Better late than never for pitching prospect Schugel
Former college infielder didn't begin mound career until 2010
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Every spring, just before June's First-Year Player Draft, former Angels scouting director Eddie Bane would touch base with all of his amateur scouts with one request.
Give me your "gut feeling" guy.
John Gracio, the ex-Navy SEAL who works in Arizona and New Mexico, had an easy answer for Bane in 2010: A.J. Schugel, an infielder at Central Arizona College who could someday become a Major League pitcher.
Schugel didn't even pitch in high school, never mind junior college. And when he threw at a pre-Draft workout at Angel Stadium on May 29, 2010 -- just a couple hours after Kendrys Morales broke his leg stomping on home plate -- it was just his fourth bullpen session. Of his life.
"I thought he'd go out and develop. I really did," Gracio said. "But I never thought he'd come this quick."
The Angels took a chance on Schugel in the 25th round that year, signing him for a mere $40,000, and then he began exceeding expectations at every stop.
Schugel, son of long-time Angels pro scout Jeff Schugel, began as a reliever in rookie ball, notching a 3.91 ERA in 17 appearances, then slowly transitioned into a successful starting pitcher. At both of the Angels' Class A levels in 2011, he posted a 3.03 ERA in 29 games (16 starts). And as a full-time starter in Double-A Arkansas last year, he took off, leading the organization with a 2.89 ERA in 140 1/3 innings.
Schugel is in camp now, taking in his first Spring Training as he gets ready for his first season of Triple-A. MLB.com lists him as the 16th-best prospect in the Angels' system and Baseball America has him ranked 12th. But several members of the organization feel he's among their top 10.
"He's very coachable, he wants to learn," Gracio said. "He can comprehend what you tell him and he retains everything. In my opinion, it's that mental discipline and his intelligence on the bump that got him here."
Ask Schugel to evaluate himself as a position player and he'll give you a pretty honest assessment: "I could field and I could throw, but I don't think I'd be consistent enough offensively."
As a high school third baseman, he was selected by the Padres in the 33rd round, though he didn't sign. In college, he played mostly third base as a freshman, second base as a junior and shortstop every once in a while.
He never pitched -- at least not seriously.
"In high school, I always would just mess around with it," Schugel said. "I would throw junk at my throwing partner and he'd hate me for it.
"I don't know how it happened, to be honest with you. They saw me throw once in a bullpen and it took off from there."
That bullpen session took place in a showcase in Schugel's home state of Colorado, during the Christmas break leading up to his sophomore season. Angels scouting director Ric Wilson, who now runs the Draft and was working under Bane at the time, was there, and word soon spread about Schugel's potential on the mound.
Schugel had a great arm, his throws had natural movement -- frustrating first basemen everywhere -- and his athleticism was expected to facilitate the transition.
But his college coach didn't use him on the mound and his team went deep into the playoffs that year, so Schugel threw just one more bullpen session before Gracio invited him to throw for him in Tempe, Ariz., in mid-May.
By the time he saw him there, it had pretty much been decided: The Angels wanted Schugel, but only as a pitcher.
"He's always had a good arm," said Jeff Schugel, who did his best to stay out of the way throughout the process. "He's that kid that I think was a little bit of a late bloomer physically, and I think that's a reason along the way why some coaches wanted to keep him off the mound, because there were bigger and stronger guys that could go out there."
Schugel -- listed at 6-foot-1 but really about 5-foot-9 -- throws a low- to mid-90s fastball that has plenty of tail and sink. His curveball is still a work in progress, though he's tightened it up over the last year. His motion, scouts say, is fluid and natural. And the pitch that came easiest to him was the changeup -- rare for a transitioning position player, considering the feel required to be able to throw it effectively.
"And that's where being a good athlete comes in," one scout said. "But he still has some things he needs to learn, obviously.
Schugel, though, has proven to be a quick study.
"I think since I signed in 2010, I've come a long way, just learning how to pitch," he said. "Not so much pitches, but learning how to pitch to hitters. I guess the good thing of coming from a hitter's standpoint is you kind of know what their mindset is. But, yeah, I've definitely made some strides, and hopefully I continue to do well."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.