This spring, the Oakland A’s cut several familiar names from minor league camp. Left-hander Jeff Urlaub was one of those veteran members of the organization who was a surprise release late in camp.
A 2010 30th-round pick of the A’s, Urlaub posted a 2.90 ERA and a 238:47 K:BB in 239.1 innings for A’s minor league affiliates over the past six seasons. Urlaub pitched at every minor league level for the A’s, but arm injuries limited him to 45.1 innings combined in 2014 and 2015. Healthy this spring, Urlaub came into camp knowing he’d have to fight his way back onto the A’s depth chart, but after putting together a strong spring, Urlaub was caught off-guard when he was let go by the A’s on March 27.
“Going into spring training, my wife and I had a very open mind,” Urlaub said. “It was my last year of my contract and I was going to play it out and if it was Midland, okay, we were going to make the best of the opportunity knowing that I was healthy and I still have one year until free agency. With the spring that I had, it was shocking [to be released].”
It didn’t take long for Urlaub to start receiving calls from independent league teams offering him a spot for the 2016 season.
“It was weird because I got released late in the night and the next morning I had three or four phone calls from independent league teams,” Urlaub said. “[A’s bullpen coach] Scott Emerson sent me a text that he had contacted some people to try to get me a job. I really have no idea how these guys got my information, but the next day they called me. Obviously they were disappointed for me that I got let go, but they told me, ‘we have a spot for you in our bullpen and it’s yours if you want it.’”
Urlaub and his wife took a week to mull over the offers and decide whether to pursue an opportunity with an independent league team. When they made the decision to go the indy ball route, Urlaub signed with the Atlantic League’s Southern Maryland Blue Crabs, one of the first teams that reached out to him after his release.
“When no affiliated job came up – which we knew would probably be a long-shot given that I had been hurt the past two years – I had heard great things about the league so I kind of jumped on it,” Urlaub said. “I figured, if I am going to get back to affiliated baseball, I’m going to have to start playing.”
While Urlaub still has his eyes set on returning to affiliated baseball and reaching the big leagues, he is happy with his situation with Southern Maryland.
“I appreciated everything that the A’s did for me. It was a dream just to get my career started and to get as high as I did, but also, at the same time, a fresh start might have been what I needed,” Urlaub said. “Nothing against the A’s, but I might not have really gone anywhere. To have a fresh start with a new team in a new league with really no expectations is probably a good thing. You can’t go into independent ball with a label on your back that says, ‘I need to do this, I need to do that’ because we all know that you can do everything you want to do and it doesn’t guarantee anything.”
Thus far, Urlaub is off to a fast start with Southern Maryland. Through Saturday, Urlaub has appeared in five games and he has yet to allow a run in 6.1 innings. He has struck-out nine and walked two and he has allowed five hits (four singles and a double).
With the A’s, Urlaub was primarily used as a situational reliever. When he signed with Southern Maryland, Urlaub was told that he wouldn’t have a specific role. Instead, he would be showcased as much as possible so he could be seen by as many teams as possible in a variety of situations.
“I think it was my second outing of the year that I went two innings. That was something I hadn’t done in years,” Urlaub said. “My arm was prepared for it, but, going into it, two innings for me almost seemed like a complete game because it had been so long. Now that my arm feels great and it is healthy again, it’s kind of what I prefer, to keep throwing.”
Urlaub says the competition in the Atlantic League has been reminiscent of what he saw at Triple-A. Many players have major-league experience, and nearly all have upwards of five years of professional experience in affiliated baseball. Urlaub says the biggest difference between affiliated baseball and the independent leagues is the camaraderie amongst the players.
“We are in this league with one common goal: to get back [to affiliated baseball],” Urlaub said. “It’s a lot of fun. It’s a lot more laid back. Guys are there to help you because we are all in this boat together. If one can help you get better, then he does. It is a lot more friendly, a lot more personal, the relationships that you develop with these guys.
“It’s not like in affiliated ball when guys are out for other guy’s jobs. Obviously, that’s the nature of the business, but here, the other lefty in the bullpen who has a couple of years of big league experience, I’m not competing with him. He’s going to have his own opportunities. He shared his experiences with me and vice versa. It’s a lot of fun going to the ballpark. It’s made the transition a lot easier, that’s for sure.”
Although Urlaub is pitching well for Southern Maryland, he knows that his future isn’t really in his own hands. He is focusing on the things he can control and hopes that that will be enough to draw the attention of a major-league organization.
“I’m having a blast and I think that was the biggest part, just having fun again, leaving the business side out of it and getting back to competing. I want to compete,” Urlaub said. “Obviously, I want to get back on a track to get to the big leagues, but I wasn’t going to be able to do that unless I got back to having fun. I am treating this like when I had just gotten drafted – no expectations and no pressure. Just do what you can and if it works out, it does, but just hang out and, if it doesn’t, that’s alright, too.
“I’m obviously going to work my butt off on my own in the gym, do my stretching, keep up all of my shoulder exercises, keeping my arm healthy. But at the same time, have fun. During BP, everyone is close. If someone thinks that they can help you, they will do what they can.”
Urlaub is one of two former A’s farmhands currently on the Blue Crabs’ roster. Outfielder D’Arby Myers, who played with Urlaub in Midland, joined Southern Maryland on May 3rd. Urlaub has faced several former A’s teammates during his first two weeks in the Atlantic League, including outfielder Josh Whitaker, who was released the same day as Urlaub and signed with the Lancaster Barnstormers.
“I saw Whit during our little spring training. I actually faced him in one of the games and struck him out. We had some good laughs. It was good to see him,” Urlaub said.
The Blue Crabs recently squared off against the Somerset Patriots. Former A’s prospect Jon Hunton serves as the Patriots’ GM and is the Patriots’ closer. He recently set the Atlantic League record for career saves. Hunton has signed several former A’s prospects over the past three years and he currently has former A’s farmhands Darwin Perez, Kyler Newby and Jeremy McBride on the squad.
“It was a big old reunion,” Urlaub said of the Southern Maryland-Somerset series. “Almost like a knockoff A’s team with all of the guys on the two teams.”
Urlaub still maintains a close relationship with several of his former A’s teammates. They have been in close contact lately, as they have all mourned the sudden and tragic loss of Sean Murphy, who passed away last week at the age of 27. Murphy was a popular figure within the A’s organization and he was one of Urlaub’s closest friends during their six years in the organization together.
Earlier in the week, Urlaub traveled from Waldorf, Maryland, to Philadelphia to attend Murphy’s funeral. Urlaub was one of several current and former members of the A’s organization who attended. At the request of Murphy’s father, Urlaub spoke at the funeral, as did former A’s prospect Jeremy Barfield and A’s General Manager David Forst.
“It’s still pretty shocking. We can’t shake it. It’s not like we are ever going to get over it,” Urlaub said of Murphy’s passing. “It’s hard to move on without him. Murph was very positive, he was very upbeat. No matter what was going on, he was Murph. I think that was what everyone in the organization liked about him and respected about him.
"It’s tough to lose a brother like that. It was good to go. It was good to see some from the A’s were there. It was tough to say goodbye.”