Brandon Kintzler is a long way from Manitoba.
After being cast aside by the San Diego Padres organization in 2006, Kintzler went on to pitch in the wilds of the independent leagues. He suited up for the Winnipeg Goldeyes in 2007 and 2008, and he toed the rubber for the St. Paul Saints last season before getting a chance to return to the affiliated fold.
The hard-throwing right-hander is now a fast-rising star in the Milwaukee Brewers system, having put up some of the gaudiest numbers to have been seen in the Minor Leagues this season. Kintzler began the 2010 campaign as the closer for the Double-A Huntsville Stars, allowing just one run over 22 1/3 innings pitched and notching 10 saves in as many opportunities. He struck out 23 batters over this time and walked just one, a free pass that he passionately disputes nearly a month after the fact ("It should have been a strike!" he said, after being reminded of this rare blemish on his record).
Kintzler's dominance in Huntsville led to a recent callup to Triple-A Nashville, placing him just one step away from the Major Leagues. All of this just goes to show that the road to success can have many detours, especially in the wholly unpredictable world of professional baseball.
Welcome to Winnipeg
Kintzler was never a prospect. He pitched for Pasadena City College in 2003 and that year was drafted by the New York Yankees in the 40th round. He didn't sign, opting instead to transfer to the paradoxically named Dixie State College of Utah. He was selected in the 40th round once again in 2004, but this time the team was the San Diego Padres, and this time he signed.
"I just didn't want to be in school anymore," he explained.
Kintzler went on to pitch for three San Diego farm clubs over the 2004 and 2005 campaigns, culminating in 19 appearances with Class A Fort Wayne in 2005. Throughout these collegiate and professional years filled with travel, the lone constant was a nagging shoulder pain.
"Basically, all I wanted was a chance to get healthy," said Kintzler. "I kept telling [the Padres] that I didn't want shots, I wanted surgery. But they got impatient with me and let me go."
Kintzler was released by the Padres in Spring Training of 2006 but eventually did get shoulder surgery. While rehabbing, he got an unexpected phone call from the Winnipeg Goldeyes of the independent Northern League.
"I was like 'Winnipeg? Where's that?'" recalled the Las Vegas native. "They just told me to get a passport and then get on the plane. My arm was still aching, because it was just six months after surgery. It wasn't until the weather started to get warm that I felt OK, but when I got there it was freezing."
Kintzler won the Northern League's Rookie of the Year Award in 2007, and followed that up with a solid but unspectacular 2008 campaign spent largely as a starter. Through it all, Kintzler was impressed with the level of competition.
"A lot of guys get to independent ball and think they're going to dominate, but little do they know," he said. "There are a lot of guys there who have played in the big leagues, and who have played in Triple-A, and they're out there doing anything they can to get their jobs back. I'd say that the Northern League is a Double- or even Triple-A caliber of baseball."
It was also a surprisingly supportive and somewhat surreal baseball environment.
"A lot of the people [in Winnipeg] aren't real baseball fans -- they'll cheer for the guy on the other team if he hits a really long home run," he said. "But they show up no matter what the weather -- six or seven thousand a night -- and really make you feel like a celebrity. I got real comfortable; sometimes, in order to get motivated, I had to stop and remind myself what league I was in."
The biggest problem with Winnipeg, from the eyes of those seeking a return to affiliated baseball, is its remote location. Kintzler says that only two scouts visited throughout his entire stint with the club, and as a result he asked for and was granted a trade. His new employer was the St. Paul Saints of the American Association.
"I had heard that they were like the Yankees of independent ball," said Kintzler of the Saints. "They play to a packed house and have a strong track record of getting guys picked up [by Major League organizations]."
Kintzler excelled for the Saints, largely in a starting role, and started the 2009 American Association All-Star Game in Grand Prairie, Texas. The next day, the Milwaukee Brewers offered him a contract.
"I thought to myself, 'I should have requested a trade a long time ago!'" said Kintzler. "I was throwing 94 [mph in the All-Star Game], something I hadn't been able to do since college. The Brewers told me they'd be sending me to Double-A, when I had never pitched above low-A ball. Hey, I'll take it."
The Saints, meanwhile, lost one of their best players.
"That's one thing about us here in St. Paul: we do everything we can to get players signed," said Saints manager George Tsamis. "I could never look a player in the eye if a [Major League] team had called about him, and we didn't provide that opportunity. Last year we missed the playoffs by just one game, so losing Brandon Kintzler was a huge blow to us. But to go from St. Paul to the Major Leagues, that's what it's all about, that's why we're all here."
Just One More Step
Clearly, Kintzler has been doing well since returning to affiliated baseball. He was placed in a starting role upon arriving in Huntsville last July, but this year he has worked exclusively out of the bullpen. While in Huntsville, Kintzler was tutored by Stars pitching coach John Curtis, a man whom he referred to repeatedly as a strong and stabilizing influence.
Curtis, however, deflected Kintzler's praise.
"There wasn't anything I did that put him on this trajectory. Brandon did it all on his own," said Curtis. "When someone is demonstrating that kind of ability, you just get out of the way and let him play. Why mess with it? If I passed on anything to him, it's just the lesson that 'What's done is done.' The favorite expression between the two of us was 'Today is a new day.'"
And Curtis, though he may have been "out of the way," was able to watch Kintzler's dominating run as the Stars' closer from a prime dugout location.
"What all pitchers need if they're going to have any kind of success is stuff and command, and Brandon has both in spades," said Curtis. "He showed a Major League quality fastball every time out, it had a sink to it, and he could command both sides of the plate. His slider drew a lot of swings because it looked like a fastball coming out of his hand.I think [Brewers Minor League pitching coordinator] Lee Tunnell said it best. 'This is a guy who's going to beat you in the strike zone.'"
Kintzler allowed two runs and -- the horror! -- walked a batter in his Triple-A debut with Nashville on June 8. Since then, he has enjoyed three scoreless appearances while playing within the impressive facilities and renowned cities of the Pacific Coast League.
"There are more fans, and the stadiums are bigger and better run," he said. "It's a reminder that you're almost there, and it motivates you to keep going, to really want to make that final step."
This motivation is compounded by the knowledge of how far he's come in such a short amount of time.
"It's crazy to think that just one year ago I was in St. Paul, going on 16-hour bus rides, and to compare that with where I am now," said Kintzler. "I just need to stay healthy, stay humble and not get ahead of myself."