The break of spring training camps not only means the major leaguers are getting started but the minor leagues as well with local professional player Ryan Casteel stepping up another rung on his climb up the ladder to “The Show,” while Ryan Fraser is going to have to wait a little bit before getting into the full swing of things.
After a tremendous showing in High-A ball in California last summer and a great session of winter ball in Australia, the Colorado Rockies invited the former Bradley Central and Cleveland State standout to his first major league spring training.
“It was awesome man. I learned a lot from it and am really thankful for the opportunity,” Casteel said Friday evening. “I was a great experience.”
The Rockies took Casteel in the 17th round of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft, and he has progressed through their farm system, starting with short-season Rookie Ball in Casper, Wyo., then full season Low-A at Tri-Cities, Wash., Class A at Asheville, N.C., and last summer in Modesto, where he earned California League Catcher of the Year honors.
Casteel made the drive to his new team Saturday, making the more than 1,100-mile trip from the spring training facilities in Phoenix to Tulsa, Okla. The Class AA Drillers have made the Texas League playoffs the past two seasons.
“I will be playing with several of the same teammates I’ve been with the last couple of seasons, with a few changes,” he related. “I’ll be platooning with three other guys at catcher, first base and DH (designated hitter).”
Although he will still be about 770 miles from Cleveland, Casteel is glad to be closer to home than his stints out west in Wyoming, Washington, California and Australia. “It will be nice to be closer, although it’s still a long trip,” he stated. “I’m excited about [it]. Tulsa has a nice stadium and first-class facilities.”
ONEOK Field is located in downtown Tulsa and opened in 2010 with a seating capacity of just over 7,800, with 9,000 possible for special events. Tulsa will open the new season on Thursday with a six-game homestand that will run through April 8. The Drillers will host Corpus Christi (Texas) for three games, April 3-5. The defending Texas League Champion San Antonio Missions will be in town for the second half of the six-game stretch, April 6-8.
The Drillers play in the North Division of the eight-team Texas League, along with the Arkansas Travelers (Los Angeles Angels), Northwest Arkansas Naturals (Kansas City Royals) and Springfield (Mo.) Cardinals (St. Louis Cardinals). the Travelers home park is in North Little Rock, while the Naturals are in Springdale, Ark.
The South Division includes all Texas teams: San Antonio (San Diego Padres), Corpus Christi (Houston Astros), Frisco RoughRiders (Texas Rangers) and Midland Rockhounds (Oakland A’s).
After spending a few weeks at the Major League Spring Training, Casteel was sent to the Minor League camp to work with the Double-A affiliate squad.
He got into a half dozen Cactus League games, getting on base five times in 12 trips to the plate, including a pair of doubles and a home run, in his first at Major League at bat against Diamondback ace Patrick Corbin.
“It was one of the coolest experiences I have ever had,” Casteel remarked. ”Being off of a 14-game winner and all-star [Corbin], it was a good start to camp.”
One of 24 non-roster invitees to the Rockies big league camp, the 6-foot-1, 205-pound signal caller posted a .364 batting average and .417 on base percentage in his Rockies spring games. He also drove in a pair of runs, had an .818 slugging percentage and a 1.235 OPS.
“For him to get that many at-bats was tremendous,” commented former Major League catcher Ray Stephens. “Usually under the circumstances he was in, they’d give you one or two pinch hitting opportunities to say thanks for coming to camp early to help get our pitchers ready, but he impressed them enough to get a couple of starts.”
Although he had a few bumps after switching sides at the Rockies training facilties in Arizona, Casteel feels good heading into the new campaign. “I struggled a little at the minor league camp, but I hit two home runs and I’m ready to go.”
Bradley County’s other pro player, Fraser, has been at the New York Mets Minor League training camp in Port St. Lucie, Fla., and will remain there just a little longer.
“I was getting ready to head out to Binghamton (N.Y.) today when they came told me they want me to have a few more appearances in extended spring training,” he related Saturday afternoon.
“During winter ball, I felt good and was throwing like I used to, but then I tweaked my upper lat, so I came in here a little behind everyone else and only got into four games. Normally in spring training you do seven or eight,” he explained. “I could be here (Port St. Lucie, Fla.) for another week or it could be three. I just don’t know right now.”
“I didn’t get released to pick up a ball until Feb. 1, so I had to try to catch up,” Fraser commented. “My first two games down here was a little rough. I was up in the zone. The last two went very well.”
“I thought I was ready and everything was good to go, but it is what it is,” he added. “I’ll take it day-to-day and try to get in some more innings down here and hopefully get sent out in a few days.”
Starting his fifth professional season as well, the former Walker Valley and University of Memphis hurler got a late start to last summer’s season due to off-season knee surgery. After a short rehab stint at High A Port St. Lucie, Fla., the New York Mets organization sent Fraser back to Class AA Binghamton, where he had finished the previous campaign.
He posted a 1-2 record with a 5.24 ERA in 24 games for Binghamton, striking out 22 batters in 34.1 innings of work. Fraser went to Puerto Rico to play winter ball for Leones de Ponce of the Caribbean League. The big right-hander appeared in five games, with 7.2 inning pitched, striking out five batters, walking one. He finished with an 0-1 pitching record and a 2.45 earned run average but was shut down early due to the new injury.
“Playing in Puerto Rico was a little different than playing in the states, but the weather was good and they play some good ball there,” he said of his first experience with winter league play.