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Noles in minors lean on friends to help stay in baseball shape

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Drew Carlton makes the drive from his home in Tarpon Springs to Plant City twice a week. It’s 110 miles round trip, but well worth it.

Carlton could go to a nearby field. He could pay thousands of dollars to personal trainers or to a baseball training facility. But it also helps to have good friends in the game. 

His friend, a minor leaguer who lives in Plant City, spent $7,000 one offseason just in training. He soon realized he could invest that money in a home gym and a bullpen in the backyard and has invited Carlton and others to train together the last few months.

“We usually get together on Tuesdays and Fridays,” Carlton said. “We’ll have a catcher or two out there. There will be 4-5 of us who throw bullpens. We usually schedule it out for 30 minutes, spread it out. One guy will start at 10. I throw at noon.”

Around the state and country, Florida State players in the minor leagues are working out and doing what they can to keep in baseball shape. There is uncertainty of when a minor league season will begin, if it will, although there is the potential for a longer winter league in Florida and Arizona.

It’s good to have friends nearby, even those who play in other minor league organizations. Baseball is a close-knit community, always has been. When the games stopped, players can try to do their own thing but the friendships and camaraderie helps to keep their baseball pursuit alive.

The Osceola caught up with three Seminoles now in the minor leagues – Drew Carlton, JC Flowers and Rhett Aplin – to see how they are working out and what their optimism is for playing baseball in 2020.

A fresh pursuit: A starter’s mindset

Flowers was just beginning his focus on pitching after playing dual roles as a center fielder and closer in his three seasons at FSU (2017-19). After signing with the Pittsburgh Pirates last summer, Flowers started eight of nine games, going 0-2 with a 4.30 ERA with 24 strikeouts and just 11 walks in 29.1 innings in short-season Single-A ball. 

He has also been able to focus on getting the ball every five days, preparing mentally to start the game with a goal of going a little deeper in each outing.

“It’s me learning how to be a starter,” Flowers said. “Just putting myself in different situations, getting nuggets from veteran guys here and there. Just learning more the mental side of pitching.”

Flowers has used the past few months to work out at a friend’s training facility along with high school teammates in Jacksonville. He has been able to do some fishing and also spent some time working for a lawn service to earn extra money. 

The Pirates have sent workouts that players can do, whether they have access to weights or not, and the organization checks in once a week. Flowers recalls throwing just two bullpen sessions, instead focusing on long-tossing and throwing on flat ground.

His outlook on a minor league season is pessimistic but Flowers thinks there will be baseball at some point in 2020.

“From what I’m hearing, I think the minor league season is kind of done. They’re cutting a whole lot of minor leaguers,” Flowers said. “I think there will be a fall or winter league.” 

Conditioning and advice via Zoom

Aplin hit .310 with 10 home runs and 42 RBI in advanced rookie league ball in 2019, but his 37 walks helped him get on base at a .410 clip. This season he could be playing in Class A, but instead he is back home in Jacksonville, living with his parents, and he works out regularly with friends in other organizations. They take batting practice and Aplin’s friend has a home gym.

“We were definitely cautious about what we were using and wiping it down constantly,” Aplin said. “We did a pretty good job.”

One aspect that the Royals have emphasized is frequent Zoom calls with guest speakers like Hall of Famer George Brett and 14-year MLB veteran Martin Prado.

“We do Zoom calls just to keep us in baseball mode. That’s anything from listening to guest speakers, going over simple rules,” said Aplin, who played at FSU from 2017-18. “They give us a bunch of tips and they tell us what they went through, give us ideas on how we want to implement their stuff into our game.”

Aplin is also hopeful that players will be able to take the field in some way in 2020.

“If we can get a little season in, it would be huge,” Aplin said. “We’re all trying to stay as optimistic as possible and see where it takes us. If we can get some sort of season, simulated season, it definitely wouldn’t hurt.”

Closing time for Carlton

Carlton had a rare advantage of pitching in his hometown, Lakeland, in 2018. And it showed as he was able to live at home and pitched like he was comfortable: Carlton went 4-2 with nine saves and a 2.38 ERA, recording 57 strikeouts (with just 11 walks) in 56.2 innings as a reliever at Lakeland. In 2019, he had 19 saves and a 1.46 ERA with 65 strikeouts in 68 innings in 45 relief outings at Double-A Erie.

“The Tigers have been a really good organization for me,” said Carlton, who was a starter and closer at FSU from 2015-17.

With numbers like Carlton had two straight years, he could have been looking at a jump to Triple-A. Now he’s getting in his two bullpens in his friend’s backyard in Plant City. A friend will record part of Carlton’s bullpen session and he will send it up to the Tigers for feedback.

“They call once a week,” Carlton said. “We’ll have a talk and see how things are going. We’ll watch the video together. We’ll just make suggestions off that. We can talk through some stuff. Very positive feedback. Very helpful.”

Carlton thinks there will be a chain reaction of events. Once the talks between MLB owners and the players’ association are settled, a dispute that has been prolonged this summer, then teams will focus on how to get baseball going again at the minor-league level.

“I feel like once the major league guys get their stuff figured out then the minors will be in talks about if there will be a season or if they are just going to do a taxi (practice) squad,” Carlton said.

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