The unlikeliest camper at Citizens Bank Park this week is a right-handed pitcher who threw a total of 56 1/3 innings in the minors last season, didn’t get invited to the Phillies’ big-league spring training in February, and almost went looking for a summer job.
“I was actually making some calls to put some stuff together to do during the summer, and then I actually got the call,” Connor Seabold said Monday by phone. “My agent called and told me, then I got a call officially from the Phillies. I was stoked.”
Don’t misunderstand: It’s not as though the Phillies picked up Seabold off the playgrounds of his native Orange County, Calif. The 24-year-old is an honest-to-goodness prospect, a former third-round pick out of Cal State-Fullerton. Some talent evaluators even say he was among the best pitchers they saw in the Arizona Fall League last year, right there with Houston Astros phenom Forrest Whitley and Phillies top-pitching prospect Spencer Howard.
There's a halfway decent chance that Seabold would have made his major-league debut at some point this season, if only the world hadn't been upended by the coronavirus.
But the Phillies didn’t backfill their camp roster with prospects. Right-handers Adonis Medina and Cristopher Sanchez weren’t among the 53 players on the 60-man list. Neither was former No. 1 overall pick Mickey Moniak. And they were in the big-league camp. Medina and Sanchez are even on the 40-man roster.
All of this makes the inclusion of Seabold a feel-good story amid the uncertainty over trying to launch a season in 30 cities during a pandemic.
“He probably should have made the initial group back in February,” general manager Matt Klentak said. “We just had too many other pitchers. But he was really good in the brief minor league camp. And we also figure that relievers who can provide length will be really important this year, particularly early in the year, so we put him on.”
Consider Seabold a darkhorse to make the 30-man opening-day roster. Otherwise, after the three-week training camp, he would be assigned to triple-A Lehigh Valley with what amounts to a 30-man “B” team that will continue to train, play intrasquad games, and remain available to replace players who get injured, test positive for COVID-19, or are exposed to someone who has the virus.
Either way, it sure as heck beats sitting at home, collecting the weekly $400 stipend that the Phillies have been paying their minor leaguers since March, and figuring out what to do with his first summer without baseball since he can remember.
“That’s all these last two or three months have been – just uncertainty,” said Seabold, who stayed in shape by throwing off a mound in a public park near his home. “It was just a cycle of training every day, making sure your body was in shape, but at the same time, saying to yourself, ‘Is it worth it? Are we actually going to do this? Is anything going to come to fruition?’ ”
Seabold has been a starter in his three minor-league seasons. In this sprint of a season, the Phillies view him as a multiple-inning option to come in behind a starter who isn’t stretched out for six or seven innings.
Before last season, Seabold’s career was on a distinctly upward trajectory. But he strained a muscle in his side during spring training, didn’t pitch in a game until June, and didn’t make it back to double-A Reading until July.
The down time enabled Seabold to play around with grips for his changeup. Armed with a better offspeed pitch, he posted a 2.25 ERA in 40 innings over seven starts for Reading, then went to Arizona and delivered a 1.06 ERA and a 22-to-3 strikeouts-to-walks ratio in 17 innings over four starts.
“To go there and kind of prove that I belonged at the level that I do, that was huge,” Seabold said. “I was able to go out there and just let it eat for the last few weeks of the season and go into 2020 with, at the time, was a lot of momentum.”
There’s no such thing in 2020, especially for minor leaguers. If the Phillies were once concerned about taking a more-gradual approach to building Seabold’s arm strength after an injury-marred 2019, they now must contend with getting him enough work to be ready for 2021.
But that isn’t what this is about. While Klentak said it’s possible that “longer-term prospects” (think Moniak, catcher Rafael Marchan, maybe even 2019 first-round draft pick Bryson Stott) could be added later to the 60-player pool to make up for lost development time, the players in the initial group were brought in to compete in 2020.
“It definitely goes through your mind like, ‘Well, if this season is a wash, then that’s like a complete year of the best shape of your life that you’re going to be in, your youth and everything, that’s just down the drain,’ ” Seabold said. “Hopefully, we actually do get to use some of this season to either leave a good impression for the years to come or to just go up and pitch. Either way, it’s a huge opportunity.”
A nice story, too.