From Mustang to cactus kid: Peeler adjusting to Arizona, improving on mound
By Mike London
PEORIA, Ariz. — Seattle Mariners prospect Joe Peeler was the winning pitcher in a professional baseball game played in Arizona on July 5.
That meant two things — a ball for his trophy case and a call home to Richard Peeler, his father.
“I knew it was 1 in the morning back home when I called,” Peeler said. “But I really wanted my dad to know I got a win.”
Peeler is competing in what is officially called the Arizona Summer Rookie League.
Informally, they call it the “Fire League,” because the temperature is always in triple digits. Dust storms are more likely than rain storms. The heat is dry, but it’s still a league where even the coolest customers sweat.
“It’s at least 110 every day,” Peeler said in a phone interview. “There have been days with excessive heat warnings because it’s gotten up to 118 or 120. On those days we can’t even practice.”
Peeler, who graduated from East Rowan High in 2015, is 19 years old. There should be a lot more wins in the lean, 6-foot-4 right-hander’s future, but pro baseball is a demanding business. Peeler’s roommate just found out he’s going to need Tommy John surgery. That was a reminder of how hard a business baseball can be.
Peeler had a decision to make when the Mariners called his name in the 25th round of last summer’s draft. He’d been very good in high school, although not overwhelming. He also was a solid student and he had signed with UNC Wilmington, a respected Division I program.
Some argued Peeler should have stuck with UNC Wilmington and developed into a higher — and richer — pick when he became eligible for the draft again in 2018.
But Peeler wanted to his get his pro career started immediately. He followed his dreams and his heart and he was on a plane to Arizona not long after he graduated.
Now he’s second-year pro instead of a rising college sophomore, and there’s no turning back. He’s OK with that. He believes in himself, his right arm and his decision.
“Last year was a learning year,” Peeler said. “This year has been better. I know a lot more guys now.”
Peeler pitched in nine games in the “Fire League” last summer. The numbers weren’t pretty — a 9.72 ERA, nine hits, eight walks and nine earned runs in 8 1/3 innings — but there’s no substitute for experience. He got his feet wet, he put some nervousness behind him, and he got some pro hitters out. Coaches had encouraging words for him following the season and he followed their blueprint to add weight and strength.
The Mariners and San Diego Padres share a massive training complex in Peoria, Ariz. — six full-sized baseball fields and several half-fields — and Peeler reported to Peoria in February.
It was intimidating for him just walking around and watching skilled veterans who had played in Double-A, Triple-A and the big leagues.
“There were about 70 pitchers in camp and I only threw about six innings,” said Peeler, who is up to 175 pounds. “I did get to talk to (Seattle third baseman and Kannapolis native) Kyle Seager several times when we were working out. He had good advice.”
In April, the training complex got less populated, as players were assigned to the low A, advanced A, Double-A, Triple-A and MLB teams that were starting their seasons.
Peeler was one of the ones who stayed in Peoria for a process known as Extended Spring Training.
It’s basically a continuation of regular spring training, and that’s what Peeler and many other 2015 high school picks were doing from April to June. Players with less than two years of experience are eligible for Extended Spring Training, and there also are rehabbing players who have been in the big leagues.
One of the players Peeler faced in Extended Spring Training was rehabbing an injury — Josh Hamilton, the 2010 American League MVP.
“I’d gone in to pitch the sixth inning and the catcher throws it down, and the third baseman tosses me the ball, and I look up, and Josh Hamilton is standing in the box,” Peeler said. “I knew he was there, but I wasn’t expecting to pitch to him. But I pitched to him like I would anyone else, and he popped up to center field.”
Extended Spring Training games have two umpires and players wear uniforms, but they are played on the practice fields, usually with 10 a.m. start times. So it was almost like Peeler was in the Army. His days typically started around 6 a.m.
“The games don’t count and no one keeps stats, but I threw the ball well, was dominant at times, and got in about 25 innings in Extended Spring,” Peeler said. “I worked on a new grip for my curveball and I was getting lots of swings and misses with my changeup.”
The recent June draft provided a fresh group of Seattle prospects. While No. 1 pick Kyle Lewis, who played three college seasons at Mercer, started at a higher level, most of the new Mariner draftees reported to the Fire League.
Opening night for the 14-team league was June 20 and play will continue through Aug. 29. The regular season will be followed by playoffs.
Peeler pitched an inning in the opener against the Padres.
There are more than 20 pitchers on the roster, so Peeler generally pitches one inning every three days. He’s pitched in six games so far with mixed results.
His best outing came against the Giants on July 5. That’s the team former Catawba slugger Will Albertson was assigned to, although Albertson didn’t bat against Peeler.
Peeler took the mound in the fifth inning with the Mariners trailing, 3-2. He gave up a single to the first man he faced, but then he got a double-play grounder and a strikeout on a 1-and-2 change-up.
Peeler got to go back out for the sixth and enjoyed a 1-2-3 inning. It started with a strikeout on his new curveball. Peeler explained that a changed grip has transformed his curveball from a sweeper into a pitch that’s breaking down as well as out.
“On the strikeout, I threw the curve and the bat came out of the guy’s hands and came flying at me,” Peeler said. “I actually had to jump over it.”
Next came a routine fly to left and a grounder back to Peeler, and the inning was over.
“I was hoping we’d score some runs and we got two,” Peeler said. “We took a 4-3 lead, and I was pumped. I went back out to the bullpen, and I didn’t say anything, but I knew if we kept the lead, I’d get the win. Fortunately, we kept the lead.”
Juan De Paula, an 18-year-old Dominican, held the fort in the seventh and eighth. David Ellingson, a 21-year-old recently drafted out of Georgetown, pitched the ninth. They saved the win for Peeler.
Peeler had two pro saves last summer, but no victories, so that first win meant something.
“It will always be special,” Peeler said.
There are going to be more bumps in the road for Peeler. Three days after the thrill of that first win, he gave up three runs in an inning against the Royals.
Peeler had a day off on Monday and spent it playing golf. But it was just a temporary distraction from the baseball grind that he’s chosen.
Peeler’s fastball is 89-to-92 mph now. That may be enough to move up in the Seattle organization — as long as his change-up keeps diving and his curveball keeps darting.
“I’m way ahead of where I was last year,” Peeler said. “I’m not as homesick now. And I’m a better pitcher.”
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