Left-hander Jeff Urlaub hasn't had the most conventional path, but the Oakland A's prospect is inching ever closer to his goal of pitching in the major leagues. A 30th-round pick of the A's in 2010, Urlaub has pitched for five different minor league affiliates and an entire nation over the past four years. Now he is competing in the prospect showcase, the Arizona Fall League, and is continuing to prove that he can handle any level of competition that is thrown at him.
A native of the Phoenix area, Urlaub chose to attend Arizona State rather than join the Tampa Bay Rays organization (which took him in the 26th round in 2006) coming out of Scottsdale's Horizon HS. He was a Freshman All-American in 2006 for ASU, but a late-season elbow injury resulted in Tommy John surgery. In 2008, Urlaub transferred to UNLV, and he was once again drafted after that season (this time by the Marlins in the 47th-round). Urlaub continued on with college, pitching again for the Runnin' Rebels in 2009 and for Grand Canyon University in 2010.
After his 2010 collegiate campaign, Urlaub finally turned pro, signing with the A's. He would begin his career in the Arizona Rookie League. Although he was one of the older players in the AZL that year, Urlaub still opened eyes with his numbers (26:3 K:BB ratio and 23 hits allowed in 26.1 innings). In 2011, he began the year with the Low-A Burlington Bees, but he was sent to short-season Vermont in June despite posting solid numbers with the Bees. Urlaub turned that set-back into a positive by making the New York-Penn League All-Star team and posting a 49:9 K:BB in 37.2 innings.
In 2012, Urlaub began the year back with Burlington. Once again, he would be transferred mid-season, but this time he received a promotion to High-A Stockton. He acquitted himself well in the hitter-friendly Cal League, posting a 31:8 K:BB and allowing just 21 hits in 30.1 innings. During the off-season, Urlaub pitched for Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic's qualifying tournament in Florida. He played with fellow A's teammates Max Pearlman and Nick Rickles and future A's teammate Nate Freiman.
This season, Urlaub found some stability, pitching for the Double-A Midland Rockhounds for the entire year. In his first stint in Double-A, Urlaub pitched well, posting a 40:13 K:BB and holding opposing hitters to two homeruns in 46.2 innings. That performance earned Urlaub an opportunity to pitch in the prestigious Arizona Fall League. Thus far, Urlaub has been impressive pitching against the elite talent in the minor leagues. In seven innings over six appearances, Urlaub has yet to allow a run. He has struck-out nine and has walked one.
Not including his AFL numbers, Urlaub has a career 3.02 ERA with a nearly 9:1 K:BB ratio (9.09:1.62) in 194 innings pitched. His WHIP is 1.03 and he has allowed just 10 homeruns (0.46 HR/9).
We caught-up with Urlaub this week to discuss his journey through the ranks of collegiate and professional baseball, his experience in the WBC, his thoughts on the Arizona Fall League and more…
OaklandClubhouse: How has the AFL season been going for you? Are you enjoying the league?
Jeff Urlaub: It's a blast. I'm having so much fun. Being able to play with the A's guys that I have gotten a chance to play with over the years, and then meeting these new prospects from other teams, everything has been fantastic.
OC: Have you enjoyed pitching so close to home?
JU: Yes, absolutely. That's probably the easiest part of all of this – living at home with my family and pitching in front of all of my family and friends. That's probably the easiest part about it and definitely makes it the most enjoyable.
OC: Have you enjoyed getting to play in the big league spring training parks?
JU: Absolutely. I have been fortunate the past few spring trainings to go as a backup for big league spring training games in a couple of instances. Growing up, I had been to all of them, except for Salt River that recently opened up. I hadn't been there yet. It's unbelievable. It's a lot different than pitching in the minor league spring parks to pitch in an actual stadium with a scoreboard and all of that stuff. It's a lot of fun and it's really cool to be able to do that.
OC: How would you rate the AFL competition to the competition you faced this year in the Texas League?
JU: These guys are going to be big leaguers. I can honestly say that probably 95% of our team is going to be in the big leagues at some point, and most of them, I wouldn't be shocked if they were in the big leagues next year. It's a lot tougher competition. I was fortunate enough in the Texas League to face a handful of these guys, so I have a little bit of history with them, which makes it fun. The competition, the players, the guys I am playing with and against every day, these guys are the future of Major League Baseball. It's really an honor to be able to compete and play on the same field as these guys.
OC: Are there new things that you are working on during the AFL, or is it more of an extension of what you worked on this year with Midland?
JU: That's a tough one. Midland was tough for me this year, being my first year in Double-A and facing the same teams virtually every single day. They want me to work on a couple of things. I feel like I have developed a better feel for my curveball, which I learned last year and it has been such a huge weapon for me to use in these games now.
That one's tough to say. I'm fortunate to be here and to have the opportunity to hopefully continue to prove to the A's that I have what it takes to make it to the big leagues. If I can be successful here, then it is a big stepping stone going into next season.
OC: Your story is really interesting because you started off at Arizona State, got hurt and then moved around schools a bit before turning pro. It seems like you have really had to prove yourself at every level. What has that experience taught you?
JU: I had a chance to sign professionally coming out of high school, but I chose to go to college. Like you said, everyone knows my track record. I basically feel like I played minor league baseball with all of the schools that I went to in the few years that I was in college. It definitely helped me mature more in terms of off the field life and find out who I was as a person and grow. Taking that into minor league baseball, the only difference is that instead of just playing Friday, Saturday and Sunday, you are playing every day.
It definitely helped and I feel that once I got to pro ball in 2010, with how old I was, it was the best fit for me.
OC: What do you feel like your biggest strength is on the mound? Is it a particular pitch, or is it a mindset?
JU: What I have found that has defined me over the years, even growing up as a kid, is that I am a guy who is going to attack every hitter with everything I have, my best pitches. I try to compete as hard as I can within the strike-zone. Walking guys is definitely not something that I do or that I try to do. Being able to throw all three pitches – now that I have three – consistently in any count and having confidence in all of that definitely helps.
OC: You have pitched in a couple of hitters' leagues the past few years and yet you have still managed to strike-out nearly a batter an inning and, as you said, you hardly ever walk a batter. You also don't give up many homeruns. You don't have a huge fastball, so how are you able to attack hitters in the strike-zone so much and avoid giving up homeruns?
JU: Really, in the lower levels, you can get away with a few bad pitches that are up in the strike-zone. As you said, my fastball isn't overly hard – you could say it's major-league average – so I have really had to learn to compete and throw the ball down in the ‘zone because if you throw it down there, you really can't get hurt. I have really had to focus the past two seasons when I went to Stockton and then when I went to Midland – the Texas League is a pretty good hitters' league and the talent amongst the hitters, especially, is so good – so I have had to work on competing down in the strike-zone because you can't get hurt down there. If you do make a mistake – I made two mistakes this year and gave up two homers.
It's something that the A's have stressed and I have worked hard on both during the off-season and during the regular season to be more consistent down in the strike-zone.
OC: Is there a pitch that you go to most frequently when you have two-strikes and need a strike-out, or do you use all three pretty equally?
JU: In the past, it has been my change-up. No matter what the situation is and what the count is, I was going to go to my change-up if I needed a strike-out. But this past year in Double-A, I really got a feel for my curveball and now in the Fall League, because it has been so much more consistent, if I need the strike-out, it's still the change-up first, but I have just as much confidence with the curveball both against lefties and righties to try to get a strike-out swing-and-miss.
OC: How are you feeling physically at this point? You've already played a full season and are essentially pitching another mini-season. Are you feeling the fatigue or do you feel like it is mid-season in terms of the wear-and-tear on your arm?
JU: My body feels like it is supposed to in October. You have to take a little bit longer with your stretching to feel loose, but my arm feels like it is brand-new and it's right out of spring training. I didn't think that would happen but the two weeks we had off after the Midland season, I got back into the gym and did my arm exercises and kept my arm strength up and kept throwing to where everything feels great.
OC: Last off-season, you had the opportunity to pitch for Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic qualifiers. What was that experience like for you?
JU: That and the Fall League right now are probably the best two experiences I have had in my life playing baseball. Being able to play for Israel last year, I didn't see it coming but I was very fortunate to be chosen for that team. It was such an honor to be able to play for the A's during the season and then get a chance to do something that I'm sure every player would love to do – whether it is the USA team, the Dominican Republic or another country – to put a country on your chest and wear that uniform. To play not just for a team but for an entire nation that is really rooting for you, it was incredible.
It was high energy and I had a blast playing with great players just like I am right now in the Fall League. It was a learning experience, but it was more of a sense of pride for me and my family, especially with what I went through last year. Last off-season, I lost my grandfather, who was Jewish. Having my grandfather pass away and then playing for Israel virtually four days later, it meant a lot more to me than it might have meant for some people. Being able to look down at my uniform and see Israel across my chest, it was a joy and a pleasure to be a part of it.
OC: Brad Ausmus was your manager, right?
JU: Yes, he was.
OC: He is currently being considered for a number of MLB managerial positions. What kind of manager was he to play for?
JU: He was great. I would compare him to Aaron Nieckula. Both have a lot of energy. Both are players' managers. Both are open and are easy to communicate with. The players had a big passion for playing for Israel and being in the tournament, and [Ausmus] probably had more passion than we did, which would probably surprise a lot of people. He was into every game. He treated us like men and he was a pleasure to play for. I hope he gets a big league job because he definitely deserves it. Being a catcher, he is definitely smart enough to be a manager in the big leagues.
OC: What are your goals going into next year?
JU: Every year, I tend to go into spring training open-minded. I know that the only thing I can control is how I do on the field. The front office does what they need to do and they place players where they feel they are capable of playing at. This off-season, I want to try finish these next three weeks of the Fall League as best I can and then hopefully try to get a championship ring in the Fall League. Really, there's not much time after that.
I'd love to go to big league camp. I feel like if I can continue to show that I can compete with these high-level guys, I would love the opportunity to go to big league camp. But, again, that's out of my hands. That's not something I can control. Once this is over, going into next season, I'm going to mentally prepare to try to make that Triple-A team.
If not, I'll go back to Midland and really prove to myself that I can be there, especially if I have to repeat because I learned a lot this year in Midland. I have been able to prepare for the Arizona Fall League like I prepared in Midland, and I feel that now that I have had that one season in Midland, I do know how to prepare better with everything I have learned this year. With the Winter Meetings, trades and Rule 5s, I can't control any of that. There is no point in worrying about what uniform I've got on. As long as I have the opportunity to get out there and compete, it's what I love to do.
OC: What were the biggest things that you learned in the Texas League this year?
JU: Other than the travel – which was pretty tough – I learned that scouting reports are a lot more in-depth and things are charted a lot more. We have four teams in our division and we play each team nearly 30 times. I learned to keep a notebook on hitters that I faced, on what I think I saw and what I thought was successful. When you see the same guys over and over and over again, you can't pitch them the same way each time. Whereas in the Cal League, you might not see them that often and can pitch them the first few times the same way.
With these hitters and how good they are and how smart they are, and with scouting reports and spray charts and everything, it's more the mental side that you really need to learn. You have to develop a better plan on how to face the same guy 10, 12, 15 times in a season. Each guy is a little different. I had to face one of my good friends, who played for Frisco, eight different times this year. I had to pitch him differently all eight times.
It's more of a chess match when you are facing someone eight times. At the same time, he's trying to do a job and you're trying to do a job. You still have to go with your strengths and what you have been successful with. If they get a hit off of you, they get a hit off of you, but mentally, if you are prepared, you should be successful.