The Journal Gazette
Sunday, April 05, 2020 1:00 am

Big league dreams being put on hold

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

Last season, the Triple-A Oklahoma City Dodgers had two players who played at least 25 games and hit better than .380. One was second baseman Gavin Lux, whom Fangraphs considers the No. 2 prospect in all of baseball. The other was North Side graduate Zach McKinstry.

Granted, McKinstry had only half the at-bats that Lux did, but the Summit City native would have had a chance early this season to prove to the Dodgers that he was no flash in the pan. Instead, spring training was suspended May 12 because of the coronavirus pandemic and the baseball regular season will not start until May 15 at the earliest.

“It's a little frustrating,” McKinstry said. “I was so ready to go, ready for spring training to start, ready to get everything underway so that I could prove to (the Dodgers) it wasn't just a short little stint I was playing well or hitting well or whatever. 

“I was super excited to get back out there and compete and win games for whatever team I played for. It kind of sucks, you've worked hard all offseason to get to that point.”

McKinstry, 24, will likely start the season, whenever it comes, in Triple-A after he got sent to minor-league camp two days before spring training was suspended. Across baseball, minor leaguers such as McKinstry, who were trying to take the next step toward the big leagues, have had their journeys placed on hold with little indication of when they will be able to resume climbing the ladder.

For now, McKinstry is working out with three fellow pro baseball players in Scottsdale, Arizona, running and throwing on a large, open field and taking some swings with wiffle balls and weighted baseballs to stay sharp.

To take a break from normal workouts, the former North Side star and his workout partners spent a day recently throwing a football around the field for some cardio and arm work. It's not the usual workout plan for aspiring MLB players, but it does have its advantages.

“It's pretty fun,” said McKinstry, who hit .300 with 19 home runs and 78 RBI between Double-A and Triple-A last season. “We're just kind of having fun, it kind of reminds me of my childhood a little bit. It's kind of like the summer when you were younger, you're just out there just having fun with your friends. It stinks (not being at spring training), but it's pretty fun at the same time. Especially that we get to go outside and enjoy the nice weather (in Scottsdale).”

'Itch for games'

Former TinCaps catcher Blake Hunt isn't yet on the verge of the major leagues – he would likely have started the season in High-A Lake Elsinore or Double-A Amarillo – but he was also disappointed to have what had been a successful spring derailed. 

Hunt, 21, has improvised his own workouts at home in southern California and is doing everything from work with resistance bands to weightlifting with a curl bar that he bought online. He has a net and a tee to take swings in his garage and has been catching bullpens at local fields with some professional pitchers in his area. He's also been enjoying the rare April at home.

“This may be the only spring we'll be home for the next 10 years,” said Hunt, who spent all of last season in Fort Wayne and hit .255 with five home runs and 39 RBI in 89 games.

Still, all the workouts in the world can't mimic the competitive feeling that surrounds live games in spring training. That's missing right now and it is difficult for players to adjust at a time of year when they're usually making their final preparations to play in games that actually count in the standings. 

“You get that itch for games,” the catcher said. “Like throwing, working out and hitting in the cage is not the same as when you actually get in the games, so I definitely miss that. We had just started some sim(ulated) games in spring training, so just starting to get that feeling back. That's the fun part, we all enjoy that the most.”

Finding a routine

Staying in shape for pitchers is somewhat more complicated than for position players. 

Former TinCap Joey Cantillo, 20, said that officials from the Padres have been in touch with him and other pitchers to give them an idea of what kind of throwing is recommended to stay sharp.

“Getting into a routine of throwing has kind of been the biggest thing,” Cantillo said. “It's knowing how much to throw. ... It's do what you can do. For me, it's kind of an awareness of 'OK, taper off when you need to taper off.' This is kind of an interesting time because this is not really a time of the year like the offseason where you plan out and have a clear picture of what you want to do.

“I've gotten into a routine to keep my arm ready.”

The key for these players is to stay in good enough shape that they can ramp back up to game shape in a few weeks once MLB announces the resumption of team workouts. Cantillo said he feels on track to work into game shape quickly when the players are called back to their team facilities, while McKinstry and Hunt added they would only need a handful of simulated at-bats to feel ready for live games again. 

For now, everyone is just champing at the bit to get back to full-steam-ahead competition.

“Just go out there and put a uniform on, go out there and compete and do the thing I love most: play baseball,” McKinstry said of what he's looking forward to most when the season resumes.

“Have fun and enjoy my time out there, enjoy my time playing as long as I can.”

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