Corey Seager is tired. Admittedly so. This is all new for a 19-year-old kid, who just a year and a half ago was still playing the oh-so-short high-school season, and even in this day of year-round travel ball, there is nothing that compares to this. Seager, a shortstop and one of the Dodgers’ top prospects, has been playing baseball nonstop since the beginning of spring training, which was followed immediately by his first full season as a professional, which he split between each level of A-ball. The team he finished with, advanced Single-A Rancho Cucamonga, reached the California League playoffs, pushing Seager’s season a week into September. After that, Seager got what he said was about a week off before he reported to Camelback Ranch, where he worked out with a host of other Dodgers minor leaguers — as well as some rehabbing big leaguers like, at various times, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier — while awaiting the start of the Arizona Fall League season.
That season is about half over now, which means Seager still has another two and a half weeks of baseball left before he returns home to North Carolina to spend the winter working out with his two older brothers, Kyle Seager, the starting third baseman for the Seattle Mariners, and Justin Seager, a first baseman who was drafted in June by the Mariners and just finished his first season in Rookie ball.
“It’s a little bit of a grind,” Seager conceded, but he isn’t complaining. Not many players get a prestigious AFL assignment at 19, but Seager is special. He was a first-round pick (18th overall) by the Dodgers, the only one of those in his family. And if his offensive numbers have been in steady decline since his midseason promotion to the Cal League from low Single-A Great Lakes, well, no one in the organization really cares about that. Not at this stage of Seager’s development, anyway.
Teams do pay attention to their top prospects’ performances, especially in the latter stages of their development as they begin to gauge their readiness for the big leagues. But Seager, whom the Dodgers signed out of high school last year to a $2.35 million bonus, isn’t there yet. The priority with players like him is to make sure they are properly challenged at every step, and that is one reason Seager has progressed so quickly in a little more than a year from Rookie ball to A-ball to advanced A-ball. Not quite as quickly as the guy who was drafted with the pick right behind him. That would be Michael Wacha, who will start Game 6 of the World Series for the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday night at Fenway Park. But Wacha was drafted out of college, and thus is on a faster track.
It is somewhat noteworthy that Seager got off to such a fast start, hitting .309 with a .383 on-base percentage in the Pioneer League last year and then coming back in 2013 to hit an identical .309, this time with 18 doubles, 12 homers and 57 RBI, at Great Lakes before his promotion. Those were all positives signs, of course. But it was after his promotion, when he began to struggle for the first time in his life, when Dodgers officials were able to get a more definitive read on the type of player they had.
Seager had 16 hits in 100 at-bats for Rancho, and he struck out 31 times.
Although it was a jump of just one level, Seager said what he found in the Cal League was a much more sophisticated style of pitching, one that was geared toward exploiting a hitter’s weaknesses. A hundred at-bats, 27 games, isn’t a great deal of time for a hitter to adjust to that, although Seager said he felt more comfortable toward the end of the season, a claim supported by the fact he went 4-for-12 in the Quakes’ first-round playoff loss to Inland Empire. Baseball, you have probably heard a thousand or so times, is a game of adjustments. Pitchers almost always adjust before hitters do, and Seager was still in that process of adjusting, really, for the first time in his professional career, when the minor league season ended.
Fast-forward, then, to the AFL. Predictably, given that this is the highest level of pitching he ever has faced, those offensive struggles have continued. He entered today’s game against Surprise hitting .162, with 12 strikeouts in 37 ABs. And in his first two at-bats today, he struck out quickly, on three pitches the first time and four the next. But really, that is what the AFL is for. It’s a showcase league for some of the top prospects in the game, but it’s also a place where hitters, especially young hitters, come to struggle. More than anything, it’s a test, and even if a guy struggles all the way to the end, it doesn’t mean he failed that test. For Seager, it just means he gained six weeks of invaluable experience facing a level of competition that, when he presumably begins next season back at Rancho, most of his teammates won’t have seen.
Seager is one of the youngest players in the AFL this fall, and although by all accounts he is a mature 19, well, 19 is still 19. He is living with some of his older fellow Dodgers farmhands here, and he said he also is helped by the comfort and familiarity of having his Cal League hitting coach, Johnny Washington, filling the same role with Seager’s AFL team, the Glendale Desert Dogs.
Seager’s trek through the minors has been a growing process off the field as well. The low minor leagues are the great equalizer, and even if you got a huge signing bonus, you show up at the ballpark every day in the same proverbial boat with all your teammates, and Seager says he hasn’t been treated any differently along the way than anybody else — at least not in a way that is discernible to him. Obviously, the Dodgers are going to take special care with a guy they invested that much money in, but Seager still lived the low-minors life with everybody else, the long bus rides, the cheap motels, even living with host families last summer in Ogden and this year while in Great Lakes before finally getting his own apartment in Rancho.
For now, the Dodgers can be patient with Seager, but perhaps only to a point. Hanley Ramirez is a potential free agent after next season, and theoretically, Seager could be ready to take over by opening day 2015, but that would seem unlikely for a guy who still would be a few weeks shy of 21 at that point. The last thing you want to do with a prospect as prized as this one is stick him into the everyday lineup at a time when he isn’t ready, because history is rife with promising players who have been so adversely affected by that they never really recovered from it.
For his part, Seager said he has no time frame in mind for how quickly he wants to get there.
“One of the best things my brother told me was just to treat every stop like your own major leagues, and just kind of be in the moment, that way you’re not always looking up at all the levels you still have to go through,” he said. “It’s hard to do sometimes, but it was great advice.”
It would seem especially hard to do in the AFL, where games usually take place on weekday afternoons in front of crowds that tend to be in the 150 range and sometimes the only noise you hear is the plate umpire calling balls and strikes. But most of the major league players who passed through this league at one point or another on their way up the minor league ladder will tell you that the experience they got here was huge. And Seager is young enough that he may be back here next fall.
Before next fall, though, will come next spring, when a well-rested and more experienced Seager will come to spring training ready to take the next step, wherever he is asked to take it.
It may be a few years yet before the bright lights of the big leagues shine on him. But the organizational spotlight of the Dodgers already is trained firmly on Seager. He will be watched closely every step of the way, his progress monitored to the minutest detail. De Jon Watson, the Dodgers assistant general manager for player development, attends virtually every Desert Dogs game, watching intently from the stands, and various other Dodgers front-office types are in and out on a regular basis. Some minor league players are just that, minor league players. Others are major league prospects. But some, undeniably, are the future, and Seager is one of those. He is coming, sooner or later.
And if he happens to struggle through an AFL season at a point in the year when his body is running on fumes, well, that is nothing more than a speed bump along the way.