Mike Wodnicki was best known for his blazing fastball and ability to pitch in a variety of situations while at Stanford. In his three years pitching for the Cardinal (1999-2001), he served as the team's ultimate swingman, acting as a starter, reliever, and closer.
But he certainly couldn't have predicted the path he has taken after being drafted in 2001. Only two years into his professional career, Wodnicki found himself traded from the perennially contending St. Louis Cardinals to the cellar dwelling San Diego Padres. To further complicate matters, when he joined the Padres Single-A affiliate, the Lake Elsinore Storm, the organization asked him not to join the starting rotation with the rest of their best pitching prospects, but instead to serve as the team's closer.
Rather than succumb to this adversity, Wodnicki went onto post a dominating first half for the Storm, culminating in an invitation to the California League-Carolina League All Star Game.
Wodnicki credits the Stanford coaching staff for easing his transition to professional baseball. His confidence was boosted in his first taste of professional ball, in the short season New York-Penn League. "Pitching was easier there than at Stanford," said Wodnicki.
Only with his move to the California League brought Wodnicki the level of competition that he experienced at Stanford.
"It's really a testament to the coaches at Stanford. They really prepared me well," he said. "The quality of baseball we played at Stanford was incredible. I don't know if I'll ever have a better infield behind me than in my junior year (2001) at Stanford."
Wodnicki's above-average fastball and solid work habits combined with his strong first half to boost his status as a prospect and justify the high hopes that the Padres had placed on him.
"I had assumed I was going to be a starter going into the season," said Wodnicki in a telephone interview with The Bootleg. "Relievers weren't prospects in the Cardinals organization, and so I was concerned when I heard that they didn't want me to start. But I talked to the Padres, and they assured me that they just did things differently than the Cardinals."
Indeed, by all accounts, the Padres expected good things from Wodnicki. According to published reports, Padres assistant general manager Fred Ulhman, Jr. called him "the key" to the deal that sent starting pitcher Brett Tomko to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for Wodnicki and Major League reliever Luther Hackman during the off-season following the 2002 campaign. With the Texas Rangers and the Atlanta Braves also making offers for Tomko, the Padres had their pick of prospects, and Wodnicki was the guy they wanted.
After the California League's All Star break, Wodnicki was moved into the Storm's starting rotation. There, he will have the opportunity to work on his pitching repertoire, specifically his secondary pitches. By the end of the year, Wodnicki expects to decide between a slider and a curveball.
"I'll shelve one of them and then concentrate on making the other pitch better. But starting will give me the innings I need to do that," he said.
Wodnicki is looking forward to the opportunity to establish a more consistent work schedule as well.
"Starting is definitely easier on the body. As a closer, you don't get as many opportunities to work on your stuff," said Wodnicki. "So much is game dictated. You really don't know when you're coming in to a game or if you'll even pitch that day, so it's harder to know when to have a hard day of lifting or when to have a longer bullpen session."
Wodnicki says that he expects to spend the remainder of the season at Lake Elsinore, and will probably start next season at the Padres Double-A affiliate in Mobile, Alabama.
Because Lake Elsinore is located only an hour and a half outside of San Diego, the Padres often send players to the Storm to complete rehab assignments. As a result, Wodnicki has had the opportunity to play alongside major leaguers such as former All Star Phil Nevin, utility man Lou Merloni, starting pitcher Kevin Jarvis, and setup man Jay Witasick.
A major bonus, said Wodnicki, is the Padre tradition that calls on rehabing Big Leaguers to treat the minor league team to a pre- or post-game meal while they are on their rehab assignments.
"It sure beats our usual peanut butter and jelly," he said laughing.
But perhaps more importantly, the experience has reminded Wodnicki of what lies ahead.
"It really makes you realize how realistic the goal of getting to the majors can be," he said. "It's all about consistency and performance. When you see that those guys are really just like you, it becomes so much more real."
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