Chad Spanberger is proving what a positive approach and some playing time can do for a career.
After getting limited action as a designated hitter during his freshman season and filling a part-time role in left field as a sophomore at the University of Arkansas, Spanberger entered the Razorbacks' 2017 campaign with the goal of hitting 20 home runs. Only five players had ever accomplished the feat as a member of the program, the last one being Andrew Benintendi, who currently is an anchor in the Boston Red Sox's lineup.
Razorbacks head coach Dave Van Horn moved Spanberger to first base prior to the opening of the 2017 campaign and started the junior in about half of the team's first six games. Struggling to hit his weight, Spanberger went 0-for-5 in an early-season contest but made hard contact in every at-bat. Van Horn took note and proceeded to write Spanberger's name in the lineup for the remainder of the season, resulting in more starts (58) than he had in first two years combined (55).
"The more you play, the more you learn," Spanberger said. "My freshman year was a big, big learning experience. Coming out of high school, I thought I'd be ready for pro ball before I got to college, but I realize now there would have been no way. My sophomore year was a bad season for me and the team as well. My junior year started slow but then everything started to click once I began playing every day."
By the end of the slate, Spanberger ranked second on the team with a .305 batting average and paced the Razorbacks with 20 home runs, 67 RBIs, 73 hits, 54 runs scored and a .649 slugging percentage. He also hit three home runs in a single game against Auburn in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, becoming the first player to achieve that feat in the league's storied history.
Spanberger's emergence created a stir among Major League scouts, who became enticed by the left-handed hitter's prodigious power. The Colorado Rockies proceeded to draft the first baseman in the sixth round last June and received immediate returns. After hitting 20 bombs with the Razorbacks, Spanberger crushed another 19 home runs in his professional debut in the Pioneer League while hitting at a .294 clip with 15 doubles, 51 RBIs and a .617 slugging percentage.
"I would say it was a pretty smooth transition," Spanberger said. "It's the same game; you just have to go out and play and compete. In the SEC, we played four or five times a week, but in pro ball, it's basically every day except for one or two days off a month. To me, the biggest thing is you have to take care of your body and watch what you eat so you can recover."
Promoted to Asheville and the South Atlantic League to open the 2018 season, Spanberger has been one of the cornerstones of the Tourists' offense. Through his first 26 games, he had a slash line of .275/.295/.461 with five home runs and 18 RBIs. In game No. 27 against visiting Greensboro on Wednesday night, he busted out for two homers and a career-high six RBIs to lead the Tourists to victory. As inviting as the short right field wall at McCormick Field can be -- six of his seven roundtrippers have been at home -- Spanberger says he has resisted altering his approach by realizing he possesses enough power to clear the fences at any ballpark.
"I've always had a fly ball home run swing," said Spanberger, currently ranked as the Rockies' No. 25 prospect. "I don't try to elevate the ball; I just want to hit the ball hard. If I hit it hard on the ground, there's a good chance it might be a hit. If I hit it hard in the air, it can be a home run or a double. If you start just thinking about lofting the ball, you lose your focus on things like just seeing the ball. I just try to keep it simple."
Spanberger admits he would love to play the outfield again, but the Rockies have told him his focus needs to be centered on honing his skills at first base. He has discovered the nuances of playing the position in his short time there and understands he is a work in progress.
"It's a very important position," Spanberger said. "A lot of people take it for granted, saying all you do is catch the ball. But if you think about it, there's a lot more to it. If you miss a pick, you're not doing your job or helping out your teammates, which is why I'm there."
A native of Granite City, Illinois, Spanberger loves the mountains and trees that comprise the Asheville landscape. He also appreciates the enthusiastic and supportive crowd at McCormick Field, which he admits gives all players an extra level of excitement upon taking the diamond.
The entire scenario, including the achievements he has accomplished over the past 15 months, has left the first baseman shaking his head as he pursues his life-long goal of playing in the Major Leagues.
"This is what I've wanted to do ever since I started playing tee ball when I was four," Spanberger said. "This has been a dream come true. But it's a lot different place than where I thought I might be two years ago."
Augusta road warriors: Twenty-one of Augusta's first 30 games have been on the road, but that has not bothered the GreenJackets. While posting an overall record of 20-10 to reside in first place in the SAL's South Division, the GreenJackets were also 14-7 as the visitors. In its first nine games at brand-new SRP Park, Augusta was 6-3 and averaging 4,735 fans per opening.
Ironic decision: Kannapolis right-hander Kade McClure equaled his season highs with seven innings and nine strikeouts while allowing only two unearned runs to Hagerstown on May 7 yet suffered his first loss in four decisions this season. The 22-year-old from the University of Louisville led the SAL with 41 innings and 42 strikeouts following his outing versus the Suns.
Steady Shael: Asheville center fielder Shael Mendoza owns the league's longest hitting streak thus far in 2018 at 15 games through May 7. The fleet-footed Mendoza hit safely in 22 of his first 24 contests yet owned a modest slash line of .267/.286/.327 despite his consistency in recording at least one hit on most nights.