January 29, 2013 10:11:40 AM
Don't be surprised Thursday if Chris Stratton mentions how unbelievably fortunate he is to be playing a kid's game for a living.
Stratton also may talk about how quickly that luxury can be taken away at a moment's notice and how he experienced that reality last year in his first minor league season.
In less than a month, the former Tupelo High School and Mississippi State University standout Stratton will begin his first full season of professional baseball when he travels to Scottsdale, Ariz., the spring training home of the World Series champion San Francisco Giants. Before he leaves, Stratton will speak Thursday at the Columbus High School baseball team's First-Pitch Banquet.
"We play a game for a lot of money, and people understand that, but along with that goes with the responsibility of informing others how we appreciate every moment we have," Stratton said last week in a phone interview with The Dispatch.
Stratton nearly had his childhood dream of playing professional baseball dashed last August when he was struck in the head with a line drive during batting practice for the Giants' rookie ball team, the Salem-Keizer (Ore.) Volcanoes, in the short-season Northwest League. An ambulance took Stratton to a hospital, where he was diagnosed with a severe concussion that ended his first minor league season earlier than expected. The Giants used the No. 20 overall pick to select the right-hander in the 2012 Major League Baseball First-Year Player draft just two months earlier.
"It's not something I go back to a lot because I try not to think about it, but it is true that it could've been all over right then, and I was lucky it wasn't serious," Stratton said. "It was probably a blessing it happened to me because I was honestly physically tired with the grind of an SEC season and then the college baseball postseason as well to go right into throwing minor league innings."
Stratton was 0-1 with a 2.76 ERA in eight games (five starts) for the Volcanoes. He had 16 strikeouts in 16 1/3 innings.
According to MLB.com draft and prospect expert Jonathan Mayo, Stratton is the No. 3 prospect in the Giants' system.
"He mixes his pitches well and is generally around the strike zone," Mayo said. "His combination of size, stuff, and pitchabiilty should allow him to move fairly quickly through the Giants' system."
Last year, Stratton became the first MSU player to be drafted in the first round since 2003, when the Pittsburgh Pirates selected Paul Maholm eighth overall. Stratton was MSU's 10th first-round pick, joining former MLB All-Stars like Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro.
In a dream season last year that saw him shoot up the draft boards of professional scouts, Stratton went 11-2 with a SEC-best 2.38 ERA and 127 strikeouts. The right-hander then earned his only save in MSU's SEC tournament-clinching shutout victory against Vanderbilt University in Hoover, Ala. Stratton demanded MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson give him the baseball even though he was on short rest.
"It was a season I'll always remember, and not because it was so successful for me, but because I love Mississippi State and always will so I cherish the fact I got to help my teammates and my school do something great," Stratton said. "I can't wait to follow them through this season because the expectations are just bigger and better for them even though I can't be there with them."
Stratton told The Dispatch his throwing routine has changed dramatically. He said he hasn't thrown a baseball since the end of the summer because professional teams are concerned about overworking young arms.
"It's strange because I would've already thrown in the fall and a little this spring before the season started at MSU," Stratton said. "When I get to the facility for spring (training) next month is when I'll have started throwing hard for the first time since shutting it down."
While Stratton said he isn't sure where he'll start this season, he likely will play Class A ball with the Augusta (Ga.) Greenjackets. On Thursday, he will stress that it is crucial for everyone to appreciate every day they have to do what they love.
"It's just so exciting to start my first full season as a pro baseball player, and my goal is to make sure this feeling never leaves me throughout my career," Stratton said.