Kroeger Could Become a Steal

METAIRIE, La. – Players that are signed as minor league free agents each off-season aren't expected to lead their league – let alone baseball as a whole – in hitting. Josh Kroeger, a 24-year-old outfielder picked up by the Cubs last December, was the exception to the rule for much of the first half this season.

After batting just .231 in a full season with Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre a year ago, Kroeger () came to the Cubs in the off-season and took the organization and all of minor league baseball by storm.

The lefty hitting outfielder batted a robust .382 in 66 games with Double-A Tennessee. That led both the minor leagues and the majors at the time.

Kroeger was later summoned to Triple-A Iowa in mid-June, where he had slowed down only modestly by batting .281 through 45 games there.

Iowa hitting coach Von Joshua, a former major league outfielder that spent several years as the Chicago White Sox hitting coach for then-manager Jerry Manuel from 1998-2001, worked with Kroeger in Minor League Spring Training and noticed a flaw in the outfielder's approach early on.

"He had a tendency to lunge at the ball a little bit and was getting out on his front side a little too soon," Joshua recalled. "What he's done now with the things that we've worked on the most – and what he's worked on the most – is just working on a little timing mechanism and staying back."

As a result, Kroeger has been coming around after receiving a fresh start with what is now his third different organization.

Heading into last off-season, Kroeger said he did not have many options following a disappointing year in the Philadelphia Phillies' system.

He knew that just because he was offered a minor league contract with the Cubs, it did not mean he was guaranteed a roster spot anywhere.

Kroeger also knew that players signed as minor league free agents aren't really expected to have the type of success that he's had in 2007: All-Star honors, career-best numbers, league-leading statistics, etc.

Saying that he aims to be an "all-around hitter" that can drive the ball to all areas of the field, Kroeger has 44 extra-base hits this season, including a career-high 21 home runs. He has driven in 80 runs.

"I've hit a few more home runs this year than in the past," he noted. "I think that just comes with getting my swing down, and it's a result of that."

Is he surprised by his success this season?

"I'd worked hard and played winter ball, and knew I was capable of hitting like that, but I just hadn't been able to bring it out," Kroeger said.

"Surprised? A little, but I kind of expected to have success," he said.

Kroeger also seemed to acknowledge that he may have been playing in a comfort zone by facing Double-A pitching at the beginning of the year.

He is only 24 years old – he is set to turn 25 on Friday – and he had faced Double-A pitching once before, hitting .331 in 65 games for Double-A El Paso in 2004 – the year he made his big league debut with the Arizona Diamondbacks after being drafted by the club in the fourth round in 2000.

"I'd say that overall, I'm satisfied with the season I've had," Kroeger said.

So, too, are coaches like Joshua.

"He started in Double-A and he's been swinging the bat very well since he got up to Triple-A," said Joshua, who re-iterated that, "with Josh, it's just a matter of him not getting out front and staying back."

When asked about his banner-like year in the minor leagues, Kroeger said: "I think I've made the right adjustments to be where I want to be."

Realistically, where Kroeger is right now is only one level away from getting back to the major leagues – where he played in 22 games in '04.

The problem for Kroeger is that a lot of competition surrounds him.

As it is, the Cubs already have a crowded outfield from Double-A on up. In Chicago, top prospect Felix Pie has seen only limited action at best recently.

As well as he has performed this season, Kroeger is skeptical that his brief service time in the major leagues really strengthens his resume.

"I think a lot of baseball is, ‘What have you done for me lately,'" he said.

But Joshua isn't so sure about that. He believes Kroeger could be a steal.

"He's only 24 and as young as he is, he's different (from other minor league free agents) in that respect, plus he has some major league time to boot," said Joshua. "So he could be a real find for you. He could be a steal for us and help our major league club down the line. He's still a baby."

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