Minor League Report: Mike Stodolka

Minor League Report: Mike Stodolka

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Mike Stodolka, a first-round pitcher in 2000, has turned into Mike Stodolka, a first baseman in 2008. He's taken to the transformation exceptionally well.

"I'm loving it, I'm having a good time," he said. "I love being out there playing every day."

Stodolka is in the Royals' Major League camp, invited as a Minor League player for the second time in his career. The first invitation came in 2002 when he was a highly touted kid pitcher, lodged in the dormitory at the old training facility at Baseball City, Fla.

A dorm with a pool. Such luxury.

"You didn't want to go in that pool, though. There were frogs swimming around in that pool," he said, laughing.

Now Stodolka is in a large pool of first basemen in the Royals' Arizona camp, virtually lost in the splash accorded Billy Butler, Ross Gload, Ryan Shealy and Mark Teahen. Even so, you'll catch an eyeful of No. 74 once in a while. He's been a replacement in four games and has two hits, including a double, in seven at-bats with two RBIs.

His chances of making the big club are nil and there's not even any certainty where he'll be in the Minors because it's possible that Shealy will be at first base for Triple-A Omaha. Just in case, the Royals plan to give Stodolka some work in the outfield later this spring. Stodolka spent all last season in Double-A, batting .291 with 12 home runs and 59 RBIs for Wichita.

Keep in mind this is just Stodolka's third year as a first baseman. A left-handed thrower and batter, he spent six seasons pitching before his arm told him "no more." First his shoulder gave him trouble, then he had Tommy John surgery on his elbow in 2003.

"My arm just never got back to where it was when I signed," he said. "It was always one thing after another. Even when I did feel healthy, the velocity was never there."

Stodolka made one last try in 2005 when he started 24 times for Wichita. He had a 4-11 record, a 5.92 ERA and a lot of misery.

"That whole year in Wichita, I was healthy but I was sore. It was painful to throw," he said.

"At the time Allard [Baird, general manager] came to me and said, 'We can either release you or trade you and you can go on your pitching ways. Or, if you want, you can try hitting.' And, at that point, my arm hurt so much that year that I didn't want to pitch anymore."

Stodolka could hit, though. He'd been recruited by UCLA out of Centennial High at Corona, Calif., because of the 18 home runs -- a state record -- he'd banged in 2000. The Royals, though, were more interested in his senior pitching record of 10-0 with a 0.67 ERA and 111 strikeouts in 52 innings. The made him the nation's No. 4 overall Draft pick and signed him for $2.5 million.

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Now he's following a lead blazed rather spectacularly by Rick Ankiel, the Cardinals outfielder who left behind a pitching career marked by notorious wildness.

"He had some different problems than I had, but I could identify with his struggles," Stodolka said.

Stodolka never lacked control of his pitches.

"I got too much of the plate," he said dryly. "Throwing strikes wasn't my problem. It was making it all the way back to the catcher."

In his last season of pitching for Wichita, Stodolka gave up 12 home runs. In his first season of hitting for Wichita, Stodolka banged 12 home runs.

"I wouldn't say I'm a power hitter. I'd say more gap-to-gap, doubles, hopefully a decent average, take some walks," he said.

Indeed, he drew 73 walks last season and his on-base percentage of .409 was second best in the Texas League.

Fielding has come naturally for the 6-foot-2, 215-pounder. On Monday against the White Sox, he made a dazzling stop to rob ex-Royal Paul Phillips of a hit.

"He was voted the best defensive first baseman in the Texas League last year," said director of player development J.J. Picollo. "He's a good hitter, he's got a good swing and he's confident in his abilities. That's why we invited him to the big league camp this year. We'll see where it takes him."

This is Stodolka's ninth professional season and he's 26.

"We know his age says one thing but it's only his third full season in hitting, so we've got to almost treat him like he's three or four years younger," Picollo said.

Stodolka sees his long pitching tour as a help to him.

"I've taken a lot of knowledge and experience from the pitching side -- how to deal with failure and how to overcome adversity to get where I'm at," he said. "Obviously, hitting is a hard thing to do and you're going to struggle and you're going to have adversity as a hitter. So I feel like can take some of that from my pitching and apply it to my hitting."

Last year he was named Wichita's Player of the Year and was named to the Texas League's postseason All-Star team.

"Hopefully, I can make it going this route now," he said.

Full camp under way: After a minicamp and an early camp, the full-blown Minor League Spring Training is under way at Surprise. There are 151 players with more coming in when manager Trey Hillman begins to whittle his 60-man roster on the Major League side.

Class of '07: Left-hander Danny Duffy, the Royals' third selection in last year's Draft, had a 2-3 record but a 1.45 ERA in his 11 games for the rookie Royals in the Arizona League. Most impressively, he struck out 63 in his 37 1/3 innings with 17 walks.

"He's got an above-average fastball, an above-average curveball and he throws strikes," Picollo said. "The walks came in bunches, too, in a couple of games. That happens when young guys get out of their deliveries. But we'll take 17 walks in the number of innings he pitched."

Duffy, from Cabrillo High at Lompoc, Calif., is competing for a starting job with Class A Burlington, Iowa.

They're No. 1: With right fielder Jose Guillen's possible suspension looming over the season's first 12 games, the Royals are looking at outfield options and Mitch Maier is getting a lot of playing time.

A first-round pick (30th overall) in 2003, Maier has played all three positions in five games and gone 2-for-14 (.l43). He got his first hit, a double, on Monday against the White Sox and singled on Tuesday against the Rockies.

A left-handed batter, Maier played in 140 games last year at Omaha and batted .279 with 14 homers and 62 RBIs in his first Triple-A season. This winter he hit .293 with two homers and 16 RBIs in 29 games for the Gigantes in the Dominican Republic.

What they're saying: "I felt good when I came in but I only threw a third of an inning, three pitches. I'm just waiting for an opportunity and I'll go from there." -- right-hander Matt Wright, a non-roster pitcher who was 10-5 at Omaha, after his only outing so far this spring

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.