Photo: Stanford Athletics

Taking the road less traveled

Jeff Dahn

Published: Friday, May 10, 2013

To say that Stanford University right-hander A.J. Vanegas has taken a road less traveled to the 2013 MLB First-Year Player Draft doesn’t begin to adequately describe the journey. In his own words, there have been enough “twists and turns” on this road to leave him feeling like a snack-bar pretzel.

It’s been a long, strange trip that Vanegas first set off on as a Perfect Game All-American performer in 2009, a Rawlings First Team All-American in 2010 and eventually as a seventh-round pick of the San Diego Padres in the 2010 MLB amateur draft. After deciding that a professional career could wait, the native of Alameda, Calif., landed on the Stanford campus in Palo Alto where the journey became – again, using his words – “very interesting.”

There is no question that this past 10 months or so has been especially “interesting.” Vanegas suffered a back injury while pitching in the Cape Cod League last summer and nursed that injury through the fall and into the winter before deciding to have surgery. The initial injury and the recovery from surgery kept him away from the game for about eight months.

Despite that layoff, he came into the spring feeling good and excited to get his junior season under way. He stepped back into the closer’s role he had taken over as a sophomore and in seven appearances went 1-1 with four saves and a 3.38 ERA in eight innings, allowing 10 hits and striking out 10. His fastball was sitting in the 95-97 mph range.

“I kind of felt back to where I was at the beginning of the summer,” Vanegas told Perfect Game in a telephone conversation this week. “I definitely felt like it was starting to get there and that I had worked through this back issue, and then I got hit again.”

That “hit” came last month in the form of a diagnosis of mononucleosis, an illness that sent Vanegas back to the sidelines with little to do but reflect on a year full of challenges.

“This whole year has been kind of a learning lesson for me,” he said. “It’s been frustrating but at the same time it’s taught me a lot. I’ve gotten into the coaches’ shoes a little bit and I’m seeing the game from a different perspective. I’ve been able to look at my teammates and learn from guys, like how Mark (Appel) pitches and how (John) Hochstatter pitches and just everybody, really. It’s been an interesting year; I’ve definitely learned a lot.”

Doctors monitoring Vanegas’ ongoing battle against mono have cleared him to play, although he still is experiencing a slight enlargement of his spleen. Because of that, the doctors’ clearance came with some strings attached.

“I was cleared to play as much as I could tolerate,” Vanegas explained. “One of my main symptoms is fatigue in the legs and it’s just been tough on my whole body. I feel a lot sorer than usual and everything is just kind of shutting down. So I’m still battling it and I’m still looking for that day when everything will come back to me.”

He is optimistic about his chances of getting back out on the mound yet this season, especially if the Cardinal advance into postseason play. Patience is the key, and Vanegas said that whatever transpires he’ll be at peace with it.

This whole question of No. 25-ranked Stanford qualifying for an NCAA postseason berth is what most occupies Vanegas’ mind these days. The Cardinal are 27-16 overall and 11-10 in Pacific-12 Conference play with Pac-12 weekend series remaining against No. 7 Oregon State, unranked California and No. 9 UCLA.

But pardon Vanegas if his thoughts may drift to the upcoming draft from time-to-time, although he denies it. Despite the setbacks this season, he is still widely projected to be a first-round selection.

Perfect Game national scouting supervisor Todd Gold ranked Vanegas the 18th overall prospect with ties to California in the PG California MLB Draft Preview published April 26. In his assessment of Vanegas, Gold wrote:

“At his best, Vanegas can run his fastball into the mid-90s and back it with a power slider, giving him a pair of plus offerings that are the foundation for his high ceiling. … The question ultimately becomes whether he can harness his powerful raw stuff, stay healthy, and make the transition from the bullpen to a starting role.”

Perfect Game released its first mock draft on April 18, and PG managing editor Patrick Ebert, playing the role of scouting director for the Detroit Tigers, selected Vanegas with the 20th overall pick of the first round. In making the selection, Ebert wrote:

Detroit likes big arms on their staff, and while Vanegas hasn't been able to stay healthy long enough to show what he can do on a consistent basis, he has been up to 97/98 this spring and could be developed as a starter at the next level with three solid pitches.”

“I haven’t really thought about the draft,” Vanegas insisted. “I always like to take things one day at time and honestly, right now I’m just focused on trying to get back with my team; it’s been tough to sit and watch people.”

This road less traveled began with Vanegas’ freshman season in 2011 when he joined a Cardinal pitching staff that included sophomore right-hander Mark Appel – a first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2012 who decided to return to Stanford for his senior season and is projected to be one of the first two players taken in June’s draft. Vanegas made three starts in 2011 but his other 20 appearances all came out of the bullpen; he finished 1-0 with a 3.35 ERA.

Vanegas worked as a weekend starter, set-up man and closer during his sophomore year, and settled nicely into the closer’s role toward the end of the season. He finished 4-0 with five saves and a 2.62 ERA after 21 appearances, including five starts. The season provided an excellent springboard into the summer season on the Cape, although that experience was eventually dampened by a sore back.

“I’ve definitely had a very interesting three years here,” Vanegas said. “I really got humbled my freshman year; that was one of my first learning experiences, just how this game can eat you when you get over confident. My sophomore year was kind of the same story … but things started to click late in the year; I found my role as a closer and got kind of comfortable with it.

“It’s been a rough three years but the learning experiences I’ve taken away from it are invaluable. Just struggling with all these trials … I can tell you that I’ve been through a lot here.”

Before Vanegas landed in Palo Alto, he was active in eight Perfect Game events. His first PG showcase experience came at the 2008 PG West Coast Top Prospect Showcase in San Bernardino, Calif., where he earned a perfect 10.0 PG grade rating. He was at the 2009 PG National Showcase in Minneapolis that featured current Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado and pitched in the 2009 Perfect Game All-American Classic, where he faced current Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper.

“I feel like they give a high-schooler goals to set for themselves,” Vanegas said of the PG showcases. “I remember watching the (Perfect Game) All-American Game when I was a freshman or a sophomore, and I was with my mom and I said, ‘I want to be that guy; I want to be out there one day.’ Perfect Game gives you goals to reach, and just meeting the guys there – I still keep in touch with a lot of them – it gives you kind of a sneak-peak at who you’re going to end up playing against throughout your career.”

He also played in five PG WWBA tournaments, including the 2008 and ’09 PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., when he was with the San Gabriel Valley Arsenal. The 2009 SVG Arsenal team featured 16 players that had signed letters of intent with Division I schools.

“That was one of the first really big tournaments that I played in on the East Coast,” Vanegas said. “I was shocked at how many great players were there that I hadn’t seen before just because they were on the East Coast. It kind of makes you realize that the baseball world is bigger than you expected it to be. I enjoyed seeing how big and how broad the player base was.”

Machado and Orioles’ right-hander Dylan Bundy were also at that 2009 PG WWBA World Championship, and both have made their major league debuts. They were also two of 44 players at that tournament that went on to become either first round or first round compensation draft picks in the 2010 draft. Vanegas lasted until the seventh round, and it has been widely reported that he turned down a $2 million signing bonus from the Padres and headed to Stanford instead.

“I think I was 17 at the time and I came to a point where I just did not know what I wanted to do; I had no clue what was in front of me,” Vanegas said, carefully searching for his words. “Just the fact that I didn’t know and I didn’t have a plan showed me just how much growing up I had to do and how immature I kind of was. Going to Stanford provided me a place where I could experience people and grow up a little bit, and I feel like that’s what I’ve done here.

“I’ve had some trials but I’ve definitely grown up and taken more responsibilities for myself.”

It has, indeed, been a road less traveled. There is a simple beauty in Vanegas’ story: regardless of the roadblocks and detours encountered along the way, it’s always possible to reach the most desired destination.

When Vanegas was a senior at Redwood Christian High, he dreamed of one day being a first round draft pick. There may have been some pretzel-like turns along the way, but that dream has a pretty good chance of becoming reality on June 6.

“This is exactly where I envisioned myself to be,” Vanegas said. “As far as how I got here, though, that was totally unpredictable. I didn’t know if I was going to come in (to Stanford) and start or do whatever, and there’s just been so many twists and turns that it’s brought me to my lowest points and it’s brought me to my highest points. I don’t regret anything – taking the steps from Redwood Christian to here was exactly what was planned for me.

“My first couple of years here made me realize that it’s all about competing more than anything. This is still a game and I want to be one of the toughest competitors out there.”

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