Kieschnick: 'I've been wanting to play with these guys for a while'
Roger Kieschnick was called up on Tuesday and went 2-for-5 with two RBI in his MLB debut on Wednesday. (USA TODAY IMAGES)
The Giants are undefeated with Roger Kieschnick in the starting lineup (1-0). (USA TODAY IMAGES)
Editor's note: After collecting RBI base hits in each of his first two career at-bats in Wednesday's win over the Phillies, Roger Kieschnick is quickly endearing himself to the Giants fan base. It's a perfect time to look back at a spring training feature written by Insider Andrew Baggarly on Feb. 21, detailing the rough road that left the forgotten prospect from the Giants' 2008 draft on the brink of realizing a dream prior to the 2013 season.
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- He’s been a Beach Boy with Buster Posey and a groomsman in Brandon Crawford’s wedding.
Now Roger Kieschnick hopes he can be what he’s always dreamed of becoming: a major leaguer.
“When you run into the injuries I have, you definitely have to take a step back and really focus on getting better,” said Kieschnick, as the 26-year-old right fielder stood at his locker in the Giants clubhouse.
“Mentally, that’s not easy. Because all you want to think about is playing baseball.”
Kieschnick might be an afterthought to many Giants fans, five years after he was part of a celebrated draft class that included Posey, Crawford and infielder Conor Gillaspie.
Posey was the fifth overall pick out of Florida State, Gillaspie was a supplemental first-rounder from Wichita State, Kieschnick got taken out of Texas Tech with a third-round pick and Crawford fell to the fourth round after a lukewarm junior season at UCLA.
It was a tremendous first draft effort from John Barr, whom the Giants had hired away from the Los Angeles Dodgers to address the dearth of position players in their system. Before Barr came along, the Giants hadn’t drafted and developed an All-Star player since Matt Williams two decades earlier. So there were high hopes when they completed that first draft under Barr’s direction in 2008.
“I just remember we were really pleased with the players we took,” Barr said by phone from Florida, where he was attending tripleheaders and writing reports for this year’s draft. “You never know how the board will fall, or how players will develop. But we were really, really excited.”
Barr could’ve drafted 40 names out of a phone book after Posey and it still would’ve been one of the most successful drafts in franchise history. The Giants did better than that, of course. Of their top four picks, three of them will receive World Series rings, two are established big leaguers and one is the reigning NL MVP.
And there might be more. Kieschnick, a left-handed power hitter, still has a chance to be a member of that Fantastic Four -- and not a middling one, either.
He was, in the words of Triple-A Fresno manager Bob Mariano, “the best hitter in the Pacific Coast League” through last May. He made huge advances in his focus, approach and plate discipline, according to Giants hitting coordinator Steve Decker. And he was healthy after two years marred mostly by back trouble.
On May 29, Kieschnick singled early in a game at Sacramento to give him a .319 average, .390 on-base percentage and .623 slugging percentage. He’d hit 14 home runs and drove in 37 runs.
Then came a deep fly ball to the wall in left field. It was a tie game in the ninth inning and Kieschnick paid no heed to the fence as he chased Brandon Hicks’ long drive. Kieschnick speared his left shoulder into the wall, and to add insult to injury, the ball went over the fence for a walk-off home run.
Oh, and there was injury, all right. Scans confirmed a hairline fracture in his left (non-throwing) shoulder. The Giants originally thought he’d be out a month. But Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham expected a much longer recovery. Kieschnick couldn’t raise his arm over his head until the end of July.
“It’s unfortunate, but I’m not going to look back,” Kieschnick said. “I can’t change anything.”
Nor does he regret going so hard after a ball that, it turns out, was uncatchable.
“Our team was playing unbelievable, and it’s the ninth inning,” he said. “My only thought was to catch that ball.”
Posey and Crawford were thinking something else. When will Roger catch a break?
There is a certain bond that forms with members of a draft class. They go to rookie ball and instructional league together – their first orientation to professional life. They often come up through the ranks together. They scrimp and save meal money, carpool to the ballpark, maybe even share wardrobes.
Long bus rides make for long-lasting relationships.
Posey and Kieschnick roomed together when they played in the fledgling Hawaiian winter league in 2008.
“The Waikiki Beach Boys,” Posey said, smiling and shaking his head. “It was great. It gave me a chance to get my feet wet, no pun intended. Roger and I compared a lot of notes. We were facing High-A or Double-A pitchers for the first time. It gave us a feel for what we’d be up against.”
Crawford went back even further with Kieschnick. They were roommates in the summer of 2006, when they played for the U.S. collegiate national team. (Crawford still beams with pride when he recalls throwing out a runner when pressed into service in right field.)
They clicked instantly as they traveled from North Carolina to Rhode Island to a championship tournament in Havana. Crawford remembered browsing a flea market with Kieschnick and buying a necklace for his girlfriend of four months, Jalynne. And there was the time they walked a mile through the streets of Havana looking for a grocery store.
“Why?” Crawford said. “We were hungry, I guess.”
When Brandon and Jalynne got married after the 2011 season, there weren’t a whole lot of baseball people in the wedding party. But Kieschnick was a groomsman, along with minor league catcher Tyler La Torre.
“What do you want to know about him? Player or person?” said Crawford, asked to describe his friend. “Because as a person, he’s one of the best people in the world.”
And as a player?
“Well, he can run, he has a great arm, he’s a good defender and obviously he has huge power,” Crawford said. “I definitely like having his locker next to mine. I'm just hoping he stays healthy. If he does that, he’s got a good shot of being up here.”
Giants manager Bruce Bochy agreed. He said if Kieschnick hadn’t gotten hurt, he probably would have received his first big league call-up within a few weeks – and a World Series ring, too.
And while the Giants have a No. 5 outfielder job up for grabs this spring, they aren’t necessarily looking at the strapping 6-foot-3, 230-pounder as a bit player.
“We drafted a physical guy with big-time power who could be an offensive and defensive contributor,” Barr said. “We saw an everyday player. I still believe he can be an everyday player, and a good one.”
Here's one indication that Barr isn't alone: Kieschnick received No. 23 this spring. That's the number worn by Felipe Alou, Jack Hiatt, Tito Fuentes, Jose Uribe, Ellis Burks and Shawon Dunston, among others. It's not the number you give to a No. 5 outfielder. If the Giants' left field platoon of Gregor Blanco and Andres Torres doesn't work out, Kieschnick could emerge as a solid alternative.
In many ways, Kieschnick compares favorably to Nate Schierholtz, who wasn’t able to hold on to an everyday job with the Giants but is expected to get that shot with the Chicago Cubs this season. Kieschnick also reminds a bit of Daniel Ortmeier in his combination of size and speed. But neither Schierholtz nor Ortmeier ever got a handle on the strike zone or could adjust to holes in their swings. Scouts who saw Kieschnick at Fresno described a selective, patient hitter who worked deeper counts and did damage when he worked them to his favor.
“Every year, you understand the game a lot more,” Kieschnick said. “This will be my fifth year and I feel I’ve got a pretty good idea what I’m trying to do at the plate. You begin to understand what pitches you can and cannot hit well."
He learned a bit more once his shoulder recovered. After making it back for the final series of the season at Fresno, Kieschnick played well for Escogido in the Dominican winter league.
“The baseball there is unbelievable,” he said. “Every game matters. It’ll be the fifth inning and it feels like the ninth. It definitely gets you ready for the kind of environment you’ll face in the big leagues.”
Kieschnick isn’t the only member of that 2008 draft that still could pay dividends. Left-hander Eric Surkamp, a fifth-rounder, should be back from Tommy John surgery in June. And speedy outfielder Juan Perez has a nice blend of skills and will get to test them at Triple-A Fresno. (Matt Barnes, an eighth-rounder who was traded to Cleveland for Ryan Garko, has pitched in the big leagues, too.)
“A lot of guys in that class have made it,” Kieschnick said. “That’s what I’ve worked for since I signed here. That’s the goal, to contribute any way I can. I’m doing everything I can to get there.”
And when he does? Will a former Beach Boy be proud?
“Well, I can’t say proud, because he’s not my son or anything,” Posey said with a laugh. “But he’s my friend. So of course I’ll be happy for him.”