2,414 vs. 1: Ryan Atkinson’s stunning rise to 2018 Spring Training

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The 2016 MLB Draft spurred Ryan Atkinson to prove he could still pitch. Nineteen months later, he has a 2018 MLB Spring Training invitation in hand. (Photo credit: Cody Cunningham)

Two years ago, Ryan Atkinson wasn’t pitching. He was a patient services manager at University of Cincinnati Medical Center, moving on with post-mound life. Nineteen months later, the right-hander is trying to pull off an improbably fast rocket ride to the Major Leagues. As a non-roster invitee to Major League Spring Training, he has a shot to make the Arizona Diamondbacks’ 2018 Opening Day roster.

Go back to the 2015 MLB Draft. 632 pitchers and 579 position players were selected, but of those 1,211 picks, only 11 have already made their Major League debuts. Baseball fans know some of those names: Andrew Benintendi, Alex Bregman, Paul de Jong, Dansby Swanson, and Ian Happ all came from the 2015 draft. There’s even a former General, 2016 Jackson hurler Andrew Moore, in that elite eleven.  To ascend quickly, you have to be special, and people usually know it. Those six were chosen in the top four rounds.

Ryan Atkinson, a 2015 graduate of the University of Cincinnati, was not among the 1,211 draftees in 2015. Nor was he one of the 1,214 draft choices in June 2016 (634 of whom were pitchers). He hadn’t thrown a baseball in the twelve months prior to the 2016 draft.

Atkinson signed with Arizona–undrafted in eighty rounds over two years–in 2016. He ranked 13th in Minor League Baseball in strikeouts in 2017.

How does that happen?

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Lugo, Leyba lead D-backs prospects poised to produce in Jackson

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Third baseman Dawel Lugo hit 13 home runs in 79 games at Visalia last year, earning mid-season California League All-Star honors. (Photo by Ken Weisenberger http://www.strike3photos.com)

Part of the Jackson Generals’ run to the 2016 Southern League title–their first in over a decade–was consistency in the infield. Second baseman Tim Lopes and shortstop Benji Gonzalez each amassed more than 500 at-bats last season, injecting some critical stability into the Jackson lineup.  Between the two of them, Lopes and Gonzalez scored 152 runs, 24% of Jackson’s season total.  They were key cogs in the trophy-hoisting Jackson machine.

You won’t see Lopes and Gonzalez this season. They’re not here, nor are any of their Seattle Mariners-affiliated teammates and coaches. But identifying lineup-stabilizing anchors is no less important in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ organization, and they’re sending Jackson the players to prove it.

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Old Friends

Edwin Diaz

Hard to believe that the season is just around the corner. The Generals open things up two weeks from Thursday with a game against the Birmingham Barons April 6. But we are far from the doldrums of Spring Training. Sure, there are relatively pointless games going on and everyone is talking about Tim Tebow. But there has been compelling action almost nightly thanks to the World Baseball Classic.

The international tournament has featured fantastic players, drama and emotion not seen during much of the MLB regular season. It’s not often that we get to see that kind of enthusiasm in March.

One of the more effusive players in the tournament is none other than former General Edwin Díaz. Less than a year, ago he was Jackson’s Opening Day starter. Now, he’s throwing 100 miles per hour while closing games for the Mariners and Puerto Rico.

Díaz pitched a pair of scoreless innings Monday night, earning the win that sends Puerto Rico to the finals Wednesday night. In the semifinal round, he earned a save against the American team with strikeouts of Buster Posey and Paul Goldschmidt.

The rest of the world is starting to see what Southern League hitters had to deal with last year.


Some other familiar names are making headlines in Spring Training. Though this is our first year with the Diamondbacks, we’ll be keeping a close eye on happenings in Seattle. With the amount of talent that came through Jackson last year, there will be a lot of guys in that organization who make noise at the Major League level.

Tops on the list of players we’re watching in 2017 is Tyler O’Neill. The Canadian slugger rewrote the Jackson record book last year en route to a Southern League MVP award. He’ll more than likely begin the year in Triple-A, but hopefully he’ll get a shot to play in the majors sometime this season. He gave everyone a taste of what he can do last week with this absolute bomb against Clayton Kershaw.

To recap: Last week, a 2016 General struck out Paul Goldschmidt and another one homered off of Clayton Kershaw. Not bad.

Later this week, we’ll look ahead at some of the guys we can expect to see in Jackson this year. But after winning a championship, looking back ain’t so bad.

Dispatch from D-backs Spring Training

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The bad news is that we’re within a month of the season starting and it’s only a few degrees above freezing in Jackson. The good news is that it has to warm up at some point, right?

One place where it is much warmer is Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, Arizona’s gorgeous Spring Training facility in Scottsdale. I was fortunate enough to take in some Diamondbacks’ Spring Training last week.

As the season approaches, Tyler and I will do our best to introduce you all to Jackson’s new parent club. After a successful 10-year run with Seattle culminated in a Southern League championship, the Generals and Diamondbacks agreed to a four-year player development contract in September. It’s a partnership that everyone in the organization is excited about.

A good place to start is Mike Bell. Bell has been with the organization for more than a decade. He currently serves as the Vice President, Player Development. I got a chance to sit down with him at Salt River Fields to talk about some of the things we can expect to see in West Tennessee this year.

While much of what we see on the field will be different in 2017, there are some familiar faces in Arizona’s clubhouse thanks to a number of recent trades between the Diamondbacks and Mariners. The D-backs acquired a pair of former Generals in Taijuan Walker and Ketel Marte in an offseason trade with Seattle. Infielder Jack Reinheimer and pitcher Tom Wilhelmsen are also in big league camp at the moment.

Walker could play a big role for Arizona this year. Fans in West Tennessee remember him anchoring a pitching staff that took the Generals to a Southern League Championship Series (One that the team coincidentally lost to an Arizona affiliate in Mobile). After spending much of the past two years in Seattle’s rotation, he was traded last November.

So far, things have gone well to put it lightly. Obviously, it’s just Spring Training but Walker has impressed the folks in Arizona. In three starts, he has struck out 13 batters while walking just one in nine scoreless innings. Last Friday, he retired the first 11 batters he faced and struck out eight in four hitless frames.

Randy Johnson was on the Fox Sports Arizona telecast while Walker was pitching, and noted that going from Seattle to Arizona isn’t a bad trajectory for a pitcher. We’ll certainly be keeping a close eye on Taijuan.


More baseball to come for sure, but I also wanted to say how stellar everything was in Scottsdale. The facilities really are second-to-none, and the Diamondbacks were fantastic to work with. If you have a chance to make it to the Cactus League, I can’t recommend Salt River Fields at Talking Stick enough.

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