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Lefty pitcher C.J. Nitkowski's fascinating career began when the Reds drafted him in the first round in 1994. From there, he pitched in the Tigers, Astros, Mets, Cardinals, Rangers, Yankees, Braves, Pirates and Nationals organizations, also pitching in a number of Triple-A towns along the way, before playing in Japan and then Korea. With big-leaguers like Kevin Youkilis, Luis Mendoza, Chris Volstad and Luke Scott now heading overseas, and Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka in the process of signing with a North American team, Nitkowski's unique perspective seems more timely than ever. Nitkowski's career ended in 2012, and he currently works as an analyst for MLB.com, CBS Sports and MLB Network Radio. He can also be found on Twitter. This interview has been edited for length.
MLBTR: What is it like to have to [bounce around] from year to year and not know where you're going to be?
CJN: I really thought my career was over in 2002, and it didn't end until last January, so I always felt I was on borrowed time anyway. [And] at least early on, for me, I always felt like I was still going to be in the game. It's just a matter of where you're going to be. It wasn't that bad. It was probably harder on my wife, as far as the travel goes, or getting released suddenly. I just kind of got used to it, to be honest with you. I think, probably because I was traded my first full year — I was drafted by the Reds in '94 and traded at the deadline in '95, so right away, I was on that carousel. Almost immediately in my career, I was used to moving around. I never got frazzled by it. If anything, the stress level would have been on her, just because she had the kids, and a lot of times she was doing things by herself, and moving by herself. But for me personally, I'd gotten so accustomed to it.
As a Triple-A player, how do you follow big-league baseball? Do you look for situations where you might be able to help?
Oh, sure, especially [when] I was older. When you're younger, you're in an organization, you're paying attention to what's going on up top, and you kind of know what your opportunities are going to be. Your job is just to make sure that you're ready. But as you get older, if you're fortunate enough to get an out clause in your contract, which I had a bunch toward the end of my career, then you're paying attention to everything that's going on.
Some guys completely leave that stuff up to their agent, and aren't involved. [But] I was always proactive, especially in the second half of my career, making sure I really knew what was going on in different organizations, and where I thought there were needs and where I could sell myself as a potential fit. Having that out clause was big, just because you see what's going on, you say, "Wow, there's a team that really has a need right now," and you try to use that to your advantage. A good agent should be on top of it, but I always tell guys, especially when you're in the minor leagues and you're older, there's not a lot of benefit for your agent. It's more work than it probably is worth. So you really need to be proactive and take a little more control of your career. I was always a guy who did that, and there were quite a few times when it worked for me.
When I was with the Pirates in '05, I was pitching really well in Triple-A, probably the best I've pitched, and really just paying close attention to what was going on. [I] saw the Nationals had a need, and we were able to work something out where I had my out clause and went to pitch for them. When I got released by the Braves in '04, [I] called the Yankees myself, because I realized they had a need. I was on a guaranteed contract with the Braves anyway, so I knew I was going to get a big-league salary the rest of the year. I called them, and they called me back, and within a couple hours, they said, "Yeah, it's a good fit." I knew what was going on there.
What do you think organizations owe people who are in your situation, Triple-A veterans who might see opportunities in other organizations?
It can be frustrating, because if you don't have the out [clause], you're sitting there going, "Ugh, I cannot believe I decided to sign with this team, and gosh, if I were in that organization right now, of course I would get a callup." [You don't] know whether you actually would or not, but you believe you would've. You see an opportunity with other teams in the big leagues, and you might see it as, "They have nothing in Triple-A." And here you are, pitching great for an organization that doesn't have opportunities, or an organization that just doesn't particularly see you as a guy that they're going to make a move with.
A lot of times, guys will feel like they've been lied to or misled [by] organizations that want to stockpile some older veterans. Which we don't see as much as we used to. But there would be teams that would just want to get a bunch of veteran guys around, and then kind of hold onto them. It can be really frustrating when you feel like you're doing a good job, or you feel like you're absolutely ready to go back to the big leagues or get to the big leagues, but you can't get out. I've always told guys to be very careful, when you become an older guy, about where you sign, and what organization you sign with.
It's a really good idea to talk to other players, and see how their experience went with a front office. I remember a good buddy of mine — two years in a row, he'd call me and ask me about organizations, and both times, I told him not to sign with them, because I had a bad experience [with] the front office, and both times, he did it anyway. And both times, he called me in the middle of the year, going, "I can't believe I'm stuck in this organization." I said, "Man, I told you." You're in your mid-30s in Triple-A. That was not a place you want to be. Even though it might look like there was opportunity up top, it's not the right spot. You look around, you pay attention, you talk to other guys, make sure you get an organization where you feel like you'll be treated like a professional.
A lot of players who take opportunities overseas [wouldn't] be starters in the big leagues, but might be just an injury or two from being starters in the big leagues. What is it like to have to make that decision between going overseas and having to wait for an opportunity that might [present itself] in the US?
Yesterday I had a chance to talk with Dodgers infielder Jamey Carroll. Click below to read his preferences in free agency, how he's affected by the Dodgers' ownership situation, and what he was thinking facing Trevor Hoffman in the Rockies' 2007 tiebreaker game against the Padres.
As the 2011 Draft draws closer, MLBTR will be introducing you to a handful of the top eligible prospects with a series of Q&As. The series includes four of the top college pitchers in the nation and a top college position player. Here's another position player to watch.
Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon is considered the top college position player in the 2011 draft and he remains a candidate to be the first overall pick this June. Both Baseball America and ESPN.com have reported within the week that it appears Rendon will either go first overall (to the Pirates) or second (to the Mariners) with UCLA right-hander Gerrit Cole going to the other team.
Rendon entered the season as the top prospect in the draft after being named Baseball America's Player of the Year in 2010 and the publication's Freshman of the Year in 2009. Ankle and shoulder injuries have slowed Rendon down this year and limited his time at third base, where he is considered an excellent defender. The 20-year-old Houston native shines at the plate as well and has a .350/.552/.552 line with 62 walks so far this season.
I spoke to Rendon earlier today about his injuries, the team he rooted for growing up and the hype surrounding the draft. Here's a transcript of our conversation:
As the 2011 Draft draws closer, MLBTR will be introducing you to a handful of the top eligible prospects with a series of Q&As. The series started with three of the top college pitchers in the nation and a top college position player. Here's another arm to watch.
Danny Hultzen was the ACC pitcher of the year and a semi-finalist for the Golden Spikes Award last year, but even he is a little surprised by how well the 2011 season is going. The Virginia left-hander has helped lead the Cavaliers to a 36-3 record and the top ranking in the country thanks to his arm and his bat.
Baseball America's Midseason Player of the Year is climbing up draft boards and may be the third-best draft prospect in the country behind Anthony Rendon and Gerrit Cole. ESPN.com's Keith Law reported last week that the D'Backs, Orioles and Royals are among the teams eyeing Hultzen. Anyone picking much later on can likely forget about him, since he doesn't figure to be available for long.
Earlier today I spoke to the 21-year-old about his team's title hopes, his two-way play and the draft. Here's what he had to say:
As the 2011 Draft draws closer, MLBTR will be introducing you to a handful of the top eligible prospects with a series of Q&As. The series started with three of the top college pitchers in the nation and continues today with a college position player.
Teams looking for powerful outfielders with speed to spare will be intrigued by George Springer of the UConn Huskies. The 6'4" 21-year-old has improved his draft stock dramatically since the Twins selected him in the 48th round of the 2008 draft; Springer is now a projected first round pick.
In its college baseball preview, Baseball America described Springer as one of the nation's best power hitters, who's a superb defender and a "plus-plus" runner to boot.
He hit 18 homers with 33 steals, 60 walks, 84 runs and a .491 on-base average last year, prompting ESPN.com's Keith Law to rate him second among eligible prospects last month. Law described Springer as "an athletic outfielder with an above-average arm who projects to hit and hit for power and just needs to refine his approach, especially with two strikes."
Springer started slowly and some said to ESPN that he changed his mechanics. After collecting just three hits in his first six games (22 at bats), Springer appears to have rediscovered his stroke, as his numbers are on the rise.
He spoke with MLBTR after UConn's loss to Sacred Heart today. Here's what he had to say:
As the 2011 Draft draws closer, MLBTR will be introducing you to a handful of the top eligible prospects with a series of Q&As. The series started with two of the top college pitchers in the nation and continues today with another one.
UCLA right-hander Gerrit Cole was one of the top draft prospects in the country before last week, but his performance against Nebraska on Friday sure didn't hurt his stock. Cole pitched nine innings of two-hit, shutout ball, taking a perfect game into the seventh inning and striking out eight.
It's not particularly surprising to see the 6'4" 20-year-old thriving. Baseball America announced earlier in the year that his mid-90s fastball and devastating slider give him "best pure stuff in the  draft" and Cole struck out 153 batters in 123 innings last year, helping the Bruins reach the College World Series finals.
Cole has been a known commodity for years, since the Yankees selected the power pitcher in the first round of the 2008 draft out of high school. He will likely go higher than 28th overall in 2011; ESPN.com's Jason A. Churchill and Keith Law suggested last week that Cole is a threat to surpass Anthony Rendon and go first overall this June.
MLBTR chatted with Cole about his most recent outing, turning down the team his family cheers for and having Charlie Sheen show up at his team's practices. Click through to read our conversation:
As the 2011 Draft draws closer, MLBTR will be introducing you to a handful of the top eligible prospects with a series of Q&As. The series debuted last week with one of the top college pitchers in the nation and continues today with another.
Matt Purke pitched well enough as a high schooler to go in the first round of the 2009 draft. He didn't sign with the Rangers, who selected him 14th overall, and instead joined the TCU Horned Frogs. He led the team to its first ever College World Series appearance last year with a shiny 16-0 record and 142 strikeouts in 116 innings.
The 20-year-old sophomore is draft eligible once again and, according to Baseball America and ESPN.com's Keith Law, should go in the first round once again, possibly first overall. Baseball America called Purke "a bona fide ace with a lively 91-94 mph fastball and a wipeout slider" that can overmatch hitters. Purke calls his breaking ball a curve, but he isn't going to get into an argument about semantics with the publication that named him the 2010 Baseball America Freshman of the Year.
Purke talked to MLBTR this afternoon. Here's what we discussed:
As the 2011 Draft draws closer, MLBTR will be introducing you to a handful of the top eligible prospects with a series of Q&As. The series debuts today with one of the top college pitchers in the nation.
Vanderbilt right-hander Sonny Gray has "the best curveball in college baseball," according to Baseball America, and ESPN.com's Keith Law suggested last week that he has an outside shot of being the first overall pick this June. According to Baseball America, some scouts wonder if Gray's future is in the bullpen. But with an above-average curve, a 93-96 mph fastball and a change-up, he could become a starter like Mike Minor and David Price, two Vanderbilt products who were selected in the first round.
Gray talked to MLBTR about his size, his curveball and Roy Halladay. Here's a transcript of our conversation:
Rockies third baseman Ian Stewart broke out with 25 home runs last year, and he's raking early on in 2010. The 25-year-old Stewart is Internet-savvy as well – he answered questions for MLBTR's Ben Nicholson-Smith recently and can be followed on Twitter here.
MLB Trade Rumors: You made it to the majors as a 22-year-old. What was the biggest adjustment you've had to make as you've gone from rookie to regular?
Ian Stewart: The biggest adjustment I have had to make is just making sure that I am ready to play every day. Since I got to the big leagues in 2007, I haven't been a starter. I used to come to the field knowing I probably wasn't going to play that day because we had Atkins at third and Helton at first. Todd hurt his back in 2008 so I ended with a lot of playing time toward the end of the year and when Jim Tracy took over last year I played a lot as well. I think those two examples helped me prepare for being the starter during this 2010 season.
MLBTR: It's funny when Dexter Fowler introduces Todd Helton to Twitter in one of the Rockies' new commercials, but seriously – is it distracting to have so much information about you and your teammates online?
Stewart: Personally, I don't think it's that big of a deal. For me, there really hasn't been anything too personal showing up on any website or anything. We have such a good group of guys that I'm not you would find much out about anyone.
MLBTR: What was it like to hear Garrett Atkins come up in trade talks last year, when you would usually be mentioned as the reason for why the Rockies could afford to move on and get younger?
Stewart: Honestly I didn't pay much attention to it. Garrett was a teammate and friend of mine so I hoped he wouldn't have to leave. I realize this is a business though and am grateful for the opportunity the Rockies have given me.
MLBTR: Some people give the Rockies lots of credit for having a homegrown roster. Others doubt that it makes much of a difference in terms of wins and losses. Does the fact that so many players came up through the system together mean the Rockies win more games?
Stewart: This is a tough question to answer because I don't know any different than what the Rockies do here. We have a very special thing going on in Denver. Our whole team has practically all grown up in the minor leagues and big leagues together and I can't begin to explain how awesome that is. Does it give us any kind of an advantage? I don't know. But you definitely won't find a closer-knit group of players anywhere else.
MLBTR: If you were running a major league team, what kind of club would you put together? Lots of pitching? Lots of speed? Lots of power?
Stewart: You forgot defense. I would say a mix of pitching and defense. I feel that pitching and defense wins championships.
Diamondbacks right fielder Justin Upton is currently not among the top 15 outfielders for the NL All-Star Game voting. This needs to change. He's putting up huge numbers as a 21 year-old – .322/.396/.592 in 197 plate appearances with 9 HR and 29 RBI (plus a grand slam tonight). Click here to vote for Upton now! You can vote up to 25 times.
Once you're done with that, how about a Q&A with Upton? He was kind enough to answer questions for MLB Trade Rumors.
MLB Trade Rumors: How much trash-talking goes on between you and B.J.? Who's got more skills as an outfielder?
Justin Upton: Not a lot, we are both very supportive of each other and want each other to do well. When we hang out off the field there is a lot of trash talk and a lot of times it takes place on the golf course. We will trash talk about video games or make fun of each other's clothes, but on the field we are very supportive and only want to see each other do well. As for who is the better outfielder, that is a tough one to answer since we play different positions. But…I'll give that nod to B.J. as of today. He has made some amazing catches so far this year and has made some sick throws…but I am working hard everyday to be a better outfielder and I'm not far behind.
MLBTR: Are you starting to enjoy it out there? I read an article from '04 where you said you did not like the outfield.
Upton: It was an adjustment at first, I mean I played shortstop all my life where you are involved in every play on defense in some way. When I was asked to move to the outfield I was skeptical but the more I played out there the more comfortable I felt and the more I learned about the ins and outs of the position and to be honest I would have played whatever position would have gotten me to the big leagues the quickest. The D'Backs had Stephen Drew at shortstop, so the outfield was the fastest way for me to get to the big leagues. So I was all for it.
MLBTR: You'll be eligible for free agency as a 26 year-old, after the 2013 season. People might draw an Alex Rodriguez parallel, especially with you both being No. 1 picks as well. What are your thoughts on that comparison? Do you think the free agent process will be enjoyable?
Upton: To be honest I don't think that far down the road. I am 21 years old and I am only in my second full season, my goal is to stay healthy and be productive this season. If I do what I know I can on the field, the rest will take care of itself, no use stressing about it now. As far as the A-Rod comparisons, I don't like to compare myself to anyone on or off the field. I can only go out there and be myself, I'll leave the comparing to the media.
MLBTR: Was Larry Reynolds an easy choice to be your adviser, since he was B.J.'s agent? Did you have to fend off a lot of agents coming after you?
Upton: I think most people knew that Larry would be my adviser so I didn't get too many people approaching me. There were a few people that didn't know about my relationship with Reynolds Sports that did approach me but I had been close with them since I was 15 when they were working with B.J. so to me it was a no-brainer. To have that stressful part of the process taken out of the equation it made it easier for me to just deal with playing baseball and getting drafted.
MLBTR: Your first big league at-bat was kind of a low-pressure situation…down 11-0, in San Diego against Wil Ledezma. What was going through your head?
Upton: Low pressure for who? Haha - I was a 19 year old kid in his first Major League at-bat, for me there was a ton of pressure. That was a moment I had waited my whole life for, all the hard work and countless hours of sweat and determination all culminated with that at-bat. It was a dream come true and it was over so fast I don't even remember what I was thinking…I was probably thinking, "get a hit!"
MLBTR: Back in May of '08, Larry Reynolds told ESPN's Jayson Stark he'd worry about your contract stuff the following year. Have there been any preliminary extension talks with the D'Backs?
Upton: I let Larry handle all that stuff, my job is to play baseball. I am not going to worry about the contract stuff, not yet at least. I love playing in Arizona, the fans are great. I love my teammates, we are a close-knit bunch and I know we are going to be competitive for a long time in the NL West. I hope I play here for a long, long time but it's too early to worry about all that stuff. If they wanted to talk long-term deal, I would certainly listen but for now I am just playing the game, having fun and looking to win ballgames.
MLBTR: Your signing bonus was a record at the time, but Stephen Strasburg might quadruple it. What are your thoughts on that?
Upton: Good for him, I hope he gets every penny he deserves. I am very happy with the signing bonus I got and I am only concerned with the D'Backs' draft and getting guys that can help our team going forward.