Thomas Anthony Medica stood in the clubhouse, belly full of breakfast, dressing out as he had done every morning since camp opened. In an hour, there would be a brief meeting as there always was before the workouts, then the morning stretch on Practice Field 1 before the players split into squads, with some taking batting practice on one of the two practice fields used by the big club, others working on fielding or playing catch. The squads would then rotate in and out of activities as assigned on the bulletin board in the clubhouse, next to the starting lineup for the exhibition game. Medica wasn’t penciled in for the starting lineup that afternoon, an exhibition game that would be against the Dodgers in Glendale, Arizona.
Starting training camp as one of 61 players trying to make an impression in 2014, the Padres coaching staff and front office were in the midst of whittling down the roster to what would ultimately be 25 Major League Baseball players by March 30th, and with 46 left in camp, Medica had made the first few cuts to the roster. Medica is six feet, three inches tall, weighs around 200 pounds. Solid, except for an arm and a shoulder that couldn’t hold up to the rigors of playing catcher — the position he was drafted to play in 2010 out of Santa Clara University. He knows that catching probably isn’t in his future.
“To tell you the truth, I’ve probably caught five games in the last five years. I would say I’m most comfortable back there, but I really haven’t been back there enough. Being at first base for the last five years, I feel like that’s becoming my position,” Medica said.
The problem with Medica being more comfortable at first base is that the position is blocked at the moment on the big club.
Yonder Alonso is better defensively, and although Medica’s bat seems major-league ready, Alonso is a proven bat at that level. To Medica’s credit, he was called up from AA San Antonio in 2013 when Yonder got hurt and Medica filled in marvelously. But Yonder isn’t going anywhere, so Medica is a player without a position, and the Padres are trying him in left field.
“That was the first time I played the outfield in probably about eight years, and I hadn’t been back out there until last year, so it’s still a learning process. We’ve been working out there, I’ve been trying to get better with reads, but it is a new position, so it’s anything you can do to get better at it,” Medica said.
But the outfield is also crowded for the Padres. Carlos Quentin, Will Venable, Chris Denorfia, and Seth Smith are already signed to substantial contracts and are certain to make the 25-man roster, with Kyle Blanks and Alexi Amarista waiting in the wings. That makes Medica a player on the outside looking in, but since his bat has been so good, he’s making the Padres coaches and front offices give him a hard look.
Medica knows the position he’s put the club in. “It’s always a good thing to make it difficult on them. They’ve given me an opportunity. They knew I was going to be able to hit the ball, so they want to give me some time in the outfield and some time at first base. There are a lot of good, talented guys in camp, so anytime you can make it difficult on them, that’s always a good thing,” he said.
Of course, there is the reality that Medica could start the season in the minors. And, what the players won’t dwell on, the difference between $25,000 per year and almost a half-million dollars, the latter being the minimum paid to players on the major-league roster. No one mentions that part of it. Medica said, “They want to put the guys out there that will give them the best chance to win, and if I’m not one of them, that’s just because they have the right guys in camp; it has nothing to do with what I did. If I’m in AAA I’ll be working at first and getting my reps in left, anything I can do to get better to help the team.”
The minor leagues also have spring training in Peoria, playing exhibition games against other teams from the league and practicing on fields 3, 4, 5, and 6. All of these fields are full-sized diamonds, as good as any minor-league field you would find. If Medica doesn’t make the bigs, then they’ll eventually assign him to minor-league camp. But his first major-league camp was quite the experience for him. “This is my first big-league spring training. I think it’s great being here, the amount of coaching we have, along with the coaches we have — a lot of intelligent guys who know what they’re doing and have a lot of years in the big leagues. They know what you need to do to compete at the big-league level and they’re going to make sure you’re there,” Medica said.
Medica got into that game late at Glendale, spelling Kyle Blanks in left field. He managed a single in two at-bats and scored a run. There is no way he knows how much of a contribution it was in order to make the big club. The coaches and front office play those cards close to the vest. Meanwhile, he’s there, in that nice big clubhouse, waiting and working. And he’s enjoying the Peoria experience like he’s never enjoyed it before.
Peoria is just another city located in a mostly hot and mostly dry mesa that surrounds Phoenix, Arizona, as though it is one in a litter of puppies suckling a large bitch. This place isn’t otherwise remarkable — there are as many shopping malls and restaurants and freeways as there are in many cities — except that a lot of baseball is played here from late February through March every year. Half of all Major League Baseball teams host spring training and then exhibition games against other teams in Arizona, the other half in Florida. These practice leagues are known as the Cactus League and the Grapefruit League, respectively.