With the Cincinnati Reds just days away from their first Spring Training game of the year, it's fair to say that the majority of the focus will be on the stars of the show in Goodyear. Baseball fans will be clamoring for news on how the likes of Joey Votto and Jay Bruce are coming along in their preparation for the season. A smaller number may be interested in how some of the Reds' non-roster invitees like pitcher Chien-Ming Wang or long-time Louisville Bat Kristopher Negron are faring in Arizona. No matter what kind of baseball fan you are, you're certainly interested in Corky Miller, who is with the Reds in Major League camp as well.
Big league camp gets all of the press, and for good reason. But the other side of Spring Training that gets hardly any is minor league camp, where much of the Bats' roster will come from when the team assembles in Louisville. Some memorable names are there, too, like outfielders Felix Perez and Josh Fellhauer. For every player fans in Louisville are familiar with, there are plenty more that are far from household names.
Joining the oft-unnoticed fray of minor league camp this year is Thomas Neal, a relatively anonymous outfielder who will likely be a Louisville Bat this season. Neal is entering his first season in the Reds organization, but isn't unfamiliar with the International League or the Triple-A level. Last season, he played in 72 games for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders of the IL's North Division.
Neal's career has been far from average, and it hasn't necessarily gone unnoticed, either. Still a fairly young 26 years old, he has posted impressive numbers at the plate, and he's done it at every level of the minor leagues. In his 701 career minor league games, Neal has hit .301 with a .377 on-base percentage. He's been able to hit for extra bases as well, posting a respectable .459 career slugging percentage.
Consistency has been the name of Neal's game throughout his career, and it has been valuable at almost every stop on his minor league path. He has helped lead championship-winning efforts at each level of the minor leagues and has also been named either a midseason or postseason All-Star in the California League (Advanced Class-A) and Eastern League (Double-A).
Most minor-leaguers are well-traveled, but Neal's journey has truly taken him from coast to coast and then some. A native of Inglewood, California, the outfielder started his professional career in Salem, Oregon as a member of the San Francisco Giants farm system. He climbed his way to Triple-A Fresno within the Giants organization before being traded to the Cleveland Indians in 2011 as part of a deal that sent shortstop Orlando Cabrera to the Tribe.
It was with Cleveland that Neal made his Major League Debut in 2012, and he saw limited Major League time with the New York Yankees and Chicago Cubs in 2013. He was placed on the season-ending disabled list by Chicago in August of last year with a dislocated right shoulder. In 15 career big league games, the outfielder has hit .184 with a double and a pair of RBIs.
Should Neal come to Louisville as expected, he could be an important piece of the offensive puzzle as the Bats look to rebound from an abysmal 2013 season at the plate. In 71 games with the RailRiders last year, Neal posted a slash line of .325/.391/.411. His batting average and on-base percentage would have been good for a team best in Louisville last season, which should pique the interest of second year Bats manager Jim Riggleman. Moreover, his veteran presence and knowledge of what it takes to be a Major Leaguer will be invaluable to younger players who will inevitably join the team as the season wears on.
With other names likely ahead of him in a potentially crowded Louisville outfield, Neal could see his innings limited at times. Spring training invitees like Roger Bernadina and Jason Bourgeois are battling for Major League jobs in Goodyear, but it is possible that one or both could come to Louisville at some point in 2014. Also expected to see significant time in the outfield this season are prospect Ryan LaMarre and the aforementioned Felix Perez.
As a former 35th-round pick, Neal is no stranger to being an underdog. While he may be tabbed as one yet again this season, his track record suggests that he'll be able to make a name for himself all the same when the Bats take the diamond at Louisville Slugger Field this summer.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.