Ryan Casteel made the 10-hour trip Saturday from Phoenix to Modesto, Calif., to begin his fourth professional season, while Ryan Fraser is still in Florida rehabbing from a torn ACL, suffered in a non-baseball injury last December.
“I’ve never been to California,” related Casteel by phone Saturday morning about 20 minutes before he and several teammates were getting ready to make the drive to their new central California assignment.
The Modesto Nuts are the Advanced A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies and play in the 10-team California League. The Nuts won the Northern Division title last season and advanced to the league championship series before falling to Lancaster.
Casteel will join several of his teammates from last year’s Asheville, N.C. squad, which won the South Atlantic League championship. “Everybody who is healthy from last year’s team got promoted, so that helps to keep playing with guys I’m familiar with,” he remarked. “I got to work some with the hitting coach and manager from Modesto during Spring Training (in Arizona), so I’m already familiar with them as well.”
The former Bradley Central and Cleveland State standout said his third professional Spring Training went well. “I had a good spring. I started a little slow, but once I started getting my timing down, my hitting came around. I’m very optimistic and feel like I’m going to have a good season.”
After being drafted in the 17th round of the 2010 Amateur Draft by the Rockies, Casteel has moved up the Minor League latter from Casper, Wyo. (Rookie League), to Tri-Cities, Wash. (Class A short season), to Asheville (Class A full season) to Modesto (Advanced A), being a Ghost, a Dust Devil, a Tourist and now a Nut along the way.
In his first three seasons, Casteel has played in 170 games, with 178 hits, including 49 doubles, five triples and six home runs in 626 at bats. Along with his 284 batting average, Casteel has also driven in 80 runs and scored 80 times. He also has 16 stolen bases, plus has drawn 53 walks.
While at his third Arizona Fall Instruction League, the 21-year-old catcher was invited by the Rockies to come experience a Major League game, where he got to participate in pregame drills and sit with the team while Colorado played the Arizona Diamondbacks last October.
“I got to shag fly balls during batting practice, hang out in the clubhouse and caught some bull pen, plus I sat in the bull pen during the game. I then showered and left just like a big leaguer,” he explained a few days afterward. “It was really nice to go and get to see what its like (in the Major League).”
While Modesto will be a new experience for him, Casteel will joined in California by his wife, Bethany, in June. “She got to come out to Spring Training for about eight days, which was the first time she’s been able to do that. Having her out there (in California) will make it easier.”
The Nuts start their season Thursday evening with the first of a seven-game road trip — four at San Bernardino (Inland Empire 66ers) and three at Rancho Cucamonga (Quakes). Modesto’s first home game will be April 11 against Lancaster.
Modesto has a long history in Minor League Baseball, starting in 1946-47 as an independent team. In 1948, they became a part of the St. Louis Browns organization and the next three years were spent with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Milwaukee Braves were their parent club for a year (1953) before the New York Yankees partnered with then from 1954-61.
After a couple of years with the Houston Colt 45s, there was no team in Modesto in 1965, but the following year the Kansas City Athletics returned the team to the diamond. The St. Louis Cardinals contracted with them from 1967-74 before the Oakland A’s had the longest affiliation from 1975-2004. The Colorado Rockies have been the Nuts parent club since 2005.
Major League Hall of Famers Joe Morgan, Rollie Fingers, Reggie Jackson, Rickey Henderson and Sparky Anderson all played for the Modesto club at one point in their careers.
After completing his third successful Minor League season, Fraser was invited by the New York Mets to represent them in the Arizona Fall League, which is for top prospects from all Major League organizations.
The big right-handed hurler was promoted to Class AA during the season last summer and has appeared in 99 games since being a 16th round pick in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft.
“I did all right in Fall League and then took some time off,” the former Walker Valley and University of Memphis standout explained. “A couple of weeks after Thanksgiving I was running on an indoor track and tweaked my (right) knee a little. I didn’t think much of it and iced it for a few days, but when it was still bothering me several days later I let the Mets know and they sent me for an MRI.”
The scan revealed a possible tear in the ACL and sent him for surgery on Dec. 19.
“After he got in there, the doctor said there was some scar tissue that probably came from an old injury, possibly from when I used to play football,” Fraser related. “He said he had never heard of a someone retearing the ACL from pitching, so I should be fine.”
Fraser went to the Mets Spring Training facility in Port St. Lucie, Fla., on March 21 and saw the doctor the next day for his 13-week evaluation. “Everything is looking good and now I’m running and throwing to try to get my strength back to full strength. Right now I’m at about 75-80 percent. They will re-evaluate me again in early May and then hopefully I can start throwing off a mound.”
While he spent most of the winter in Ohio, before coming to town to be inducted into the Walker Valley Baseball Hall of Fame, Fraser will stay in Florida to finish his rehab.
“After I get ready, they’ll probably have me pitch a few games for the St. Lucie team before they decide where to send me,” he guessed. “I’m not a hundred percent sure right now. All I know is I want to get back strong and get back to playing. Everything is looking good so far.”
After being an All-Conference USA performer at Memphis, Fraser spent his first summer playing for the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Cyclones, earning New York-Penn League All-Star status.
The second year he spent in Class A ball at Savannah, Ga., leading the Sand Gnats to the South Atlantic League title. Starting last season in High-A ball at St. Lucie, before getting called up to Binghamton, N.Y. for the second half of the Class AA season.
Fraser has thrown a total of 233 2/3 innings as a professional pitcher with 172 strike outs and 103 base on balls. Mainly a relief pitcher, Fraser has started 21 games (all while with Savannah) and has a 15-16 overall record with 21 saves.