Kroeger Makes Lasting Impression

KODAK, Tenn. – Josh Kroeger signed with the Chicago Cubs as a minor league free agent and arrived in Double-A ball knowing that he was debuting for a new team. Kroeger has certainly made the most out of first impressions by leading his team (and league) in hitting and earning significant praise from his manager.

Kroeger, who will turn 25 later this summer, is a power hitter – he also leads the team in slugging percentage – that has not made an error in the outfield for the Double-A Tennessee Smokies in 65 games this season.

"You always want to make a good first impression," Smokies Manager Pat Listach said. "He's made a lasting impression the way he goes about his business, the way he swings the bat, the way he plays the game."

Kroeger is hitting .389, which not only leads the team but the Southern League. He has 11 home runs and 50 RBIs.

His .620 slugging percentage leads the Smokies and the league.

He has been the team's right fielder and has been flawless there.

He also has eight stolen bases in 11 attempts.

"That was my goal coming in: to make a good first impression," said Kroeger, who was born in Iowa, grew up in San Diego, and was drafted out of Scripps Ranch High School in California in 2000.

"If I couldn't make an impression on this team, hopefully one of the other 29 teams might be interested and might be able to give me a shot as well."

Kroeger doesn't have to worry about teams not noticing what he has done for the Smokies in the first half of the season, which ended Sunday.

"When you're in the minor leagues, it doesn't matter where you play. It's how you play, and he's showing that," Listach said. "He's playing to get noticed and everybody notices it. It doesn't matter if you do it in Double A or Triple A, he's still doing it."

Kroeger was drafted in the fourth round by the Arizona Diamondbacks, went through their farm system and was promoted to the big leagues in 2004 when he appeared in 22 games. He remained with the Diamondbacks' organization until being claimed off waivers in 2006 by the Philadelphia Phillies, but ended up in AAA at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, where he hit .231.

After last season ended, Kroeger knew he had some options, though not many.

"As a six-year free agent, I had a choice of signing with whoever was interested," Kroeger recalled. "The Cubs came to me and were one of the first teams to make an offer. Considering the bad season I had last year, I wasn't really going to wait around for anything too long so I decided to go with them."

Kroeger spent two months in winter ball in Venezuela to continue working on his swing and to make sure the adjustments he had started to make at Scranton were fine-tuned.

"It's one of those things where I had a bad season," Kroeger said of his 2006 season in the International League. "A lot of people have them, but unfortunately it was a bad year for me to have a bad season. I was working on a lot of things with my swing. It was kind of a process for me to put into effect (the changes) for the game some bad habits that I had and some holes in my swing that didn't necessarily come overnight.

"I think all last year, it was a work in progress for me to get that down to where I am now. I went to winter ball to get some more (at-bats) under my belt, and I think my swing is pretty close to where I want it be right now."

If it's not close, it should be. Kroeger started hot and hasn't cooled off.

The Smokies battled for first place in the North Division for three months only to fall one game short of clinching a playoff spot, and Kroeger is one of the reasons that Tennessee had either been on top or in the hunt since April.

"It always easier to win than lose," Kroeger said. "Bad things can happen with the teams and players on the team and when you're losing, everything is under more of a microscope. I think it definitely makes it a lot more fun."

Kroeger (pronounced just like the grocery store chain) cites preparation, confidence and consistency as the difference-makers this season.

"I think I have a consistent approach," he said. "I know what I want to do up there. I am seeing the ball pretty well. I'm not afraid to hit with two strikes. (When at the plate), a lot of it depends on the situation – runners on, infield in, infield back, certain situations will dictate that.

"I try to walk to the plate with confidence. I've got my approach. I know what I am going to try to do. I know what the pitcher is going to try to do to me and I just take it from there."

Hitting coach Barbaro Garbey serves as a kind of watchful eye for Kroeger when he's in the cage or at bat.

"Barbaro and I understand my swing and the things I need to do to keep my swing consistent," Kroeger said. "I've come up with two or three drills I do that keep me in check. He's knows the routine I am on. When something is a little off, he'll let me know. We've got a good relationship because we're both on the same page."

Kroeger has also added an in-season workout program to his summer regimen. That helps to insulate against the effects of a long season and the grind of the minor leagues.

"It's definitely tough mentally," Kroeger said. "The biggest thing for me is the confidence after going up and down, coming from the big leagues and then going back down, and then going back down another level to Double A. I think if anything, the experience of going through it all has made me tougher mentally, and it's helping me to keep playing and keep playing hard.

"As far as physically, I work out more during the season than I have in the past. That just leaves me with no doubts as far as being prepared for the game and for the season. I get my workouts done before I come to the field, while I'm at the field and then when I'm on the field, I'm just playing. I'm not worried about, 'Should I have done this or that.'"

His down time away from the ballpark is spent staying in shape and getting some rest.

"There's not too much of it," Kroeger said with a smile. "I think when I go to the gym, that gets my mind off of everything. I'm working for baseball when I'm at the gym, but I'm not really thinking about it. I'm just kind of in my own space. That's kind of my own time to be myself. A couple hours at the gym and then at nights after the game watching TV. I tend not to think about baseball too much when I leave the field."

Kroeger is a left-handed hitter with above-average defensive ability. It would not be surprising to see him get back to the majors before the summer ends.

"It's not something that is under my control," Kroeger said. "All I can do is play. I'm new. (The Cubs) don't know me very well. I'm not going to play worried about it. If I keep doing what I'm doing, something will happen for me."

His manager certainly has gotten to know Kroeger after only seeing him briefly before.

"He's exceeded all my expectations as a player," Listach said. "I'd seen him before when he was at Tucson (in the Diamondbacks' organization). Being around him every day, he's a true professional. He has an approach to hitting, knows what he wants to do. He knows what the pitcher is trying to do to him, and he can make the adjustments. He's done an outstanding job here. I'll be surprised if I get to keep him the whole season."

The Cubs outfield in Chicago is crowded right now with Alfonso Soriano, Cliff Floyd and Jacque Jones. Matt Murton was among that group until Wednesday when he was sent to AAA Iowa so the Cubs could bring in some bullpen reinforcement with lefty Clay Rapada.

The move to Iowa means Murton will get more at-bats since he had been fighting for playing time with the parent club, too. Outfielders Felix Pie and Angel Pagan also are in the mix in Chicago.

Listach cited that logjam as a reason that Kroeger has stayed put for now, but he has no doubt about Kroeger's ability to play in the majors, especially on defense.

"He's a big league outfielder right now defensively," Listach said. "You look at all sides of it, I'm sure if he was in another situation he might (already) be in the big leagues. ... We found something and we're happy to have him, and hopefully he's still happy to be here, even though he is in Double A."

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