This is part five of the series on Matt Antonelli. See Matthew Coller's article archive for parts 1-4.
Matt Antonelli remains one step away from returning to The Show.
After spending most of spring training with the major league club, the Baltimore Orioles have assigned Antonelli to triple-A Norfolk. While his goal was to make the opening day roster, the former first-rounder is much closer to his ultimate goal than he was one year ago. Last April, returning to the major leagues seemed merely a pipe dream.
To begin the 2011 season, Antonelli was stuck in extended spring training. He was recovering from yet another injury while trying to sort out a rust-riddled swing.
At that time, the newest member of the Norfolk Tide was in camp with the Washington Nationals, who had signed him after he was released by the Padres following the 2010 season. During the spring he received few chances to show the Nats what he could do – and the chances he did get did not go so well.
Antonelli had only played one game in 2010 and just 59 in 2009 – all while battling a broken hamate bone in his wrist. Last year, his wrist was healed, but swing timing was out of whack.
It turns out hitting a 90 mph fastball isn't at all like riding a bike.
“I learned a lot about staying positive,” Antonelli said via email last spring. “When nothing seems to want to go your way. If I had given up after my first surgery didn't work, I wouldn't be playing right now. I've learned a lot about being patient and staying determined in the face of adversity.”
In addition to regaining his swing, Antonelli pulled his hamstring near the end of the spring. When he finally began his 2011 season, the Nationals assigned the him to their double-A affiliate Harrisburg. The injury gave Antonelli time to recover his swing. When the season finally began in mid-May, he hit well and was quickly moved up to the Nationals' triple-A team the Syracuse Chiefs.
In Syracuse, finally feeling like the same player who was a star at Wake Forest University and hit 21 home runs between high-A and double-A in 2007, Antonelli picked up where he'd left off before his wrist injury. In 86 games, he hit .297 with a .393 on-base percentage and eight home runs.
No matter his performance, the Nationals placed another barricade in his road back to the show, electing not to call him up in September.
He entered the off-season wondering if he'd gone from top prospect to four-A. From once called the “best prospect at second base” to a triple-A lifer, bound to drift from club to club Crash Davis style.
But one thing Mr. Davis didn't benefit from when Bull Durham was released in 1988 was sabermetrics. While Antonelli was headed back to his Massachusetts home – worried more about asking his girlfriend to marry him and buying a house than where he'd play next year – former Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette was being hired by the Orioles. (His girlfriend said yes, by the way)
Duquette got busy playing catchup with the behind-the-times O's. He hired financial and statistical analysts and often noted new stats as being “accepted in baseball.” That was good news for Antonelli, whose specialty – drawing walks – is highly regarded by statisticians.
When Duquette signed Antonelli to a major league contract in late November, the team's press release noted his impressive on-base percentage and OPS (on-base plus slugging) numbers in the minor leagues.
“My coach in college used to yell at me,” Antonelli said last week from Orioles camp in Sarasota, Fla. “I would always take the first pitch and it would drive him nuts. I don't know why, but I've always had this ability to work walks.”
From the moment he arrived at spring training with the O's, everything was different from the year before. This time, he wasn't feeling his way around like a kid on his first day of school. He was confident he could make the big club instead of being hopeful to just stay healthy.
“This time around it doesn't feel strange at all,” he said over the phone, likely with a smile on his face. “I felt like I was an experienced veteran at switching teams even though I'd only done it once before.”
Unlike Nationals' camp last year, Antonelli was given significant time with the big club. He started off hot, getting on base 12 of his first 25 plate appearances.
But over the last week, he went 0-for-9 without a walk and the Orioles elected to assign him to triple-A. Of course, there were other circumstances that caused the big club to send him down. The O's had picked up another infielder Ryan Flaherty in the Rule 5 draft. Under Rule 5, the player has to make the 25 man roster or be sent back to his old team – which in Flaherty's case is the Chicago Cubs. Flaherty performed well and gave the Orioles little choice.
“I learned a long time ago that it just isn't up to you,” Antonelli said. “I used to drive myself crazy thinking about whether I would be the next guy called up. I would think, maybe if I get a couple hits today or whatever. I've learned to just play my game and let everything else take care of itself.”
Where Antonelli's career goes from here? In the minors, you can hit, hit, hit and never see a call. He knows how the business works, but understands he's much closer to his dream than he was one year ago.
“One of the reasons I came to Baltimore is that I thought I'd have an opportunity hopefully at some point to play in the majors,” he said. “Whether it would be at the very beginning or whenever to be contributing at that level. That's my goal. Hopefully all the things I did last year will give me a chance this year, that's really all I'm looking for.”
Matthew Coller is a senior staff member of the Business of Sports Network, and is a freelance writer. He can be followed on Twitter
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