Siegrist defies the odds to make MLB dream a reality

ST. LOUIS — This is how Michael Girsch recalls the 41st round of the 2008 MLB Draft.

The players he and his fellow St. Louis Cardinals executives had vetted with the team’s multi-tier scouting system were gone, swooped up by the Cardinals or some other team. A pool of talent had dried, and it was time to sift for potential diamonds.

Clubs were burning through the last rounds. Picks were coming in at a pace of one every 15 seconds. Then the Cardinals were due, and they had a regional scout in Florida, Charlie Gonzalez, who was willing to bet his house on a late-blooming, long lefty who had just finished his freshman season at Palm Beach Community College in Lake Worth, Fla.

Girsch, then a director of the team’s baseball development department, had to have heard the name “Kevin Siegrist” spoken into the phone that was connected with the commissioner’s office. But he doesn’t specifically remember it.

And why would he?

“At that point, there are no perfect players left,” says Girsch, now an assistant general manager with the Cardinals. “You’re looking for guys who have one tool or attribute you think you can bet on. They also have to be signable. A lot of guys at that point in the draft would rather go to college than pro.”

As he talks in the back row of the Busch Stadium press box, he leans forward in his seat to get a glimpse of the field where Siegrist made his major league debut as a reliever June 6. The rookie has now appeared in six games, struck out 10, surrendered just one hit and protected a 0.00 ERA.

“Still, sometimes I sit back and realize, this is happening right now,” Siegrist says.

The people who picked him in 2008 have shared the pleasant surprise.

“He hasn’t surpassed what Charlie thought might happen,” Girsch says. “This is what Charlie dreamed of happening. But realistically, if you polled everyone in the room after the 41st pick, ‘Did we get a big leaguer?’ People would say, ‘No. We almost never get big leaguers in the 41st round.'”

Siegrist’s early success this season is the result of the 23-year-old having something you can’t teach (a 6-foot-5 body that prefers to throw a baseball with its left hand) along with a willingness to change. As a result, he has become an inspiration to those in the Cardinals’ farm system who are striving to get their own taste of the major league spotlight.

“He didn’t exactly explode on the scene the day he showed up,” Girsch says. “He persevered. He stuck with it. There were times where he could have said, ‘This isn’t working like I thought it would.’ He didn’t get here in 12 months. It took him five years.”

There were plenty of detours that could have been dead ends. Siegrist was cut from his high school team as a freshman and had no Division I scholarship offers upon graduation. Things didn’t get automatically easier once he signed with the Cardinals for $85,000 after his lone junior college season, either. The big lefty struggled, then leveled out as a starter. But he never peaked.

“When I had him, you would have never thought he would pitch in the big leagues,” Mark DeJohn says.

DeJohn was the manager of short-season Class A Batavia when Siegrist pitched there in 2009. He saw Siegrist’s fastball improve. He also saw how the 19-year-old couldn’t seem to string together strong starts consistently.

Between nagging injuries (everything from lower back pain to a sore non-throwing shoulder) and a Cardinals minor league system loaded with talented starters, Siegrist never earned a call-up.

“He was holding his own as a starter,” Girsch says. “But he wasn’t dominating.”

Siegrist was shifted to relief heading into the 2013 season. Pitching analysis predicted an increase in his velocity if he switched, and that left hand would be even more special as a late-game chess piece against opposing lineups. He embraced the change, and worked on lowering his arm slot to better confuse batters.

He made 13 appearances in Double A, then earned a promotion to Triple-A Memphis. In 27 2/3 innings between the two clubs, he allowed just six earned runs and crafted a 1.95 ERA. It was good enough to earn him the Cardinals’ Minor League Pitcher of the Month award for May. More important, it earned him his ticket to St. Louis when Cardinals reliever Maikel Cleto couldn’t cut it.

“This kid deserves the credit for doing what he’s done,” DeJohn, now the Cardinals’ minor league field coordinator, says of his former player. “It’s a good story, and I hope he never sees the minor leagues again. But regardless, he’ll never see Batavia again.”

“He’s a guy that we can now use as an example when we talk to kids just signing, and tell them, ‘Hey, there is a 41st-round pick. So, if you think only the kids with money are taken care of, or looked after better, it’s not true. Money is not going to get you to the big leagues. Talent is.’ We can now sit in this clubhouse and say, ‘Yeah, Kevin Siegrist pitched in this league back in 2009.'”

The story is more impressive with some stats to back it up.

Siegrist is one of 51 players from the 2008 draft currently on a major league roster, according to STATS Inc.

Translation: The player picked 1,235th out of 1,504 is a part of the 3.4 percent of active players from the 2008 class.

Siegrist is also one of only eight active players in the major leagues who were drafted in the 40th round or later.

Finally, there’s the fact that the 41st round — the relative crapshoot in which Girsch and Co. landed Siegrist in 2008 — no longer exists. MLB cut the draft from 50 rounds to 40 in 2012.

“Actually, I just heard about that,” Siegrist says when asked about the 41st round no longer being a thing. “I didn’t realize it. I don’t pay that much attention to the draft now.”

How could he?

He’s been too busy beating the odds.

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