The Los Angeles Angels have found some true gems in the undrafted free agent market. Matt Shoemaker and Drew Rucinski were a pairing of undrafted free agents who saw Major League time last year with the Halos, Shoemaker nearly being named Rookie of the Year. The Angels may have found another gem from the undrafted market, in signing right-handed pitcher, Jonathan Van Eaton.
Van Eaton, who is coming off a season of not pitching due to a second Tommy John surgery, got a call from Scott Servais just a few days after the draft he was supposed to be picked up in. Van Eaton nabbed records at the University of Memphis in the bullpen, and seemed to be overlooked, for whatever reason, and the Angels found a true diamond in the rough by nabbing him.
Van Eaton sat down with our Senior Publisher, Taylor Blake Ward, and provided a nice look at what is in store for the young prospect moving forward, and what you can expect from him.
Without any further delay, here is a question and answer session with Jonathan Van Eaton. We hope you enjoy it.
Ward : First off, thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to us. Tell me about last year, and how you've been keeping yourself in a healthy state with a year off.
Van Eaton : I would say to stay mentally healthy. I was very fortunate to have contacts like Mike Hampton and Ryan O'Malley, the pitching coaches down in the AZL. They actually let me hangout in the bullpen and get around the game a little bit, just so I know there's real baseball outside of rehab. They actually let me go to San Bernardino for the playoffs. I went to Lake Elsinore for Game One of the series and came back for Game Two at Inland Empire and got to pop bottles. I'd say being at the ballpark as much as possible, I had a side job, and that was awesome, but for the most part I was trying to stay around the guys. Ask a lot of questions, Answer a lot of questions, I had questions for them, and it was very clear I was on the team but couldn't throw a baseball.
Ward : Being an undrafted free agent, tell me about the road that makes that tough and the hardest part about that.
Van Eaton : Everybody asks that. It's an opportunity. I went through the lottery tickets and free agents, as an undrafted free agent you don't get as many lottery tickets. So free agents have to capitalize on the opportunites we get and to begin hurt doesn't help, but I feel like you have to take advantage of the opportunity you're given.
Ward : When your name wasn't called was there bitterness towards baseball in general?
Van Eaton : I'd be lying if I said I wasn't bitter and I was a little confused. I didn't know if it was a numbers thing or if I didn't throw enough innings, I had no idea, I had a lot of questions. I ended up transferring to the University of San Diego, and got into grad school there and thought if this baseball thing isn't going to work, I might as well be a scholar and go to Winter Meetings and try it that way. Luckily enough for me, Scott Servais called me and it all worked out but it was a very long day for me. I'll never forget it.
Ward : When Scott Servais called you, what was that conversation like? Were you around family or just hanging out?
Van Eaton : I was actually in my host families driveway in Lacrosse, Wisconsin. I had just drove about twenty some-odd hours from the Cape Cod League. I was on a temporary contract in the Cape, thinking I was going to be drafted and just leave from there, but I wanted to keep trying. However, that wasn't the case, so I drove to my old summer team, the Lacrosse Loggers of the North Woods League, and it was three or four days after I got there that Scott left me a message at night saying, "We have an opportunity with the Angels, please call me back, I'd like to talk to you about it." So, the next day when I got to the ballpark I gave him a call and said I'm in and I was on a plane to Orem, Utah and that was it.
Ward : When you were on your way to Orem, were you trying to have twenty hitless, scoreless, walkless innings of work?
Van Eaton : No (laughs), I was really loose. I got there and Bill Richardson and all the guys were awesome. It was a loose atmosphere and I just thought you're in pro ball now, so keep doing what you've been doing and it worked out to say the least.
Ward : what were some of the things that coaches told you to work on? Do this different or did you go in and let them see what you had?
Van Eaton : It was kind of go in and see what this guy has. In my debut against Great Falls, I went two scorelss and had four strikeouts, and they said, "What is this kid doing? He's only throwing 88." The ball was dancing everywhere and they kind of let me pitch my innings and I ended up mixing in with the bullpen a little and became the closer a couple weeks after that. Towards the end of the summer I got invited to Instructional League, because a lot of the front office guys hadn't seen me pitch and they were really excited. The whole goal was to establish a solid third pitch like a changeup, because I was basically just throwing a fastball and slider and they said I'd need a third pitch to move up, which ended up being the goal. Sadly, I ended up blowing out my knee in instructs, which was unfortunate.
Ward : What happened when you blew out your knee? How'd you do it and what was going through your mind?
Van Eaton : It started bothering me at the end of the Orem season and it just continually got worse and they said let's get this thing checked out. I started asking everybody, "Oh my god, I'm gonna have surgery, is this it? Am i done? They all said "No, chill out (laughs). Just get it cleaned out and get ready for Spring Training," and that's all it really was. I had to get my knee cleaned out and get ready for Spring Training.
Ward : Was it a lot of flat ground work? How do you feel your changeup is now?
Van Eaton : I feel it's good. I messed with a few of different grips. I tried to throw a BP two-seam fastball that just dove. I messed with it a lot and that's what Instructional League is, just testing out pitches, before i got hurt. To back track just a second, I was able to pitch with Ethan Katz (Burlington Pitching Coach), and he was preaching "Hey man, you gotta get that changeup," and I was able to work with him at the beginning of Instructional League, and even going into Spring Training, that was extremely beneficial. I felt very confident in my changeup, I was getting a lot of roll over, a lot of double plays, a lot of weak contact and just the consistency of throwing it in the zone. That was the hardest part was trusting it, but the pitch is there. I actually just started throwing it, so when I go back to Arizona in about a week, I can do flat ground work and throwing off the mound for progress.
Ward : What expectations do you have going into this spring? Is there an overall goal or goals for 2015?
Van Eaton : I would say the goal is to get back to 100% health, whether that is in Burlington or Little Rock or wherever it may be. I wanna be able to be 100% and I would like to say the goal is just break in with the team. That's kinda the way I'm visualizing it right now, and go from there.
Ward : You said you're going to live with Jordan Piche, how long have you had a relationship?
Van Eaton : I met jordan in the AZL shortly right after he was drafted and he was throwing really well. I was in Mesa when he blew out his ACL. He was running it back to third base and just missed a step. He's an extremely nice guy. He was talking to me about surgery and being just as nervous. I think that was his first surgery and I've had four of them so I told him, "Look, you're gonna go in there, they're gonna knock you out, you're gonna wake up and you're gonna be fine, and just ball out on your rehab." We kind of developed a relationship from that, he was in the bullpen on crutches and I couldn't do anything (laughs).
Ward : Did you guys start comparing scars after the surgery?
Van Eaton : (laughs) The one on my knee isn't nearly as big as his, but yeah, absolutely.
Ward : Where did your baseball career start?
Van Eaton : I was always a two sport athlete growing up. I was actually more of a football player even through high school. I had the thought about playing football in college and kept having little tweak injuries and said this isn't for me, so I walked away. Baseball was always kind of there, but football was always my focus. I ended up losing 40 pounds in high school and really committed to pitching. I was a P.O. (pitcher only) in high school, I didn't pick up a baseball bat and it took off from there. I had a really successful high school career and took off to Memphis as a freshman and had Tommy John and redshirted. I walked on at Memphis, didn't have any scholarship offers coming out of Arlington High School, where I'm from, a relatively small high school, and had to walk on. My first practice at Memphis, I tore my elbow and thought, "this is great." So, I battled back from that, broke a load of bullpen records at Memphis, Conference-USA "bullpen guy" of the year by Yahoo. Then not getting drafted and thinking, "I've been here before," and as history has it, I get signed and have Tommy John again, so I've been here before and that's the short version of my career.
Ward : You talked about Ethan Katz earlier. A lot of pitchers give him high praise. Is there something about him that makes it more comforting for you or everyone?
Van Eaton : I think it was his committment. It's very obvious how bad he wants us to get there. We know he's out there for our betterment and he really commits himself to having us be the best pitchers we can be and that's known throughout the staff. By far one of the better blessings was playing for him in Lacrosse the summer I did. You're gonna get the same thing from Katz every day. He's very consistent and that helps a lot. We knew exactly who we were gonna get and what we were gonna do every day we came to the ballpark, and that was when my career took off.
Ward : We don't want to reflect on this injury but its a big mark in your career. What's going to be the 100% mark for you and how long has it been since youve been pitching right now?
Van Eaton : I would say I'm going on ten months before I was competitively facing a hitter. My velocity was up to 93 in camp and I was getting really excited. Like you said, we don't have to reflect on the injury, and it's going to be a lot more mental than physical. That's gonna be the case for most Tommy John guys, is trusting that you're safe and you can cut it loose and getting that mindset back. The way it's felt lately throwing my long toss and doing my flat ground work, and maybe it's because it's my second one, but I'm not nearly as conservative as i was (laughs). It's feeling pretty good. I don't know if that answers your question, but it's hard to answer that.
Ward : Speaking of the mental game, and you spoke of it about college earlier, is that something that messes with your mechanics? Staying strong in the mental side of the game, how much does that take away from the physical side?
Van Eaton : I'd like to say it doesn't take much away from the physical side of the game. I would like to see where I was without that mental game... actually I lied to you, I would not like to see where I was without that mental game (laughs). But, I don't think of it like that. I've always been a guy that comes at you and is going to be competitive. You're not getting on base and if that has to do with two Tommy John's then it's whats made me successful and I wouldn't change my mindset for the world.
Ward : So you're ready to return to that aggressive approach and attack batters and be ready come spring to do what it takes to not just where you were but also above that?
Van Eaton : Exactly! There are a few mechanical things we're working on, maybe a little more smoothy delivery and not as herky jerky, but I feel that from a physical stand point, I feel I'm in the best shape of my life. Everything is there, just gotta get this wing right.
We'd like to thank Jonathan for taking time out of his busy off-season schedule to talk with us. You can catch Jonathan this season in Spring Training, and depending on where you live, at your local ballpark, as he makes his way up towards living the dream of being a Major Leaguer.
For more updates on the Los Angeles Angels, their prospects, and our Top 100 Prospects Countdown, follow us on Twitter, @AngelsOnScout.
Taylor Blake Ward is a Senior Publisher for InsideTheHalos.com, and can be found on Twitter, @TaylorBlakeWard.