McGehee Benefits from Interesting Summer

KODAK, Tenn. – When Casey McGehee arrived early one day to the ballpark four years ago, it set in motion a circuitous journey from third base to catcher.

After several starts and stops, it appears McGehee may have found a permanent home behind the plate.

McGehee, 24, has had success at all levels of the Cubs' farm system, but he dropped down to the Double-A Tennessee Smokies from Triple-A Iowa this season, specifically to learn how to catch.

The path from third base to behind the plate initially began four years ago when McGehee arrived early to the park in Lansing, Mich., then the site of the Cubs Class-A affiliate in the Midwest League. He had been selected in the 10th round of the First-Year Player Draft out of Fresno State that year.

"I got drafted as a third baseman, played my first half-season in Lansing as a third baseman, and actually I was just screwing around one day catching on the side for somebody," McGehee recalled. "I was there early and didn't have anything to do. They approached me about wanting to catch."

McGehee had switched positions before. He pitched and played shortstop in high school in California, and then played left field as a freshman in college.

He became an everyday third baseman as a sophomore and junior and then was drafted by the Cubs in 2003. McGehee finished out the season with Lansing and went to the Instructional League to learn how to catch.

"Scott Servais was our catching instructor at the time, and he brought me out to Colorado for a couple of weeks before Spring Training," McGehee said. "I worked with him for two weeks, and I went to Daytona (in 2004).

"To start the year, I was catching and playing third base, sort of like I am here, and then about halfway through the season the numbers weren't working out to where I was having enough innings to catch in order to really figure out if I was going to be able to do it or not," added McGehee.

The catching experiment was aborted for the time being, but the Cubs hadn't given up on the notion quite yet.

"Me and (Cubs' Director of Player Development Oneri) Fleita and a few other people sat down and talked, and we decided I was just going to finish out the year playing third base, and that we would reevaluate the situation after that," McGehee continued.

"To be honest, it was something that got kind of pushed off to the side and the next two years I played third base and a little bit of first. The very end of last year, Fleita approached me about catching again. I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do."

McGehee spent the 2006 season in Triple-A Iowa primarily playing third base and hitting .280 in 135 games. By Spring Training 2007, the catching experiment was back on. Then, the season started in Iowa.

"I went to Spring Training and caught a little bit and when the season started, it was something that was sort of pushed to the back burner. I was playing third base, which I was fine with," McGehee said. "I got a call one day from Fleita and he said, ‘Hey, we've been hemming and hawing over doing this or not doing this. We think we want to do it if you want to do it. Let me know.'

"I said, ‘Yeah, let's go.' They sent me here to see if, one, I liked doing it, and two, if I was going to be able to do it and to see where it ends up."

That meant McGehee had to return to Double-A ball, where he hit .297 in 124 games in 2005 and was a Southern League All-Star for the West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx, then the Cubs' Double-A affiliate.

Dropping down a level wasn't a demotion – he was sent to the Smokies to learn a new position – but it was still a psychological adjustment for any ballplayer to make.

The decision was made easier when McGehee got injured in Iowa and struggled off the bat. He was bothered by a wrist injury and then got hit above the eye by a line drive. That left him with a concussion and six stitches.

So, on May 4, McGehee arrived back in Tennessee – this time on the eastern part of the state, where the Smokies began their Double-A affiliation with the Cubs for the first time this season.

"Me and my wife talked," he said. "I was actually really excited about being able to come down here, not just to be able to catch, because at the beginning of the year I had a few freak injuries happen. I got off to a bad start. I wasn't panicking, but I was just frustrated with how I was playing. It was the chain of the events.

"As soon as I started swinging the bat good, I got hit in the face with a line drive. I looked at it as a chance to start my season over – no batting average, no errors, no anything and get to start fresh. That was the biggest appeal to it for me; to get to erase the beginning of the season and start fresh."

McGehee also joined a friend in fellow catcher Chris Robinson, who took the approach of the consummate teammate by helping McGehee rather than viewing him as a competitor.

"I met Robbie a few years ago because we had the same agent," McGehee said. "I think that helped as far as me and him getting along. That's Robbie's deal. He wants everybody to do well, and he's more than willing to help somebody along or give him some advice.

"We've had this conversation. There's no sense of getting into, ‘Oh, that guy plays the same position,' because at the end of the day, if I'm good enough and he's good enough to be in the big leagues, there's enough room for both of us to get there. It's not necessarily a competition between the two of us."

Robinson also gave McGehee someone to watch behind the plate and to pick up the subtleties of the position. McGehee has played in 104 games for the Smokies – 60 percent of those at catcher, the other 40 percent at third base, and occasionally first base – and Robinson has played in 88 games.

"I look at Robbie and I want to catch him in terms of his ability behind the plate," McGehee said. "I try to measure myself against him but not necessarily in a competitive way; just more of a way to scale where I'm at, where I'm improving and what I need to improve on more."

Tennessee Manager Pat Listach has seen significant improvement from McGehee this season, and one of the strongest parts of McGehee's play behind the plate is throwing out base runners.

He gunned down several speedy runners against the Montgomery Biscuits last month and in the past home stand against Chattanooga, McGehee was timed at 1.88 seconds in throwing out a runner on a steal attempt.

That pop time is considered major league quality.

"The throw he made was right on the money," Listach said. "If he can do that, he can catch in the big leagues."

McGehee sees a speedy base runner as a challenge to be welcomed by a catcher.

"It's a challenge when a guy that can really run is on first base because you know at some point he's going," he said. "It's kind of fun [to say] 'This is one of the better base stealers, and I'm going to see if I can get him.' If I don't get him, nobody else is throwing him out, either. But if I get him, it gives you a little bit of confidence for the next time.

"People always think about the hitter and the pitcher having a one-on-one battle. For a catcher, that's one of the more fun times because you're competing against that guy. He's trying to get a jump, and you're trying to throw him out," McGehee added.

McGehee's arm isn't the only thing that is ready for the major leagues, Listach said. His bat will also help get him to the pinnacle of his sport.

"His bat is going to play in the big leagues as it is," Listach said. "He's got a live bat. He's done a good job and he's still getting better."

McGehee has hit .274 with 25 doubles, two triples, nine home runs and 52 RBI for the Smokies since joining the team in May.

He repeated as a Southern League All-Star this season, but those numbers are only adequate by McGehee's standards.

"I'm not necessarily happy with my offensive production," McGehee said. "I know I've got more in there that never quite got going. I should say ‘not yet.' I still have time to get something going."

The Smokies are finishing the regular season this week at Carolina and are battling for a playoff spot in the Southern League. They could still win the second half of the North Division outright by catching Huntsville, or secure the Wild Card spot by holding off a hard-charging Chattanooga team.

Regardless of how it ends up, it's been an interesting summer for McGehee.

"It's been good for me," he said. "It's been humbling. I think that sometimes you need that to remind you that you don't have this game figured out. I think I had a decent year, especially trying to learn a new position, but I feel like once I get that out of my system – which I am starting to now; I am starting to get more comfortable – I feel like I can go back and really focus on improving at the plate.

"That's always been something that's been a strong point in my game – having good at-bats and hitting the ball hard."

When McGehee needs a respite from catching, Listach returns him to the friendly confines of third base.

"When he doesn't catch, I play him at third base and first base and DH a little bit," Listach said. "He's getting his at-bats ... that's the most important thing and he's getting to catch three out of five days."

McGehee was raw at the position when he arrived in Tennessee. He had to learn the staff on the job, so he opted for the simple approach of not thinking himself into knots.

"That was the first thing: learning the staff," he said. "How the ball moves from each pitcher and what pitch they like to throw when. That was the first step. To an extent, it was actually easier at first because I didn't know what I was doing. I wasn't over-thinking stuff.

"I was like, ‘Well, this seems like it's probably a good pitch to throw.' They'd throw it, it worked, and we had some success."

McGehee also liked the fact that a game he had played for years suddenly offered a lot of new scenarios.

"The thing about catching is – and it's one of the things I like but it's also one of the tougher parts for me – every time you go back there, there's going to be a situation or something come up that you haven't seen yet," McGehee said. "When I first started playing third base, I had that go on for a little while, but now I've been at third base enough (to know) there are not too many things that are going to happen that haven't happened to me already. Whereas catching, I can guarantee probably at some point (in every game) something is going to come up that I'm going to think, ‘What do I do here? I haven't been in this situation yet.'

"It's kind of neat, but at the same time it's tough because as soon as I feel like I'm figuring it out a little bit, something else gets thrown in there that keeps me on my toes," McGehee added. "I feel it's almost like hitting. I've been kind of streaky with my catching. I go two weeks where I'm doing a pretty good job and then I'll have a week where I feel like I just started again. It's been a constant game of adjustments and figuring out what I need to do to improve and be more consistent. That's ultimately what I want to do: be consistent and not have the ups and downs."

But McGehee also welcomes the familiarity of the hot corner.

"As much as I love catching, it's still nice for me to go to third base and kind of be in a comfort zone," he said. "It lets me react and get back to playing rather than everything being a thought process. So in a way, it's a mental break. It's not as grinding as it is being behind the plate. I can enjoy playing and can let my natural instincts take over. I love going over and playing third base, and I am glad the Cubs have let me continue to do that when I'm not catching.

"When I come to the field every day, I get excited about hitting," he added. "If you're not hitting, it doesn't matter where you're playing. I've been able to continue to get my ground balls and keep my versatility. That's a plus to be able to play multiple positions."

That versatility should help McGehee get to the big leagues. Listach noted that McGehee's power numbers as a third baseman were low, but his ability to catch and play infield positions will work in his favor.

"When you look at the third base position in the major leagues, you're looking at guys who have 35 to 45 home runs," Listach said. "You look at A-Rod, and (Aramis) Ramirez with the Cubs. You look around the league at third base and it's a power position. Casey does not have that much power and I don't think he's going to develop that kind of power to play third base every day.

"Now if he can catch and also play first and play third, his value becomes increasingly better, and he's got a chance to play in the big leagues for a longer period because he can catch," Listach added. "Catching in the big leagues is a position where you are always looking for help."

The Cubs would seem to have an opening at catcher with Jason Kendall perhaps only finishing out this season in Chicago.

But there are prospects in the pipeline, including Geovany Soto, who is having an MVP season for Iowa in the Pacific Coast League.

McGehee said those decisions are in the hands of the Cubs organization, so he has to focus on what he can control.

"Some of the best advice I got playing this game was from (former manager turned Cubs Minor League Infield Coordinator) Bobby Dickerson when I was in Double-A a few years ago," McGehee said. "He always had a saying that you'd better have your mind where your butt is. I think that's so true. If you think about where you want to be, you're not going to focus on what you need to do and on bettering yourself.

"If you can focus on where you're at – and enjoy where you're at and have fun doing it, because at the end of the day nobody says, ‘I've got to go work a game;' we're going to play – I think that's the biggest thing. If you're so worried about what's going on elsewhere, you're not going to have the success that you need to have to get there."

At the same time, McGehee readily acknowledges that every prospect wants to make it to the major leagues. But the reality of the game is that a player doesn't always end up with the organization that originally drafted him.

"I think anybody here would be lying to you if they told you that's not something that they're striving for and that they would love to have happen, but at the same time, you need to take care of what you do here to be able to get a chance to go to Chicago," McGehee said.

"I'd be the first to tell you I'd love to be in the big leagues with the Cubs. That would be awesome, especially now since some of the guys I came up with are starting to go up there. I would love to be up with the Cubs, but at the same time I just want to be in the big leagues. There are 30 teams out there that know what you're doing wherever you're at, so there are all those opportunities."

McGehee said he plans to use his off-season to make sure he stays on the path to a successful professional career.

"I'm going back down to Mexico to play winter ball for the same team I played for last year (Tomateros de Culiacán)," McGehee said. "I'll head out the first week of October and I'll spend the winter out there playing. I will catch some. I don't know if it will be as much as here, which is OK with me because there does need to be some down time, especially after playing down there all last year. We went pretty far in the playoffs. I know my body does need to recuperate so I don't think I will catch as much there, but I will do some."

The whole summer has been a learning experience for McGehee with assorted highs and lows. One of the low moments occurred last May, but like everything else this summer, it ended up being instructive for McGehee.

The Smokies held a breast cancer awareness and fund-raiser event on May 13 (Mother's Day), and McGehee wielded a pink bat.

He used the bat to honor a woman whose family had served as a host family when he played one summer in Alaska, and also to recognize his wife, Sarah, who has survived cervical cancer.

"When I was in college, I played in the Alaskan League and a lady I stayed with in Alaska was an awesome lady. She had breast cancer and she's had an ongoing battle with it," McGehee recalled. "My wife had cervical cancer a few years ago. Even though it wasn't the same type of cancer, I thought it was important to support (the overall fight)."

McGehee's stay in the game was a short one. He was punched out on strikes in the second inning during his first at-bat, and he took considerable exception to the called third strike.

"That was bad," McGehee said of his behavior, not the umpire's call. "It was Mother's Day. My mom was here. I felt bad. My mom and dad had just flown out to come see me."

His parents, who flew in from California, were also in town to see Mackail, Casey and Sarah's first son who was born during Spring Training.

But Sarah had been delayed moving to Tennessee, so the newborn didn't make it for the first visit from his grandparents.

"They had just gotten in town and I got thrown out," McGehee said of a day that went from disappointing to worse. "I was a little embarrassed."

McGehee was playing first base in that game, but he ended up realizing that he needed to control his emotions at the plate, especially since he was going to spend most of the season behind the dish and directly in front of the umpire.

"Catching has been good for me," McGehee said with a smile. "I've had to stay a little more even keel."

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