Simokaitis is a Sleeper

Joe Simokaitis grew up in Missouri, so naturally he started out as a St. Louis Cardinals fan. He has a brother that began as a batboy for the Cardinals and now works in their front office. But the Cubs' farmhand and the rest of his family have switched allegiances and now root for Chicago.

Simokaitis got one step closer to the parent club when he was promoted last week from Double-A Tennessee to Triple-A Iowa.

A shortstop picked in the 10th round of the MLB draft in 2005, Simokaitis has an overall approach to the game that should appeal to the denizens of Wrigley Field if he makes it to Chicago: tremendous work ethic, respectful of the sport, maker of the routine play, runs out every ground ball, and a clubhouse favorite of his teammates and the staff.

"He's a joy to be around the ballpark every day," said Pat Listach, who managed Simokaitis this summer for the Tennessee Smokies. "He's a fun guy. He's always in a good mood. He goes about his business professionally. I've got nothing but good things to say about Joe."

Simokaitis, or "Simo" as he's known to teammates and ex-manager, takes it upon himself to make sure the clubhouse is loose.

"There's a lot of negativity around; in a good way because you fail a lot," Simokaitis says. "Three hits in 10 at-bats is good. If you don't have fun, the season drags on and stuff can get old and stagnant. I think it keeps morale up in the clubhouse and as a team. I think it helps out in the long run."

Simokaitis spent longer in college than most minor league prospects. When he wasn't drafted after his junior season at Nebraska, he did the smart thing and returned to school for a fourth year.

He played in two College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, and was on the team that got the Husker program's first-ever win in the CWS.

"It was unbelievable," Simokaitis recalled. "They treated us as celebrities. It was what guys in the major leagues experience. I guess it was the closest thing to playing in the big leagues as there is. It was just phenomenal."

Simokaitis needs one more semester of coursework to complete a degree in communications with a minor in sociology. He intends to finish in the off-season(s) when he gets the chance.

"I am planning on going back," he said. "I made it this far so I might as well finish."

The 24-year-old was a three-sport athlete at St. Mary's High School, but being born in St. Louis made him a baseball fan first and foremost.

"I was always around the game," he said. "I think that's been a big part of my success."

Simokaitis also could go watch Cardinals games at the old Busch Stadium, where his brother worked.

"I grew up a Cardinals fan," he confessed. "My brother has worked there for 27 years. He started as a batboy in the '80s and he worked his way up and has done just about everything. Now he's in their front office in marketing and sales."

Simokaitis' parents, Tony and Judy, have become fans of the Cubs as they cheer for their son to make it to the big leagues.

Joe and his brother avoid tension by simply not talking to each other during the season.

"It's fine in the off-season. Just during the year, we don't talk," Simokaitis said. "Once Christmas time rolls around, we're family again."

For Simokaitis, playing a game with the Cubs against the hometown Cardinals in front of his parents would be a dream come true.

"I probably couldn't even describe it," Simokaitis said. "They are Cubs (fans) through and through. They'd be one of the only people in St. Louis wearing Cubs gear if I was in the lineup. They're supportive. I guess if I don't make it, they'll go back to rooting for the Cardinals. But while I'm in this, they're backing me and the Cubs."

Simokaitis does not have the gaudy numbers that say he is a "can't-miss" prospect. But he does have the consistency and the intangibles that can get a player to the majors.

In 76 games for the Smokies, Simokaitis hit .257 with three home runs and nine doubles. His on-base plus slugging percentage was .689.

"He's a sleeper," Listach said. "He'll sneak up on you and hit a home run. He'll sneak up on you and make a good play in the hole when you least expect it. He's getting better with the bat. He's still got some work to do offensively, but he makes the routine play, and he's got a really good arm."

Simokaitis helped the Smokies in a big way before he was summoned to Des Moines. The team had lost five straight to the first-place Huntsville Stars, but in the fifth loss, Simokaitis hit a home run on the road to give the Smokies a ninth-inning lead. The bullpen, however, couldn't hold it.

Then the following night at home against Carolina, Simokaitis came off the bench in the ninth inning to deliver a walk-off sacrifice fly that drove in the winning run from third base.

"He was the last guy on the bench, and the reason he was the last guy on the bench was I try not to pinch-hit my shortstop in case I need another one in the game," Listach explained.

"Sam Fuld was hurt. Chris Walker got hurt during the game. He (Simokaitis) laid off the first pitch and then put a good swing on it. He hit a big home run in Huntsville to give us a lead in the ninth inning and we just couldn't hold it."

Listach's club was rained out the next day and then lost in Wade Miller's rehab start on Wednesday. The team then swept a doubleheader Thursday against Carolina, won again Friday at home and took the first two games on the road against West Tennessee for a five-game winning streak that has them back in the thick of the Northern Division race in the Southern League.

"Any time the team is struggling like that, it's huge for team morale coming off those five tough losses," Simokaitis said of his sacrifice fly. "That can go a long way in the long run."

Those words ended up being prophetic as not long after, the Smokies went on a roll, while Simokaitis went to Triple-A.

Simokaitis has been in the Cubs' farm system for barely two years, so his progression has been steady and consistent – much like this play.

"I'd say so," he agreed. "As a player and an athlete, you're always thinking you could do something better and (that) there is something else you can do. But for the most part, I am happy with where I am now and want to keep moving along at this pace. That's a goal."

Listach cited Simokaitis' consistency as his ticket to get to Chicago.

"He's got to keep on doing what he's doing," Listach said. "He'll take his walks; he gets on base. It's just a matter of timing. You give him another year of seasoning. His offense is coming along at a steady rate so he needs to continue to improve. Every day he tries to improve something so he's doing that."

That same consistency has to come at the plate, too. Simokaitis mentioned that when he outlined his own scouting report.

"Consistent with the glove, a little inconsistent with the bat," Simokaitis said of himself. "It could be one day really great and the next day just average. Solid player that does the little things offensively and defensively to help the team win."

Simokaitis' play in the field is very steady. He played a lot of games at second base in Daytona in High A ball in the second half of 2006, and he feels comfortable enough to play second, third or shortstop.

"I think I proved I could play well there (second)," Simokaitis said. "I think I could play anywhere on the infield."

He also gets the ball out of his glove cleanly, and quickly fires to first.

"It's being around the game, playing catch," Simokaitis said. "The most important part is taking care of the baseball. ... To me, that's more important as an infielder than maybe making a couple of errors (hit) right at you and then making a spectacular play in the hole. That's what I try to focus on."

Simokaitis knows that his range up the middle and in the hole is adequate but not eye-popping, so he makes up for it in positioning.

Balls that were getting past him earlier this season are outs now.

"Earlier in the season, the field was as hard as a rock so a lot of balls got through a lot of places down the line at first and third," Listach said.

"We're not blessed with the best range in baseball, but Joe prides himself on positioning. He tries to put himself in the right place at the right time. And once you get to know hitters and tendencies, you can cheat one way or the other, and Joe does a good job of that," added Listach.

Simokaitis said his increased range stems from positioning, field composition, and batter recognition.

"It's a combination of just feeling comfortable; getting to know the fields; how they're playing; knowing hitters better; maybe a half a step playing a hitter more in the hole or up the middle makes a huge difference," he said. "And just playing these teams more than once and going through a second and third time has helped out having a good scouting report on the guys."

Simokaitis was promoted to Iowa last Thursday and was in the lineup that evening at shortstop. He went 1-for-3 with a double and an RBI in his Triple-A debut.

Simokaitis likely took the same attitude to Iowa that he showed all summer for Tennessee: play the game the right way and keep a smile on his face.

When he gets an off day from baseball, he makes sure to get his mind off of the game.

"Relax and free your mind of baseball pretty much," he said. "Relax mentally more so than anything. Catch a movie. Get your mind free from the mental stress that you go through each and every day grinding it out."

That approach allows Simokaitis to easily adjust when it's time to get back to the grind.

"He works hard," Listach said. "He comes to play every day."

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