The more we read about minor league ball players, the more we learn about the commitments they make, not just as baseball players, but as young men. They have all of the challenges in life just as young men who do not pursue an athletic career have, plus they have the near impossible task of navigating a road to MLB littered with speed bumps. Many, or most, are pursuing degrees in the colleges or universities of their choice while devoting countless hours to playing baseball. Often they get selected in the draft before their senior year and then continue to pursue a degree by completing courses in the often season or electronically. The teenagers drafted out of high school move out of the homes they have lived in for years and take up residence far from home living with host families. Those selected in the early rounds of the draft do often sign with significant bonuses but following those rounds the signing bonuses are anything but significant. They then play for several years for wages, compared to hours, that are below the minimum wage. Wages that are controlled by MLB. Being athletic does not exempt them from injuries or disease. How many suffer injuries that derail or delay their careers? How many now have the commonplace TJ surgery? Dodger fans may remember Devin Smeltzer, a left-hander selected by the Dodgers in the fifth round of the 2016 First-Year Player Draft out of San Jacinto Community College. He rose through the Dodger system to the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes and was traded last July to the Minnesota Twins in the Brian Dozier trade. His story is uncommon but probably not unique. He is a cancer survivor having battled the disease starting at age-9 but never stopped playing baseball even when his illness was at its worst. This is his story: https://www.thinkbluela.com/2016/09/dodgers-devin-smeltzer-wants-to-give-back/
Now the story of two other young men presently in the Dodgers farm system. They have something in common and are representative of the various commitments made by minor league players. Riley Ottesen:
Ottesen was selected by the Dodgers in the 5th round of the 2017 MLB June Amateur Draft out of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. The 6’1”/185-pound right-hander was born in Highland, Utah and attended American Fork High School in his hometown of American Fork. Ottesen helped guide American Fork to the 2012 state championship and earned 5A MVP honors. In two seasons on the mound as a prep pitcher, he posted a 17-2 record, including having gone 8-1 with a 1.54 ERA as a senior. He was not drafted out of high school and most likely would not have signed if the been drafted. In fact, teams may well have already been advised he would not sign. Instead, following his graduation Ottesen went on a two-year mission through The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His mission was to Japan, a mission that he feels was a life-changing experience for him. An unthinkable sacrifice for most college athletes, Ottesen did not throw a single pitch while on his mission, but he firmly believes any setback to his athletic career was justified by the life-changing experience.
“Japan was the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” he said. “A mission isn’t always the best two years of your life, but it’s the best two years for your life. It’s helped shape me into a person, a man and a husband that I may want to become in the future.”
Returning from Japan Ottesen began his college career at the University of Utah. As he expected returning to baseball after a two-year hiatus was definitely a challenge.
“Coming back, working out at a different elevation was hard for me — it was a very slow process,” Ottesen said. “Not throwing for two years, I obviously can’t just jump into things quickly and start throwing, I’ve had to go by a process and be patient with it and trust in that process. I’ve gotten in better shape, and my arm is in even better shape, so I think these past eight months have been alright for me.”
He played with the Utes during the 2016 and 2017 seasons compiling a 5.37 ERA while striking out 119 in 137 innings. He perhaps could have used another year of college ball but his college coach felt for sure he would be drafted in the 2017 June Draft citing his work ethic and arm strength as two of his strongest assets. That is what scouts noticed.
“He’s got arm speed. You can’t teach that,” said one former professional scout who has watched Ottesen pitch since high school. “A guy is just born with that arm speed. And you know what? Everybody is looking for power arms, and he’s a power arm. I saw him his last outing against Arizona State, and he was 94 to 95 [mph] in the seventh inning and he was right close to 100 pitches. The other thing that shows that he has arm strength is he’s 94, 95 out of the stretch.”
Ottesen made his professional debut with the Arizona League Dodgers on July 2, 2017 against the AZL Diamondbacks. Over 16 innings pitched in the AZL in which he posted a 2.25 ERA and a 0.69 WHIP, he struck out 16. He then moved on to the Great Lakes Loons of the Midwest League where he recorded a 4.30 ERA over 14.2 innings pitched and struck out 17. Ottesen, now 24, began the 2018 season back with the Loons and things did not go well. He pitched 27.2 innings allowing more than an earned run per inning an well as walking more than one per inning. He finished the season back with the AZL Dodgers. Eric Carter:
On December 16, 2018 the Dodgers signed free agent right-hander Eric Carter to a minor league contract. He has earlier been released by the Springfield Cardinals of the Pacific Coast League. He was born in Santa Clara, Utah and attended Snow Canyon High School in St. George,Utah. Following his graduation from high school he registered at Salt Lake Community College in 2011. His time at the community college was short as after his freshman year he embarked on a two-year mission through The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His next two years were spent in Louisiana with no baseball. Every once in a while he reported – when he could find a throwing partner — he would play catch.
“I knew it would be a rough road back,” Carter said, “but I had a firm belief that if God wanted me to play professional baseball, he would help me get there.”
Carter returned to Salt Lake Community College for the 2014 season where he posted a 0.84 ERA and a 0.81 WHIP. In 2015 he returned to Louisiana, this time as a student at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette.
“He didn’t look like he was very rusty at all,” said Louisiana head coach Tony Robichaux, who began Coaching Carter a year into his comeback. “The big difference I saw in him was the maturity in him as a man. Most kids in college are chasing a lot of things that they can’t catch. He’s above his age in his maturity. I think that gave him a huge edge.”
In his senior year with the Ragin Cajuns he made 26 relief appearances in which he pitched 52 innings while posting an ERA of 2.08 and a WHIP of 0.94 while striking out 69 and walking 12. At that time Carter was already 24 and perhaps not thought to be a candidate to be drafted. However, while on a trip to the grocery store with his wife Jessica his phone began to go crazy with messages. He learned he had been selected by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 26th round of the 2016 Draft. Concerned about completing his studies, Carter made plans to continue that but also to follow his dream of playing professional baseball. He made his professional debut on June 28, 2016 with the State College Spikes of the New York-Penn League. Over three minor league seasons, the now 26-year-old, has gone 8-4 with a 2.35 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP. He has struck out 133 in 118.2 innings pitched while walking 36. His K/IP ratio was 10.1 while his K/BB ratio was 3.69. All of the 5’11”/202-pound right-hander’s 88 minor league appearances have been in relief. He pitched part of the past two seasons at the AA level. In Conclusion:
These two young men are good representatives of the various types of commitments made by minor league ball players. In accepting their missions they were well aware of how that might impact their dreams of playing professional baseball. They have taken two years out of a prospective baseball career – two formative years – and have made the mountain just a little higher to climb. That mountain can be climbed as evidenced by former pitcher Jeremy Gutherie who also spent two years of his possible career in a mission similar to those of Riley Ottesen and Eric Carter.