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One of the lucky ones for now, former UMC pitcher Zach Seipel waits to resume his MLB dream

Jacob Shames
Former Minnesota Crookston closer Zach Seipel pitches for the Danville Braves, an affiliate of the Atlanta Braves, last season.

On March 5, Zach Seipel arrived in Florida for spring training. Going into his third professional season, the hard-throwing right-hander thought this was his year to start rising through the minor league ranks.

The Atlanta Braves, who drafted him in the 27th round out of Minnesota Crookston in 2018, were trying something rare: turning Seipel, a college closer, into a starter. Normally the switch is made the other way around, but Seipel was adjusting well. In 2019, he made five starts between the Braves’ rookie league affiliates in the Gulf Coast League and the Applachian League, recording a 2.82 earned-run average.

Seipel assumed he’d be starting again this year. The Braves hadn’t given him an indication as to where, but he was hoping for Class A or even Class A Advanced — three levels away from the big leagues.

Just one week after arriving, he was heading home.

When the COVID-19 pandemic rocked the sports world in mid-March, baseball teams cut spring training short and sent their players home en masse. Many booked flights. Seipel hopped into his car and drove from the Braves’ facility in North Port, Fla. to his home in Eagan, Minn. — nearly a day’s drive.

Three months have passed since then. There might be a baseball season in 2020. There might not. Players and owners don’t appear to be any closer than they were when negotiations began, thanks to contentious battles over salary, safety and season length.

That’s at the major league level. The prognosis for the minor leagues is far more grim. If MLB resumes play, it will likely be without fans in attendance. But the league will survive, thanks largely to merchandising and TV revenue. Minor league teams don’t have that luxury. Many are local operations which exist in anonymity and rely on ticket sales to stay alive. Without that, it’s hard to see how a season is viable.

Which puts Seipel and players like him in a precarious situation. They’re likely to lose a crucial year of development, and maybe salary too. While the Braves have committed to paying minor leaguers through the end of June, no one knows if that will continue, and minor leaguers make very little as it is — in Class A, the average yearly salary is around $6,000.

But Seipel is still training and preparing like the season will happen. He doesn’t think he really has a choice.

“It’s definitely mentally draining,” he said. “The uncertainty of whether or not to ramp up throwing, whether to look for a job, it’s that aspect that’s really tough to handle … but I just don’t want to be behind in any way.”

***

Thing is, Seipel is already behind — nearly 20 years behind, in fact.

At Eagan High School, he rarely took the mound. Instead, he caught the eye of Minnesota Crookston head coach Steve Gust as a catcher — an undersized one, albeit one with a cannon arm and a .383 batting average.

One fall practice his freshman year, Seipel was catching a bullpen session. Towards the end, he pulled a coach aside and asked if he could try pitching, just for a moment. That was all it took. Gust was blown away by Seipel’s arm strength, and without hesitating, he told him to give up his catchers’ mitt.

In no time at all, Seipel became one of the best relievers in the NSIC. He started growing into his current 6-foot-4, 210-pound frame and used a mid-90s fastball to strike out 147 batters in 96.1 innings over three college seasons. He was named to the All-NSIC Second Team his first two years, recording 11 saves as a freshman and 12 as a sophomore (which ranked in the top 10 nationally).

During the Golden Eagles’ spring trip to Florida in March 2018, they played two games in Kissimmee at the home park of the Braves’ Class A Advanced affiliate, the Florida Fire Frogs. While Seipel was closing out a 4-3 win over Northwood, a Braves scout was in the stands taking notes and recording his pitches with a radar gun. The next week, during UMC’s series against Concordia in Minnetonka, Minn., the Braves scout was there again.

Teams kept in touch with Gust and Seipel throughout his junior season, in which he put up a 2.50 ERA and seven saves while striking out 61 strikeouts in 36 innings. But despite these gaudy stats and the Braves’ interest, Seipel had no idea what to expect until he saw his name pop onto the online draft tracker as he watched from home.

“It was a shock when it happened,” he said. “I kind of thought it would happen, I kind of thought it wouldn’t. … Even when it did, it didn’t exactly settle in for me right away.”

Ultimately, the first draft pick in Minnesota Crookston history packed his bags and headed to the Braves’ spring training facility in Kissimmee to sign his contract. From there, he was assigned to Danville, Va. in the Rookie Advanced Applachian League, where he recorded a 2.63 ERA and 30 strikeouts in 24 innings.

After an offseason in Minnesota, Seipel returned to Kissimmee and discovered the Braves were looking to experiment. Many pitchers start in college before transitioning to the bullpen as professionals. It’s hard to succeed as a starter without an array of effective pitches, and if a pitcher only has one or two, it’s often wise to turn him into a reliever, where those pitches might play up instead of being picked up on the second or third time through the order. In the bullpen, his responsibilities are more limited, and he can specialize his arsenal instead of overextending himself.

Seipel was a different case. He closed out games not because he didn’t pan out as a starter, but because the Golden Eagles wanted to ease him onto the mound. They didn’t ask him to do more than grip it and rip it. With three years under his belt, though, the Braves wanted to see if he could add to his repertoire, which consisted of just a fastball and a slider. And being two decades behind meant that he had relatively few miles on his arm, so they were confident he could handle the added innings.

“It’s a pacing thing,” Seipel said. “At this level it’s more about picking your spots. In college, I was more focused on throwing as hard as I possibly could. Now it’s more getting through the inning, learning the hitters a little more.”

Seipel had thrown a changeup once in college — and promptly put it away, he remembers, because the batter homered — but started working it in again, as well as a two-seam fastball and curveball, to go along with his fastball-slider combo. The five-pitch arsenal helped compensate for the drop in his four-seam velocity: he would crank it up to 96 mph when he needed to, but mostly threw around 93 to save his arm over multiple innings.

The Braves called Seipel’s role a “piggyback,” officially. He started just five of his nine appearances in 2019, mostly with the GCL Braves, but in his relief appearances was paired with a starter who would yield to him after a couple innings. All nine of Seipel’s stints on the mound lasted between three and five innings.

Those stints revealed an evolved pitcher: judicious, rather than overpowering. Seipel’s strikeout rate fell dramatically, but still sat at over one per inning. His walk rate dropped too, from 4.6/9 innings to 3.5/9. Seventy-three percent of his pitches found the strike zone. His ERA of 3.72 and WHIP of 1.13 were just as encouraging. But his mindset while pitching — ice-cold, confident to a degree that belied his inexperience — stayed exactly the same.

“I’ve always liked pitching and have always been calm and collected out on the mound,” Seipel said. “Confidence was instilled in me at Crookston, having coach Gust on my side. Not really fearing anyone, and just always thinking that you can beat the player that you’re facing, (that’s) the mentality that I have.”

***

Seipel is two classes away from completing his degree from Minnesota Crookston. A health management major, he’s been taking classes online during the last two offseasons, and is still doing so now.

He stopped pitching for about two months to rest his arm this winter, but kept up with shoulder exercises and general arm strengthening. A new training facility for professional athletes, Truplayerz, was set to open in Rosemount, 10 minutes from his home, this spring, and Seipel got a part-time position as a pitching coach and trainer. Only the turf area was ready for use during the winter, but he was able to work out there until he had to report to spring training.

Upon arriving back in Minnesota, he found that his local gym was still open. It closed shortly after, as did Truplayerz, so Seipel resorted to sharing weights and other equipment with his sister and brother-in-law.

But Seipel’s development isn’t the only thing currently at stake.

The Braves cut 30 minor leaguers altogether in late May. They weren’t alone in doing so — most organizations let go of somewhere between 30 to 50 around that time, in part a response to COVID-19, and in part a response to a more direct threat to the minor leagues.

Affiliated minor league baseball, which consists of 160 teams, is widely expected to contract. With the Professional Baseball Agreement, which governs the relationship between minor-league clubs and their parent organizations, set to expire after 2020, 40 affiliated teams are set to be cut.

In essence: the path to MLB is about to get smaller. Much smaller. Forty less teams means 1,000 or more jobs taken away.

“There were a few players that I was good friends with (who were cut), and I didn’t expect them to get cut,” Seipel said. “Initially that, the nerves start to ramp up and you think, ‘Wow, that could be me.’ ”

In dealing with what might be the future of the minor leagues at stake, Seipel says he’s had to adjust his mindset. Instead of being scared, he feels relieved, knowing he’s one of the lucky ones for now. The fact he still has a job means that the Braves see him as an integral part of their organization; someone who can keep getting better and better. It’s a particularly cruel and stressful progress report. “It’s almost like ripping a band-aid off,” Seipel said.

Seipel doesn’t expect the minor league season to happen. He won’t change what he’s currently doing until he actually hears it. But whenever he does report again, the effect of the last three months on him will be clear in a changed perspective.

There’s not much to be certain about with baseball in limbo. But for now, Seipel has a tiny piece of reassurance that he can hold on to.

“If I am to keep moving forward it’s kind of nice, just because with minor leaguers, it’s always such a journey,” he said. “You know a little bit more about your future, in a way.”

The Times welcomes your feedback. You can send any comments or questions to our office at (218) 281-2730, Jacob Shames (405) 496-0168 or by email at jshames@crookstontimes.com.

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