4/5/2012 6:01:00 AM Destination Angel Stadium in Anaheim, Calif. Kingman native begins journey through the L.A. Angels farm system with first stop Cedar Rapids Low-A
Kingman native Jake Negrete warms up during a minor league spring training game last month at Tempe Diablo Stadium, spring home of the Los Angeles Angels. Negrete signed a contract with the Angels in June and will begin the season today with the Ceder Rapids Kernels, the Angels Low-A farm team.
Today is baseball's opening day where optimism is running high for teams with the dawn of a new baseball season.
Opening day also marks the start of ballplayers' careers. For some, that means the beginning of a big league career, for others it's the start of a long journey that will one day translate into making the opening day roster for the big club.
For Kingman native Jake Negrete, it's the start of that long journey, but it's optimistic that in four years, he will be making his Major League debut with the Los Angeles Angels.
"I've done really well," said Negrete last week from the Angels' spring training home in Tempe. "My velocity is good and things are going great."
Negrete, a right-handed pitcher, will begin his journey today in Grand Chute, Wis., where the Angels Low-A Cedar Rapids Iowa Kernels open the season with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. But while he will start with Cedar Rapids, it's not where he hopes to finish.
"If I do well then I'll touch Inland this year," Negrete said of getting to the Angels High-A team, the Inland Empire 66ers in San Bernardino, Calif. "Next year, my hopes are to break out (of spring training) with Inland Empire and touch Double-A."
The road to Double-A may be on the horizon for Negrete, but it was a road that he wasn't even on a year ago, and probably would not have been had it not been for fate last June at the Angels' spring training complex.
There, Negrete showed up to try out for an independent league after being away from the game for a couple of years. But as soon as the Angels scouts saw his fastball being clocked in the mid-90s they signed him to a contract.
"For some guys things happen in between like Jake, but when we saw him we liked him and he's been doing a great job just keeping his nose to the grindstone," Angels Director of Scouting Ric Wilson said. "He's paying attention and trying to learn as much as he can. He's been a really good student of himself."
After signing his contract, Negrete stayed at the Angels' spring training complex through the summer to work out and get back into baseball shape. After the season, the Angels kept him there for instructional league, a league where teams will send their prospects to fine-tune their mechanics.
When spring training opened in March he was kept in minor league camp, but next year he hopes to possibly get into some big league spring training games.
"I'm not even close to the big league right now. I'm in Low-A, High-A and I'm just trying to work my way up," Negrete said. "They do that to guys who have touched Double-A, which next year I'll get into big league games hopefully."
When Negrete left Kingman in June he weighed 190 pounds, today he's around 210 thanks in large part to the Angels weight and conditioning program.
"It's a good program. The kids get stronger, they get bigger and they get in shape," Wilson said. "It's a long day but it's good for them. That's what you have to do, you have to work at it."
Because of the road that Negrete has been on, his work ethic is not a problem because he knows that it could be taken away at a moment's notice, which is why he reports to the facility every day at 6 a.m. and doesn't leave until around 4 p.m.
"He certainly doesn't have a sense of entitlement," Wilson said of Negrete. "He's been out there and knows what it's all about - having to be out there and work and support a family. He understands that. Once you get into the professional ball, those guys who have a sense of entitlement, they tend to weed themselves out. If they are not keeping their nose to the grindstone, it will all catch up to them.
I think he appreciates it in a little different capacity than most people because he knows what it's like to be without it."
Negrete admits that the journey has been tough, because he's still not in the same shape as some of the other guys in camp and admits that he didn't take baseball as serious as he should have when he was 18, but now at 22, he's 100 percent committed.
"I'm 100 percent happy doing this than what I was doing when I wasn't playing baseball," he said.
While the Angels still don't have a clear picture of where they see Negrete in the organization's future, the feeling coming out of spring training is that Negrete could end up becoming a reliever,
"It's too early to tell, a lot of it depends on what happens above him," Wilson said. "He's a versatile guy that can do a few things, but I always saw him coming out of the bullpen."
Wilson said the natural progression from the time someone is signed to making the big leagues is around three to four years. For Negrete, that would put him starting the year in Low-A and finishing in High-A with next year finishing in Double-A and the year after that finishing in Triple-A. But Wilson points out that there could be some unforeseen circumstances that could change that schedule.
"It depends on a lot of things with how the summer goes with injuries," Wilson said. "There is just a lot of things that can happen that might dictate a kid through the course of the year."
Pitching at Angel Stadium in Anaheim is still years away for Negrete. He knows that the work he puts in as he takes his journey through the minor leagues will someday not only pay off for him but for his daughter, Khole.
"I'm just trying to build a better life for her so she doesn't have to worry about things," Negrete said. "I just want her to be able to have a comfortable life and go to college and do some of the things that I didn't do."
As for Wilson, whose job is to find ballplayers for the Angels, he hopes to replace Negrete someday.
"It's my job to find guys to replace him and hopefully, I'll be replacing him when he's in the major leagues," Wilson said.