By Bob Wirz
It was less than three years ago–the 2017 baseball season–when Ryan Fitzgerald was the all-star shortstop in the American Association and first baseman John Nogowski looked like the next Mookie Betts as he peppered league pitching so effectively that it only took about five weeks before the St. Louis Cardinals gobbled up his contract.
The pair must be pinching themselves these days in major league spring training camps in Florida as they suit up with the best baseball has to offer. What satisfaction it has to be even though neither has a ticket as yet to an Opening Day roster spot.
Fitzgerald, who starred at Gary SouthShore in his first season out of Creighton University, seems likely to play in Double-A (Portland, ME) in the Boston farm system this season after a standout year in the Carolina League, but one would guess just getting to suit up for some of the parent Red Sox games must keep the 25-year-old smiling.
The Illinois native is not on Boston’s 40-man roster or even an official non-roster invitee after playing two seasons with Class A teams, but after earning the organization’s minor league Defensive Player of the Year award and being honored on the field at Fenway Park he is certainly on the team’s radar.
Fitzgerald singled in his only official at-bat, drove in a run and scored another in the Red Sox’s opening 3-1 exhibition victory against Northeastern University. and he has played both shortstop and second base while getting into three Grapefruit League games in the first four days of action. The 0-for-4 likely has not been a major distraction since he has walked, scored twice and fanned two times. It is that .984 fielding percentage at Salem, VA last season that speaks volumes although he also was decent at the plate with a .271 average and 65 runs batted in during his 127 games.
Nogowski also seems to be battling uphill to open the season in St. Louis with veteran star Paul Goldschmidt locked in at first base (unless a sore elbow gets the best of him), although his career highs in homers (15) and RBI (75) and a gaudy .413 on-base percentage and solid glove at Triple-A Memphis followed by a .326 average in the Dominican Republic during the winter has not gone unnoticed by Redbirds brass.
The right-handed hitter, who was 24 when he got on base at an awesome .482 clip at Sioux City, has played in three exhibition games so far as a non-roster invitee, going 2-for-7 with two runs batted in. He also made a sixth-inning leaping catch against Miami to preserve a no-hitter although the Marlins broke up that bid the next inning.
“A guy like Nogowski, he’s impressed with his leather at first base, his footwork and his knowledge of the game,” first base coach Stubby Clapp told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Accomplishing the rarity of walking more than he struck out in each of the last two seasons also helps his chances of reaching the majors soon if not for Opening Day next month.
AirHogs’ Thomas Still Swinging
Elsewhere in spring training, non-roster outfielder Dillon Thomas, who had 37 doubles among 51 extra-base hits while going .333/.420 for the Texas AirHogs two years ago then drove in 71 runs at Double-A Biloxi last season, has a pair of hits in four at-bats with Oakland. Teammate Ryan Court (Sioux City) has made one brief appearance (0-1) so far.
In addition to the 20 former American Association players in major league camps fulltime, a number of others have already gotten at least one-day opportunities from minor league camps to suit up with the parent team. Outfielder Keith Curcio (Kansas City) walked and scored a run for Boston, pitcher Dylan Rheault (Winnipeg and Sioux City) joined Cincinnati and James Dykstra (Sioux City) did the same with Toronto. Neither pitcher has gotten into a game.
Hoyt Hopes to Move on From Scandal
Heard enough about Houston’s sign-stealing scam of three years ago?
James Hoyt, trying to re-establish himself in the major leagues eight years after he spent some time in the American Association, is one of many players speaking up about the issue that has dominated the early part of spring training. “I was on that team (’17 Astros),” he admitted to Cleveland.com from Goodyear, AZ where he hopes to stick with the Cleveland Indians. “I was part of that team. I knew what was going on. It’s unfortunate what it’s turned into. Was it unethical? 100 percent.”
Ironically, that 2017 season was Hoyt’s best, the year when he made 43 of his career total 74 major league appearances (1-0, 4.38). The 33-year-old hopes to use his slider-dominating strikeout pitch to earn a continuing job in Cleveland’s bullpen. “I don’t feel any awkwardness or discomfort being around these guys (Indians). It is what it is with what happened over there (at Houston). It was 2017 and it’s in the past. I’m hoping baseball can move on from that…I want the focus in this clubhouse to be on the 2020 season, not the Houston Astros.”
Hoyt went 2-0 with a save and 2.61 earned run average in 11 American Association appearances with Wichita in his second professional season of 2012. He allowed a run and three hits in an inning of work in his initial 2020 spring training appearance.
Previously the chief spokesman for Baseball Commissioners Bowie Kuhn and Peter Ueberroth, Bob Wirz has been writing extensively about Independent Baseball since 2003. He is a frequent contributor to this site, has a blog, www.IndyBaseballChatter.com, and a book about his life, “The Passion of Baseball”, is available at Amazon.com or at www.WirzandAssociates.com.