If you didn’t know the backstory, it looked like a familiar moment in a minor-league season: This right-hander coming out of the Dunedin Blue Jays bullpen to protect a three-run lead over Clearwater on Opening Day in April of last year, blanks on his stat line, a modest crowd in the stadium where the big-league club had wrapped up spring training a few weeks before. That’s how it is in a season opener, a fresh beginning for everyone. For Chris Rowley, though, it was something else entirely.
“This was the first batter I faced in a meaningful game in three years almost,” he says. “The first time in front of a crowd in more than that. Admittedly, the juices were going. My head was spinning. I got thrown back in the fire.”
The first batter Rowley faced laid down a swinging bunt and Rowley had to come off the mound to field the ball, then turn and throw to first base.
“Hit the tarp on the fly,” he says. “Air.”
With a runner now on second, none out, the second batter Rowley faced hit a comebacker to the mound. “I had to make that throw to first again,” he says. “I made the good throw this time.”
As basic a play as a pitcher makes, yet it summoned up memories. It had been that long. “I had forgotten the feeling,” he says. “It’s not like riding a bike. You got to get used to it again.”
It might be hard to imagine any situation for a player who steps on the field for the first game of a Florida State League season qualifying as high-pressure. High-A ball is about futures, not presents; about long-term development, not a throw to first base that winds up scattering the field crew. Chris Rowley’s story was different not simply because he had been out of the game so long — just about every organization has a pitcher who’s coming off a layoff of a season or more due to Tommy John or some other surgery. Rowley’s arm was intact and had all its original parts. He’d been out of the game because he had to spend a couple of long seasons in a uniform that didn’t belong to any of the Blue Jays’ affiliates.
As a hunter and collector of stories about athletes, I didn’t much notice Chris Rowley the first time I saw him. That was also in Dunedin, but it was back in August of 2013, when he was pitching for Toronto’s short-season rookie-league team in the Gulf Coast League. I was doing a story on life in the GCL, the worst league in the world. There, the cold-blooded exercise of separating the few elite prospects from the no-hopes plays out under the noonday sun and only after hours of workouts that begin at dawn. Tellingly, only three players from that season’s Jays’ GCL roster have played in the major leagues: shortstop Franklin Barreto, who was sent to the Oakland A’s in the Josh Donaldson trade; Miguel Castro, who’s in Baltimore’s bullpen; and outfielder Anthony Alford, who made his MLB debut with the Jays this season. Each of the three prospects demanded attention: Barreto was a million-dollar signing out of Venezuela; Castro, barely 18, touched the mid-90s the first time Jays scouts had the radar gun on him; and Alford was a heralded two-sport athlete who cut short his GCL season to play football at the University of Mississippi.
Rowley was as effective as any of those star talents. He went 4-0 in nine appearances with 39 strikeouts in 32.2 innings. His 1.10 ERA and .673 WHIP made it plain that he was too good for the league. If he had arrived in Dunedin as a draft choice, he would have been pretty quickly promoted. Instead he stuck it out into August, because the Jays had brought him in as a free agent to eat up innings for the GCL team. “Our development staff asked us to sign a few undrafted college players who could help the organization at the rookie-ball level,” said Brian Parker, then the Jays’ amateur-scouting director. “We knew Chris had just finished his season so his arm was ready to go, which is important with any undrafted pitcher we sign.”
The team thought of him as an organization player more than a prospect — a pejorative that basically writes off a young man’s chances of making the major leagues. And when I talked to Paul Quantrill, then the Jays roving pitching instructor, his reading of Rowley in the GCL was exactly that. The report that he sent back to the Jays read, in part: “100 per cent bullpen, zero pro value.” Rowley was 22 years old in a league populated by high schoolers. He was a technically sound pitcher with a 90-mph fastball rather than a live arm in need of refinement. He seemed not to have much upside, at least not compared to the likes of Miguel Castro. If that weren’t discouraging enough, there were extenuating circumstances that made Rowley’s hopes of making the majors even more dire.
Rowley wasn’t any ordinary college grad. He was, in fact, an honors grad in pre-law with his eyes set on criminal practice. And he wasn’t a graduate of any ordinary NCAA school. He was, in fact, a grad of West Point, the United States Military Academy. Upon completion of their four years at the academy, those in the graduating class are required to serve five years in the military. The brass will make exceptions for a few — basketball Hall of Famer David Robinson’s service in the navy was knocked down to two years, in part because he was a good spokesman for Annapolis, in part because he was just too tall to spend the full stint in a submarine — but approval of applications is hardly guaranteed.
In the 2013 draft, MLB teams had to factor in Rowley’s obligations. If he couldn’t get an exemption and found himself on the hook for the full five years, his window to be a pro ballplayer was effectively closed. Even if he successfully applied for early release, he had a lot working against him, namely two full years in the service as an officer, two seasons on the sidelines while other prospects were advancing in the organization, putting in hundreds of minor-league innings and working with MLB pitching coaches.
It’s easy to understand why the Jays were the only team calling him. And it’s easy to understand how Rowley could turn this around into motivation. Though he had been an all-state pitcher in high school, he had received one scholarship offer from a small school. “My fastball maxed out in the low 80s, and you can’t turn around and spit in Georgia without hitting a high-schooler throwing 92,” he says. Then a West Point recruiter called. The same theme played out once more: Rowley put up gaudy stats with the Army team, and impressive performances against the big schools, but it didn’t matter in his draft year. As Rowley told me after that season in the GCL: “Every level I’ve played, I was told going in that I wasn’t good enough to stick. A little more adversity doesn’t bother me.”
I was in Dunedin for Rowley’s last start before his service commitment began: He went six innings against the Pirates affiliate, gave up one run, struck out five. The next morning, August 14, 2013 — his 23rd birthday — he packed his bags, jumped in a team van with a trainer and rode out to the airport. Later that day he arrived at West Point to await his assignment, which turned out to be Fort Sill, Okla. Chris Rowley, ballplayer, became Second Lieutenant Rowley.
I went out to Fort Sill the following spring to talk to Rowley. It is what the elites call “Fly-over America.” I can safely bet that a very tiny fraction of those reading this story have spent time in Lawton, Okla., and virtually all of those would have either been enlisted or visiting sons and daughters serving at the army installation, which dates back to the Indian Wars of the 1860s. Rowley was putting in 10-, 12- or 16-hour days with the Army Field Artillery School. He was in command of a five-man tank crew that daily fired 155-millimetre shells six to 10 clicks down-range, turning the desolate Oklahoma brush into a smoke-clouded moonscape. All of this is to say, if you’re flying over Lawton, gain altitude.
In his limited spare time between, Rowley threw to a classmate Zach Price on a diamond on the base. Not pitched. Threw. Long tosses. Stuff to get his arm ready to pitch in the summer months when he’d be reassigned. When the siren blared a tornado warning or when the drizzle turned to hard rain, he moved into the base’s gym and threw on the basketball court. Occasionally, when a couple of hours freed up in the afternoon, he made it out to the high school in Lawton and worked out with the varsity there. Circumscribed so, he expressed no worry about falling behind others in the Jays system who were already pitching in minor-league games. “I’m not on a timetable tied to a minor-league schedule,” he said. “A team isn’t counting on me. I have to manage myself.”
While throwing across the outfield, Rowley talked about the Blue Jays organization. “I know all about the irony,” he said. “[The army] wants me to succeed to represent West Point and be an ambassador for the service academies. The only [MLB] organization that was willing to give me a chance is the only one not in the U.S.”
For even a high draft pick, the road to the major leagues is long and by no means certain. Sometimes a lot of talent and a lot of character can still leave a prospect just short of the Show. For an undrafted free agent coming out of college, the road is about as long, but the odds rise precipitously — as though the path to the majors runs through Fort Sill’s artillery range.
I tried to be diplomatic when I mentioned to Rowley the report that Quantrill had filed on him. I expected some hard push-back offered through clenched teeth with pulse rising and testosterone surging. Instead, Rowley agreed: “I’m a right-hander with a 92-mph fastball when some average guys in the majors — or even in triple-A — throw 95 or harder. Then again, the best pitcher in recent history, Greg Maddux, threw 90, 91, maybe 92. Not having the velocity means I have a narrower margin for error in a game, and in the organization as a whole. I need to have success at every level I pitch at. Fact is, probably 40 per cent of guys in the majors have been told at some point that they had zero pro value.”
And the fact was that Quantrill had attached a qualifier to his assessment. I read it back to Rowley. “It’s not what any young pitcher wants to hear,” Quantrill had told me. “A lot are used to hearing how great they are and when they hear otherwise they hang their heads or want to pack it in. I heard the ‘zero pro value’ when I was starting out and I thought I took it pretty well. But Chris was smart enough and mature enough to understand the message completely.”
That night I went out for beers and bar grub with Rowley and a few other officers from his West Point graduating class. One had been on the varsity football team. Another had been a letterman on the hoops squad. Their athletic careers were in the rearview mirror and they were looking ahead at their full five-year commitments and maybe staying on for long careers after that. I was struck by the fact that, when it came to personality traits, the lot of them were of one piece. They were all outgoing but respectful, confident but not outrageously so, forward-thinking but not getting ahead of themselves. They were smart as hell, intimidatingly so. If a pro scout could order up the make-up of prospects, he would use this group’s as his default setting. Yeah, the time out of the organization did Rowley no favors and neither did the radar gun, but if there was a way to get an exemption from his five-year commitment, if there was any way to get back to the Jays organization, I figured he’d take a pretty healthy run at making it to the major leagues.
When I saw Chris Rowley next, it was in March of last year, again in Dunedin, again at the Blue Jays’ training complex. “I officially got out of the army January 22, 2016,” he told me. “Now I’m a professional baseball player.”
He had been back in a Jays uniform briefly a few months before. In advance of his release, army brass granted him leave to report to the Jays instructional-league team in the fall of 2015. He wasn’t eased back into the game. He received no special consideration. “It was the first time in over two years that I had been able to throw off a mound,” he said. “And I was thrown right in there. I threw one side when I got here and then the next time I threw was in a game against the Phillies [instructional-league team].”
It was a bit of a whirlwind in Dunedin considering that he had spent the previous spring and summer throwing to his company’s medic while stationed in Bulgaria and Romania. And he was being seen for the first time by many in the organization. Given that the GCL is a short-season league, this was his first spring training, and since his one shortened rookie-league season, the Jays’ coaching staff had undergone significant turnover, something mirrored at the highest executive level of the club.
Though he was all-in as a professional ballplayer, Rowley was going into his first full season in the organization with no preconceived ideas about where he wanted to pitch or what role he’d fill. Middle-A, high-A, starter, bullpen — he said it didn’t matter. The few others from his GCL team who remained in the organization had graduated to Bluefield, Vancouver and Lansing in the seasons he’d been gone, and the latter seemed to be a likely destination if he was to break back into the game one small step at a time. As it turned out, though, that wasn’t what the Jays had in mind.
Just as he was thrown into the thick of it in instructional league, the Jays didn’t lower the bar for Rowley when he was sent to high-A last spring. And despite that errant toss to first base on Opening Day, Rowley had to be satisfied with his performance with Dunedin. His record jumped out even if you didn’t know the context: 10-3 and an ERA of 3.49 across 14 starts and a team-leading 123 innings in 31 appearances. And his numbers would have been even more impressive but for a mid-summer slump. “Around the end of July and the start of August, I struggled for a bit,” Rowley says. “Credit to [coaches] Ken Huckaby and Jim Czajkowski, they took me aside and said that I looked tired. I had associated hard work with success. Sometimes less is more and I didn’t understand that. I didn’t understand the toll that a full season of baseball takes. Huck and Cy saw it. I didn’t see it and I’m thankful for their mentorship.”
Looking at the roster of that Dunedin ballclub, you might hesitate to read too much into Rowley’s numbers, not wanting to compare him directly to two elite pitching prospects in the system, Jon Harris and Sean Reid-Foley. The older the prospect, the higher the bar of expectations: Rowley is three years older than Harris, a 2015 first-round draft pick, and five years older than Reid-Foley, who overpowered hitters in 10 starts, registering a WHIP of .890. But Rowley is an outlier — his age doesn’t translate into professional experience. Four pitchers in Dunedin came into the season with more than 350 innings, and even Reid-Foley had more than 200. Rowley had but 32.2. Despite Rowley’s age, his learning curve was the steepest — in a lot of ways he was set up to fail. His stock in the organization is hard to ballpark simply because there aren’t a lot of 26-year-old pitchers with experience as limited. Says Rowley: “I’m relatively young in this game. I don’t know anything. I’m learning how I should pitch to batters. I try to soak up everything I can from the coaches and from veteran players. The game is so complex. You never know everything.”
This summer hasn’t been great for most of the elite hurlers in the Blue Jays organization. Both Harris and Reid-Foley struggled when promoted to double-A New Hampshire. Meanwhile, against any expectations set by “zero pro value,” Rowley thrived with the Fisher Cats: His record was just 3-2 but his ERA of 1.73 and WHIP of .808 stood out. Likewise did his 49 strikeouts in 52 innings — he has found a little extra velocity on his fastball, his average for a game sometimes hitting 90 as opposed to 87 or 88 last season, but doesn’t see that as the key. “I’ve had success pitching in the mid- and high-80s before, so if there’s more velocity that’s okay but the key for me has been movement,” he says. “I couldn’t throw straight if I wanted to. I’ve had sharper movement on all three of my pitches but especially my sinker.”
When injuries and the promotion of Mike Bolsinger to the Jays opened up a spot on the roster of the triple-A affiliate in Buffalo in early June, it was Rowley who was promoted over names better known to fans who have followed the Jays’ recent drafts. He admits that the challenges one level below the big club aren’t exactly like those he faced last season. “The hitters are just better,” he says. “They’re more aggressive in the Florida State league. Here they’ll wait for their pitch.”
When Rowley arrived in Buffalo, manager Bobby Meacham used him out in the bullpen — Meacham admitted that he “barely knew who he was.” After three relief appearances, Rowley made his first start in triple-A, and he’s been in the rotation ever since. He made his fifth start against the Durham Bulls Thursday night in Buffalo and pitched well, giving up just five hits and one walk, allowing three runs in 7.2 innings. The Bisons scored only one run, though, and the loss dropped Rowley’s record to 3-3. His other numbers, a 2.49 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP, are solid and Meacham is now well aware of who he is. “You can see guys that have confidence and work hard and believe in what their work is going to bring to them in the game,” Meacham says. “That’s what we’re seeing with Rowley. It’s just about belief in yourself and trusting yourself. That’s what he’s doing.”
Rowley’s most impressive outing came last weekend in Louisville. With the temperature on the field over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity in the high 90s, the air at Louisville Slugger Field was so heavy that you wore it like a damp bathrobe. Rowley threw seven very sweaty innings and while the bill of his cap was wilting so too were the Louisville Bats’ hitters, not getting a run off him. He was more critical than satisfied with the outing. “It was the loudest seven shutout [innings] you’ll ever see,” Rowley says. “I was all over the place. No matter what I threw it felt like it was down the middle. I had some really, really outstanding defence. Guys made outstanding plays all day. Balls were just barrelled at fielders. I figured it out in the fifth, sixth and seventh and pitched a bit better.
“I try to keep a balance between being process-oriented and results-oriented. It was a great start for me because I got the right results while the process was pretty terrible. That’s the perfect result. I got away with it and I have something to work on.”
The storybook end to Rowley’s season would have the Jays calling up him to the big club in September. While effusive in his praise for Rowley, Bisons pitching coach Bob Stanley tries to tamp down such talk. “He’s been outstanding, very surprising for us,” Stanley says. “He’s a bulldog out there, attacking batters with his sinker. He’s got a great slider and his change-up’s getting better. Great command. He’s opened eyes. You could see him going up to the big leagues as a long [reliever] but I don’t think he’s quite ready for that right now.”
Stanley suggests that Rowley’s strength is the mindset that sustained him on his long road back to the Jays organization. “What really sets him apart is that he has no fear out there,” Stanley says. “Nothing bothers him, probably something to do with West Point. I don’t have to go out there to talk to him like I would some guys who don’t have a lot of experience … even guys with a lot more experience than he has. It’s a matter of maturity and his make-up. He has it. A lot of guys don’t. A lot never get it. Some get it too late.”
Though it was late in the day for Chris Rowley to get back into pro baseball, it doesn’t at all look like it was too late.
“There’s a part of me that was made by West Point and it will always be with me no matter where I go or what I do,” he says. “It’s not reversible. It’s nothing I want to let go of.”
Big Read: Vlad Guerrero Jr. is the best Blue Jays prospect in a generation
With baseball in his blood and a big league-ready bat at just 18, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is turning heads everywhere he goes.