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Legends and tall tales can be found across small-town America. C.J. Edwards' story is on its way to becoming legend.
Most tall tales have in common a beginning, a middle and an end, even if each is exaggerated slightly. Johnny Appleseed headed west, planted apple trees and spread the fruit across the nation. John Henry was the best steel driver around, was challenged to a competition against a steam-powered hammer and defeated the machine, only to perish on the spot.
Edwards' story has the first two parts down -- growing up in a small South Carolina town called Prosperity, playing in the Sandlot League, getting selected in the 48th round of the Draft and posting eye-popping numbers (1.86 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, .182 opponents' average, 155 strikeouts in 116 1/3 innings) to secure MiLB.com's staff choice as Pitcher of the Year.
Ty Blach, San Jose
A fifth-round pick in the 2012 Draft out of Creighton, Giants lefty Ty Blach excelled in his professional debut to earn the fans' recognition as top Minor League starting pitcher. Despite spending the year in the hitter-friendly California League, Blach had a 2.90 ERA and struck out 117 batters while walking just 18 and permitting just eight home runs in 113 1/3 innings. His ERA and HR/9 (0.55) led the league, while his win total (12), WHIP (1.09) and K-to-BB ratio were second.
Blach's finest performance came May 21 at Inland Empire when he fanned 11 in eight three-hit innings. Both the innings and strikeout totals were single-game career highs for Blach, who entered the season 20th on the Giants' prospect rankings but has since jumped to 12th. His fastball, changeup, curve repertoire could move him higher should he succeed in his next test, likely with Double-A Richmond in 2014. Voting results »
The ending, however, has yet to be written.
Prosperity, S.C., sits about 40 miles northwest of Columbia -- home of the University of South Carolina, winner of the 2010 and 2011 College World Series. Edwards describes his hometown of about 1,000 people and the surrounding area as "a baseball capital."
"It's big," he said. "Obviously, it's a small town and football is big, too, but you'd be surprised at how big baseball is. Baseball is everywhere here."
Nowhere is that popularity more evident than in the local circuit called the Bush League by some and the Sandlot League by others. It's a circuit filled with locals who want as much of the game as they can, hoping to never let go. Many play into their 40s.
Edwards, whose family is well-known in local baseball circles, has told the story of the moment he knew he made it in the Sandlot League to pretty much anyone who asks. Yet his enthusiasm still builds during the telling.
In one blowout of his Pirates by the Black Sox, his Uncle Chuck, a Pirates player/coach, turned to his teenage nephew in the third inning and asked if he wanted to take the hill.
"My last name is Edwards," the scrawny young right-hander said. "I'm made for this."
As Edwards tells his own story, soon after throwing his first pitch to his uncle behind the plate, he was popping the mitt enough times that those who'd walked away were coming back to watch. The umpire, he said, normally meant to be an impassioned participant, jumped in, dancing and punctuating each strike call with "Striiiiiiiiiiiiiiiike three." Edwards remembers fanning 12 or 13 batters in a comeback win.
"That's a bright spot," Edwards concludes.
From there, he was "ragged" at by opponents but never "cursed" at. "You're too young to be here," they'd say. "Shouldn't you be in school?" But it'd always be followed after the final out with an instructive, "You've got a future, man."
"The biggest thing that league taught me was it's not what you come from," Edwards said. "It's how much you put into it."
Edwards didn't allow a home run in 93 1/3 innings pitched for Hickory. (Hickory Crawdads)
Enter Chris Kemp.
The former Rangers farmhand had dropped out of affiliated baseball after two seasons and was coaching at Spartanburg Methodist College -- about an hour from Prosperity -- when he came upon Edwards.
"He was this really skinny but athletic kid going up against these adults," Kemp said. "I didn't have my [radar] gun with me, but I could tell he had the chance to throw hard."
In 2010, Kemp became an area scout for the Rangers and was responsible for South Carolina, North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. In 2011 -- Edwards' senior year at Mid-Carolina High School -- he wanted to get a look at the pitcher's athleticism, so he watched him on the basketball court, where Edwards could dunk with two hands and drain 3-pointers. Kemp was impressed.
"He was throwing about 87-89, maybe touching 90," the scout said of the right-hander, who stood 6-foot-2 but weighed just 140 pounds. "It wasn't extremely strong stuff, though. His breaking ball had spin, but it was still up in the zone. But you knew because he'd grown up and played against older guys -- you could see what kind of heart he had.
"It kind of felt like holding a winning lottery ticket."
Kemp wanted to take a chance on Edwards. Despite his enthusiasm, he was one of only a few scouts to get a good enough look at him.
"I saw him four different times that year and I think I saw a total of four different scouts there," he said. "There were about five or six first-rounders in the area, so guys ended up being kinda spread out. No one really got a chance to see him."
One of those first-rounders was Taylor Guerrieri, a highly touted right-hander from Spring Valley High School in Columbia who was taken 24th overall by the Rays.
Though Kemp seemed hottest on Edwards, the 19-year-old was getting mixed messages from teams after pre-Draft workouts. Some told him he could go as high as the first 10 rounds, maybe top 15 or 20. Then, as the Draft approached, round after round and day after day passed.
"That's fine," Edwards thought. "If baseball doesn't want me, I'll just go to college."
The Rangers finally took him in the 48th round (of 50), 1,464th overall. A year later, Major League Baseball's new collective bargaining agreement would reduce the Draft to 40 rounds. Edwards had made the cut by two rounds and one year.
He was still leaning toward junior college until his life was rocked: His friend Will Bedenbaugh was killed in a car accident.
"I kind of felt like I lost it all," Edwards said. "I had to re-evaluate things, and I went back to thinking that pro ball was always a goal. I'd rather have something happen in pro ball and come up short that way than have something happen in college and never make it as a pro."
Edwards signed for $50,000 on the signing deadline, Aug. 15.
Edwards signed too late to pitch in the Minors in 2011. Entering instructs in the fall, his fastball was up to 92 and his curveball was continuing to develop. Thanks to his projectable frame and his experience against older players, those in the audience were taken aback.
"When I first saw him get on a mound in instructs, I was sitting next to Danny Clark, I think, and I just said, 'What round did we draft this guy in?'" said Storm Davis, then pitching coach for the Rangers' Class A affiliate in Hickory, N.C. "I'm from the South, too, so I have an idea where he grew up and where he's from. But I don't know how someone didn't catch him. That's not 48th-round stuff. I've seen first-rounders that didn't have stuff as good as him."
As is common with low-round picks, Edwards was sent to extended spring training to start the 2012 season, and he was just hoping to survive.
"There were guys getting cut that were signed for $100,000," he said. "I was thinking they'll throw away $50,000, no problem. I'm just trying to make it past that cut. I went out there and in my mind, I just wanted to do what got me there. If I leave because my stuff isn't good, it's OK -- it's over and I just have to move on."
That wasn't quite the case.
"I was getting reports that he was up to 94 with cut life on his fastball. I'm going, 'Holy [expletive]," Kemp said.
Edwards stayed in extended, waiting to hear if he would get a spot on one of the Rangers' short-season teams. He had thrown a couple of outings in the instructional league and hoped he'd be heading to short-season Spokane. Right around the time when rosters were to be announced, he was called into a meeting and told he would be headed to the Northwest League.
"I kept a straight face as best I could," Edwards said, "but in my mind, I was screaming, 'Yes!'"
The euphoria proved short-lived. When the Rangers released its Spokane roster, Edwards was told the organization wanted him to get more experience in the Rookie-level Arizona League, against players closer to his Draft status.
It was in the Arizona League where the numbers began to match the scouting reports.
Edwards pitched 20 innings over four appearances. Armed with the plus fastball and a serviceable curveball, he struck out 25, walked six, allowed only six hits and did not yield a run. In his final two outings, he threw 10 1/3 hitless innings. Because of those impressive numbers and his still lean frame, he received the nickname "String Bean Slinger" -- his Twitter handle is still @CEdwardsSBS.
The Rangers promoted him to Spokane in the middle of July, and the dominance continued. He didn't allow more than a run in any of his first five starts (24 innings), posting a 1.13 ERA with 27 strikeouts. There were some bumps along the way before he concluded with five no-hit innings against Eugene to finish with a 2.11 ERA, 60 strikeouts and 19 walks over 47 innings.
Now folks outside the Rangers organization were taking notice. Baseball America named him the No. 8 prospect in the Northwest League, MLB.com placed him at No. 20 in the Rangers organization and MiLB.com called him an Under-the Radar Prospect entering 2013.
If there were concerns about the transition, beyond staying healthy, they were allayed by the fact that he was pitching close to home in the South Atlantic League, where his family could travel to Charleston, Savannah and Augusta.
"It was a big deal having them close by," Edwards said. "My first year, they didn't see anything. All they could do was listen on the radio. Now all of a sudden, the majority of my games are close. It put a smile on my face to know they were right there."
Whether it was that smile or a fastball-curveball combo with an improving changeup, Edwards picked up where he left off in 2012. In his first five starts for the Crawdads, he logged a 1.93 ERA with 29 strikeouts, seven walks and a .176 opponents' average en route to Rangers Minor League Pitcher of the Month honors for April.
On May 19, he tossed a seven-inning one-hitter in the opener of a doubleheader with Delmarva. From May 29 through mid-July, he had a 1.10 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 63 strikeouts in 41 innings. And he still hadn't given up a home run over 161 1/3 innings as a pro.
That run of success led into the MLB Trade Deadline season. The Rangers had a history of trading for pitching help -- Cliff Lee in 2010, Mike Adams and Koji Uehara in 2011, Ryan Dempster in 2012 -- and this year proved no exception. They targeted Cubs right-hander Matt Garza.
The rumors began to trickle down to Edwards, albeit through back channels.
"It was getting to be kinda big on Facebook," he said. "People were telling me, 'Congrats. man, you're with the Cubs.' And I knew I wasn't getting traded because I hadn't heard anything official.
"Then, all of a sudden [on June 22], boom, C.J. was traded," continued Edwards. "I was watching SportsCenter on a day I was supposed to pitch, and Curt Schilling said he thought the Cubs got a steal in this trade because he really liked this C.J. Edwards kid. I was very excited to hear that because it's Curt Schilling. All I could think was, 'What, my word?'"
Edwards still was scheduled to take the mound and made it through a few warmup tosses before he was pulled from the mound and shipped to Chicago with right-hander Justin Grimm, infielder Mike Olt and a player to be named who turned out to be right-hander Neil Ramirez.
C.J. Edwards was traded from the Rangers to the Cubs on July 22. (Mark LoMoglio/MiLB.com)
The man who discovered Edwards felt mixed emotions.
"On one hand, it was great to help impact the club and get Garza to make a run at the World Series. That's a pretty awesome feeling," Kemp said. "But C.J. became part of my family, part of the Rangers family. Losing C.J. was borderline like losing a family member."
Meanwhile, the Cubs promoted their newest acquisition to Class A Advanced Daytona in the Florida State League. Although he was no longer as close to family, there was one familiar face waiting for him.
"I was ecstatic when I heard," said Davis, who had become the D-Cubs pitching coach at the start of the season.
The two caught up on how to pitch the new level, where Edwards admitted he felt "pressure, not that much but a little bit anyways," given how much the Cubs had shown it wanted him. He didn't show it as he struck out the first seven Palm Beach batters he faced in his FSL debut six days after the trade.
"Everybody was excited to see that," said Daytona manager Dave Keller. "His intensity is really high, and it was like that from the start. ... You don't expect that from a kid in his first time with a new club."
His second start was limited to one inning because of rain, but on Aug. 10, Edwards finally gave up his first professional home run. Tampa Yankees shortstop Ali Castillo, who had gone deep just once in 2013, got the best of him, riding the favorable winds at Jackie Robinson Ballpark out to left field.
"Oh, yeah, I gave him some crap for that one," Davis joked.
Edwards shrugged off the incident as inevitable.
"It was OK," he said. "I struck the next guy [Jose Toussen] out. The wind was blowing out anyways. It would probably happen at some level."
Edwards, who turned 22 on Sept. 3, closed out the regular season with three impressive starts, allowing two runs on 10 hits and two walks while striking out 16 over 13 1/3 innings. He finished with a 1.96 ERA in six FSL outings and totaled 115 strikeouts in 116 1/3 innings between Hickory and Daytona.
The D-Cubs were set to enter the playoffs on the strength of a rotation that boasted Edwards and acquisitions Corey Black (from the Yankees for Alfonso Soriano) and Ivan Pineyro (from the Nationals for Scott Hairston) as well as Pierce Johnson, who'd been promoted from Class A Kane County.
"We were always behind each other," Edwards said of the relationship with his rotation mates. "The first game against Dunedin [in the best-of-3 FSL semifinals], I told Black if he wins the first one, I'll win the second one. 'Do what you have to do. Take care of business. Have a big heart. Be confident.'"
Black did his part with five shutout innings in a 6-1 win, and the attention turned to Edwards as he took the mound against Blue Jays top prospect Aaron Sanchez.
There were some big names paying attention, too: A group that included Cubs owner Tom Ricketts, general manager Jed Hoyer and North Side legend Kerry Wood watched from the stands.
Edwards did not disappoint, fanning eight, including the first four batters he faced, and not allowing a hit over five innings in a 4-0 series-clinching victory.
"Everybody was impressed," said Cubs director of player development Brandon Hyde, who also was in attendance. "There was a small rain delay, but he came out of that throwing 95 and really shined against their top guy. Sometimes guys get too excited when they're being watched like that. It didn't get to him one bit."
Johnson and Pineyro anchored shutouts against Charlotte in the first two games of the Championship Series. Black was just as dominant with six scoreless innings in Game 3 before the bullpen blew a 2-0 lead in a 3-2 walk-off loss.
Then Edwards addressed his teammates again.
"I told them, 'Look guys, I'm pitching tonight. We're going to win tonight. I know it.' ... I wanted that ball bad that game."
What followed seemed commonplace in an uncommon position. Edwards put up five zeros and allowed just one hit, exiting with a 3-0 lead. Then he watched from the dugout as Ryan Searle tossed four perfect frames to close out Daytona's second championship in three years.
"That feeling of rushing the field with my teammates, it was one of the best ever," said Edwards.
Daytona didn't lose a game in winning the Florida State League title. (Mark LoMoglio/MiLB.com)
The 2013 season is cause for optimism about Edwards' future, but it's hard to project a pitcher who has yet to pitch above Class A Advanced ball. (The outlier of Marlins phenom and 2012 MiLBY winner Jose Fernandez not withstanding.)
The championship, though, is a start, especially for one of sports' most title-starved franchises.
"People talk about winning and development and how much do they mix," Hyde said. "We're in the mind-set that we want to develop winning impact players in our system, players that perform at their highest level wherever they are."
"The kind of talent we had in Daytona," Edwards said, "shows what kinds of guys we're producing in this system. Next year, next two years, next three years, we're going to be a [Major League] team that's going to be competing for a pennant because of the guys we have here."
It's understandable if that sounds a little overconfident coming from a player who has hit pretty much every objective so far. In fact, his superiors believe a few struggles may do Edwards some good in the long run.
"Actually, he needs more bumps because it's not always going to be as easy as it was here for him," Davis said.
"As he moves through the ladder, that jump from A-ball to Double-A is a big one," Hyde added. "He's going to be facing better hitters, no matter where he goes from here, and there will be more challenges, but I'm looking forward to seeing how he handles them."
While there might be unforeseen issues to come, there are some in the present -- even if they aren't evident on the stats sheet. He'll have to use his changeup more if he's going to have success as a starter at higher levels. His frame needs to fill out to alleviate durability concerns. Those have the chance to be addressed this offseason as Edwards begins his workout and throwing programs before possibly earning an invitation to Major League Spring Training.
What it comes down to is this: As good as the story has been, Edwards knows he will determine its ending.
"I know what I have right now and I know I've got more inside of me," he said. "That's what keeps me driven all the way to the Majors. Hard work is paying off, but it's not done. It won't pay off completely until I've been in this league for 15 years or so.
"Regardless of when I was drafted, I'm hoping that I can show teams you can be from a small town and have talent. You don't have to find the big-name guys to find the good ones."