Minors : : General
Saturday, May 17, 2014

Daily lessons for Cards' prospect

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Peoria Chiefs

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – New Jersey native and 2013 first round MLB draft pick Rob Kaminsky is listed at 5-feet, 11-inches and a solid 191 pounds in the Peoria Chiefs’ media guide. The 19-year-old, hard-throwing left-hander isn’t physically imposing by any means, but he sure cuts a stalwart figure while wearing his freshly laundered, Cardinal-red Chiefs’ road uniform.

Kaminsky walked into the visiting dugout at Perfect Game Field-Veterans Memorial Stadium this week, a couple of hours before Peoria would face the home-standing Cedar Rapids Kernels in the first game of a mid-May Midwest League double-header. He greeted a visitor with a wide smile and a firm handshake and settled in for an extended chat.

Although it had been nearly two years previous, it was impossible to look at the young ballplayer and not think back to June 2012 when Kaminsky – then a senior-to-be at St. Joseph Regional High School – walked out on the mound inside the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis and proceeded to turn in one of the most memorable performances in the history of the prestigious Perfect Game National Showcase.

All the kid from Englewood Cliffs, N.J. did was strikeout each of the seven batters he faced in two innings of work (one reached first base on a dropped third strike). He left the hundreds of professional scouts, crosscheckers and college coaches in attendance shaking their heads while feverishly scribbling in their notebooks.

“The PG National really opened a lot of doors for me,” Kaminsky said this week. “My summer coach, Bobby Barth, he insisted that I go to it because I’m not a big showcase guy, and it was probably the best decision I ever made baseball-wise, to be honest. After that, I was getting a lot of calls with scholarship offers and it just opened a lot of doors.

“There was an abundant amount of scouts and it was a fun environment playing against the best in country, so I’ve always been thankful for that (experience).”

Kaminsky committed to North Carolina-Chapel Hill before the St. Louis Cardinals selected him with the 28th overall pick in the first round of the 2013 MLB June Amateur First-Year Player Draft. He signed and spent last summer with the Cardinals’ entry in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, where he worked 22 innings over eight appearances, compiling a 3.68 ERA while giving up 23 hits and striking out 28.

Now considered among the top prospects in St. Louis’ farm system, Kaminsky spent April at extended spring training at the Cardinals’ Grapefruit League complex in Jupiter, Fla., the same facility Perfect Game uses for its annual PG WWBA World Championship. He joined the Chiefs on May 3 and made his Midwest League debut on May 4 against Cedar Rapids right here at Perfect Game Field.

 “Extended (spring training) was more like what I was use to – not a big crowd, none of that stuff,” Kaminsky said. “Coming out here is awesome, but it’s my first full season and it’s different for me. I’m not use to playing in front of crowds but it’s easy to get your adrenaline going and that’s something I’ve got to work on – containing my adrenaline and the positive energy.”

The words “positive energy” should be included in any resume Kaminsky ever produces. Good vibes radiate from the personable young lefty, just as readily as the fierce intensity he shows when he’s out on the mound baffling hitters with a 95 miles-per-hour fastball, a hammer curveball and a rapidly improving changeup.

After two Midwest League starts, Kaminsky stood 0-1 with a 2.16 ERA, having given up two earned runs on 10 hits while striking out six and walking five in 8 1/3 innings.

Former Cardinals and Washington Nationals pitcher Jason Simontacchi – he was 11-5 with a 4.02 ERA for the Cardinals in 2002 and finished ninth in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting – serves as Peoria’s pitching coach and has been working with Kaminsky for the past two weeks.

“He throws three quality pitches and he throws them for strikes,” Simontacchi said when asked what Kaminsky brings to the table as a pitcher. “His tenacity, his competitiveness; he’s got good passion. He’s a pretty young kid and I think he knows that, but it’s not to the point where he uses it as an excuse.

“He’s trying to absorb a lot right now at this level, and he’s not overwhelmed, but there is a tendency when you get here maybe you question your stuff a little bit and see if it plays here.”

It is cliché to be sure, but Kaminsky has always been the prototypical “student of the game” even during his high school and Perfect Game years. No matter how much information is thrown his way, he is able to take the lessons that he deems most valuable and turn them into positive results on the field.

“I’m a big believer in learning every day,” he said. “If you’re not getting better you’re getting worse – it’s like the old quote, ‘There’s no staying the same.’ I’m always picking the older guys’ brains and the coaches have been awesome, the players have been awesome and I’m making a lot of great friends. We’re all the same path, trying to get to the big leagues.

“The Cardinals have been awesome with developing me and helping me,” he continued. “The mental side of the game is a big thing for me right now – it’s all between the ears for me – and I’m just trying to get better every day.”

Simontacchi noticed Kaminsky’s willingness to listen and learn as soon as the young left-hander arrived in Peoria.

“He’s a very respectful guy so when people talk he’s not looking through you, he’s looking at you and he’s absorbing whatever he can,” the Chiefs’ pitching coach said. “He wants to learn and he’s got that passion to take his athletic ability as far as it will take him.”

Top St. Louis Cardinals prospect Rob Kaminsky said a strong performance at the 2012 PG National Showcase “opened a lot of doors” for him early in his career.

Simontacchi said he sees a lot of the same things in Kaminsky that he sees with every other young pitcher making the adjustment from Rookie ball to low Class A. Many question themselves and wonder if they have good enough stuff to perform over a full season of professional baseball while also trying to conquer the mental aspect of the game.

“It’s almost like a perfect storm because they’re (fighting) two battles at one time,” he said. “They’re learning the game while they’re in the game and trying to absorb as much information that comes in.”

Kaminsky’s prep career at St. Joseph’s Regional was unprecedented. He was named the New Jersey State Player of the Year as a junior – an honor almost always bestowed on a senior – when he finished 8-2 with a 0.20 ERA after allowing only 12 hits and striking out 103 in 52 innings pitched. He went 9-0 and allowed only one earned run in 64 innings (0.14 ERA) with 128 strikeouts and just five walks as a senior.

Between 2009 and 2012, Kaminsky played in seven PG WWBA and PG BCS national championship tournaments with Bob and Joe Barth and the Tri-State Arsenal (he played in three other PG tournaments with the N.J. Super 17).

He not only credits Bob Barth for getting him an invitation to the 2012 PG National Showcase – which, in turn, led to an invitation to the 2012 Perfect Game All-American Classic where he was the East team starter – but also for helping him become the quality ballplayer and young man that he is today.

“Playing with Joe and Bobby Barth, it didn’t just open doors, but it taught me a lot on and off the field, just how to do the right things,” Kaminsky said. “Bobby and Joe, they were my advisors before I had advisors and they were always there with a helping hand. I can’t thank them enough and I can’t thank Perfect Game enough.”

Kaminsky doesn’t feel as if he was at any disadvantage coming out of a high school in the Northeast. He said Perfect Game “evens the playing field  for the Northeast guys” by getting them recognized at tournaments and showcases down south, which in turns draws scouts to the Northeast during the spring high school season.

“Guys like (Mike) Trout and (Todd) Frazier and (Rick) Porcello are doing their thing in the big leagues and it’s bringing more (scouts) to our games in the Northeast because I can honestly say we’ve got some good baseball up there,” he said. “Back in the day, before (Perfect Game), it was mostly the Southeast and the West – that’s where all the scouts went.”

It is purely coincidental that Kaminsky is embarking on his first full season of professional baseball during and MLB season when so many young star pitchers are suffering elbow injuries and undergoing ulnar collateral ligament surgery, commonly called Tommy John Surgery.

They include 2013 NL Rookie of the Year (and 2010 PG All-American) Jose Fernandez of the Miami Marlins; A.J. Griffin of the Oakland A’s; Ivan Nova of the N.Y. Yankees; Josh Johnson of the San Diego Padres and Patrick Corbin of the Arizona Diamondbacks, among many others.

“Whatever happens, happens, but I’ll do anything to prevent it,” Kaminsky said of Tommy John Surgery. “I’m sure (Jose) Fernandez and all those guys are on top-tier lifting programs and offseason programs so it’s really nothing you can prevent; there’s only so many bullets in the gun. The success rate coming back from it is astronomical, and it’s good to see people coming back.”

Kaminsky said the Cardinals’ coaches are great about listening to their pitchers and being proactive with their pitchers’ concerns. When asked if he ever felt like he was over-used or pushed beyond his limits during his high school years, he looked the questioner in the eye and answered emphatically, “Not once.”

“The challenge is to pay close attention to them because there are times when we as athletes and pitchers and competitors want to prove to the organization that we can pitch through some pain and pitch through some problems,” Simontacchi said. “But there is a fine line between being sore and being hurt or being a little nicked up and being hurt.

“The biggest thing is for them to be honest with us because the bottom line is we don’t win any championships down here, just with the Cardinals,” he continued. “We’re developing them so that later on in their careers they can hopefully help us have a parade in St. Louis.”

It really doesn’t seem all that incredible that one day Kaminsky will be riding in a convertible or on top of a fire engine through the streets of downtown St. Louis at some future World Series Championship parade. That’s given the Cardinals’ propensity to play deep into October and the organization’s enviable track record of first developing and then holding onto their top prospects.

“The organization speaks for itself,” Kaminsky said. “It’s America’s team, almost, in the NL, and with the tradition and all that, it’s just awesome to wear (the team logo) on your chest.”

Kaminsky smiled and contemplated just how far his career has advanced and how much better of a pitcher he feels he is since he made that PG National Showcase appearance nearly two years ago. And remember, he won’t celebrate his 20th birthday until September.

“In high school you could just throw fastballs and one breaking ball and know you’re going to get an out,” he said. “Here, you’ve got to pitch, and that’s what I’m learning and that’s where the Cardinals have helped me, like I said, is in between the ears. I’m grateful for this opportunity and I’m just trying to get better every single day.”

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