McCulloch looking toward spring 2009
Former first-round pick shrugs off lack of invitation to camp
TUCSON, Ariz. -- Life at the top doesn't always translate into instant success and glory, traveling that road to riches without navigating a few potholes along the way.
Just ask Kyle McCulloch, preparing for his third year and second full season as part of the White Sox organization.
It was just two First-Year Player Drafts ago when the White Sox selected the right-hander with the 29th pick in the first round and then proceeded to celebrate in the war room after getting their most coveted player.
Now, with McCulloch not getting a non-roster invite to Spring Training 2008, the issue doesn't become whether McCulloch remains a highly regarded pitcher with a Major League pedigree. The question on the table is whether the South Siders still consider McCulloch any part of their future plans.
"Kyle had a good offseason of work," White Sox Minor League director Alan Regier said. "We are pleased with his progress, and he's right on track. The fact that he was not invited to big league camp was not a negative in our eyes at all."
"I don't lose track of the fact that he was Big 12 Player of the Year a couple of times," added White Sox Minor League pitching coordinator Kirk Champion of McCulloch, who attended the University of Texas. "His makeup is solid, he's a hard worker and he's trying to find exactly how he's going to attack hitters."
Choosing McCulloch in 2006 and then picking Aaron Poreda four slots higher in 2007 points to a change in draft philosophy by general manager Ken Williams of taking a greater involvement in the process. McCulloch was considered a safe top pick, a collegiate standout who posted a 27-9 record and 3.23 ERA over three seasons with the Longhorns, and even earned the win against Florida in the 2005 College World Series title game.
Poreda is thought of as a pure stuff guy, already turning heads during two spring appearances in "B" games, with a fastball that topped out near 100 mph last year for Great Falls. Having a fastball in the low 90s doesn't necessarily make McCulloch a wasted pick, but it does make him easier to lose in the vast Minor League shuffle.
"Knowing how it is when you don't have that kind of stuff, it gets frustrating," said White Sox pitcher Lance Broadway, the team's top pick in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft and a friend of McCulloch, featuring the same sort of mound repertoire. "Even when you do well, everyone always says, 'I know he's doing well now, but he won't at the next level.'
"You can't let it wear on you. Put it behind you and do what you can with what you have."
Broadway has moved from Class A Winston-Salem to Double-A Birmingham to 27 starts at Triple-A Charlotte to a 2007 September callup with the White Sox. He added a two-seam fastball to his attack, focusing on getting that sink so desperately needed at a hitter-friendly ballpark such as U.S. Cellular Field.
Not surprisingly, McCulloch also worked on this same pitch last year with Winston-Salem and over six starts at the end of the season with the Barons. McCulloch regained confidence in his changeup and corrected flaws in his mechanics, such as tilting his shoulders too much and not staying tall on the back side so he could throw downhill.
Those problems contributed to his 6.41 ERA with Birmingham, as well as the rise in competition from the Carolina League. But McCulloch hasn't lost hope or desire, understanding how he can reach the Majors without the explosive weapons other top picks might possess.
"Everyone loves a 98 mph fastball, because it's fun to watch," said McCulloch, before a recent workout at the Kino Sports Complex. "I don't have that upper-90s fastball, and it's OK. I'll attack the bottom part of the zone with my sinker.
"There are a bunch of guys in the big leagues who pitch that way. It's just all about adjustments, trying to be consistent and moving on forward."
When Minor League camp breaks, McCulloch will be returning to Birmingham for a season that truly could start to define his career. If McCulloch finds the consistency that has eluded him during a composite 11-15 Minor League showing in 40 starts, he could just as easily catch Williams' eye for a big league shot as someone working for Charlotte.
Don't think this is about proving a point for McCulloch, showing how he was worth the first-round pick and the bonus money that followed. He doesn't seem to be wired that way. Instead, McCulloch wants to reach the Majors as a fulfillment of his goal.
He wants to earn that invite to Spring Training 2009 -- and beyond.
"Spring Training is all about getting ready and if they thought working on the Minor League side was better for me, then it's just the way it goes," said McCulloch, who watched D.J. Carrasco and then Tomo Ohka get the only non-roster pitching invites from the White Sox. "I don't get disappointed or worry about it.
"This is a game of failure, and everybody struggles. I definitely had some ups and downs, but it's just how you react to it. You have to bounce back and figure out what happened, here and there, and learn from your mistakes. If you don't learn from them, then it's completely pointless."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.