When the Indians made their September call-ups the other day, I was pleased to see that Thomas Neal was one of the minor leaguers that would join the Tribe in Cleveland. He’s had a great season at Akron and I think he’s really earned a shot at the big leagues. I’ve followed him since he was traded to the Indians for Orlando Cabrera last summer. At the time of the trade Neal was playing with the Giants’ Triple-A affiliate; after the deal he was added to the 40-man and reported to Columbus. The Giants had drafted Neal out of high school in the 36th round in 2005, so he spent the better part of six years rising through their system. It’s not that I expected another lopsided trade, like the ones that brought Shin-Soo Choo or Asdrubal Cabrera to Cleveland. Still, at the time of the trade, Neal was hitting .295/.351/.409 with two home runs. While he may not display incredible power, he put up solid numbers and has throughout his career in the minors.
One of the fascinating things about baseball in 2012 is the ability to connect with and follow players through various social media platforms. I’ve unfortunately never had the opportunity to interview Neal, but I do follow him on Twitter. As with many of the players who frequent Twitter, you will sometimes see a personal side start to creep into their discussion of games, personal performance, and the minor league lifestyle in general. There’s been something about Neal that’s just inherently likable, the kind of person that you just really root for and want to see succeed. For a lot of players, in fact probably the vast majority of minor leaguers, it’s not exactly a glamorous lifestyle. Sure, you get the opportunity to play baseball, but the salary is extremely low. If you didn’t sign a multi-million dollar signing bonus, you have to scrape to get by and just hope that you’ll end up in the majors. There aren’t many big signing bonuses floating around for players that are drafted in the 36th round.
After a steady climb through the minors with the Giants, Neal seemed to head in the opposite direction once he reached the Indians’ system. He was designated for assignment this spring in order to make room for Jose Lopez and Dan Wheeler on the roster (and we all know how well that worked out). After he cleared waivers and they assigned him to the minors, they sent him down to Double-A Akron due to overcrowding in the outfield at Triple-A. He responded by having a great season with the Aeros – .314/.400/.467 with 12 home runs and is probably a big part of the reason that the Aeros are in the postseason. That’s why I was pleased, but a little surprised that the Indians decided to call him up on September 1. I figured they’d leave him with the Aeros throughout the playoffs before they considered bringing him up to the majors.
When he made his major league debut on Sunday afternoon, I really wanted him to have a big day. Not just because he’s a right-handed bat, something the Indians desperately need moving forward, but also because I just wanted to see him succeed. While he went 1-4 with a double and an RBI, his performance was upstaged by the major league debut of Jurickson Profar, the Rangers’ phenom who went 2 for 4 with a double and a home run. It was really a tale of two different kinds of prospects at Progressive Field. In one dugout, a highly-touted 19-year-old that flew through the minors and started his major league career with a home run. In the other dugout, the 25-year-old that’s paid his dues in the minors for nearly seven years and started his major league career with a strikeout. Neal’s debut didn’t attract the attention of Profar’s, but it was still a big deal to his fans, and the people that have followed him in the minors. Even though he was a late round draft pick, he was right out of high school and there are a number of players drafted in the later rounds to find success, or even stardom. Vinnie Pestano was drafted in the 20th round out of Cal State Fullerton. Even Albert Pujols was drafted in the 13th round out of Maple Woods Community College. Throughout his minor league career, Neal has hit .299/.376/.464; he may be able to transfer some of that success to the majors.
Neal recently joked as his 25th birthday approached on August 17, that he told his mother at the age of 18 that he would retire if he hadn’t made the majors by the age of 24. Even though it was a year later than his goal, he still managed to make it to the bigs. I really hope he’s going to stick around.