Typically, Major League Baseball organizations sign undrafted free agents as spare parts to fill out remaining roster space following the amateur draft. However, the St. Louis Cardinals see overlooked talent deserving of a professional opportunity despite being undrafted. Ones who have exceeded expectations and set a precedent include former and current farmhands Zach Petrick (former), David Popkins (former), Derek Gibson (current), Chris Thomas (current), and St. Louis native Kyle Grana (current).
Four of the five grew up in or around Cardinals country, and for Grana, an unfathomable dream to not only play professional baseball but do it with his hometown team was realized.
“Confident kid, you know what you get when you put him in there," Peoria manager Joe Kruzel told the Peoria Journal Star. "He had a lot of success finishing games.”
With bat-missing stuff (10.83 K's per 9 innings in his first full season) and a mound presence that screams a future high-leverage reliever, the biggest obstacle remaining in Grana's steady climb is facing competition on par with his age. Scouts like Grana's stuff, a low-to-mid 90s fastball with a big breaking ball and a show-me changeup. He also has deception, but scouts see little margin for error as he moves up because of his propensity to “pick around the zone” and think he will have to be perfect with his stuff to avoid hitting a wall. Though it should be said he has yet to allow a home run against a professional hitter in 126 2/3 career innings.
In this exclusive interview, Grana discusses being signed by his hometown team, reflects on 2015, his arsenal, bulldog approach, his offseason goals and much more below.
Derek Shore: As a St. Louis native who signed with the Cardinals as an amateur, what was it like to join your hometown team you grew up watching?
Kyle Grana: "I've grown up a huge Cardinal fan my whole life, so it was huge. My family and friends, they were all very excited for me. I was just happy for an opportunity to play. It being my hometown team I pretty much idolized was a full benefit."
DS: Looking back at 2015, you were at a full-season level during which you led the organization in saves, and you were recognized as a post-season all-star in the Midwest League. How would you evaluate 2015?
KG: "2015 was a fun year. It was a great group of guys at Peoria. We had a couple of promotions throughout the year which you're happy to see. It was a fun year. I had a lot of success, and I hope to continue that through the next couple of years."
DS: As you continue to advance and face better competition, your numbers seemingly get better. Was there anything out of the ordinary with the competition or was it an adjustment you made?
KG: "I don't know; there were a lot of players behind me making plays. There were days I didn't have my best stuff and guys were making great plays behind me, and leads play a huge role. I was in the closer role and having a lead going into that plays a huge role in a closer's success as well.
"A lot of the success I attribute to the position players and pitchers around me in the clubhouse."
DS: Remarkably, in the 126 2/3 innings pitched in your professional career you have yet to allow a home run. What are your thoughts on that stat?
KG: "Kind of outrageous. I feel like I give up a lot of hard-hit balls that the wind blows it back in. It's not anything that I'm doing, but I wouldn't say luck. I think it's partially luck, but I couldn't tell you; I pitch up in the zone. I'm mainly a flyball pitcher, so it is crazy that I haven't given one up yet."
DS: Did it motivate you to impress -- seeing your former bullpen mate Robby Rowland jump to Double-A towards the end of the year and finish at the Arizona Fall League?
KG: "I wouldn't say it motivated me -- he's a heckuva pitcher and great guy you want to have in the clubhouse. He was probably one of my better friends in Peoria -- cause I guess we push each other in competition, and we also have similar personalities; he's a little more outgoing than I am.
"I wouldn't say it motivated me. My motivation is to make it to the big-leagues. I don't base my motivation on people moving up. It's mainly setting my personal goals and helping a team win a championship in whatever league I'm playing in."
DS: Could you tell me about your arsenal of pitches and what has worked for you against full-season hitters in certain situations?
KG: "I mainly rely on my fastball; it's low-to-mid 90s. I throw a slurvy curveball that kind of breaks; it's mid-70s pitch. I'm mainly a fastball/curveball guy, but if I get deep into a batter, I'll throw a changeup to throw them off guard. Though, I'm mainly a fastball/curveball type of pitcher."
DS: Known for your bulldog demeanor in the back end of games, do you feel that aspect of your pitching helps you against opposing hitters?
KG: "Yeah, I feel it's competitive nature. I've seen plenty of competitive pitchers who don't pitch with the amount of emotion I do and be successful and they’re just as competitive as I am. It's just a competitive nature; I just seem to show it a little better than other guys."
DS: With minor leaguers due to spring training in early March, what was your focus this off-season?
KG: "Focus this off-season: keep developing my off-speed pitches, lose a little bit of weight, and my main goal is to make a team higher than the one I was on last year. That's the main focus."
DS: Do you have any goals for the new season?
KG: "Get better every day, honestly. Keep playing, keep playing baseball, keep being successful, and keep getting better every day."
Related article: TCN’s 2015 Peoria Chiefs Reliever of the Year
Follow Derek Shore on Twitter @D_Shore23.
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