This season, the Minnesota Twins will rely on a couple of key contributors from the 2004 draft who are each entering the prime of their career.
Trevor Plouffe (No. 20 overall) hit 24 home runs last year, Glen Perkins (22) is establishing himself as the team closer, and Anthony Swarzak (61) is a converted starter that has found a spot for himself as the long reliever.
Kyle Waldrop (25) has had his fair share of ups and downs throughout his career, but has thrived since being moved from the rotation to the bullpen and spent some time in Minneapolis last year.
Other players like Matt Tolbert (481) and Rene Tosoni (1021) made it to the big leagues as a member of the Twins but have since left the organization. Tolbert recently signed a minor league deal with the Philadelphia Phillies and Tosoni, a Canadian, is a Milwaukee Brewer who was recently involved in a fight at the World Baseball Classic.
This is not a story about Plouffe, Perkins or Tosoni, however. It is a story about a pitcher, Jeff Schoenbachler, who was drafted by the Twins in the fifth round, No. 151, in 2004 after leading Reno High School to a Nevada State Championship.
Schoenbachler did not make it out of the Gulf Coast League, never realized his major league dreams and made the decision to sign with Minnesota out of high school rather than go to college.
This is his story, a story about choice.
“Jeff was really talented,” said Kevin Bootay, an erstwhile Twins-area scout that signed Schoenbachler. “I mean, he threw strikes, he had an average to a plus breaking ball. He would throw 89 to 92 mph, which that’s real good for a lefty, but he wasn’t one of those guys that sat at 91 or 92. He was a slow starter type guy.”
Schoenbachler would start throwing around 85 to 86, and a lot of scouts would leave the park early in his outings wondering why people thought he was so good. Bootay would sit at the ballpark throughout those hot summer days in Reno, watching a man he thought would one day become a major league pitcher.
“You have to fight for the guys you really want,” he said. “And I did want Jeff. I did. He wasn’t what you would call a sexy guy. I mean he won games. I think he was 12-1 in his senior year, but he wasn’t your classic guy who threw mid-90s or something like that, so it was hard for people to like.
"But I saw something in him, and I convinced the Twins to take him in the fifth round.”
Schoenbachler and the Reno High School Huskies lost their opening game that year to Robert McQueen High, a nearby private school, but the team would only lose one more game all season.
Schoenbachler did indeed go 12-1 in that season and the Las Vegas Sun named him the All-State Player of the Year. He struck out 115 batters in 75 innings, allowing just 40 hits and 19 walks.
“I knew I had more of a future in baseball than any other sport,” Schoenbachler told the Sun’s Adam Candee in 2004.
Bootay was not the only person attending Schoenbachler’s games at Reno High.
In addition to other amateur scouts from around the league, the left-handed pitcher had also garnered the attention of various Division I coaches, including Troy Buckley, who was California State University, Long Beach’s pitching coach at the time.
Schoenbachler eventually signed with Long Beach and had to make the decision whether to travel west to Southern California or east to Twins spring training in Ft. Myers, Fla.
“At the time I signed with Buckley, I had talked to him in the offseason," Schoenbachler said. "I talked to him through fall ball, spring ball and then got into the season. I probably talked to him during the season once or two times a week.
"I went down there randomly for another visit, talked to him. [Buckley said,] ‘If the money’s not life altering, you need to come here, you don’t need to sign.’”
“It’s hard to turn down a lot of life-changing money,” said Buckley, who is currently the head coach at Long Beach and was drafted in the ninth round of the 1989 draft by the Twins out of Santa Clara University. “The key for me to sign or not to sign is emotional—are you ready to play every day?”
Buckley played in the Minnesota Twins, Cincinnati Reds and Montreal Expos systems from 1990 to 1995 before a series of injuries ended his baseball career.
He played three games in Triple-A with the Twins in 1991, but spent the majority of his career in Double-A. He said that while the Reds were all about winning games at the minor league level, and the Expos were cash-strapped, the Twins had a player-friendly environment.
“Looking back on it, the Twins were the big family, and they stuck with their guys,” Buckley said. “They were pretty loyal to the people that they drafted and do things in-house pretty well.”
Buckley’s best experience was with the Expos, however, and he began his post-playing career as a Triple-A pitching coach in Ottawa.
“I liked the Expos the best because they didn’t have any money," he said. "They had coaches that were hungry and, I felt, individualized each guy.
"The ownership was in Montreal, and all the minor league system was based in West Palm Beach, so there wasn’t that influence of ownership imbedded in the minor leagues because they were in a different country, essentially.”
Buckley called life in the minor leagues Groundhog Day.
Like Bill Murray in the eponymous film, he felt he was trapped in a small town with a bad case of déjà vu.
“Every day is the same day in pro ball, you just happen to be in a different city,” he said. “In the lower levels you’re dealing with smaller towns, you’re dealing with limited meal money, you’re dealing with clubhouses that aren’t as great.”
Therefore, when Buckley is advising a prospect that is choosing between school and the minor leagues, he tries to put things in perspective.
“If you’re thinking about walking down to Swig Hall, or whatever, and you’re thinking about [college life] when you’ve got to get up at 7:30 in the morning to practice in Florida or Arizona, then you made the wrong decision, and no money can buy you out of that,” he said.
“If it’s just about buying a new car, and it’s just about coming back and saying I was drafted and it’s cool, that ages really, really fast because it’s a job, it’s a business, it’s work, it’s a grind. Some guys are cut out for it and other guys aren’t.”
“I don’t think he really, really wanted to go to school,” said Bootay of Schoenbachler. “I don’t think he wanted to go through that process of going to school every day and playing baseball every day.
"I think he was at the point where if he was going to go to school, he just wanted to go to school without playing baseball. I really got that feeling.”
Bootay said that Schoenbachler’s parents didn’t want that to come across, because they were trying to maximize his signing bonus.
“I knew he wanted to play,” he said. “He had real makeup. Makeup is a kid who competes on the field. He’s tenacious. He’s got something inside of him. When he’s going through adversity, he can make pitches. Jeff had all those things.”
On the day he was drafted, Schoenbachler received a call from Bootay telling him that the Twins had picked him up in the fifth round. The team was offering him a $175,000 signing bonus, and had set up a scholarship fund, which would match the out-of-state tuition at Cal State-Long Beach.
At that point, Schoenbachler knew he was going to sign with Minnesota.
Ten minutes later he got a call from Buckley.
“He goes, ‘So what are your thoughts? What are your decisions?’, and I go, ‘I’m going to sign.’" Schoenbachler said. "And at that point he said, ‘I don’t think that’s a wise decision. Think about it and call me back.’”
Schoenbachler set down the phone, waited 20 minutes and then called him back, informing Buckley that he was sticking with his decision. Schoenbachler said that effectively terminated their relationship.
“At that point, I knew I was fourth, fifth round and I was signing for $150-200 thousand,” he said. “Realistically, that’s a lot of money, but it’s really not. It wasn’t life changing.
"I bought a couple of things, and it did not change my life a whole lot. He kept pushing the fact of, it’s not [life-changing], so you need to come back to Long Beach and get the college experience and go in the first or second round and get that life-changing money.”
Hear Buckley and Bootay speak about the draft, and you’ll hear dichotomous takes on which route best prepares players for professional baseball.
Buckley coached Jered Weaver, Evan Longoria and Troy Tulowitzki at Long Beach and saw them go on to have successful major league careers. Bootay has signed guys out of high school and has seen them thrive in Major League baseball as well.
“If you use the draft as a science, and you really break it down, looking at college and high school success rates, there’s no question that the college player gets to the big leagues more than a high school player,” Buckley said.
“Now there’s some other points saying that the superstars in the big leagues sometimes have a tendency to come from high school because its all about age.”
Here’s the rationalization: a player typically enters his prime at 25 or 26, but professional teams typically want a player on their roster at age 22. This means that a college player, who cannot be drafted until his junior year will likely enter the minors at age 21 and only have one year to get to the majors.
That player is likely to skip a couple of the lower minor league levels, but only one player, Cincinnati’s Mike Leake, has gone directly from college to the majors since 1990. The league is full of players that spent three years in college, two or three years in the minors and shined in their prime years, but the best of the best typically get there faster.
“You’d certainly like to have Ken Griffey, Jr., Alex Rodriguez, some of those guys when they’re 21, 22, 23 in the big leagues learning, because they’re going to be really, really good players,” Buckley said.
However, for every Bryce Harper, who joined the Washington Nationals as a teenager, there is a Ryan Braun that went to college, took longer to reach the majors, but now is an impact player.
“I mean, Tulowitzki was 21 when he got to the big leagues, and he had only about 1000 minor league at bats,” said Buckley of the current Colorado Rockies shortstop. “That’s nothing, but his defense allowed him to stay, and he learned how to hit at the big league level, and now he’s a superstar.”
Bootay, who is currently a pro scout with the Chicago White Sox (“I know the Twins and White Sox hate each other,” he said. “I don’t know why”) begs to differ.
He feels that if a player wants the quickest route to the big leagues, he must sign out of high school.
“Bottom line for me is you can’t learn how to play professional baseball playing college baseball, if that makes sense,” he said. “I mean, you’re going to get bigger in college, you’re going to get stronger in college, but the process is slower.
"Yes, if you sign a 21-year-old man, he’s going to get to the big leagues quicker than a 17- 18-year-old kid because he’s already three years ahead of him. But if you took two equal players—same player, same position—and one signed [with a pro team] and went to college, the player that signed is going to be a much better player than the college player.”
Bootay rationalizes his argument by saying that a player that takes the minor league route is probably going to get 1800 at-bats in three years.
Even if he plays short-season rookie ball, which is 60 games (akin to the 55-game college season), he will likely spend two years playing a 144-game schedule. The college player, on the other hand, gets maybe 300 to 400 at bats, if they are lucky.
Additionally, college freshmen typically are pretty low on the food chain. Unless they are highly touted out of high school, they will probably see minimal playing time in their first year.
On top of that, college coaches have a larger incentive to win than a minor league program. This varies college to college and team to team, but few NCAA coaches keep their job if they lose frequently where a minor league manager’s biggest incentive is to provide the major league team with talented players year in and year out.
This can lead to situations like at Stanford, where Mark Appel frequently racked up high pitch counts, much to the chagrin of the professional organizations that were courting him.
“I think the colleges limiting pitches is a fallacy,” Bootay said. “Professional baseball limits innings for these guys more so than college baseball.
"These coaches constantly ride these guys all day. If you count the amount of breaking balls these guys in colleges throw to the amount of breaking balls the professional pitchers throw, it’s not even close.”
During the summer, when he’s observing other professional players, Bootay said he sees 75 to 80 percent fastballs. College, he says, is a breaking-ball league.
Not only that, but while the best pitcher in college is throwing every Friday, once a week, he’s still throwing more pitches than a minor league pitcher, who is often restricted to 75 pitches in the lower levels and 100 pitches in the higher levels.
He feels that, in general, college coaches don’t care about what happens to a player once they graduate.
“I was recruited, I see what they’re about,” said Bootay, who was drafted by the Texas Rangers in the first round of the 1984 draft out of Cerritos College. “Their concern is not your pro career or what’s going to happen to you afterwards. That doesn’t factor into this.”
The situation varies from coach to coach, however.
Spend a couple minutes talking to Buckley, and you can tell he keeps track of his guys long after they have left the college ranks. And it’s not just the big names like Longoria, Tulowitzki and Weaver, either.
He spoke at length about Vance Worley, a current Twin, Ricky Nolasco of the Miami Marlins—who never actually went to Long Beach—and Jared Hughes, a pitcher that is just starting his career as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“There’s a lot of guys out there that went undrafted, got better here, and are more ready for major league teams both maturity-wise and ability-wise,” he said. “So they can move through the system a little faster.”
Unlike many scouts, Bootay maintains a strong relationship with many of the players he signed and says that he has never met a kid that regretted playing major league baseball, but has talked to a lot of players that regretted going to school.
“Colleges are always going to be there,” he said. “Your athletic ability only has so many years. You need to decide when to start the clock. We all have a window.”
He said that many scouts fail to stay in touch with the players they sign because they can’t bear to see them fail.
“Baseball pretty much tries to teach scouts to sign them and walk away,” said Bootay, who keeps up with Schoenbachler to this day. “Whereas, for me, that didn’t make sense, because I didn’t like those types of scouts when I was a player.”
Bootay said he’ll talk to any player that reaches out to him, even people that he did not sign.
“They’re almost like sons to me,” he said. “That’s just because of the way I’m wired.”
Bootay said he never sells false hope, never tells a player that he is a surefire pro and Schoenbachler confirms this much.
Both scout and player say that the draft day conversation basically consisted of where he had been drafted, how much bonus money he would get and specifications regarding the college fund. But make no mistake, Bootay felt he was speaking to a future major leaguer.
“The only thing you cannot project on a player is if he’s going to get hurt or not,” he said. “That’s the thing we never know. That’s the unknown. Had Jeff not gotten hurt, there’s no question in my mind that he’d be pitching in the big leagues.”
Schoenbachler played well during his first two years in the Gulf Coast League.
He went 2-3 with a 3.92 ERA in 2004 and 2-2 with a 3.97 ERA in his second season.
During the 2005 season, his 45 strikeouts were good enough for No. 9 in the league.
Away from the diamond, he connected with Brandon McConnell, a veteran on a rehab assignment, and met some players that currently play for the team.
“Chris Parmelee and Joe Benson are two of the funniest kids I’ve ever met,” he said excitedly, before lowering his voice. “When I was done playing, I kind of fell out of the loop with all of those guys.”
In 2005, the Twins drafted Kevin Slowey out of Winthrop University and Brian Duensing out of the University of Nebraska.
Slowey was a second-round pick and is currently in the Marlins minor league system; Duensing was a third-rounder who is likely to come out of the bullpen for Minnesota this year.
The team had high expectations for both players.
“I was in the slot to get moved up to Single A at the time and go to [Elizabethton, Tenn.],” Schoenbachler said. “At that point I had the statistics. I had proven myself for the past few years that I would go up and compete and they sent those two guys up and kept me down.”
Things only got worse from there.
In Schoenbachler’s first outing, he went out and threw around 100 pitches in six innings against Cincinnati.
“Nothing came out of the blue immediately,” he said.
The next day he went out to the diamond, went for a run and then went to throw with a teammate. The ball landed five feet in front of him.
“It was the most amount of pain in my shoulder—like somebody stabbed me,” he said.
He picked up the ball again. Same results.
“I called the trainer over, he sent me down,” he said.
Schoenbachler did not throw for two or three weeks and then went through a program to rehabilitate himself.
“Everything kept coming back fine," he said. "I could throw fine. Everything felt good.”
He went out to throw two innings against Pittsburgh on a 30-pitch rehab assignment.
“I went out and threw, felt fine the next day, went to loosen up again, throw lightly, same thing.” he said.
Same stabbing. The ball landed barely past his foot.
He saw four different doctors—both team and personal—and they could not tell him what was wrong with it. At that point, Schoenbachler was frustrated because Duensing and Slowey had been sent up (“Obviously that worked out for them,” he admitted, “they threw well”), but if the doctors could not tell what was wrong with his shoulder, he did not want to go under the knife.
“I’ve been throwing for the past 15 years, and if you go in there and fix something that’s not causing the problem, then you’re going to have to cut me open again,” he said. “I’m not going to go do this until they can come up with something that’s wrong with my shoulder.”
It was in 2006, two years after he had been drafted, that Schoenbachler decided to move on from baseball.
“That was the hardest decision I’ve ever made,” he said with a strained laugh. “Going back, it was the most fun and exciting years ever. It weighed back and forth.
"A lot of it was based off the fact that that guy who was down there, Brandon McConnell, he was down there with the shoulder surgery, he never threw the same.”
There were other players that had gone through the same process too.
“All these guys had all these surgeries and supposedly knew what was wrong with them, tried to repair it and it didn’t work out,” he said.
Schoenbachler did not go directly back to school.
Instead, he opted for a job with Loomis Armored back in Reno, where he had purchased a house with his bonus money. Within four months he became an Operations Supervisor.
He said that he has no regrets about his decision to play baseball.
“I can’t come away with one negative thing through everything I went through,” he said. “The Twins to this day are a very good organization. No negative aspect of that one bit.
"The hardest part is over the last three years was watching all the guys that you played with start getting called up.”
He said that he has begun to watch baseball games, but only the Reno Aces, a Triple-A team.
“That’s my start,” he said, laughing. “I’ll go and watch the Aces.”
As a result of not using his scholarship fund within two years of leaving baseball, he lost the money entirely. Still, his manager at Loomis suggested that he return to school if he wanted to move higher in the company.
“At the time, I had never worked for anybody, so he was a huge influence,” said Schoenbachler, “Like ‘Geez, this guy can probably buy whatever he wants,’ and he’s telling me I should probably get back to school.”
He has enrolled at the University of Phoenix and plans to complete his degree over the Internet.
“Being someone who works full time,” he said, “it made going back to school pretty easy.”
His emphasis is in education and he aspires to be a high school baseball coach one day.
“Kids at that level want to learn, they want to become good, so you can take their knowledge and try to work with it,” he said, acknowledging that his coach at Reno High School, Pete Savage, was a large influence on him.
“And then, also, you have pretty much two options in high school, you can head down the wrong road and get into the stuff you shouldn’t be doing, or you can get involved in certain things and head down a good path, end up a positive member of society.”
In essence, he wants to help young baseball players with choice. He doesn’t want them to have any regrets.