SIOUX CITY -- Those who religiously keep track will know that it’s two weeks from today that pitchers and catchers report for spring training with most of baseball’s 30 major league teams.
Marcus Proctor Jensen is working on a far different timetable, preparing to report May 7 for the Sioux City Explorers’ preseason camp, the start of career reboot he hopes will get him back on track after a one-year hiatus.
Jensen knows all about “The Show.” The 26-year-old righthander is the son of Marcus Christian Jensen, who spent parts of seven seasons as a big-league catcher. Dad is now the bullpen coach for the Oakland Athletics. And, it was last August when the two of them sat down and decided to give this thing another go.
Drafted in 2009, young Marcus had pitched only 10 innings as a senior at tradition-rich Pinnacle High School in Phoenix. He had been recruited by numerous Division I schools as a catcher when he decided, instead, to pursue a professional career with the Tampa Bay Rays, who had drafted him for his arm.
“I literally had no idea what I was doing,’’ he said. “I was just throwing hard, but I threw strikes. So, I didn’t walk guys. I knew in my own head I wasn’t maximizing. I wasn’t achieving what I could fully achieve. I never really had an ‘out’ pitch.’’
So, after putting up a 3.49 ERA in 297.1 innings over six seasons in the Rays’ farm system, Jensen got released. Then, grabbing a job with Rockland (Maryland) of the independent Can-Am League, he went 8-2 as a swingman in 2015, figuring that would get him signed by some other organization.
That didn’t happen, which is why Jensen elected to start pursuing the education he’d tabled when he signed out of high school. He put in two semesters of work toward a degree in mechanical engineering, which is no cream-puff curriculum, to be sure.
“It was last August when he started to get the itch again,’’ said X’s Manager Steve Montgomery. “He started long tossing with his dad, playing catch, doing it the right way. Building himself a good foundation.’’
Jensen’s dad, who is entering his third season on Manager Bob Melvin’s Oakland staff, told his son, “If you want to go back into baseball, there’s not really much stopping you. You just have to go back at better than where you were before.’’
“He made a valid point,’’ his son conceded. “There were teams looking at me, I guess, It had nothing to do with throwing strikes. I was known for being a strike thrower. It came down to ‘stuff,’ basically. Does my stuff play at a big-league level? In my own head, I know it does, it’s just a matter of how do I achieve it?’’
More specifically, Jensen needed a new weapon that enabled him to stop flinging one fastball after another into the hitting zone. He had a cutter and a curveball, but they weren’t effective enough to complement fastballs topping out at 94 mph. So, he started working with his dad on a split-finger pitch, which is probably what will help re-invent him.
As he has in his four previous seasons at the helm, Montgomery has placed a major emphasis on pitching in his quest to build a winning team. With a 222-178 ledger on the books, he sports the only winning record out of seven Sioux City field managers to battle teams operating almost entirely out of larger cities.
That doesn’t count the eighth guy on the list, which is Steve Shirley, who was 33-32 when he jumped ship with “personal problems,’’ leaving 31 games to be played under interim manager Billy Williams. All-time win leader Ed Nottle, in case you’re wondering, was a game under .500 (426-427) for his 10 seasons spanning two tours of duty.
“I think we can create runs, it’s just you gotta have some arms, man,’’ said Montgomery, a former pitcher whose collaborations with Bobby Post, his pitching coach, makes Sioux City a welcome place to land for hurlers trying to move forward. “I’ve made it a point to get the best available arms I can and we’ll see.’’
Jensen is a candidate for a starting role in a rotation that will be heavily overhauled. Fellow newcomers Brian Ernst and lefty Hunter Ackerman, one of two former fourth-round draft picks whose signings were announced Monday, are definitely two more in that equation.
The everyday lineup will likely include at least four or five holdovers, none of which have been finalized. A new difference maker was announced in early November when the X’s signed fleet outfielder Jay Austin, who should be one of the leading hitters and top stolen base threats in the American Association.
If you missed the news, the 12-team league has been restructured into two six-team divisions and the X’s would seem to have gotten a break by being assigned to the South. That enables them to avoid vying for a playoff spot with perennial powers like St. Paul, Winnipeg, Fargo-Moorhead and Gary SouthShore. They’ll battle it out in the North along with Sioux Falls and the first-year Chicago Dogs, operating in a new ballpark in suburban Rosemont, near O’Hare, with former Boston Red Sox manager Butch Hobson at the helm.
The league playoffs will now pit the top two teams from each division in best-of-five semifinals, then pair up the winners for a best-of-five championship clash.
“I’d heard a lot of good things about Sioux City in terms of how their pitching staff was and how they’ve had guys get picked up,’’ said Jensen. “They’re not just skating by. I like the opportunity, knowing I would actually have some help.’’
The Explorers now have more alumni in affiliated baseball than I can discuss in the space I have here. So, I’ll limit a brief overview to pitchers:
I can tell you that James Needy, who came to camp last year as an ace Montgomery feared he’d quickly lose -- which is precisely what happened -- will report to camp with the Miami Marlins, who have placed him on their 40-man roster. Tayler Scott, the young South African reliever who pitched here two seasons ago, will be a non-roster invitee in the Texas Rangers’ big-league camp while Cody Satterwhite, another former Sioux City reliever, is still knocking on the door after spending the last three seasons in Triple-A with the Mets, Angels and Nationals.
That doesn’t count Jose Flores, the closer on the record-smashing 2015 team, blossomed as a starter last year and will be in the major league camp with the Giants. Meanwhile, Kevin McCanna, is trying to work his way up in the Diamondbacks’ farm system. Also, after missing most of last season, Patrick Johnson was released by the Marlins and has signed to pitch in Mexico.