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"I wasn't exactly surprised," Erik Kratz says when asked if he was surprised by the invitation, "I didn't have the year I wanted, my average was down, and overall it just wasn't my best year. But there were some good things that I did this year, and obviously the Blue Jays saw something, because you don't just send guys down here to fill spots."
Kratz is open about his 2005 season because he knows he's capable of more. Despite hitting just .205 this year in Double-A New Hampshire, Kratz has a reputation for being a solid defensive catcher, and a track record for hitting better than he did this season. He also has a track record of changing addresses.
And perhaps that was the problem. In just two years, 2003 and 2004, Kratz switched levels six times. In '03, just his second year in pro baseball, he moved from Low-A Charleston (WV) back down to Short Season-A Auburn, then up to Double-A New Hampshire for the playoffs. He hit over .300 for the season but was held down because of injuries that gave him a total of roughly a half season's worth of games.
In 2004 the story was the same. After starting off strong in the High-A Florida State League he was bumped up to Double-A again, only to have injuries cut his season short. Once healthy he came back in the Short Season league again. He hit .290 for the season, but again it was in a total of just 29 games on the season.
There was a goal for Kratz in 2005, and that was health. Mission accomplished. Kratz played in a career high 91 games this past season, all of them in Double-A, and despite the poor average, his 11 homers and 34 RBI were also career highs. Now the Blue Jays have sent him to the Arizona Fall League to play even more. Kratz knows that this could be the beginning of something special.
"It definitely gives me confidence going into next year. You know there is the opportunity to move up, and you know this can be a big step toward that."
As far as his situation in the AFL, it's pretty clear that Quiroz is the focus, but that's fine with Kratz.
"He's got a lot of defensive experience," Kratz says of his fellow Jays catching prospect, "and he's been in the bigs a couple of times. If you're going to try to learn from somebody, that's the somebody you want to learn from."
As far as trying to out hit, out field, or out play Quiroz, Kratz knows that's not the objective.
"I've never viewed it as a competition, I know it could be, but that's not the way I look at it. I need to do well myself, and then I'll get an opportunity. Nobody ever made the big leagues by hoping someone else doesn't do well. I'm focused on my game down here, not his, not anyone else's."
As far as where that focus is, Kratz admits the Blue Jays didn't give him a whole lot of specifics to work on, but he knows what's necessary.
"I picked up some bad habits during the season, so I'm down here to make good swings. The Blue Jays didn't have to tell me that they wanted me to get at bats, I know that's what they are looking for."
Still, being stuck behind Quiroz on the Peoria Saguaros roster hasn't given him all the opportunities he'd normally like to have.
"There aren't as many ABs down here as at some of the other positions, but the ones I get I'm trying to take advantage of. There are so many coaches and instructors down here to help you out you can always be working on your game, and if you're not you're not getting everything you can out of this league."
Perhaps the biggest challenge he's faced is an almost completely new role, that of a pinch hitter. Through Tuesday Kratz has appeared in 16 games, but tallied only 26 total at bats, because he's often been asked to come off the bench cold and pinch hit. Though he doesn't use it as an excuse, it's obvious that at least part of the reason he's hitting just .192 in the AFL is because he's had more than two at bats in the same game only four times.
"It's a little bit tougher, and I recognize the fact that AmErikan League teams typically don't pinch hit in a lot of the situations that I've been pinch hitting in. It's just something I've never done before, so it's an adjustment, but it's still the same thing, get up there and swing at good pitches."
And because of the lack of playing time, the lack of swings, the lack of success, Erik Kratz is feeling down on himself isn't he?
"Absolutely not," Kratz says, "this is a huge opportunity, not just for what I do down here, but especially for what I can take into next season. I'm learning a lot, and sometimes it takes a little time to put everything you've learned together, but I know this is an opportunity not many players get. I'm learning, and this league will make me a better player.
That's the point isn't it?"