By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
Pitch or go home.
The options were simple for Rowan Wick when the St. Louis Cardinals – who selected him in the ninth round of the 2012 draft as a catcher out of Cypress College in California – decided that he wasn’t going any further in their system as a position player.
In the 24-year-old’s second professional season – three years ago – St. Louis moved him back to the outfield, where Wick had played in high school. Hopes were high for the right fielder when he started his third campaign in the New York-Penn League with the State College Spikes and posted an astounding .378/.475/.815 slash line in 35 games, hitting 14 home runs, eight doubles and a triple in 119 at-bats.
From there, the Cardinals promoted Wick to the Peoria Chiefs roster in the Midwest League to finish his year, before starting the 2015 season in Class-A Advanced Palm Beach in the Florida State League. Both moves saw his numbers decline, and by the end of the year, Wick was in the rookie-class Gulf Coast League being asked to take the mound.
“I wasn’t a very good hitter,” Wick explained simply, though it did take some time for him to agree with the conclusion his organization had reached.
“It was never really my decision. It was Cardinals farm director [John Vuch]. But now I get it, for sure, [after] seeing higher level competition and experiencing it. At first, I wasn’t too happy about it, but there was really nothing I could do. It was either pitch or go home, right? I just had to go with it…Now, I’m stoked, for sure. I’m happy about it.”
In his first full season as a pitcher last year, Wick broke camp out of spring training with the Palm Beach team that led to the demise of his hitting career. In 23 games, the hard-throwing 6-foot-3, 220-pound right-hander quickly became the team’s closer, notching six saves to go with a 1.09 ERA in 24 2/3 innings, allowing just 16 hits, three earned runs, walking six and striking out 37 over that span.
“Last year, I came to spring training with not really too many expectations because it was going to be my first full year pitching,” Wick said. “I was on the Double-A roster in spring training and I was pitching against Double-A competition all spring, and I did pretty well. I thought maybe I’ll go to Low A, maybe I’ll stay in extended, and then I stayed on the High-A roster and I broke with High A.
“I was actually super surprised that was where they put me because I had never pitched. I had pitched in the GCL for two innings the year before. But obviously they know better than me because I did super well in High A. I made the All-Star Game and things were going really well.”
Wick earned a mid-season promotion to Double-A, and in his first taste of Texas League competition with the Springfield Cardinals, the man with the high-90s fastball posted a 4.12 ERA over 21 games and 19 2/3 frames, allowing 14 hits, 14 walks, and fanning 20 batters.
“It was the biggest jump I’ve ever done,” Wick said. “Even as a hitter, just seeing the competition and seeing how the guys on my team prepared for every game and that kind of thing. Guys are locked in at Double-A.”
Wanting to see more of what Wick’s arm had in it, and allow the converted player some additional time to learn and adjust as a hurler, St. Louis sent him to the prospect-laden Arizona Fall League, where he threw 10 innings with the Glendale Desert Dogs and gained some assurance in his own abilities.
“I was super excited about the Fall League,” Wick said. “Obviously I had been to the instructional league in Florida, which is after the season, so I had seen some guys come down who were preparing for the Fall League, and they were always the best guys in the organization. So when I found out I was going, I was super excited. Then just being out there, it’s a different world because everybody there is the next big leaguer. It gives you a lot of confidence.”
Enjoying his time in the bullpen – and excelling at his newfound talent of building airplanes out of gum wrappers and shooting them further than his teammates – Wick has also found that one of the benefits of his position switch has been his ability to simplify the game in a way he couldn’t before.
“When I was a hitter I would come to the field and I was always stressed out,” he said. “I would have to hit in the cage and I would worry about hitting, who we were facing that day, and that type of stuff. Obviously as a reliever you’ve got to worry about the same type of stuff, but some days you don’t even pitch. Two days in a row, and you might not pitch. You get more of a mental break when you’re in the bullpen.”
Wick’s performance on the mound over the last year and the poise that he’s gained are two of the likely reasons he finds himself ready to suit up in a Team Canada uniform once again, heading to the World Baseball Classic with the squad. Though the native of North Vancouver, BC isn’t entirely sure how his once-filled roster spot became available, he is happy there is room for him in the bullpen.
“I actually talked to Greg [Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams] about it and he originally said, ‘Well, we don’t really have a spot right now,’” Wick said. “It was right before Christmas, maybe around the 16th or 17th, and then he called me back the next day and said, ‘We want to give you a spot.’ So I don’t know what happened but I was pretty happy about it.”
Almost seven years removed from his time as an outfielder with the Canadian Junior National Team – where he played with Blue Jays outfielder Dalton Pompey, Phillies prospect Nick Pivetta and Yankees minor league catcher Kellin Deglan, all set to be his teammates again at the WBC – the righty couldn’t be more excited for his first shot with the senior squad in Miami.
“I am super excited,” the flamethrower said. “I haven’t played for Canada since 2010 [at the world junior championships in Thunder Bay, Ont.] so it’s a huge honour. What I remember from the junior team is the atmosphere of the guys. All the Canadian guys are very similar, so we get along super well.
“These are the best guys, this is the biggest stage I will have played on so far, and it’s going to be unbelievable. I don’t even know what it’s going to be like. I can’t even picture it, but I’m excited.”