SIOUX CITY – One pleasant surprise after another has arisen in the first three days of preseason camp for the Sioux City Explorers.
American Association baseball’s two-time defending Central Division champions, the X’s already knew they had another promising roster with three former major leaguers among this year’s newcomers.
Still, Manager Steve Montgomery didn’t know what to expect from 28-year-old righthander Alex White, who spent nearly two full big-league seasons with the Indians and the Rockies.
So, it impressed “Mongo” considerably when White stepped on the field for the team’s first workout Saturday, volunteering for the dreaded bucket duty during batting practice. Manning that bucket means retrieving hundreds of baseball’s thrown back from wherever they wind up in an hour or so of “B.P.” swings.
“How many big leaguers are going to grab the bucket?’’ reflected Montgomery, who has three former first-round draft picks in White, third baseman Josh Vitters and outfielder LeVon Washington. “I mean the guy is very, very humble. And, he’s throwing it well, even though he hasn’t quite got his (velocity) back.’’
“When someone asks about being a leader, I would never say I’m a leader,’’ said White. “But you can’t ever feel like you’re above anything. You never want to ask someone to do something that you’re not willing to do yourself.’’
The 15th player taken in the 2009 draft, agreeing to a $2.25-million signing bonus with Cleveland, White didn’t know what was in store for him with a team from baseball’s independent ranks.
He didn’t realize he’d be joining a team with third baseman Josh Vitters and centerfielder Tony Campana, two more veterans with big-league experience. And, that didn’t include more than a dozen others who’ve made it as high as Class AA.
“I certainly don’t want to insult independent baseball, but I just didn’t imagine the type of team we would have here,’’ said White, who helped North Carolina reach the last three of the Tar Heels’ four straight College World Series trips from 2006 through 2009.
“There’s a lot of talent on this team. The talent we have throughout this roster, it’s impressive. I’m playing with a lot of great players -- guys that have done a lot in this game.’’
Like some of the others, White wouldn’t be here if he’d managed to stay healthy since leaving Carolina after his junior year. The 2009 draft saw one UNC teammate (Dustin Ackley) become the No. 2 overall selection, 13 spots ahead of White. It also saw teammates Kyle Seager (Mariners’ third baseman) and Adam Warren (Yankees’ reliever) start their journeys to steady major league employment.
Of course, Seager, who has belted 20 or more homers each of the last five years, is the older brother of budding superstar Corey Seager, the Dodgers’ young shortstop. And, a year behind that ’09 draft class, UNC had pitcher Matt Harvey (Mets) go seventh in the draft of 2010.
Two years after heading up the Carolina staff his final Omaha visit, White was called up to Cleveland and went 1-0 with a 3.60 ERA in three early season starts for the Tribe, all of them one-run victories. Little did he know this would be the end of his reunion with former Tar Heel flamethrower Andrew Miller, still the Indians’ closer.
“I tore a ligament in my finger and it put me out like eight to 10 weeks,’’ said White. “As I was coming back, they traded me and (pitcher Drew) Pomerantz along with two other guys for Ubaldo (Jiminez, a veteran pitcher Cleveland acquired from the Rockies to help fortify a playoff bid).’’
Pitching in the thin air of Denver proved just as challenging as all accounts have ever implied. After seven late-season starts in ’11, White made 30 more appearances in 2012, 27 of them starts, before his demotion to Class AAA Colorado Springs in late July. It wasn’t long before medical staff determined he would need Tommy John surgery to continue pitching.
After going under the knife of renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews, White sat out all of 2013. Then, unaccustomed to spectating, he signed with the Astros and headed for Class AAA Oklahoma City a little sooner, perhaps, than he should have.
A rocky year for White didn’t stop Houston from sending him to their new Triple-A affiliate in Fresno to start the 2015 season. However, he was dealt at mid-season to Atlanta, making seven starts for Class AAA Gwinnett.
“There was about a three-week span there with the Braves when I thought I was back to 100 percent and then it (the elbow) just tore again,’’ he said.
White opted for a second Tommy John procedure, this time turning his baseball future over to Dr. Anthony Romeo of Chicago. Then, making sure to give himself plenty of rehab time, he waited nearly 21 months to give it another try.
So, it was the start of a serious comeback bid when the Greenville, North Carolina native whose fastball previously registered in the mid-90’s, took to the mound Sunday night in Seward, Nebraska, for a two-inning exhibition stint against the Lincoln Saltdogs.
The first batter reached on an infield single, the second one blooped a base hit to center field and then White sandwiched three strikeouts around a walk to get out of a bases-loaded jam. In his second inning, running his pitch count to 51, he allowed another bloop single while adding two more strikeouts to an encouraging outing.
Better still, White arrived at Lewis and Clark Park well ahead of schedule Monday morning, delighted to be feeling no pain.
“I feel really good, surprisingly,’’ he said. “I don’t feel like I’m coming off an injury. I just feel healthy for the first time in a long time. One of our big concerns coming out here was how I’d recover, throwing 50, 75, 100 pitches – how I’d feel the next four or five days. I’m very optimistic that on Friday, when I go again, I’ll be just as good.’’
Four candidates who seem to be frontrunners for the X’s five-man rotation threw two innings apiece in an exhibition season opener dominated by pitching. Lincoln scored two late-inning runs to win 2-0, getting a home run that likely wouldn’t have made it out of the X’s home park and a run-producing triple on a flare Montgomery insisted was a foul ball.
“We got to the point this spring where we just felt like it was time for me to take the next step,’’ said the 28-year-old who was a year ahead of former X’s pitchers Patrick Johnson and Greg Holt at UNC. “My agency’s had a couple guys come through here and I think Steve was kind of a selling point.’’
“They’re going to work to get me out of here and get back to where I want to be,’’ said White, whose home is now Manhattan, where his girlfriend, Casey Burns, is an attorney. “I’m excited to be here. It’s been a long time since I’ve played competitively and this league’s about winning and that means something to me.’’