Rangers prospect duo digging it Down Under
Buckel, Deglan enjoying all Australian Baseball League has to offer while honing craft
ARLINGTON -- The temperature was 97 degrees at noon on Wednesday in Melbourne, Australia. That was 60 degrees hotter than the Tuesday low of 37 in Kellin Deglan's hometown of Langley, British Columbia.
"And our air conditioner is really struggling," Deglan said by phone, a few days after he smashed the Australian single-season home run record.
Fortunately the Melbourne Aces were off the next day while getting ready for their weekend series against the Sydney Blue Sox, so Deglan and teammate and fellow Texas Rangers prospect Cody Buckel had some free time. Their choices included checking out downtown Melbourne or heading to one of several renowned beaches on the Bass Strait that connects the Indian Ocean with the South Pacific.
"Where we live, we are 15 minutes away from downtown, 10 minutes away from the beach and 15 minutes away from the stadium," Deglan said. "We've had a great time. It's summer down here, we're playing baseball and getting better every day. You couldn't ask for anything more."
Well, there is a trip to the Great Barrier Reef, but Deglan is saving that snorkeling adventure until after the Australian Baseball League season finishes. Buckel, his roommate, is looking forward to a trip to Phillips Island, 87 miles south of Melbourne, known for its large population of kangaroos, wallabies, fur seals and fairy penguins. But this weekend, it's off to Sydney to see the world-famous Sydney Opera House and to play four games against the Blue Sox.
"Australia is beautiful, and Melbourne is by far the best city I have ever visited," Buckel said. "It has been a little different as far as some things, but it has been a real cool experience and a real blessing to be able to come and play baseball in Australia.
"The people are so genuine and nice. You go into the city and nobody is rude. Everybody wants to talk to you. Some people don't know anything about baseball, but you start talking to them and they really support you. You are really well received."
Getting to tour the Land Down Under can certainly be fun, but Deglan and Buckel didn't go to Australia to sit on the beach and gaze at the Southern Cross. They are there on serious business.
Deglan and Buckel are former high Draft picks by the Rangers, and both are at a critical point in young careers that so far haven't quite gone as expected. They are in Australia to play winter ball and get themselves headed back in the right direction.
So far, it has gone well. even though the Aces are in last place in a six-team league -- 12 games behind the front-running Adelaide Bite -- as the ABL heads into Round 11.
Deglan, a catcher by trade playing mostly first base in Australia, has had a particularly memorable Antipodean summer. He went into a four-game series against the Canberra Calvary last weekend with 11 home runs. That was four behind the ABL single-season record held by Adam Buschini, a hitting prospect in the Padres organization, and Brad Harman, the Melbourne native who hit 15 in both 2011 and '12 for the Aces.
Deglan soared by both with five home runs in the first three games of the series. The record-breaker was a three-run home run on Saturday in the seventh inning of a 9-8 win.
"It was awesome," Deglan said. "I went into that series with 11 home runs, and I was thinking about it a lot. I really wanted to break the record, and I was feeling good at the plate. The record-breaker ended up being a big home run, and when I came to home plate, the first guy to greet me was Brad Harman. That was great."
Deglan has 16 home runs in 36 games, and he is far from done. The Aces still have 12 games left, including eight against the Bite, so technically they are still in the running for the playoffs and the coveted Claxton Shield. Deglan has matched the career-high 16 he hit at Class A Hickory and Myrtle Beach last season.
"I give a lot of credit to Bobby Rose, my hitting coach at Hickory," Deglan said. "He made some changes in my swing, got me mechanically right and I just started repeating good swings. I'm playing every game, getting my at-bats and not thinking about mechanics, I'm just going out playing and having fun. I'm getting a lot of loft and really barreling up the ball. It has really helped a lot playing down here."
Deglan was taken with the 22nd overall pick of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft. He was just 18 and drafted out of R.E. Mountain Secondary School in Langley. Deglan was a left-handed-hitting catcher with power potential -- a highly coveted commodity -- and considerable international experience representing Canada.
Deglan hasn't progressed as quickly as the Rangers had hoped and has yet to get past Class A. But he won't turn 23 until May, his .765 OPS last season was his best yet and his experience in Australia is paying dividends.
It is also only adding to Deglan's desire to succeed.
"I'm playing for the big leagues," Deglan said. "I'm playing to be an All-Star in the big leagues. I'm not here to go through the motions in the Minor Leagues. I want to show the organization I'm not happy playing in A ball. I always knew I could do this. Now I'm getting consistent playing time and getting hot for long stretches. Hopefully I have opened a lot of eyes playing winter ball."
Buckel was taken by the Rangers in the second round of the 2010 Draft out of Simi Valley (Calif.) Royal High, and at one time, he seemed on the fast track to the big leagues. He was the Rangers Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2012 and was invited to big league camp the following spring.
But Buckel developed serious control problems and has spent the past two seasons trying to figure things out. In nine games, including five starts, at Melbourne, he is 2-1 with a 3.41 ERA, 7.3 strikeouts and 3.9 walks per nine innings.
"It has been going really well," Buckel said. "I'm throwing the ball a lot better. I'm in a better place mentally and physically, much more consistent. I'm throwing a lot of strikes and keeping my walks down. It's good to get back that feeling."
The Rangers aren't eager to give up on Buckel, especially since he is making progress and the talent is evident. He did walk 5.7 batters per nine innings in the second half at Myrtle Beach last year, but he also struck out 12.0 batters per nine. The walk ratio was also a big improvement over 29 in 17 innings in the first half, so Buckel's continued progress in Australia has to be encouraging to all involved.
"My past is something that will live with me, but it's in the past," Buckel said. "I've grown stronger, and it has helped me grow as a person and a player. It was a life experience you grow with and make the best of it."
So far, Buckel and Deglan have made the best of their time in Australia, both as tourists and young baseball players trying to regain their high-prospect status.