Jeff Howell, catcher, played in the Kansas City Royals minor league system for six years, from 2005-2010. He is currently in the Washington Nationals system. I was lucky enough to have a chance meeting with Jeff and asked for an interview. Special thanks for this rare experience. Enjoy.
Jeff, you were drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 32nd round of the 2001 MLB June Amateur Draft from Merritt Island HS (Merritt Island, FL) and decided not to sign, but attended Florida Southern College (Lakeland, FL).
I was drafted out of high school by the Braves and it was an awesome accomplishment. Although, I decided to attend the fall semester at then, Indian River Community College, before transferring to Florida Southern College after two years.
Can you explain what you think led to you getting drafted out of high school?
I played high school ball with, and against some projectable players. Professional scouts would come watch these players and I was amongst those players. I think I was noticed through this process. I played well and put up some good numbers during my senior high school season and I believe it was worthy of a selection in that year's draft.
What were your feelings at the time you were drafted by the Braves, and why you decided to attend college instead?
I was excited about being drafted out of high school since it was something I was working towards. My selection came in the 32nd round which meant there was not much for me to gain financially. I don't believe there would have been much invested in me by the Braves in my signing at that point. College was my other option to further my playing career. Playing at a junior college allowed me eligibility for the following professional draft. I decided, with the help of my parents, that attending junior college was in my best interest.
Being drafted at 18 was an awesome accomplishment and a goal attained. It was an inspiring experience and an elating feeling the day I received the call. Going to college seemed to be the best option at the time and I still believe that today.
Who were some of the talented players you played against in high school? Anybody that has spent time in the show?
One player that stands out from my high school days is Prince Fielder. He has the best resume of the players I competed against in high school. I don't think any other players from that time period have show-time, although there were a few players drafted that went on to play some form of competitive ball after high school.
You were then selected in the 10th round by the Royals in 2005. What do you remember from that day? Who made the call to you? Were contract negotiations sloppy or easy?
When the Royals selected me in the 2005 draft I was at home in Satellite Beach. My parents and I followed the draft intensely on-line until my name was called. A relieving feeling came over me as I realized I could continue my quest to play in the Major Leagues. My college coach was the first to call and congratulate me. The next day Cliff Pastornicky, the area scout for the Royals, called to set up a meeting to discuss my future with the organization. My parents and I met Cliff out for dinner, on the Royals of course. Negotiations were easy due to the fact that college seniors have limited bargaining power.
Also, what was your favorite team and who were your favorite players growing up? Did this fandom affect any baseball decisions you made or your feelings when you were drafted by the Braves or Royals?
I never had a favorite team growing up, although I did grow fond of the Florida Marlins. As for favorite players, I liked Benito Santiago and Jeff Conine. No baseball decisions were affected by any feelings I had growing up because any team willing to give me a chance to play would have my loyalty.
Jeff, the Royals have struggled to deliver a winning product for decades. You were in the Royals system for 6 years, from 2005-10. Can you explain any changes that were made going from the Baird era to the Dayton Moore era? Specifically, were there any changes in pitching philosophy and training after the switchover, or did things keep flowing along the same path?
I can only speak vaguely about the changes made during the organization transformation due to the fact that I was young and I don't recall the specifics. There were definitely changes in the organization once the Moore era began. New coordinators brought new philosophy that was preached throughout the system. During spring training there were meetings, offensively and defensively, that were held like that of a classroom. Information was passed from wise men to students daily on how the game was to be played. The new Royals were grooming baseball players from the ground up, starting with their youth. The development of younger players was the new theme and pitching development seemed to be top priority. The first thing I can remember that changed in the approach to pitching was commanding the 4-seam fastball and curve ball. Pitchers were to use only 4-seam fastballs, and curve balls, as well as a change-up, with some exceptions. Some guys could use 2-seam fastballs and sliders, but very few were granted leniency. This approach was altered as time passed but it was in place early to ensure a unified approach to develop power arms. After spending the next few years in the organization, I witnessed an increasingly valuable farm system where players were ready to help at the Major League level.
That is highly interesting. I always wondered how orders get handed down the chain in a huge system with several teams. You've been a minor leaguer for 9 years, playing for 4 different organizations (Kansas City, Minnesota, Boston, and Washington). Since there were big changes from one GM the next, what kind of differences exist between organizations?
Organizational differences vary from team to team. Most differences are small but can shape the very edge at which an organization thrives. The Red Sox want offensive power production from a catcher, and most of their hitters. At least, that was the feeling I got in my short stint with them. The Twins and other teams want the same but will settle with a good hitter that can situational hit and handle the bat well enough to compete. Each team has a way of running bases as well as pitching inside. They all preach the same concept of how important it is and how this will define us as we go up against divisional rivals. There are keys aspects of playing the game hard that I think all teams harp on so they control the controllable aspects of the game.
Also, you have been a part of two very distinct new eras in baseball: the Moneyball Era and the Steroids Era. How have you seen those two so-called eras affect baseball in the minor league system?
As for the 2 different eras in baseball, I just see more drug testing procedures introduced in the minors. They see what works and they try to introduce the policies with the union up top which trickles down to the minors. Since 2005, there have been changes each year on the drug testing policies. The procedures are evolving with the stuff that is out there and it's been very effective through my eyes. So with the juice out of the game, Moneyball is more likely the case with some smaller market teams or anyone else trying to play the numbers.
Being in the Royals system for so long you must be close friends with some current Royals fan favorites. Do you have any funny stories from the minors?
No funnies on my old teammates.
The best pitcher you've caught?
Greg Holland stands out as one of the better pitchers that I've caught. He is so aggressive with his stuff in the strike zone that it forces you to swing the bat. I think that's why he has gotten where he is today.
You've been in the minors for a long time, riding buses from city to city. Can you explain what it has been like living life in the minors for that long? For a moment last year, the Nats' catchers were dropping like flies. I was really hoping you would be called up and play for a World Series team, which I thought the Nats were last year.
Living life in the minors is grueling and grinding on the mind and body. Bus rides vary league to league, but the hotels are always accommodating. A lot of the times, teams are also very accommodating with facilities. You ask if I still have hopes that one day I would be called up, and all I can say is that I am still pursuing my dream to play in the Major Leagues. I guess I've just learned to deal with it as it comes day-to-day knowing there's light at the end of the tunnel. My hopes are high and I believe my chances are as well, even if unlikely, that is the belief I hold because that is the only reason I've played so long, and persevered through the grind of minor league baseball.
There are "bonus babies" in the draft that each organization (I assume) treats differently than the "other" players. Is there a dichotomy between the players that know they are going to play at the highest level? Does it create any differences at the team level?
Bonus babies are given every opportunity for success with good reasons. They also have tough times like other players because expectations are so high. All I know is that as you climb the ladder in a system the players mature as well. Being a good teammate is a staple in the clubhouse and is expected no matter the circumstance. Most bonus babies seemed to be groomed from the start to be good clubhouse guys, or they have less stress because their financial situation. Either way, we all have to get along.
In the minors, pitchers are often working on pitches and batters working on their stances. Do you think this changes the way the game is played?
The game has been played the same way for years. Play to win. Development in the minors of individual crafts is to ensure success at the highest level of competition. I don't think the game changes, maybe the players change from year to year, but winning at the Big League level trumps all.
Do you still have hopes that you will one day be called up? You are one smart cookie, any plans for after baseball? Coaching?
I'm not sure what I will do when I'm done playing. I guess that's because I'm so focused on playing that everything else is a distant second. Maybe that's another reason I've been able to endure the grind. My goal is to play until I'm 40, make some money, and retire young. Or until they rip the jersey off of me, and believe me, I'll die trying! I feel like my passion for the game will never subside and I would like to venture into coaching one day.