FORT MYERS, FLA. – Aaron Slegers grew up in Scottsdale, Ariz., but played collegiately at the University of Indiana. He received no interest from local Pacific-12 Conference powerhouse programs Arizona and Arizona State.
And he shouldn’t have.
“I threw two varsity innings in high school,” Slegers said. “I wasn’t even a baseball letter winner in high school.”
Slegers’ path to the majors was far from smooth. His senior season at Notre Dame Prep in Scottsdale was wrapped up in one game. He threw less than 10 innings over his first two seasons with the Hoosiers. But he parlayed one good year on a team that reached the College World Series into a fifth-round selection in 2013 by the Twins.
After debuting in the majors last season, the righthander is in camp with a chance to win the fifth spot in the Twins’ starting rotation.
To understand how far Slegers has come, look at how tall he’s grown. Slegers is 6-10, and a dramatic growth spurt hindered his progress in baseball.
Slegers loved baseball as a kid and frequently played catch with his father, Robert, who is a 7-footer. When he started playing Little League at age 8, throwing strikes wasn’t a problem.
He took his talents to Notre Dame Prep and also played on a traveling team called the Arizona Diamondbacks Scout Team. Slegers was 6-2 in his junior year of high school, then grew seven inches over the next year. He was growing into a body that would entice scouts, but that body was in pain as his bones grew and his muscles stretched.
“Everything hurt,” Slegers said. “My shoulder hurt. My elbow hurt. I couldn’t throw.”
Growing pains literally wrecked Slegers’ senior season. He was forced to shut down after throwing only two innings.
“When I was going through it, my body hurt so bad, I wasn’t highly participating in sports,” he said. “I was doing it because I loved to do it. I’d go to Life Time Fitness and play basketball and be on baseball teams, but I wasn’t in games on a regular basis because my body just hurt so bad.”
There was little for colleges to go on when evaluating Slegers. A coach on his scout team knew someone on Indiana’s coaching staff. Then-coach Tracy Smith watched a DVD of Slegers throwing, and the Hoosiers took a chance. Now 6-10, Slegers was headed to Indiana — and not to play basketball.
“Indiana was in an unique position where they could sign a tall, big-bodied guy with potential who hadn’t proved himself yet,” Slegers said.
But after throwing one scoreless inning as a freshman, Slegers was hit by a line draft during an intrasquad game and broke his wrist. He was redshirted the rest of the year.
The next year, Slegers had thrown 7⅓ innings when he was late for the team bus and ordered to run as punishment. He suffered a stress fracture in his right tibia during the lengthy session and was done for another season. In a span of three years — from his senior year in high school through his redshirt freshman season — Slegers threw a total of 10⅓ innings.
He worked on getting in the best shape possible for his third season with the Hoosiers, and he went 9-2 with a 2.04 ERA and became the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year. It was the Twins’ turn to take a chance in the 2013 draft.
“Certainly there was some risk projecting him without much history prior to 2013,” said Jeff Pohl, the area scout who signed Slegers. “His injuries at Indiana not being throwing-related helped. What made it easier for me was his delivery and arm action. He wasn’t a 6-10 guy with a good delivery “for his size.” He was a 6-10 guy with a great delivery no matter what his size.”
Slegers has slowly risen through the Twins’ farm system, mixing a fastball in the low-90-mph range with a slider and a changeup. He went 15-4 with a 3.40 ERA at Class AAA Rochester last season and was named Twins minor league pitcher of the year. He was 0-1 with a 6.46 ERA in four games (three starts) with the Twins. So far this spring, Slegers is 0-1 with a 3.86 ERA in three outings.
The Twins feel they have a late bloomer in Slegers because of the inactive phase of his career.
“Not a lot of wear and tear,” said Mike Radcliff, the Twins vice president in charge of player personnel. “Still a work in progress, still a piece of clay. Still has room to grow and do things.”
While the growth spurt was part of a rough time for Slegers, he learned from it. As soon as he got healthy, he didn’t take much for granted. He kept in shape, worked on his mechanics, asked questions and studied. Now he finds himself in the mix to win a spot in the starting rotation, or at least to move to the front of the line when they need another starter.
He pointed out that he didn’t have his first good season until he was 20.
“When I was having a good year [in the minors], I still kept my foot on the gas pedal,” Slegers said. “My main message to kids is that it is never too late. You keep wanting to play basketball, play baseball, play football. It’s never too late as long as you want to work hard and get better.”