Welcome to The Show: Thornburg, Bianchi adjusting to big leagues
A little under two weeks ago, Jeff Bianchi was brought out from the Milwaukee Brewers clubhouse into the home dugout to discuss his call-up from Triple A Nashville, a roster move that led to his major league debut a day later in a pinch-hitting role against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The 25-year-old Pennsylvania native was quiet, respectful, and answered questions from the assembled media with humility. He looked each questioner in the eye, but at times couldn't help but glance over their heads to the field, which was splashed with bits of sun through the large outfield windows and empty concourses.
He was excited to be there, but it wasn't the type of debut press conference he expected to have. Bianchi was relaxing with friends on a lake when he got the call, and immediately packed up with his wife and drove to Milwaukee.
"Just very thankful for this opportunity," he said with a smile. "We've waited a long time to be here and hopefully we'll be here for a while now.
Bianchi was once one of the crown jewels of the Kansas City Royals organization, a second round pick out of Lampeter-Strasburg High School in 2005. He was a slick fielding shortstop who hit everything, posting averages of .535, .514 and .455 in his three varsity seasons.
He was to be part of the Royals' rebirth, along with that year's No. 1 pick Alex Gordon (who was selected ahead of Ryan Braun) and 2004 No. 1 selection Billy Butler.
After the draft, Royals' senior director of scouting Deric Ladnier told MLB.com Bianchi was "A five-tool shortstop. He's a way-above-average runner with way-above-average arm and hands. He has a very skilled approach to hitting and shows power."
That showed immediately, as he transitioned from high school to professional baseball seamlessly.
He hit .408 with six homers in his first 28 games in rookie ball in 2005. Then he tore up the Arizona Fall League, leading to selections on the Topps Short-Season/Rookie All-Star and Arizona League Postseason All-Star teams.
Baseball-America rated him as the Royals' No. 5 prospect.
He picked up where he left off in 2006, hitting .429 with a 1.204 OPS before tearing his labrum after just 12 games.
The setback started a trend of injuries and disappointment – though the Royals still had high hopes for him.
In 2007 Royals director of player development J.J. Picollo told MLB.com "He's come back and he's playing well. He rehabbed his shoulder and we have high expectations for him. He's a guy you should be interested in. He's an offensive guy, but he has defensive skills and he's got good instincts. He's also an above-average runner. He's really a Michael Young type of player. That's the kind of guy we project him to be."
Bianchi's power never returned however, hitting two in 99 games in 2007, 10 homers in 104 games in 2008 and nine over 128 games in 2009. He struggled to regain his stroke at Class A ball in 2007 and 2008, before reclaiming it in 2009, hitting .315 with a .797 OPS between High A and Double-A.
In the spring of 2010, he felt a sharp pain in his elbow, leading to Tommy John surgery. He returned to Class AA in 2011 and hit .259, leading to his release from the Royals in December of last year.
Interestingly, the Brewers likely hastened his departure from Kansas City when they dealt shortstop prospect Alcides Escobar as part of a package for Zack Greinke. That moved Bianchi to second base in 2011.
He was picked up by the Chicago Cubs, who dropped him a month later, leading to his signing with the Brewers. In 70 games with Class AA Huntsville and Class AAA Nashville, Bianchi was hitting .319 with a .751 OPS before getting the call he most likely expected years ago.
"It's been a long road," he said. "This offseason a couple things, transactions, happened. Really, I'm just very thankful for this opportunity. Really, it's kind of hard to describe because of what we've gone through. I'm thankful. I just want to thank God because he's given me this opportunity and not many people are blessed with this opportunity. It's very special to me."
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