Aaron Whitefield: From Softball Diamonds To Diamond In The Rough
Image courtesy of Seth Stohs, Twins DailyAaron Whitefield may want to read The Road Less Traveled. Why? His path to prospect status is a bit different than any other's. Than most. Maybe different than any. As you know from our original Get To Know ‘Em interview, Whitefield grew up playing softball, not baseball.
Whitefield said, “My dad grew up playing softball. So did my mom. So I grew up on a softball field. Everyone says that I was pretty much born on a softball field. So baseball was never really the future for me.”
Consider this, he did not play baseball until he was 17 years old. Instead, he grew up playing several sports. None of them was baseball.
He said, “I played a lot of other sports like track, touch football, rugby, AFL, so I did every other sport but baseball.”
He wasn’t just playing fast-pitch softball. He was thriving, playing for Australia in international competitions. “I didn’t play softball until juniors, when I was 13 or 14, and then I went to softball with my family and fell in love with it. We went to the World Series in Argentina.”
When he came home, he was noticed by a baseball scout. “Somehow a scout from Cincinnati said ‘Hey, would you mind having a tryout with us?’ I was like, ‘Why not? I’ve got nothing to lose.’ We threw a baseball around. I was horrible. I couldn’t do what he said. (He told me to) go do a year of baseball and we’ll come back and look at you.”
There aren’t necessarily a lot of people from his area of Australia in pro ball. Whitefield mentioned his friend Connor MacDonald, a first baseman in the Astros system. “It was a pretty big thing (when MacDonald signed) because no one in my area really signed for baseball. I was looking into it. My dad was like, ‘Why don’t you give it a go? You’ve got nothing to lose.’ So I played a year. I was a shortstop then, and I got a Gold Glove at our national event. Got looked at by scouts.”
Unfortunately, he had a shoulder injury and had to sit out a year. “When I returned, my agent put me in a tournament. He told me ‘No one will see you. Just get your rhythm back.’ Twins scout Howie (Norsetter) came to the tournament. He offered me and I took advantage. I haven’t looked back since. I was 17. At that time I was still playing both (softball and baseball). When the Twins signed me is when I stopped playing softball completely.”
What did he know about the Twins before signing? Did he know any of the players? How about the Australians in the Twins organization?
“Didn’t know Jimmy Beresford. Didn’t know Logan Wade until I started playing here. He lives maybe 20 to 30 miles from me, and I didn’t meet him until I came here.” He continued, “I met Wellsy (Lachlan Wells) at our Australian academy after that tournament. That’s in Gold Coast in Queensland, where I’m from. I met him there. So I knew him. But the older guys like Beresford or even guys that played like (Luke) Hughesy, I didn’t know any of them. Until I made my first All Star game (in the ABL) and started making the Australian teams, that’s how I started meeting the older guys. All the younger generation that I played with at home, they all know those guys. I had to look on the web and research.”
While he didn’t know the names or those players, he now credits them for helping him improve his game, physically and mentally. He’s played with some with Brisbane in the ABL and now in the WBC as well.
“My coaches and the older guys back home helped, especially mentally. Hitting is a lot of a mental game as well as physical. You’re going to have bad days. You’re going to have really bad days and you’ll have good days. I was never used to playing every day. I was used to just playing weekends and I’d have the whole week to just just think about it and recover.”
His manager with the Brisbane Bandits has been former big league catcher Dave Nilsson. Nilsson is incredibly interesting because in 1999, as a 29 year old, he became the first Australian to make an All-Star team. The catcher ended the season hitting .309/.400/.554 (.954) with 21 homers. He could have signed for big money. Instead, he chose not to sign. He wanted to focus his attention on playing for Team Australia in the 2000 Olympics. He didn’t play again in the big leagues.
Of Nilsson, Whitefield said, “He’s awesome to talk with and easy to talk to. It’s fun (playing with the Bandits), the guys like Dave Nilsson.”
The Bandits have won the last two Claxton Shields. “The year before was my first, so I got to meet all the guys. Now, they’re like brothers.”
Fellow WBC participant and former Twins infielder James Beresford is a guy that Whitefield really admires.
“The road he took, ten to eleven years, over 1,000 minor league games, but he stuck with it. He set his goal to make the big leagues and he made it. For us younger players, if you put the work in and you stick with it, good things can happen.”
Here is a quick look at his schedule over the last two years. And we’re going to do it in bullet point view, just to try to keep it straight. It’s been a whirlwind tour for the 20-year-old.
- Signed with the Twins in May of 2015.
- Played in six games for the GCL Twins in late August 2015
- Played for Brisbane Bandits in the Australian Baseball League (ABL).
- Extended spring training 2016.
- Gulf Coast League Twins 2016.
- Played for Australia in the World Cup tournament.
- Played all season for the ABL champion Brisbane Bandits.
- Played for Australia in the World Baseball Classic in Japan.
- Spring Training 2017.
- Cedar Rapids Kernels.
The Australian World Baseball Classic roster was not necessarily something that he was expecting. The Australian team is usually comprised of older players who have reached higher levels of the minor leagues. However, it was clear that it meant a lot to him when he found out he had made the team.
“It was always in question. There are a lot of older guys on the team that are still playing and playing in the ABL. I just tried to set myself up as well as I could during the ABL, trying to put up some good numbers, made the All-Star team back home in Australia. I had a really good season. Toward the end of the season I thought I really can’t do much better. Found out, I think it was the last week of the season which was about February. Then during the playoffs, I found out then and I was pretty excited to get the experience to play.”
Just in case you missed it, Whitefield hit great for Brisbane in the ABL this season. He hit .338/.379/.490 (.869) with 12 doubles and four home runs. He also stole 20 bases in 23 attempts.
Whitefield was excited to make the WBC roster along with fellow Twins minor leaguers Todd Van Steensel, Lachlan Wells and several former Twins and Twins minor leaguers.
Before going to Japan, the Australian team played some games in Korea.
“We had a warm-up tournament in Korea. We played a few teams, which was unreal. I’d never been to Korea before, and how much they love baseball is crazy. Their stadiums are huge and they’re all indoor facilities.”
Then it was off to Japan for a few tune up games before starting the WBC. He noted that they played a couple of games in Osaka before going to Tokyo for the WBC.
As far as what he learned from the WBC experience, it was more about learning the game from some veterans.
“Probably more the mental game, it helped me with. Talking to the older guys like Luke Hughes, Trent Oeltjen, Ryan Rowland-Smith. People like that who have been through the whole system and made it to the big leagues. That kind of helped me out a lot.”
Immediately following the elimination of Australia from the WBC, Whitefield hopped on a plane and made the multi-time zone trek from Japan to Ft. Myers where he jumped right into spring training. He took advantage of the long plane flight to start thinking about his 2017 season and set some goals.
“I wanted to make a full-season team and make that jump and show them that I can make that jump and I’m ready to go. Spring training is just getting the feel back. I kind of shut down a little bit. A bit of off time mentally. And then turning it back on and telling the body to go and do it again.”
But the jump from the GCL to the Midwest League isn’t an easy one. According to Kernels manager Tommy Watkins, “I would say it’s a big jump from the GCL to here.”
But Whitefield impressed the coaches and others this spring and earned a spot on the Kernels Opening Day roster. As of today, Whitefield is hitting .281/.324/.477 (.800) with six doubles, two triples and five home runs for Cedar Rapids.
But the first thing people talk about with Whitefield is his defense. Last year, he played all over the diamond for the GCL Twins. He started 26 games at first base, 18 games in center field, eight games in right field, seven games at third base and three games in left field.
Whitefield noted, “Last year, I played mostly in the infield because if I wasn’t at first base, I’d play third base, and if I wasn’t at third base, I’d play occasional outfield.”
But it’s actually something that Whitefield enjoyed and sees value in. “I’d like to be noticed as a utility guy. If someone goes down, I can fill in. It’s a good thing. Now I’ve practiced in the outfield in the ABL and kind of got my feet in there. Left field still isn’t my favorite position out of them all, but center field, I like to take control and to be able to control the other guys. It’s a lot more room to run around.”
Whitefield has played 38 games so far this year for the Kernels, and his manager has played him in center field in all 38 of them.
Watkins said, “He’s been doing a good job for us. Defensively, hands down, I’d put him out there with the best. He can go get it.”
At 6-4 and 200 pounds, Whitefield can really run. He’s very fast. He’s still learning in the field, but he does have a strong arm too. With his size, he is a tremendous athlete, and he’s got the tools to be an all-around player.
Watkins agreed. “He’s got tools. We changed a couple of things at the plate with him and the quality of his at bats went up. He started hitting the ball with more power, driving the ball more. He’s a great talent. He’s fun to watch.”
Last year, Whitefield was the lone representative from the GCL Twins on the Gulf Coast League’s postseason All-Star team. He hit .298/.370/.366 (.737) with seven doubles and two home runs in 51 games. He also stole 31 bases.
There were a lot of challenges in jumping from softball in Australia to professional baseball in the United States.
“It took me a little bit to get started because I wasn’t playing every day at the start of the season (in the GCL). Once I started performing, I was in the starting lineup every game. I got my feet wet, but then I would have a bad day and had to get over that mentally. So last year has really helped me get to where I am now. To be able to mentally be where I’m at now, especially thanks to those older guys.”
Steve Singleton is a former Twins prospect who joined the organization in 2016 as a GCL hitting coach where he worked a lot with Whitefield. Singleton was promoted this year and is the hitting coach for the Ft. Myers Miracle. Whitefield gives Singleton a lot of credit.
“Big shout out to Sing for helping me out. I still had a softball swing coming from there. He helped give me the confidence to say I can drive the ball and not just slap the ball and run it out. I worked with him last year and my numbers show the work that we put in.”
What kind of player is Whitefield, and what kind of player can be become? That’s all to be determined. Even Whitefield can’t answer that question with any real certainty.
“(The power is) Still coming. My heart size is there, but I haven’t put on the pounds yet to be noticed as a power guy. I’ve still got it in there, but I want to be noticed as a guy who can do everything. Like, he’s fast, he’s just using his speed. As well as offense, my defense is a big thing I take pride in.”
So what are Whitefield’s goals for the remainder of this season?
“Cutting down the strikeouts is a big thing this year. Put the ball in play. I’ve got the speed. I can beat it out and not just be an easy out. Also, my goal for the year is ten home runs and 60 steals. I want to be able to do both. Stolen base is slightly less at the start of the year than where I want it to be, but I’ve been driving the ball a bit better than what I thought I would as well.”
In the GCL, Whitefield struck out 22% of his plate appearances. His strikeout rate with the Kernels is just 23% so far. He’s halfway to his home run goal already, but he’s got a long ways to go on the stolen bases. 60 may be tough, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him get to 35 or 40.
While Whitefield does have a long ways to go to reach his big league dreams, it is important to remember a few things. First and foremost, he has only been playing baseball since he was 17. That’s less than four years. He’s got the size. He’s got the athleticism, and he’s already putting up numbers in the Midwest League against older pitchers. There’s no question that he fits in with the likes of Lewis Thorpe and Lachlan Wells as prospects to watch in the Twins system.
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