Friday, May 30, 2014

Cheering on the Home Team

The crazy thing about following a minor league team is that players enter your memory and take up residence, always at the ready to be triggered by reading about a player who finally made it to the majors. Such was the case last night when I was reading MLBTradeRumors.com and saw that the Dodgers had called up Jamie Romak. This name might not attract too much attention from Braves fans. He barely played in the Atlanta Brave organization. However, before the Lynchburg Hillcats fans were entertained by Braves prospects such as Andrelton Simmons, Evan Gattis, and Lucas Sims, they got to know prospects that eventually helped the Pirates get to the playoffs last year. From 1995 to 2009, Lynchburg was an affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates and current Pirates such as Jordy Mercer, Pedro Alvarez, and Josh Harrison made stops there. As did Romak for parts of three seasons between 2007 until the Pirates final year in Lynchburg, 2009.

However, Romak was originally a Brave and was drafted in 2003 in the 4th round out of Canada.  Romak was Atlanta's sixth selection that year, but they would receive little more than trade bait from the six that were selected before Romak, including both Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Matt Harrison. In fact, the only player from the 2003 draft that eventually became a productive player for the Braves was 30th rounder, Jonny Venters.

After he was drafted, Romak struggled in the Gulf Coast League during 19 games, hitting just .176 but giving us a glimpse into his on-base abilities by walking nine times. He headed to Danville and would struggle there as well, hitting .190 with 5 HR as an 18 year-old in 2004. The age gave the Braves reason to believe better things were coming and in 2005, they started to see Romak come into his own, despite an injury-shorten campaign with Danville. He slashed .274/.368/.540 with 7 HR in 34 G. A promotion to full-season ball followed and he played 108 games during 2006 with Rome, belting 16 HR and on-basing .369 as a 20 year-old.

Romak was developing into a mini version of the Three True Outcomes guy. He stuck out plenty (102 times in 348 AB during 2006), but he also walked a healthy amount and had pop. After originally being drafted as a third baseman, Romak had found a home in right field and while not a big prospect, he was a guy with a solid base to grow from.

He would have to do so elsewhere as after the 2006 season, the Braves sent Romak and Adam LaRoche to the Pirates in exchange for lefty Mike Gonzalez and Brent Lillibridge. The deal was a reasonable exchange. The Braves weren't willing to pay LaRoche's increasing salary as a result of arbitration, Gonzalez helped address a significant weakness for the 2006 Braves, and Lillibridge was a solid prospect capable of playing short or possibly moving to center field. The deal ultimately never worked out as LaRoche's replacements were substandard (and forced ugly trades for Mark Teixeira and eventually LaRoche himself) and Lillibridge maxed out as a utility player. Not to mention, Gonzalez never stayed healthy for long.

Romak became the lost prospect in the deal. He joined Hickory in the Pirates organization and OPS'd .944 over the first month, showing the Pirates he was ready for the Carolina League. He joined a bad, bad Hillcats squad later that year. Future Brave farmhands like Jairo Asencio, Todd Redmond, and Steven Lerud didn't help the Hillcats from a tough campaign where they finished nearly 30 games under .500. Nevertheless, Romak, who missed action both with nagging injuries and the first month in Hickory, hit .252/.380/.483 and led the team with 15 HR.

Courtesy: milb.com
The Canadian outfielder looked ready for AA and joined Altoona the next year. He struggled there, hitting just .208 and eventually getting himself demoted back to Lynchburg where he caught fire. While the 'Cats were still bad, despite the play of future big leaguers Alex Presley and Brad Lincoln, Romak bashed 18 homers and slashed .279/.360/.552. With the 7 homers he managed in Altoona, Romak finished with 25 HR, still a career high. Yes, he failed in AA, but he still had a positive year.

Unfortunately, the wheels came off in 2009 for Romak. he again struggled in Altoona, hitting an abysmal .175 with no power. He finished the year in Lynchburg and never got going for the eventual Carolina League Champs. Romak, who came to the plate to "Shipping Up to Boston" by Dropkick Murphys during his time in Lynchburg, would be sent packing after 2009.

From there, he began a journey that started in the Kansas City organization. He again destroyed the Carolina League, this time with Wilmington, and finally conquered AA pitching, hitting .278/.389/.459 in 45 games with Northwest Arkansas. He was back with the Naturals in 2011 and he OPS .803 in 125 games, even pitching twice with two scoreless innings where he faced the minimum with a strikeout against future big leaguer Jimmy Paredes to his credit. Romak would finally debut in AAA during 2012, playing first base for Omaha for the first month of action where he posted a .422 OPS. The Royals let him go to the Cardinals organization and despite hitting .277 in 31 games with Memphis, Romak was demoted back to AA and OPS'd .809 with Springfield for the remainder of 2012.

Needing to conquer AAA, Romak returned to the Cardinals organization and would spend all of 2013 with Memphis playing both corner infield positions and both corner outfield slots while slashing .242./.322/.461 with 22 homers. It was hardly a great season, especially in the notorious hitter's league known as the Pacific Coast League, but at 28, he entered the offseason a graduate of a full season at AAA and a minor league free agent. The Dodgers came calling and Romak went to spring training with nearly no chance to make a crowded roster. After camp, he went to Albuquerque and slashed .272/.354/.578 with 13 HR while playing a good deal of third base, a position he really shouldn't be at. All but three of his homers came in May.

He did all he could to deserve a callup and got one, albeit it took an injury to get his shot. He would make his debut Wednesday evening in the bottom of the seventh with the Dodgers down 3-2. Hitting for Clayton Kershaw, Romak was justifiably pumped and went after the first pitch, grounding out to second to end the inning. He would not remain in the game. He did not play Thursday night as the Dodgers opened a four-game set against the visiting Pirates, the team that traded for Romak many years before.

My father used to be an usher in Lynchburg so ever since I was an infant, I have been around City Stadium and seen many games in that park. I've seen the Mets and Red Sox go, the Pirates leave after a title, the Reds briefly spend a season in Lynchburg, and most recently...the Braves. And several players have entered my memory for one reason or another. I recall Phil Plantier taking a liner right off the nose playing third base for the Lynchburg Red Sox. More recently, I remember vividly Joey Terdoslavich beating a throw to second on an RBI single where he was advancing on the throw and being called out. It was an awful call and Joey T slammed his helmet down, earning an ejection and a standing ovation. Players like Romak stick in my head because you spend so long rooting for him as a 'Cat. I am so happy he has made it to the majors and although his chances of sticking seem small, I am hoping he defies the odds. At least, against everyone but the Braves.

1 comment:

  1. A fun read. It's stuff like this that make me wish a minor league team were nearby.

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