Winter Notebook: Thorman Working To Get Back

MEXICALI, MEXICO—Scott Thorman is spending this offseason just like every other winter for the last few years—playing ball in Mexico in preparation for a non-roster invitation to some team's big league camp.

But the Canadian native, who is having a solid season at first base for the Aguilas de Mexicali, is more enthused than ever heading into the 2011 season. He signed a minor league contract with the Tigers and will be heading to spring training in Lakeland, Fla., in March for a chance at cracking the major league roster.

"The Tigers were pretty aggressive in coming after me," Thorman said. "It's something I've been pretty excited about. Growing up in southern Ontario, Detroit was only a couple of hours away. The Tigers were always a team I followed."

At 29 years old and with 175 games of big league experience, Thorman is no longer a prospect, but he has yet to break through and find a regular big league job.

The same was true for Garrett Jones, who broke through for the Pirates as a 28-year-old first baseman/corner outfielder in 2009 and played 158 games for Pittsburgh last season.

Thorman is flattered by the comparison to Jones, both players having started their careers in the Braves organization.

"He's kind of the benchmark for a minor league free agent," Thorman said about Jones. "It's the guy everybody aspires to be—getting in a good situation and getting an opportunity, and taking advantage of the opportunity."

A first-round pick with the Braves in 2000, Thorman had his shot at the big leagues a few years ago, hitting a combined .222/.260/.407 in 440 trips to the plate for Atlanta in 2006 and 2007.

He believes that he's a better ballplayer now and is ready for another chance at the show.

Coming to Mexico helps him prepare for the regular season, and he likes the atmosphere in the Mexican Pacific League. He had a good season in Mexicali, following a strong 2010 performance with the Royals' Triple-A affiliate in Omaha in which he hit .280/.348/.491 with 22 home runs in 125 games.

Thorman hit .272/.364/.526 with eight home runs and 26 RBIs for Mexicali. He began the season hot—a key to stick around in the Carribean leagues—by registering three mult-hit games in the team's first seven contests. He concluded his campaign by hitting safely in six of the team's final seven games.

"It's good baseball," Thorman said. "It's a good chance for import players to come down here and play baseball almost all year round. You get a chance to come and get some at-bats . . . the players have always treated me well and the fans have treated me well.

"We feel comfortable coming down here, playing a little baseball and having fun."

With the Tigers' Triple-A Toledo affiliate located near Ontario, Thorman's newest club will help him feel at home even if he doesn't make Detroit's big league roster out of spring training. But he'll be ready if there's an opportunity for him in the Motor City.

"If I can go to Triple-A and get regular at-bats," Thorman said, "hopefully an opportunity arises. I feel I can be a productive player in the big leagues and now it's about getting the opportunity again."

Learning Experience In Mexico

The advertising patches plastered across his uniform pants were the first of many differences that Matt Hague noticed about baseball in Mexico on his first day south of the border.

"It's pretty cool," the Pirates farmhand said. "I like it."

Hague's cultural immersion was just beginning. In his first week with the Aguilas of Mexicali, Hague was amused by the unrestrained enthusiasm of the fans, the non-stop music during the games and the wild antics of the crazy mascots associated with each team. After his first few games, seeing teammates smoke in the clubhouse made him think that he was part of an old-time baseball movie when that habit was commonplace.

Hague didn't go to Mexico for the diverse life experiences, but instead to get ready for his fourth season with the Pirates. The Oklahoma State product, a ninth-round pick in the 2008 draft, is coming off a strong year with Double-A Altoona in which he hit .295/.375/.442 with 15 home runs and 86 RBIs. He ranked fourth in the Eastern League with 90 runs scored.

Hague batted .293/.356/.412 with eight home runs and 86 RBIs for high Class A Lynchburg in 2009, ranking third in the Carolina League in batting average and fourth in hits (133).

Hague's hoping for an invitation to big league camp in the spring and then a promotion to Triple-A Indianapolis.

"Getting at-bats here also prepares me getting back into the mindset of game-like at-bats," Hague said. "You can soft toss or hit off a machine or even hit off a live pitcher somewhere, but being competitive and trying to compete against an opposing jersey is far better for a player who is trying to come into spring training trying to impress some people."

Hague has gotten off to slow starts in each of the last two seasons—he  managed just three hits in his first 19 at-bats with Altoona last year and hit just .250/.321/.298 during a slow April with high Class A Lynchburg in 2009—so he had hoped a month or two of winter ball would help him start stronger this season.

Instead, Hague's stint with Mexicali was short-lived. Winter leagues are notorious for dismissing players if they don't perform immediately, and after a 3-for-21 start in his first eight games, Hague's winter in the Mexican Pacific League had ended.

Hague, 25, had already been warned about the type of pitching he'd face in Mexico. Still, it was quite an eye-opener for the Seattle native and a learning experience to adjust to a different style of pitching.

"Batting here is a totally different game here in Mexico than in the minor leagues," Hague said. "In the minor leagues there are a lot more power arms and hard throwers . . . here I am lucky to see one or two fastballs in an at-bat. It is more difficult to sit on a pitch or try and cheat in an advantage count, because the pitchers here will throw whatever, whenever

. . .  you have to adapt to it and be patient, and with them throwing you so much off-speed it forces you to stay on the ball."

Though he wasn't there long, Hague still saw a positive benefit to his winter ball experience.

"It's also good for me to face a little adversity," Hague said. "(Playing in) Mexico gives me that chance to face it and a chance to overcome the adversity and differences that every player should go through to make them better in the long run."