By Michael DiStefano
Canadian Baseball Network
As an outsider looking into the baseball world we often forget that players are people and we disregard the human side associated with player movement.
With over 100 players traded over the course of the 2018 MLB trade deadline season, dozens of people were plucked from their lives in one city and dropped into another. Some veterans are used to this part of the business by now. Others, however, still get that unsettling feeling in their stomach during that conversation in the manager’s office.
For Brampton, Ont., native Zach Pop, his first trade experience fit into the unsettling category.
The 21-year-old right-hander was caught by surprise on July 18 when he was notified by his manager that he was one of five players being sent to the Baltimore Orioles for All-Star shortstop Manny Machado.
Pop was a seventh-round choice of the Los Angeles Dodgers a year ago and quickly climbed the minor league ladder. In 35 relief appearances this season Pop has tantalized batters posting a 1.43 earned-run average with 55 strikeouts between low-A, high-A, and double-A.
The six-foot-four Canuck made a name for himself in the lower levels of the Dodgers organization earning himself a call-up in July. After three days with the team’s double-A affiliate, Pop had yet to get the call from the pen which spawned curiosity out of the eager pitcher.
“I was there for two or three days and on my third day I was supposed to go in and they said they didn’t want me to go in. I didn’t get the call or anything,” Pop said. “The next day I didn’t go in again and I was like, okay, something’s going on”
Something was going on alright because that night Pop was invited into his manager’s office for one of the most difficult conversations of his career. He had just been traded to the Baltimore Orioles.
“For me, it was kind of like a gut punch at first,” Pop said. “It was a lot to take in, especially since all you’ve known is that one team and one organization.”
And just like that, Pop was no longer a Dodger and was en route to Bowie, Maryland to join the Orioles double-A affiliate.
“It was a whole new experience: culture wise, organizational values, it was just completely different,” he said. “On the first day walking into the clubhouse I was like ‘I don’t know anything.’ It felt like I was on the road, but with a bunch of new guys.”
After feeling overwhelmed with the whole experience Pop started to come around to the idea of the trade a couple of days later.
“It was nice because they [must] value me a lot as a player to put me in the Machado trade,” he said. “But it was more so at the beginning just shock and [the uncertainty] of what’s going to happen in the future.”
A few days after the shock wore off, Pop finally got into a game with his new team. Due to the trade discussions, the 21-year-old was held out off the mound for nine days before he got in-game action again.
“While you’re part of the trade talks you’re not allowed to pitch.” Pop said. “I had a rough first outing after not pitching for nine days.”
He struggled mightily giving up two hits, walking a pair, and allowing three runs without recording an out. However, it’s been much better since that rusty outing.
Since that July 20 appearance, the Baysox reliever has pitched seven innings while allowing just two hits with eight strikeouts.
This stretch of four games is the type of consistency Pop is looking to build on going forward on his journey to the big leagues.
“For me, I just need to get a little bit more consistent with getting my rhythm and my mechanics, [and then] just having that level of control where I can put this pitch where I want whenever I want.”
Pop will have ample time to do that with less than two years of pro baseball experience under his belt. He is only 21, after all.
The Orioles prospect believes all he needs is in-game experience to better his craft.
“It’s great to [pitch] in a bullpen setting, but once you get out there and the lights go on and there’s a guy who wants to hit 110 off you, that’s when you really find out what your pitches are doing. Or the team is up 1-0 and you have to make pitches and get out of the inning,” he said. “That’s when you find out how well you’re executing pitches.”
Despite the recent influx of young talent coming into Baltimore’s system, the right-handed reliever ranks as the team’s 26th best prospect according to MLB Pipeline.
“I’m very excited to be an Oriole,” Pop said. “This [is a] great opportunity for me and my career.”
It appears what once seemed like a punch to the gut has actually turned out to be a bittersweet situation for the young pitcher. Pop should get every opportunity possible to work his way up to the majors in a rebuilding Orioles organization.
“I’m excited to see what happens in the future, and [hopefully] I can help the big league club soon.”