Making the most of his opportunities

LAKE ELSINORE, CA — This June a few hundred players will be drafted in the Rule IV amateur draft realizing a lifetime dream of becoming a Major League baseball player that for most began when they still believed in Santa Claus.
But not so fast.
Getting drafted and playing in the major leagues are two very different things.  The Padres have twenty-five players on their active roster but over one-hundred and fifty players under contract at various stages of development in the minors.
It is tough, very tough to make the major leagues and even difficult to stay there.  So what happens when you are drafted and suddenly on the bench for the first time in your life?
Robert Kral, a tenth round pick from the College of Charleston in 2011, found himself in that situation as he began to morph into the dreaded “organizational player” label; a player that has a job playing baseball in the minor leagues even though he isn’t considered a Major League prospect. 
He was on three different teams in 2012, Lake Elsinore, San Antonio and Tucson and never received significant playing time at any.
“It is very difficult because you really want to play and show what you can do,” said Kral on first season in professional baseball.
“But you also learn to focus on what you can control and what I could control was coming to the park every day and getting better.”
This season Austin Hedges, maybe the minor leagues top catching prospect, went down with a wrist injury. Kral, 24, finally got his chance at everyday playing time and made the most of his opportunity hitting .291/.434/.603 and leading the organization in home runs with 10 going into Wednesday night’s action.
“The biggest thing is just consistent playing time,” Kral said after a pre-game workout on his success.  “Especially at the plate.  Seeing consistent pitches is just a big help in getting comfortable and being able to drive the ball.”
The New Jersey native was a star at the College of Charleston, hitting .330/.478/.584 for his career and frequently finishing near the top of the league in on-base percentage.  The big knock on the 5’9” left-handed hitting Kral coming out of school was on his receiving skills, which according to a Baseball America scouting report was substandard.
“In college I was always more offensive oriented and here it’s to not take a bad at-bat out onto the field,” said Kral on the difference between college and the pros.
“When you put the gear back on, you are a catcher and that is your main goal.”  
Since joining the Padres Kral’s defense has gotten better, and with the exception of a bad game at High Desert where he made two errors after a pair of 16 inning games in one week, he has been errorless behind the plate with Lake Elsinore.
But what has gotten notice is his hitting.  
In a season where the Storm has been searching for some power in the middle of the lineup Kral has fit the bill with twenty-four extra-base hits in 44 games and a base-on-balls to strike out ratio of 35 to 25.
At twenty-four Kral will have another label to fight in that he is “old for the league”.   And with Hedges returning he will have more limited opportunities to get behind the plate and will be playing more first base and maybe even some in the outfield.  
“As long as I am somewhere in the line-up that is fine with me,” Kral laughed.
“Just please not on the mound.”
Throw in the fact that catching with Yasmani Grandal and Nick Hundley at the major league level and Hedges, and Dane Phillips and Rodney Daal in Fort Wayne; catcher is easily the deepest non-pitcher position in the organization.  
It will not be an easy ascent to the major leagues for Kral by any means.
But as San Diego manager Bud Black is fond of saying, it’s a performance game and Kral is performing.
“He can hit,” said David Newhan, the Storm hitting coach and a veteran of eight major league seasons.
“He handles the strike zone well with good mechanics and has the ability to stay with his plan.  He can elevate pull side for power without selling out to the rest of the field.”
“It’s what you want to see in a Major League hitter.”