Imagine this scene playing out in August: Will Craig steps to the plate in an empty PNC Park as he makes his Major League Baseball debut for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Hey, it could happen.
The former Science Hill High School and Wake Forest University slugger is on the cusp of the big leagues and it’s possible his breakthrough could come during the abbreviated, pandemic-induced 60-game MLB season in 2020.
Kevin Gorman of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review predicted in a story Friday that Craig would land on Pittsburgh’s 30-man taxi squad, which will hold workouts in Altoona, Pennsylvania, home of the team’s Class AA affiliate.
Craig hit .182 with one home run and three RBIs in 15 Grapefruit League games for the Pirates and was optioned to Class AAA Indianapolis on March 9. Three days later, MLB suspended the season due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
“It was tough man,” Craig said. “Going from a full offseason of preparing to get to spring training and then being told to shut down for an unspecified time; it is hard physically, but mostly mentally.”
Craig returned to his home in Nashville, Tennessee, when spring training sites were closed and has settled into a routine to stay sharp.
“I worked out about four, five times a week, but also took some time off if I felt I was getting too tired, so it hasn’t been too bad,” Craig said.
He and his wife, Morgan, also purchased a puppy – a pitbull/boxer mix – during the time they were quarantined.
“We got a dog as soon as we found out it was gonna be a while,” Craig said. “So that’s helped a lot.”
A first-round draft pick by the Pirates in 2016, Craig hit .259 with 51 home runs in his first four minor league seasons. He plays the same position as Pittsburgh All-Star Josh Bell – first base – but the National League will use a designated hitter during the truncated 2020 season.
Does that provide some new opportunities for Craig?
“It does for sure,” Craig said. “It opens so many doors for me, just because the spots I’m at are kind of for power guys and so that definitely doesn’t hurt me.”
As for now, Craig just awaits to hear when and where he’ll report for spring training version 2.0. Teams are expected to release their full player pool list on Sunday.
“It’s just gonna be different,” Craig said. “I mean I’m sure they already have their [big-league] roster [set], but I definitely want to show the difference I’ve made from March until now. I’m ready to get back to work.”
Craig will try to join Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Justin Grimm (Virginia High), Detroit Tigers hurler Daniel Norris (Science Hill) and Texas Rangers relief pitcher Brett Martin (Morristown East) as locals in the major leagues.
Ex-ETSU stars let go
Former East Tennessee State University standouts Hagen Owenby (Atlanta Braves) and Micah Kaczor (Colorado Rockies) were let go last month when many teams purged their minor league systems by releasing players.
Owenby hit .274 over the course of three seasons in the Atlanta Braves farm system and reached the High-A level, while Kaczor made six starts last summer for the Boise Hawks, a member of the short-season advanced Northwest League.
No Frontier League
The independent Frontier League announced on Wednesday it was suspending the 2020 season indefinitely.
Ex-King University stars Cam Haymans (Southern Illinois Miners) and Mark Hendricks (New Jersey Jackals) play in the league, along with former ETSU pitcher Austin Hutchins of the New York Boulders.
Today in History
>>> Gail Harris from Abingdon, Virginia, had three hits for the Detroit Tigers in their 6-5 loss to the Boston Red Sox on June 28, 1958.
>>> Coeburn, Virginia, native Tracy Stallard of the St. Louis Cardinals allowed just one run over seven innings, but was pinned with the hard-luck loss in a 3-0 setback to the Philadelphia Phillies on June 28, 1965. Chris Short of the Phillies spun a four-hit shutout.
>>> Former Tazewell High School star Billy Wagner retired Alex Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro and Juan Gonzalez in order to notch the save for the Houston Astros in their 2-0 triumph over the Texas Rangers on June 28, 2003.
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