Tagged: minor league baseball

A Clift”ton” of Talent

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Trevor Clifton comes in for the save at the CAR-CAL All-Star Game in Lake Elsinore, CA

The 2013 draft was an exceptional one for the Chicago Cubs. Not only did they reap the benefits of suffering through a dismal 61-101 record in 2012 by getting to draft future superstar Kris Bryant with the 2nd pick, but they managed to snap up Trevor Clifton as well. Clifton was expected to be drafted in approximately the 5th round. However, a strong commitment to the University of Kentucky had many teams wary of spending a draft selection on the tall right-handed pitcher out of Tennessee. The Cubs liked what they saw in Clifton enough to take a chance on him in the 12th round and offer him a large signing bonus of $375,000, which was enough to break with Kentucky and join the Cubs organization. It’s looking like a good investment for the Cubs, so far.

Standing at 6’1 and weighing in at 170, with room to grow, Trevor Clifton draws comparisons to another right-handed hurler who was once in the Cubs system but found success elsewhere, Chris Archer. Like Archer, Clifton had a bit of a slow start to his career, but has learned from early adversity and spends every season trying to improve on his success.

“My goal each year is to be better each year in every part of my game,” says Clifton. “That’s the only way for a steady climb.”

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Young Trevor Clifton

Moving thousands of miles from home to begin a professional baseball career is an intimidating concept. When you combine that with barely turning 18 and graduating from high school, it is downright overwhelming and Clifton reasonably struggled in his first professional season, posting no wins and a 6.97 ERA in 8 games and 10 innings pitched. That was the last time that any numbers put up by Clifton would be referred to as ‘gaudy’ in a negative sense.

Over the next 3 seasons, Clifton’s ERA would never finish above a 4.00 and he averages just about one strikeout per inning pitched. Oh, and about those innings? Clifton has thrown over 100 of them for the past 2 seasons, so his durability, often a concern with pitchers drafted straight out of high school, doesn’t seem to be an issue.

Clifton’s slow and steady progress paid real dividends during the his 2016 campaign with the Myrtle Beach Pelicans where he was named Pitcher of the Month twice, earned the save in the All-Star Game and ultimately was named the Carolina League Pitcher of the Year. He also just so happened to lead the Pelicans to the Carolina League Championship and is currently ranked in the Cubs’ top 10 prospects. Not a bad resume for a young pitcher who is still just 21 years old. Aside from the natural maturing process, what changed for Clifton in 2016?

“A whole lot of stuff, from mechanics to preparation to arm care. My biggest change, by far, was the mental side of the game. I went in to last season with confidence in my pitches and slowing the game down.”

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Trevor Clifton at Myrtle Beach

Given his steady rise through the Cubs system it seems likely that Clifton will at least begin the season with the Tennessee Smokies, conveniently located about 4o minutes from his hometown of Maryville.

“I’m very excited about this upcoming season and seeing my family in the stands,” says Clifton. “A lot of players don’t get to experience that. My family means the world to me.”

That’s not to say that Clifton is going to take it easy in front of the local fans. “I enjoy seeing everyone’s support from my hometown. It makes me feel accountable.”

Clifton received an award this off-season from his hometown before even throwing a professional pitch there  when his former high school retired his baseball number.

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Number Retirement at Heritage High School

“I’ve had a lot of awards throughout my career, but having my number retired around the closest people to me was by far the best. I loved getting to spend that success with Heritage [High School] and my hometown.”

Clifton’s dedication to his family and friends gives insight into the man behind the athlete and fits in perfectly with the Cubs’ character-driven mindset.

“My family means the world to me and they’ve always been really supportive from t-ball until now, so I guess I don’t know any better. I think as a player you have to earn the fans’ respect and attention. I also have some great fans and followers I see throughout my social media and love conversations with them.”

Cubs fans, if you don’t know Trevor Clifton yet, consider this your introduction. It’s very possible that Clifton will be called up to AAA Iowa at some point this season, and from there a September call-up would be certainly within the realm of possibility.

“Now pitching for your Cubs, Number 25, Trevor Clifton!” may be heard at Wrigley Field sooner than we all may think. With his raw skills and positive attitude, Clifton has every chance to be a Wrigley Field stalwart.

 

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Storming The All Stars

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In honor of the advanced Class A California League celebrating it’s 75th anniversary, the Lake Elsinore Storm hosted the annual California versus Carolina League All Star Game this past Tuesday, the 21, at the Diamond in Lake Elsinore and Lauren and I were fortunate enough to attend.

We had tried to get to the game last summer when it was hosted in Rancho Cucamonga, but my prolonged hospital stay following our horrific car accident endured that we missed it, despite having tickets. When I saw that the 2016 game was being held in Southern California for an unprecedented second straight year I marked the date on my calendar and bought tickets as soon as they went on sale.

Lauren and I took just over an hour to drive to Lake Elsinore and arrived shortly after the gates had opened for the pre-game FanFest. We had no idea what FanFest entailed, but thought it would be fun to try and get some autographs, especially since the Cubs were sending several members of their Advanced A team, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans to the event.

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Most of the ballpark was open to fans and there was a “Fun Zone” available, but the main draw for the FanFest was the chance to meet and get autographs from some of baseball’s future stars. The players from the Carolina League had the first set of autograph sessions, meeting fans for an hour while the California League players took batting practice, and then the leagues switched roles.

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Upon first arriving, we were not entirely sure what was going on, so Lauren went ahead of me on a scouting mission, while I held my ground in what seemed to be the longest of the lines formed around the concourse of the ballpark. Our instincts were right, as it turned out, we were in line to meet 3 of the 4 Pelicans players, including top prospect, Ian Happ, and pitchers, Zach Hedges and Jake Stinnett. Despite the line looking fairly intimidating, we did not wait more than 30 minutes or so and the wait was amusing, with mascots from many of the teams represented at the game wandering the concourse and interacting with fans. I even got a kiss and a beard scratch from Thunder, the Storm’s fuzzy green dog mascot.

When we reached the table with the players they could not have been more gracious. They signed autographs with a smile and gave in for any specialized requests. I got a chance to talk very briefly to Hedges about the fact that we had gone to the same college and Stinnett complimented me on my Pelicans t-shirt (journalistic objectivity be damned.) My one regret for the whole interaction was the fact that for some reason I didn’t ask for a photo with them, which I’m sure they would have willing obliged.

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By the time we had finished collecting our things, the Carolina players were about to head down to batting practice, so Lauren and I headed to the team store to see if there was any specialty All Star game merchandise. We lasted only a few minutes in the jam-packed store and didn’t see anything that particularly struck our fancy so we headed down to our seats, a row behind the visitor’s dugout.

Lauren headed back up to the concourse for some snacks, since we still had about 2 hours until the pre-game festivities would begin and returned with some standard ballpark fare; some nachos, hot dogs and a cold lemonade, all of which were tasty, if unremarkable.

I always enjoy watching batting practice, though in retrospect, I should have sought out some of the California League All Stars for their meet and greet sessions, but the benefits of resting my legs and relaxing for a little bit cannot be overstated.

The pre-game festivities began with a local band doing some *interesting* covers of ’80s rock songs and that was followed up with a helicopter from the local hospital landing on the field and delivering Thunder to the game. The pre-game also featured the induction of the initial class of the California League Hall of Fame, with all of the inductees present to receive the honor in person, which meant fans got to see Jose Cruz, Jr., Storm hitting coach, Xavier Nady, 500 home run club member, Gary Sheffield and MLB Hall of Famer, Rickey Henderson.

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Following the Hall of Fame presentation was the introduction of the All Stars. All of the non-starters were driven to their respective baselines by a parade of classic cars. A Navy parachutist carrying the American flag landed on the field and the game was underway.

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A player for the Lynchburg Hillcats, an Indians farm team, and San Diego native, Greg Allen, got on base as the leadoff hitter and proceeded to steal 2 straight bases and come in to score. The Carolina League never looked back and the game felt like significantly more of a blowout than the score of 6-4 would indicate.

The Carolina All Stars always seemed to have something cooking on offense, and when the pitching allowed men on base, they seemed to get out of it with little to no pressure, until the 9th inning when Potomac Nationals pitcher, Evan Phillips gave up 3 runs and left with men on base. Even then, Pelican starting pitcher, Trevor Clifton came in to slam the door on the attempted comeback and nail down a save.

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Clifton wasn’t the only Pelican to have a great showing at the game, however. While Happ was hitless, he had 2 good at-bats and looked good at second base, which is a relatively new position for him, as a converted outfielder. Both Hedges and Stinnett pitched hitless innings, and Hedges turned a particularly gorgeous double play. Speaking of Hedges, I mentioned earlier that he and I both attended the same college, located about an hour away from the Diamond, and the Zach Hedges fan club was in full force at the game. During his inning pitched, I think we heard the loudest and most enthusiastic cheers during the whole game, including any for local Storm players. It made for a fun environment…particularly for this Pelican fan.

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I’d be remiss not to mention some of the other stars of the game, including the previously mentioned Greg Allen, who in addition to his 2 stolen bases managed to score 3 times, his teammate in Lynchburg, Bobby Bradley, who hit a monster home run and game MVP, Andrew Stevenson from Potomac, who hit 2 triples in a ballpark that seems far too cozy to give up too many extra base hits. If you are looking for some Cal League players to keep your eyes out for, I’d suggest looking at High Desert 2nd baseman Travis Demeritte, who is second in all of the minor leagues in home runs and hit a loud double in the game, San Jose  shortstop CJ Hinojosa who had 2 RBI and his teammate, reliever Rodolfo Martinez who was lighting up the radar gun in the mid-90s.

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I love going to minor league games and seeing some of these talented players so early in their careers. It gives me a sense of pride, a “I saw them first” baseball hipster vibe, and attending the All Star game just heightened that feeling. The Cubs, Giants and Indians (Hillcats) seem to have quite a bit of talent coming up through their systems and it will be nice one day to be able to say “I saw them when…”

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Until next time (…and I promise it won’t be long!)

Keep Trippin’ Baseballs!