The Minnesota Twins have already had two players with independent baseball roots make their major league debuts this season. On Tuesday, left-hander Andrew Albers will join the likes of Chris Colabello and Caleb Thielbar in that group.
Albers was called up last week from Triple-A Rochester after going 11-5 with a 2.86 ERA in 22 starts for the Red Wings this year. He’ll make his debut Tuesday against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium — something he likely couldn’t fathom when he was pitching in the Canadian-American Association just three years ago.
“I don’t know if it’s really sunk in,” Albers said over the weekend. “I’m really thrilled to be here, really excited for the opportunity.”
It’s not common for a player to go from independent ball to the majors, but it’s certainly not unheard of. Colabello spent seven years with Worcester of the Can-Am Association before getting his chance with the Twins. Thielbar, a Minnesota native, spent a summer pitching for the independent St. Paul Saints before he drew the interest of the Twins, who signed him in late 2011.
Now it’s Albers’ turn to complete that similar path from independent ball to the biggest stage. The 27-year-old Saskatchewan native was a 10th-round pick of the San Diego Padres in 2008 but played just five games in their system. He missed 2009 with an arm injury and landed in Quebec for the 2010 season.
“(We) better keep scouting independent ball,” Twins assistant general manager Rob Antony joked. “Each one of them, it’s a tribute to their dedication and perseverance. They didn’t give up when they didn’t have an opportunity with an organization. They kept on.”
The Twins stumbled upon Albers a bit by happenstance. Scouts Tim O’Neil and Earl Winn watched Albers throw at the University of Kentucky, where he played his college ball. He was looking for work after pitching for Quebec and was hoping to land with a major league team. He was home in Saskatchewan during the winter and was relegated to throwing in the local high school gym.
So Albers called up his old Kentucky coach, Gary Henderson, to ask if he could throw at the school’s facilities. When a few open tryouts in Arizona fell through, Albers worked out in Lexington, Ky., and the Twins took note. They invited the lefty to minor league camp and he eventually ended the 2011 season at Double-A New Britain.
“I was able to have a good enough spring that they kept me around,” Albers said. “I’ve just been plugging away ever since.”
Albers certainly doesn’t have overpowering stuff; his fastball sits in the mid-to-high 80s. But even without a high-end fastball, Albers was crafty enough to strike out 116 batters in 132 1/3 innings so far this year with Rochester.
He now faces the challenge of pitching against a red-hot Royals team that beat the Twins by a 13-0 final on Monday.
“He doesn’t have a lot of velocity but he really knows how to pitch,” said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. “He’s had a heck of a year down there. He’s pitched very well. Very deserving. It’ll be exciting to see him up here.”
While Albers hasn’t yet pitched on the major league stage, he has appeared in some big games. He pitched for Canada in this year’s World Baseball Classic and earned the win in the gold medal game of the Pan American Games in 2011. He was called up when another Canadian left-hander, Scott Diamond, was optioned to Rochester. Minnesota’s rotation has been a bit of a mess lately, so there’s a chance Albers could stick in the majors if he pitches well.
The Twins brought Albers up several days ahead of his first career start, allowing him to get acclimated to the clubhouse and the surroundings that accompany life in the majors. Minnesota did the same thing with right-hander Kyle Gibson, who debuted earlier this year.
During the weekend, Albers was all smiles as he donned a major league uniform for the first time. When he takes the hill Tuesday for his first big league start, however, those emotions certainly may change.
“Really, the butterflies, I’m sure they’ll be there on Tuesday, but it’s something that you welcome,” Albers said. “It’s just a matter of being able to deal with them. I’ve pitched in some big games before with the Pan-Am gold medal game and the World Baseball Classic. Hopefully I’ll be able to manage those and be all right with that and use it to my advantage.”