Q&A with Matt Craig

Cubs prospect Matt Craig had an All-Star year while playing in the Class-A Florida State League at Daytona this past season. The third-round pick from the 2002 draft batted .287 in 130 games, totaling a career-high in doubles, RBIs and on-base percentage. Oh, and did we mention he did so while playing the entire season with a torn labrum in his left shoulder?

Entering the year, the 25-year-old Craig had spent the past two seasons at Double-A, batting .275 both years and hitting a combined 32 home runs.

When he reported to Daytona for the start of the 2006 season, he expected to get an audition behind the plate at some point. The move to catcher never came about formally, as Craig would spend the entire season at first base.

We visited with Craig recently and got his thoughts on his best year yet from a hitting standpoint, the injury that plagued him the entire season, whether catching is still in the works, and more.

The first thing we ask everyone this time of year: where are you this off-season?

I'm in Dallas right now working out. I'm from Dallas and know a lot of people and family here. Rocky Cherry is here and we've known each other since high school. We've been doing stuff together, just working out.

Earlier this year, you said that the main reason for going to Daytona rather than, say, Double-A was that the Cubs had talked to you about catching. What happened there?

I really wanted to catch and get a new perspective on the game, which you can't really see unless you're behind the plate. I really don't know what happened. You'd have to ask Oneri Fleita, but I'd play anywhere if they came to me.

Looking at your numbers, what stood out to me were your walk totals and thus a higher on-base percentage than in your previous seasons. Did you come into 2006 with a different approach at the plate than in years past?

Really, it's just continuing the things I'd been working on the previous two years. I think I led the organization in walks or on-base percentage, or OPS – on-base plus slugging – or one of the top categories. I was pretty psyched about how that turned out, but it was really just something that as I've gotten older and learned about hitting, things have started to slow down. I remember when I was in Boise my first year, I wasn't really patient. Now it's just becoming second nature I guess.

You started off really hot the first couple of months and hit sort of a snag right around the all-star break. Was that something you paid any attention to?

One thing I have learned over the years is that you want to minimize those down swings and valleys. You might have a game or two where you're kind of in a lull, but you want to minimize it and get out of it as soon as possible. Taking your walks in those situations is always huge. If you're up there being patient, you're not swinging at a lot of bad pitches. If you're not being patient, you're putting yourself in that lull.

Being that you finished strong, were you surprised not to get a call-up to Double-A or higher?

No, I really didn't look at it at all. We were in a playoff race, which is always a fun time. You definitely want to be in that position. That's really where the fun is, so to be honest, I really didn't think much about it. It was a good year and we had a good team. It was fun, and it was fun playing for Buddy Bailey. I really, really enjoyed that, so I didn't really think about it that much.

Have you thought about what level you hope to be at next year?

I haven't really talked to anybody about it. I'll go into Spring Training and just see where everybody is at and then let the decision come some time in March. They might have an idea already I imagine, but I really don't know at this point. Everybody wants to move up, but you have to realize that getting at-bats and playing on a regular basis is the most important thing.

You played first base at West Tenn a good bit in 2005, but this was really your first full year there. What can you tell us about first base after being drafted as a third baseman?

It's the same thing as catching; just something you want to have in your toolbox. The more positions you learn to play, the more positions you can play well and the better player you'll be, and the more attractive and easier fit you'll hopefully be on a major league team. That's what I strive for. Like I said, if someone said they wanted me to play somewhere else, I'd give it a shot and would be more than willing to try that out. I don't know if I could be a pitcher, though. I might have to draw the line there, but I don't think they'll have me pitching any time soon. (laughs)

You've always been a gap hitter. Has your approach changed in that regard as you've matured?

If things start going bad, I might start trying to swing for the fences. It's hard in the Florida State League, where it's probably the biggest pitcher's league of any out there. The ball doesn't travel. I know I've had more home runs than however many I had this year, but it's just so humid down there and the parks are so big that I hit a lot of balls that were either caught at the warning track or went off the wall for doubles. I had more doubles (35) than any other year and I think that's just a result of the league and the parks I played in. In any other league, you take those same balls I hit and they would have been home runs at Iowa. The Florida State League I believe is definitely a doubles league. It's tough to hit home runs down there.

We understand you underwent shoulder surgery at the end of the season.

I had torn my labrum in my left shoulder, so I really hit right-handed all year long. Right-handed is probably my best side, and one thing I was really pleased about this year was that my left-handed hitting kind of brought my overall average up. The shoulder bothered me in Spring Training and all throughout the year. I had a little tear in my labrum and a little fraying in my rotator cuff, so it just kind of nagged me all year right-handed. Left-handed was probably the best I've ever hit in a year, so I was pleased with that. But it (shoulder) started in Spring Training and I played the entire year with it. Buddy and Richie Zisk were great about understanding that if I couldn't go that day, it was no problem. It would always bother me hitting right-handed, but it wouldn't bother me at all left-handed.

One thing that people kind of don't understand about switch-hitting is that it's a blessing, but it's also a doubled-edged sword at times, because you have two sides to worry about and you're basically two different hitters. Most of the switch hitters I've talked to, it has taken them a longer time to put it together having to deal with two different sides. After this year, with the way I hit left-handed, it's more of a positive for me. My right-handed average and my power has always been ahead of my left-handed average. This year, left-handed I could tell kind of caught up. If not for the shoulder, my numbers would have been a lot better. That's pretty exciting for me going into next year.

How does the shoulder feel now?

I rehabbed for the entire month of October in Arizona, but now it feels great. It feels just like it did every other year except for this past summer. I'll probably start hitting right after Christmas. I took some swings in Arizona as part of my rehab program and it felt well and normal out there, so I don't expect any other setbacks. They gave me the option of getting the operation done during the season, but there was no way I was going to get it done then. That's not the reason why you work out in the off-season.

You said you were working with Rocky this off-season. Do you see him a lot?

I see Rocky quite a bit. We've been friends for a long time. There are other guys in the area that I played with in high school that are with other organizations now. It's neat and it's a good group of guys. We've known each other for a long time. It's nice to share stories and hear things that have worked for them, apply it to your game and just talk baseball most of the time.

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