ways. He has a lot of talent, and if he can overcome the challenges that come with being a first-year pro, he is going to be a great pitcher."

Cates has worked at being more mentally tough and at being able to throw any pitch at any point in a game.

Greatness is what he is striving for in the long run.

"Fort Wayne is awesome. Being a third-round draft pick is awesome. But that isn't enough for me," Cates said. "I didn't start playing baseball just to get drafted or to get to play in Fort Wayne. My ultimate goal is to be on the mound in Petco Park. I won't be satisfied until I am there."

Brian Lester is a freelance writer based in Findlay, Ohio