CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – One of the very first times a young Chad Christensen walked out onto Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium was as a 6-foot, 150-pound, 14-year-old getting ready to take part in the 2005 Perfect Game C.R. 15u Showcase.
Throughout his four year career at Cedar Rapids Washington High School, Christensen would take up residence at Perfect Game Field at least 10 more times while participating in PG Spring Top Prospect, PG Midwest Top Prospect and PG National Pre-Draft showcases, along with two go-rounds at the PG WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship tournament.
So imagine the thoughts going through Christensen’s mind when he made his Class A Midwest League debut for the Cedar Rapids Kernels on April 5 right on the same field and at the same minor league ballpark where he spent so much time as a teenager.
“It’s quite a coincidence,” he told PG Monday, a day after returning to PG Field after a six-day early season MWL road trip, “but it’s definitely nice to be back and get the season going. I’m staying at home and I’m pretty (familiar) with the area, so everything’s going all right so far. We’re just 10 games in, but we’ve had some guys that have played well so far. It’s been a good time so far and it’s nice to get back home.”
Christensen ended up back in his hometown of Cedar Rapids after the Minnesota Twins selected him in the 25th round of the 2013 amateur draft out of the University of Nebraska, where had enjoyed a standout four-year career.
He played in 47 games with the Twins’ affiliate in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League last summer where he hit .235 with seven doubles, three triples and three home runs among his 38 hits, and drove in 21 runs. He was promoted to the low-A Midwest League this spring coming out of the Twins’ minor league spring training camp in Fort Myers, Fla.
“I enjoyed my first season in Rookie ball and I enjoyed my time in spring training,” Christensen said. “And here, so far, there are a lot of good people – both players and coaches all throughout the organization– and it’s been a good experience so far.”
Christensen is listed as a third baseman on the Kernels’ official roster but made his first five Midwest League starts in left field, his sixth at first base and his seventh as a designated hitter. He collected eight hits in his first 28 MWL at-bats, including a double and a triple, with four RBI and four runs scored. In an April 11 game at Lansing (Mich.) he was 2-for-4 with two RBI and a run.
“We haven’t used him at second or at third yet but he handles himself fine over there (at third),” Kernels’ second-year manager Jake Mauer told PG. “He catches the ball and makes a routine play and that’s what he’s going to have to do, kind of being a utility man. He takes good at-bats – we’re not worried about that – so as long as he gets the outs that he’s supposed to he’s going to be just fine.”
In addition to his PG showcase and tournament experiences in Cedar Rapids, Christensen played at the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., in 2007 and ’08 and was at the Perfect Game National Showcase in Minneapolis in 2008 among his 28 PG appearances. He also played four seasons each in the PG Iowa Fall League (2005-08) and PG Iowa Spring League (2006-09), which provide excellent opportunities for Iowa prospects who do not have the benefit of spring or fall high school seasons.
“It was good because you got to face a lot of pretty good competition against players from states around the Midwest,” Christensen said. “It gives you a chance to play a little more baseball when some of the kids from the southern states might be playing their high school season in the spring and their travel ball season in the summer. It gives you a chance to play a few more games.”
Christensen went undrafted out of Washington High and packed his bags and headed to Lincoln, Neb., where he fit right in. He earned four varsity letters with the Cornhuskers, was a First-Team All-Big 10 selection in both 2012 and 2013 and was named to the All-Big Ten Tournament Team in 2013. As an example of his versatility, he was first-team all-conference as a shortstop his junior season and as an outfielder his senior season.
“It was a good four years,” Christensen said of his time in Lincoln. “There were definitely some ups and downs with a couple of tough seasons and the coaching changes and everything, but I met a lot of good people and some of my best friends that I will be in touch with the rest of my life. There were a lot of good experiences with baseball and outside of baseball, as well, so it was a great experience at Nebraska.”
The Miami Marlins drafted Christensen in the 35th round following his junior season in 2012 but he decided to return to Lincoln for a fourth year to improve his draft standing; it was sound thinking. During his senior season in 2013, he led the Huskers in seven offensive categories and ranked second in four others. He was the Big Ten’s leading hitter in conference games at .431, and also led the league in hits (44) and runs (26).
“I wasn’t in a position in the draft where it would have probably made much sense for me to sign as a junior,” Christensen said. “I got a chance to play my senior year and graduate and everything, so it was a good decision to go back.”
The transition from college ball to professional ball is undoubtedly easier than going into pro ball right out of high school, but adjustments still have to be made. Christensen said the most challenging one is just getting use to the fact that baseball is now an every day job more than it ever was in the past.
“In college you get your three off days a week, or so, and in pro ball it’s more like one every other week,” he said. “You just have to make sure your body is intact; sometimes less is more.”
Now 23 years old, Christensen is listed at 6-foot-3, 210-pounds by the Twins. In some cases, he might be a year or two older than his teammates, and those four years spent playing at the NCAA Division I level can be very important in the Kernels’ young clubhouse.
“He brings a lot, and not only with his experience but with his versatility,” Mauer said. “He can play anywhere in the outfield, you can play him just about anywhere in the infield – I bet he could catch if you asked him to. Those guys are valuable, not only here but throughout the system.
“Obviously he’s played in some big games at Nebraska and he’s not afraid of attention or the spotlight or being in a big spot in the game. That will help some of our guys … and experience like that will go a lot further than just a box score.”
Christensen doesn’t see himself as some sort of elder statesman in the Kernels’ clubhouse but rather as another young prospect fighting to make his way.
“We’re all here at the same level for a reason; we’re all learning things every day,” he said. “If there is anything I can help some of the younger guys with, obviously I would be glad to try to do that. They’re young but they’re here for a reason and they’re all good players.
“I’m just trying to keep working on things each day defensively and staying consistent and having a good approach at the plate on a day-to-day basis. I’ve been happy with everything so far.”
Mauer is happy with everything so far, as well. And he’s not going to ask the local guy – the Cedar Rapids kids back playing on a field he practically grew up on – to provide any special set of leadership skills.
“I think just his presence here does that,” Mauer said. “We don’t expect him to be real vocal or anything like that, but his presence and the way he prepares and goes about his game is something that is worthwhile for these young guys to see and be around. Obviously, this is his community and where he’s from, so how he handles himself in the community and things like that, there are just a lot of positives.”