MInor League Baseball: Former South star Wagner still progressing
By Mike London
WINSTON-SALEM — Daniel Wagner spent a month in Double A earlier this season, and at that lofty level you can almost smell the freshly clipped grass of the big leagues.
“One day I’m playing Ping Pong with Pedro Hernandez in the clubhouse in Birmingham and two weeks later he’s pitching against the Red Sox in Fenway Park,” Wagner said.
Hernandez’s first visit to the majors lasted 30 minutes — long enough for Boston’s Cody Ross and Adrian Gonzalez to turn mistakes into three-run homers — but he was there.
Wagner, a 2006 South Rowan graduate, still grinds through long days and nights in the organization of the Chicago White Sox with the expectation that he’ll answer his own call to the big leagues someday.
A left-handed hitting second baseman now employed by the Winston-Salem Dash, Wagner was drafted by the White Sox in the 16th round in 2009 out of Belmont, a Division I school in Nashville, Tenn.
It’s possible no music production major ever has been drafted higher, but music — mostly writing and producing it — is Wagner’s backup career choice and what he’ll be doing after his baseball career ends.
When this season began, Wagner’s music career didn’t seem far away.
He was getting sporadic playing time. For the first time as a pro, he didn’t know if he’d be in the lineup when he reported to the ballpark.
“This was different because I’d been a starter every year (at Bristol in 2009, at Kannapolis in 2010, and at Winston-Salem in 2011),” Wagner said. “Playing just half the time, I couldn’t get in a groove, but I didn’t panic. A baseball season is so long.”
He emerged from his early slump forcefully enough that he was promoted in mid-June from advanced A Winston-Salem in the Carolina League to Birmingham in the Double A Southern League.
His stats at Birmingham mirrored his stats at Winston-Salem, which means he at least held his own.
“The difference between A and Double A was mental, more than physical,” Wagner said. “The pitchers don’t throw any harder but they’re more mature and more consistent. The umpires are more consistent calling balls and strikes, and the game is just a little faster.”
On July 21, Wagner was sent back to Winston-Salem, not because he was struggling, but because the White Sox wanted to see if young Venezuelan second baseman Carlos Sanchez could handle Double A.
“They told me it didn’t have anything to do with me,” Wagner said. “Sanchez is just unbelievable, one of the best defensive players I’ve ever seen. He’s a great player Much respect to him.”
Wagner, who turns 24 next Sunday, accepted the move back to Winston calmly. Winston is just an hour from his Kannapolis home, and there were other pluses.
“It’s a great team (70-42) with a great manager (Tommy Thompson) who expects us to win every night,” Wagner said. “There’s energy every single night and a great atmosphere to play in, and that’s important in the dog days of August.”
Wagner is having an average year on the stat sheet — a .263 batting average with 46 runs, 28 RBIs and 23 steals. Usually, he bats ninth.
The conventional wisdom is the minor leagues are about player development not wins and losses, but Wagner has an interesting take.
“I don’t worry about my individual numbers at all,” he said. “I go to the park every night with the idea of scoring a run, driving in a run or advancing a runner into scoring position. It’s important to play winning baseball now because winning is the object in the big leagues.”
In a lot of small ways that managers and general managers notice, Wagner is definitely getting better.
His success rate on steals is up this season. His walks are up. His strikeouts are down, and he’s hit into just two double plays in 345 at-bats.
“I believe I’m progressing,” Wagner said. “The dream is still alive.”