In less than two minor league seasons, Michael McKenry has gone from being a nice young catcher with a possible future to a high-level prospect in the Colorado Rockies organization.
A stellar college career at Middle Tennessee State led to McKenry being drafted in the seventh round of the 2006 amateur draft. He struggled to a .216 average that season in Tri-City, then got off to a slow start in 2007 at Asheville before rebounding to lead all Rockies' minor leaguers with 22 home runs and a .539 slugging percentage.
That performance prompted Colorado to place McKenry on a team in the Hawaiian Baseball League, where he hit .281 with five homers in 26 games and made the league's all-star team.
An invitation to the major league spring training camp followed, which only served to intensify the attention placed on McKenry, already tabbed by Baseball America as the top defensive prospect in the Rockies' organization.
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Like many of his Nuts' teammates, McKenry got off to a slow start in 2008. But despite McKenry's desire to slow down and absorb everything possible about the game, there's no denying he's a young man in a hurry to make the climb through the Colorado organization.
Brian VanderBeek: You were born and raised in Knoxville, Tenn. How did you not become a Volunteer?
Michael McKenry: God led me to MTSU and I love Murfreesboro and the coaches there at the time. The situation was right for me. They gave me the opportunity to play and at Tennessee I probably wouldn't have been able to play right away. I learned and grew and that brought me here.
BVB: You had a great college career, all the way to being a nominee for the Johnny Bench Award, given to the nation's top college catcher.
MM: I was a semifinalist for that. I really worked hard and wanted to be a finalist for that award, even as I was growing up. But there is plenty of time for awards.
BVB: Were you a Johnny Bench fan or a Reds fan?
MM: More of a Braves fan, so I don't like the Reds too much. But I always was a fan of Johnny Bench -- one of the great catchers of all time.
BVB: So you came to the Rockies organization and struggled in that first year like so many players do. Second year comes and you have a slow start and fast finish. Then you go to Hawaii and after a couple months you're suddenly on everybody's prospect list. How does that happen?
MM: I guess this is just a work in progress and always will be. Even after you make the big leagues, all that means is that you have to change your goals. Right now, it's trying to find a way to get there, working through the hardships and struggles. There are so many levels in the minor leagues and with every one you seem to face some kind of adversity -- something that will make you a better player in the end.
BVB: Something clicked for you in Hawaii.
MM: I just had fun, and when the game is fun it slows down. You enjoy it and seem to play your best baseball. That's the important thing. When you struggle and you have talent, as is the case with so many guys on this team right now, you just have to slow the game down and enjoy it. You have to enjoy the whole process.
BVB: Partially based on what you did in Hawaii, you got invited to big-league camp this spring. What was that experience like for you?
MM: That was a great experience. I tried to pick as many brains as I could. I was a fly on the wall listening to all the conversations I could and tried not to talk too much. I just tried to learn as much as I could. You want to model yourself after somebody who is successful, and that's how you become successful. I wish I could have played more, but I know it was my time to learn.
BVB: If you tried to pick the brain of Chris Iannetta, someone we had in Modesto three years ago, that might have been tough. He's a terrific guy, but a man of very few words.
MM: You're not going to get a lot out of him verbally, but you just watch the way he plays. He does everything the right way, he's a great guy and he's a model for me. (Yorvit) Torrealba has a lot of personality. He's bubbly and talkative and he'll tell you how he feels about what you're doing. He'll tell you if he thinks you're doing something wrong, and that's what I wanted.
BVB: What's it like to catch this staff? There's not a guy out here who throws anything straight and every fifth day you catch a knuckleball with a first baseman's mitt.
MM: We have one of the best bullpens in minor league baseball and our starters are electric. We just need to take our steps in the right direction. If they do, we'll win because our bats are going to come around strong.
BVB: Did you ever think you'd get behind the plate wearing a first baseman's mitt?
MM: Being 5-9 and 215 pounds, I never saw any time that I'd be wearing a first baseman's mitt. But it does make me more comfortable when Simon (Ferrer) is throwing that knuckleball. I never put one on, and when I try to throw out a runner it's like digging for gold because I never seem to find the ball in there. Simon does a great job holding on runners, and that gives me a chance.
BVB: You mentioned that you and a lot of other guys in here are off to a slow start. That seems to be endemic of this organization every year. They eventually pick it up, but I know slow starts aren't accepted.
MM: You'd rather start slow and finish big than start fast and finish terrible. The important thing as a team is for us to make the playoffs. We want to win. This organization is breeding each and every player here to win. Last year Colorado had the huge finish, and that's what we're being bred to do. We're in great shape and we're treated like elite athletes every day. April and May are important, but if we're going to struggle now's the time to do it.
BVB: Every team coming to Modesto has to adjust to the ballpark. This place is huge, especially for players coming from Asheville.
MM: This is a hitter's league, but Modesto is not a hitter's ballpark. But it's a great park for the Rockies in that it teaches us what they want us to do -- pitch and play defense. That's what we have to do better than every team that comes in here, because they're not going to have time to change their swings to our park. If we play here every day and hit line drives, and do the things we have to do, we'll win games. But we have to do it every day.