Among the Toronto Blue Jays prospects invited to instructional league last autumn, pitcher Chris Rowley was the only one who had a good chunk of his spring and summer working on his game in Bulgaria and Romania.
The downside in Eastern Europe: Rowley couldn’t pitch off a mound, field on an infield or face any live hitters. The upside: If he tweaked or strained a muscle, his catcher was qualified to treat him.
“Yeah, I was throwing to my medic,” Rowley said after his first session at Blue Jays minor-league camp.
Safe to say the path that the 25-year-old Rowley has taken is unlike any other player at Toronto’s minor-league camp. Alone among them he’s a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Rowley was the ace of the staff for Army, going 9-4 with a 2.63 in 2013, his senior year. Rowley was in against a bunch of the heavyweight programs in NCAA. All things equal, his performance and talent would have made him a MLB pick—not a first-rounder, for sure, not in line for a seven- or even six-figure bonus, but a draft pick nonetheless. All things were not equal.
As spelled out in a Sportsnet Magazine story from 2014, there was the far-from-small matter of Rowley’s service commitment. Rowley, or more precisely, 2nd Lt. Rowley, owed Army time, the standard being five years upon graduation.
That completely chilled any organization to spending a pick on Rowley.
Not long after the 2013 draft, though, the Jays called Rowley and asked him if he’d be interested in joining their Gulf Coast League team if he had any free time before his commitment began. That summer, the Rookie League affiliate was short of arms and needed some innings eaten or else the long, hot summer would have seemed a lot longer and a lot hotter. Going in Rowley knew he was just one of the collegians who were brought in as undrafted free agents as organization players.
Rowley jumped at the chance. He spent his leave, all six weeks of it in July and August, in sunny Dunedin. (If you think it was a glamorous assignment, please check out this story on the GCL, which dates back to Rowley’s stint there.)
Rowley dominated the GCL from the get-go, going 4-0 with Bob Gibson’s old ERA, 1.12, and 39 strikeouts in 32 innings. Fact was, he pitched in the GCL but wasn’t a GCL pitcher. And again, if all things were equal his performance would have justified a promotion to Bluefield or Vancouver. But as noted, Rowley was brought for one role only: racking up innings while the prospects learned the game.
As noted in the aforementioned Sportsnet Magazine story, West Point and Annapolis have given special consideration to graduates who have prospects in pro sports, granting them exceptions to the five-year commitments. Last year, the paperwork for Chris Rowley was pushed through.
"I officially got out of the Army January 22, 2016," Rowley said. "Now I’m a professional baseball player."
Rowley said that the brass did him an enormous favour when he was granted special leave to come down to instructional league for five weeks last fall. "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 also the first time that Rowley had worked in front of and talked with any coaches since his last game in the GCL in August 2013. The Blue Jays coaches tweaked his delivery, correcting a couple of bad habits he’d fallen into while working out in Fort Sill in Oklahoma and Fort Stewart in Georgia before shipping out to Eastern Europe. "The biggest thing the coaches picked up on was separating my hands [in the wind up]," Rowley said. "I was separating my hands very late and that was was causing me to rush things. If I had been coming in here to minor-league spring training out of the cold like I did [in the instructional league] it would have been really difficult."
The instructional-league stint wasn’t just about mechanics, however. He was at risk of not just being out of sight and out of mind, but really a mystery man. He was known only to the GCL staff and roving instructors based on that one season and the Jays minor-league organization had, as Rowley put it, "a fair bit of turnover" over his two years away. "The most important thing was that it was face time with the staff," he said. "I didn’t know a lot of guys. The rest hadn’t seen me in two years."
Even with the time away, throwing to any catchers he could find, Rowley believes he’s better now than he was in his GCL season. "In instructional league, I was touching 91, which is pretty much where I had been in 2013," he said. "I know I still have gas in the tank and more velocity there."
Rowley declined to guess where he would land this season. "I’m not a tangible-goals guy and that’s something I really don’t have control over," he said.
Bluefield wouldn’t seem a likely destination—how he threw in the GCL in 2013 would have had him skipping short-season low-A. Vancouver and Lansing would be reasonable guesses, the latter more likely. But anywhere in the organization would seem more likely than and, to Chris Rowley, preferable to Romania or Bulgaria.