Don’t take it personally, but every member of the Modesto Nuts would rather be playing elsewhere.
Of course, the same could be said for every Stockton Port, San Jose Giant or Visalia Rawhide (whatever that might be).
The only reason 25 guys will be running onto the diamond at John Thurman Field for tonight’s home opener with the word “Nuts” emblazoned across their chests is that each one shares the dream of playing Major League Baseball. And the odds are pretty good.
This is the 68th season of California League baseball in Modesto, and during that time nearly 300 baseball players have honed their skills here en route to the majors. About 220 of those have made the trip since 1975, or about six players per year.
That’s why they’re willing to ride buses to exotic locales such as Bakersfield and Adelanto while making far less than minimum wage for the work they put in. Eventually, if all goes well, they’ll get a shot at the big time – major-league stadiums, travel and money.
But this is a story about two guys on the Nuts who had hoped to have paid their High-A dues by now.
Both infielder Trevor Story and catcher Will Swanner came to Modesto with flashy credentials in 2013. Story was a first-round draft pick out of high school in 2011 and started last season as the No. 3 prospect in the Colorado organization, while Swanner was taken out of high school in the 15th round in 2010 and was rated the Rockies eighth-best prospect at this time last year.
And then, baseball happened.
Story hit .233 last season as the Nuts’ everyday shortstop, dropping in every offensive category from the previous season and striking out 183 times in 497 at-bats. Swanner, who hit .301 in Asheville in 2012, saw his average fall to .239 while striking out 129 times.
And that’s why – as much as the Rockies wanted both of these prospects in Double-A Tulsa this season – they are back at Thurman Field for a second go-around.
“During spring training it was up in the air where I was going to start the season, but I had a feeling that I would be coming back to Modesto,” said Story, who hails from Irving, Texas. “We didn’t find out teams until the last week, and that’s when I found out for sure. You never plan on repeating a level, but what I do here will be a big part of what I do as a player. In the end, coming back here is going to help me a lot.”
That’s the only approach a player can take. Since every player on the Modesto Nuts is under the contractual control of the Rockies, it’s not like they get to decide when they will be promoted.
“I anticipated all along that I would be coming back to Modesto,” said Swanner, who lives in Carlsbad. “I realize that I didn’t have the best of years and for me to expect to have earned a spot in Tulsa – I didn’t expect that at all. I didn’t want to say that I deserved a spot in Double-A, I want to say that I earned my way to Tulsa.”
The two players might view their 2013 performances as a lost season, but that’s not the way Colorado sees it. Every minor-league organization hopes that – at some point in the development process – every player faces a degree of failure.
The theory goes that once a player learns to push and work through failure at the minor-league level, it will become easier to remain mentally focused once they’re in the inevitable slump they’ll be forced to endure at the major-league level.
One of the ways Story approached his on-field struggles last season was through a redoubling of his winter conditioning program. Last week, when the Nuts players pulled on their Modesto uniforms for the first time, Story’s No. 3 jersey from last season was snug, and he said he’s added about 15 pounds of muscle since last September. He already has enjoyed a breakout game, hitting for the cycle in Monday’s loss at Visalia.
“Last year was a rough year and probably the first time I struggled, even failed, in baseball,” Story said. “It was a big lesson for me and I learned a lot about myself. I learned that you can’t look too far forward so you can deal with the task at-hand.
“I think I put too much pressure on myself last year to move up, and now I know that it’s about playing every single day and approaching each day as its own deal, and not trying to do too much.”
Swanner, in retrospect, also said he thought he was trying to slug his way to Tulsa last season instead of focusing on a more relaxed approach at the plate.
“I learned just to be myself,” Swanner said. “Players try to do a lot of things, do try to become something you’re not, because a promotion to Double-A is right there. It took me half of last season that I needed to hit the way I know how to hit and staying with the approach that’s right for me is what’s going to get me to the next level.
“I can’t try to hit 20 homers with 700 RBIs in the first half – you have to take the simple approach into each game and also into the offseason, and that’s what’s going to make you better.”
Typically, players repeating a level are fast-tracked the following season. So if Story and Swanner get off to a good start, they could find themselves joining the 21 current Tulsa Drillers who came through Modesto.
But if that road is blocked, it might not be that big of a deal. Story and Swanner are two players on the national radar, and they will get their chance to move up. So right now, career-wise, Modesto is not a bad place for them to be.
“It’s all good competition,” Swanner said.