Metro-east minor-leaguers continue climbing baseball ladder

Belleville West graduate and former Morehead State star Kane Sweeney at first base for the New York Yankees’ Class A Charleston (S.C.) club
Belleville West graduate and former Morehead State star Kane Sweeney at first base for the New York Yankees’ Class A Charleston (S.C.) club

With two swings of his productive bat in late July, former Belleville West graduate Kane Sweeney gained a little bit more confidence while trying to prove himself in the New York Yankees farm system.

On July 26 while playing for the Yankees’ Class A Charleston RiverDogs club, Sweeney belted a first-inning grand slam and added a solo homer two innings later in a 10-2 victory.

They were his only two home runs this season and they came in a game with an extremely early start.

“I woke up feeling great,” said Sweeney, a 24-year-old infielder from Millstadt who played mostly first base and third base for Charleston and Class A Staten Island this summer. “For some reason I’ve always had success playing early morning games.”

He found that success looking for a fastball to drive and got two of them about knee-high over the plate that day.

“I felt like the ball jumped better that day than it has all year,” Sweeney said. “For me, it felt like my breakthrough moment with Charleston.”

In 39 games with Class A Staten Island (N.Y.) and 21 with Charleston, the 23-year-old former Morehead State star hit .269 with 10 doubles, two homers, 34 RBIs and a .376 on-base percentage.

I felt like the ball jumped better that day than it has all year. For me, it felt like my breakthrough moment with Charleston.

Kane Sweeney on his two-homer day in late July

A 29th-round draft pick in 2015 after his senior year at Morehead State, Sweeney knows he needs to keep putting up numbers to continue his pro career.

“The biggest thing is you’ve got to come in and work,” he said. “You have to be dedicated to the craft and the game and that shows well for you as a low draft guy. The coaches don’t play favorites, they see it more as if you work hard and you’re performing ,you’re going to play.

“With the Yankees they’re really focused on developing each player, they don’t just focus on the few guys that are the high draft picks.”

It wasn’t an easy season for Sweeney, who expected to spend more time with the higher affiliate in Charleston, S.C. He got there eventually, but not after a second stint with Staten Island before returning there for the late season and playoffs.

When players are drafted, they are in competition with everyone around them, especially at their own position.

Sweeney’s pro career got off to a great start last summer with Pulaski in the Class A Appalachian League, where he hit.320 with six homers, 15 doubles and 37 RBIs in 45 games. He feels he built on that season this summer and now just wants to continue his climb.

“I expected to be in Charleston to start the year and that didn’t happen, so it was tough for me to handle,” he said. “But it was ultimately good for me because it kept me being mentally strong and learning to going about my business. A lot of the guys I’m playing with now I played with last year.”

He’s still learning to deal with the heat — and not from opposing pitchers.

“The first day in Charleston it was 99 and it felt like 110,” Sweeney said. “It was pretty crazy.”

On the road again

Trevor Richards’ path to the Class A Greensboro (N.C.) Grasshoppers was far from easy and not for everyone. Richards left Mater Dei High and had a successful career at NCAA Division II Drury University in Springfield, Mo., then signed with the independent Frontier League’s Gateway Grizzlies last season.

While pitching for the Grizzlies again this summer, the 23-year-old right-hander attracted the attention of a Florida Marlins scout. On July 3, Richards was signed as a free agent.

The highlight of his summer with Greensboro was taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning Aug. 26 against Hagerstown. Richards eventually took the loss in a 2-1 defeat, but the positive accomplishments this summer far outweighed the negatives.

It was really a crazy summer with everything that unfolded and how it all went. If you would have told me in May I was going to end up on the Class A affiliate with the Marlins, I would have told you that you were nuts.

Florida Marlins pitching prospect Trevor Richards

“It’s been a wild summer, that’s for sure,” Richards said. “It was really a crazy summer with everything that unfolded and how it all went. If you would have told me in May I was going to end up on the Class A affiliate with the Marlins, I would have told you that you were nuts.”

A strong start with the Marlins’ Class A short season team in Batavia (N.Y.), which included a 1.69 ERA in three games, got Richards promoted to the South Atlantic League’s Grasshoppers.

He was 2-3 with a 2.68 ERA in eight starts with Greensboro, striking out 38 in 43 2/3 innings. He also held opposing hitters to a .186 average. Not bad at all for someone who wasn’t drafted coming out of college.

Richards said he was in a groove during the no-hit bid, but also was a bit anxious.

“I gave up a bloop hit and it kind of blew up from there a little,” he said. “It was great, you can’t really explain the feeling. You’re focused on the game and want to keep making pitches the best you can. It’s more just going out there and competing.”

Richards credited his experience with the Grizzlies for helping his transition to the Marlins’ system. His fastball is in the 90-92 mph range and Richards also has an above-average change-up.

“In short-season and low A ball, they are very similar to the Frontier League and Indy ball,” Richards said. “I faced good talent in the Frontier League as well, now it’s a little bit more per team with some top prospects here and there.

“It’s definitely not easy. There’s a lot of good talent in the Frontier League, it’s whether somebody sees you and wants to take a chance. That doesn’t always come around for most people and I’m very thankful that it did for me, so I want to take full advantage of it.”

Riding out the streaks

Sometimes pro baseball is about finding consistency, but Granite City High graduate Cody Daily attracted attention with two impressive streaks this summer. While playing for the Chicago White Sox affiliate Class A Kannapolis Intimidators of the South Atlantic League, Daily’s summer included a 14-game hitting streak and a a 25-game streak of reaching base safely.

That shouldn’t have been a surprise since Daily had hits in his first 11 games as a minor-leaguer last summer with the Arizona League White Sox.

“Obviously there’s always room for improvement,” said Daily, who played for Southwestern Illinois College and Southern Illinois University Carbondale before signing with the White Sox as a free agent in December, 2015. “I had the hit streak going and I was doing pretty well at that point. You start stressing out a little bit and start thinking about it more and more once it got longer and longer.

“It’s definitely a grind playing 142 games in 150 days almost, it gets pretty tiring. I’m still pretty happy with the year I had.”

The first baseman and third baseman hit .281 in 118 games this season, piling up 26 doubles along with four triples, four home runs and 44 RBIs.

“Early in the season I’d hit the ball hard, I just couldn’t find any holes,” Daily said. “Baseball is a game of streaks and the hardest part of it is staying consistent. Especially in August when you’ve had the long season and the season’s almost over.

“That was a big part of my season, getting that streak going and that helped me out.”

Norm Sanders: 618-239-2454, @NormSanders

Area Minor Leaguers

Here is a look at how several other metro-east minor leaguers did this season:

Bryan Hudson, Cubs: The 6-foot-8, 20-pound left-handed was drafted straight out of Alton High in 2015 by the Cubs, who selected the former Belleville News-Democrat Large-School Player of the Year in the third round.

Hudson remains one of the organization’s top pitching prospects, but also has struggled with his control at times. In 13 game with the Cubs’ Class A short season Eugene (Ore.) Emeralds, Hudson is 5-4 with a 5.06 ERA. That includes 41 strikeouts and 41 walks in 58 2/3 innings.

One of Hudson’s best starts came on Sept. 2, when he struck out a career-best seven and tossed five scoreless innings in a 9-3 win over Tri-City. The talented lefty held the opposition to only two hits and one walk.

Jake DePew, Rays: This was the seventh minor-league season for DePew, a talented catcher drafted in the ninth round by Tampa Bay in 2010 following his senior year at Granite City High School.

The 24-year-old DePew has spent the past three summers in Class AA with the Montgomery (Ala.) Biscuits, where he is hitting. 215 in 86 games this season with 10 doubles and a career-high nine home runs and 42 RBIs.

Bryant Holtmann, Diamondbacks: The 23-year-old former Central High and Florida State left-hander is 1-2 with a 6.28 ERA in 22 appearances this season with Missoula (Mont.) in the Class A Pioneer League.