Out in the desert, Seth Lintz was asked a question he couldn’t answer.
Called into a meeting with Brewers director of player development Reid Nichols and special assistant to the general manager Dan O’Brien, the 19-year-old with the near million-dollar arm was flaming out in his second year of rookie ball in Arizona.
"Seth, why aren’t you where we expected you to be?" Nichols asked, his eyes square on Lintz’s.
Given the keys to the car by the Brewers out of Marshall County High School as the 53rd pick of the 2008 amateur draft, Lintz couldn’t keep it on the road. In five years in the organization, he never rose above Class A Wisconsin.
With an 11.00 ERA through six games with the Timber Rattlers in 2012, he was released.
"I don’t think I ever understood, to the fullest extent, what I’d signed up for," Lintz says now of his time in the Brewers organization. "Not in a bad way, but it’s a world that you really can’t describe to somebody that age without just putting them in it. It’s like learning a language. Until you put them in the middle of that country they’re never going to get the full gist of it. I didn’t know the answers because I didn’t even know the questions to ask at that point."
Four years later, once again out in the desert, Lintz knows the answer now.
He hopes that knowledge gets him back to affiliated baseball.
Lintz wasn’t signed by another team until being picked up by the Joliet Slammers of the independent Frontier League for the start of 2013. He didn’t last two months, being released the day after Memorial Day. He was out of work until June, when the El Paso Diablos of the American Association picked him up. Released yet again on July 21, he signed with the Laredo (Texas) Lemurs six days later.
"I didn’t really understand that in independent leagues there isn’t really room for development," he said. "It’s kind of a here and now type feel and your adjustments have to be made a lot quicker if you want to stay around because they have a bunch of guys coming all the time."
He’s now come and gone three times this summer. Such is life on the fringes of professional baseball.
Brandon Kintzler existed on those fringes for two years. His present is with "Brewers" stitched across the front of his jersey, but his past tells him the future isn’t guaranteed.
With an injured shoulder at the age of 21, the San Diego Padres discarded Kintzler – their 40th round draft pick from 2004 – with little thought on April 1, 2006.
"They brought in a new minor league director and he said everyone that’s been hurt, get out," Kintzler remembered. "There was nothing I could do. That’s when you start to learn you’re very expendable."
His pride, and his arm, now wounded, there was only one place Kintzler could go when no major league team called him – independent ball.
"Once you get on the outside of affiliated ball it’s really, really hard – it’s harder than breaking in the major leagues – just to break back in," he said. "Relievers, we’re expendable. That’s just the way it is. That’s the business side. They can get rid of you at any time. That’s why you just try to keep your value up to the team and hopefully they keep you around."
He smiled as he finished the sentenced; chuckled a little.
"You gotta stay healthy. That’s the main thing. If you’re not healthy, really, you’re not good to anyone."
Evan Anundsen discovered as much. A fourth round pick by the Brewers out of Columbine High School in Littleton, Co. in 2006, the right-hander was turning into a legitimate prospect after going 10-8 with a 2.69 ERA in 23 starts for Class A Brevard County in 2009.
"I went home and I decided to do more stuff, which really, I had arm problems going into that, so instead I ended up probably hurting myself more," Anundsen admitted this summer.
He underwent shoulder surgery and missed nearly all of 2010, but seemed to be healthy in 2011. He pitched well enough – mostly in relief – and was promoted Class AA Huntsville in 2012.
"I just tried changing some things up without really thinking about it first," he said. "I tried to overdo it and next thing you know I’m just yanking out and doing all kinds of stuff. That was the problem."
The result was tightness in his triceps and forearm and he never got on track, going 5-8 with a 4.85 ERA with 24 starts in 28 games. The Brewers released him before the 2013 season.
"I mean, I guess nobody ever expects this kind of stuff, especially when you sign – when I was 18 or whatever when I signed – I thought it was clear coasting," Anundsen said. "But obviously that doesn’t work out for most people."
Brandon Kintzler’s dream was on life support.
He was in languishing Winnipeg, Canada for the Goldeyes of the independent Northern League. He had thrown nearly 200 innings in 45 games, but the calendar was flipping to 2009, and he blew out his arm after 19 games in the San Diego Padres system in 2005.
"When you’re in Winnipeg, there’s no scouts sitting at those games," he said. "That’s why I asked for a trade. That’s when I learned the business side, that some of these managers don’t have your best interests (at heart)."
He watched a major league scouts ask to purchase a teammate’s contract in the middle of the year, only to be told to wait until the playoffs were concluded. That player’s dream could’ve been realized – but he never knew it, and it was denied.
That couldn’t be him. Kintzler had to strategize, take his career in his own hands. He asked to be dealt specifically to the St. Paul Saints and their manager George Tsamis. The Saints had a reputation for getting players seen by major league scouts. They were in a major league market in St. Paul, Minn. and J.D. Drew famously played for them in 1997 and 1998. New York Mets Gold Glove shortstop Rey Ordonez also started his career there.
"I knew all I had to do was get healthy and I’ll get signed," Kintzler thought. "That’s why I asked for a trade to somewhere where someone is going to see me. Someone has to see me."
The strategy worked. He went 8-3 with a 2.79 ERA in 14 games. Scouts for the Brewers saw him, purchased his contract, and sent him to Class AA Huntsville to finish out the 2009 season.
He had pitched well enough to warrant a look, but the timing couldn’t have been better. He arrived in Huntsville on July 24.
"If you’re an independent ball guy in spring training, they don’t really care about you as much," he said. "It was fortunate for me that when I got signed it was in the middle of the season so I had about a month and a half to show myself. So then going to spring training, it helped out a little bit. I almost got released in spring training too."
He paused, and laughed.
"Probably. I don’t even know."
Kintzler was named a Southern League All-Star in 2010 and dominated in Class AAA before being called up in September. A solid spring in 2011 landed him on Milwaukee’s Opening Day roster. Unfortunately, after throwing a total of 15 2/3 innings in nine games with the Brewers and one in Nashville, he felt pain in his right triceps area.
The result was surgery on July 26 to put a screw in his elbow, and he missed the entire season.
Kintzler was back in time for to pitch in the fall league, but something wasn’t right – and he’d been down this road before as an injured pitcher.
"I’m trying to protect myself and all of a sudden everyone’s staring at you and they just want to get you off the payroll sometimes," he said. "In reality that’s it. Sometimes you hate to hear that but for some kids that’s the reality. If you’re not playing they don’t care. Fortunately the Brewers were willing to stay patient with me."
He started the year on the disabled list with inflammation in his elbow but on June 28, it seemed the organization’s patience had run out – the Brewers designated him for assignment.
"That was probably the best thing that ever happened to me," Kintzler admitted. "It was a big wakeup call – you’re not as good as you think you are and you’re going to have to earn it again.
"Right after that, all of a sudden, my elbow feels better. I don’t know what happened. My elbow feels great, I’m throwing and they see me in Triple A a month later and he said you’ve got two weeks to prove yourself. It just showed they cared about me, they wanted to give me a chance. They could’ve just said we’re good and we’ll designate you and we’ll release you. I’m very fortunate for the Brewers."
A matter of health
The hallway bustled outside the manager’s office inside Silver Cross Field in downtown Joliet, Ill – a working-class town about 40 miles southwest of Chicago – as stadium staff prepared for a rain shortened double-header.
The Slammers’ series opener against the Washington Wild Things on May 27 was washed out after the first pitch, leading to a double-header on May 28 – two games that would last just seven innings.
During batting practice, Slammers manager Mike Breyman explained to a player he would be receiving full paychecks despite the shortened contests.
Down in the tunnel, Anundsen leaned against the brick wall outside Breyman’s office, moving to the side as the Slammers’ mascot carried his crow’s head under his arm toward the field.
This is what the fringe looks like.
"With me, in baseball, I always figured I would retire because I was done with baseball or I just couldn’t keep up with the competition type deal," Anundsen said. "My biggest issue with the Brewers was my past two years I just never got to really show what I can actually do as a pitcher. It’s kind of frustrating."
Anundsen was pitching the back end of that double-header, a year after starting 24 games for the Class AA Huntsville. The 122nd overall pick of the 2006 draft, Anundsen was the second pitcher the Brewers selected that year, behind first round pick Jeremy Jeffress.
Three years later, he tossed a no-hitter for Class A Brevard County. It was his best season in organized ball, but there was discomfort in his arm. He decided to work harder, and hurt himself further, which resulted in surgery. It started a downward trend of offseason mechanical tweaks and workout regimens that resulted in his dismissal from the organization.
"We had him scheduled to be a starter in Double A but he just couldn’t stay healthy," said Lee Tunnell, the Brewers current bullpen coach who served as the organization’s minor league pitching coordinator from 2009-12. "That was his big deal."
His eyebrows, and voice, raised when told of Anundsen’s admission that he essentially took his career in his own hands by adding additional workouts in the winter without informing anyone in the organization.
"Our jobs depend on players getting to the big leagues as a minor league system," Tunnell said. "Our jobs depend on that. So, somebody that’s just working with somebody in the winter, their job just depends on getting somebody to come in and give them money to work with them. So who would be more invested"
Anundsen was anxious, wanting to build on that successful season and continue his trajectory through the organization.
"(But) it was more immaturity," he admitted. "I was only 21, 22 and I just decided upon myself to ‘let’s go ahead and do stuff’ without really referencing anybody else if it was a smart idea."
Anundsen said he wasn’t surprised the Brewers didn’t want to re-sign him. He knew his arm didn’t feel right and pitched anyway, and admitted it hurt the team when he did so. But, after an offseason in which he added muscle and again tweaked his mechanics, he figured he’d be offered another shot.
"But that’s the way it is," he said. "If you’re with an organization for so long and for whatever reason they don’t see you fitting, this is what happens. You move on.
Like Lintz, Anundsen struggled with the adjustment the Slammers’ immediate need for success. With no spring training, he admitted his start in Joliet was muddied by rust and recovery from that injury-plagued 2012.
There were lowlights, like when he took out his frustration on water coolers in the dugout on May 28. There were highlights, like when he struck out 10 in 6 1/3 innings on June 28. Overall, the results weren’t what the Slammers expected, and Anundsen was released on July 18 after producing a 6.18 ERA in 10 starts.
Now, he can only look around baseball and even at his old organization, Milwaukee, to see a former roommate in Jim Henderson reaching the majors at 30, and Kintzler escaping the independent leagues as well.
"It’s crazy, that kind of stuff. But, that’s what makes this game so great."
A matter of the mind
Lintz always felt another chance was coming.
He was the 25th pitcher taken in the 2008 amateur draft after going 9-0 with a 0.57 ERA and two saves his senior year at Marshall County High School in Lewisburg, Tenn. He seemed to come into pro ball with good control, striking out 155 batters while walking just 21 in 75 innings.
He signed for $900,000 (along with tuition should he ever wish to go to college) and was immediately sent to Arizona for rookie ball.
It wasn’t long before problems surfaced.
He walked 16 and struck out 26 while allowing 14 earned runs in 18 1/3 innings, and the Brewers had issues with his delivery – it wasn’t conducive to long term success in professional baseball. They tried to work with him on changing his mechanics to better suit strike throwing, but the teenager was resistant.
"Seth was just not at a place where he was really ready to be able to do that stuff," Tunnell said. "With him, it was 100 percent about just being able to play the game and throw strikes. There were really key things and concepts that he had about his own delivery that kind of got in the way and he wasn’t ready to get past that."
Now 23, Lintz can admit issues off the field prevented him from doing the things he needed to on it.
"Once it became a business and there was pressure or I had a lot more things to deal with just in my personal life, with the friends that I chose and the money that I had and whatever it may have been, you’re completely responsible at that point," he said. "You have no parenting or coaching off the field. So didn’t know what questions to ask. I didn’t even know where to start with all that."
Lintz saw many in his draft class rocket through their respective organizational systems and into the majors. Unlike them, he wasn’t ready to handle all that came with professional baseball.
He saw teammates struggle similarly off the field but go into a zone between the lines, where nothing affected them. It took him awhile to learn he couldn’t function like that, either.
"When you get the large amount of money and you’re on your own and you’re 18 years old, you want to be independent and you want, to some degree, to separate yourself a lot of times from really, in all honesty, what’s good for you long-term," Lintz said.
"When I took a step back and said ‘What’s the real problem on the field?’ and I realized it was my preparation in every other way of my life. Not really for baseball, but just for my life’s sake you know?"
Unfortunately for Lintz, those pieces off the field began coming together at a rate that no longer served the best interests of the Brewers organization. He was somewhat surprised by his release, but understood it. He knew the numbers were against him in every way as time went on – new blood was being brought in, and his personal statistics weren’t getting any better.
"My performance didn’t match up with their expectations and even what I expected out of myself," he admitted.
He regrets that it took him so long to figure out that part of his game, that he butted heads with the variety of coaches in the Brewers organization that tried in vain to tap his potential.
"At some point it goes back to the player," he said. "You can only coach somebody so much until something clicks in them. They understood all that and I think that they gave me a couple opportunities to figure that out and I still think I didn’t. I sure wish I did."
A common refrain surrounding Lintz is that his arm is good enough to pitch not only in affiliated ball, but in the major leagues – he just hasn’t been able to "put it together." He says this himself. Breyman said it of his brief time in Joliet. Members of the Brewers organization said it.
Lintz believes being out on the fringes can help him finally do so.
"If I can put it together then I’ve got a shot," he said. "I believe that in my heart. I believe that if I can continue to work hard and God blesses it then I don’t see any reason why I won’t be successful."
In the last two seasons with the Brewers, Kintzler has made just over what Lintz signed for out of high school. He’s appeared in 73 games, walking 22 in 82 innings. He’s gone 6-1 with a 2.96 ERA. He’ll be eligible for arbitration in 2015 and knows he still has a long way to go until the fringe is firmly in the rearview.
"I’m kind of happy that I wasn’t handed it on a platter like a lot of guys – that’s why I appreciate it more," he said. "I know I had to work hard to get here."
Tunnell saw that immediately in Kintzler once he joined the organization. The Brewers’ minor league pitching coaches saw an opportunity to tweak his delivery and find some more velocity, and the pitcher bought in.
"That’s why coming from the other direction, coming from independent ball to organized ball, a lot of times guys are more willing to make adjustments because they’ve had to look at themselves through realistic lenses – ‘OK, you know what, I see I have some ability, but what do I need to be able to get me where I want to be?’" Tunnell said. "It’s hard to manufacture that motivation as a teenager.
"Sometimes you have to go through some (adversity) to get to that point."
For Lintz and Anundsen the adversity, and opportunity, is now on the margins. Anundsen is still struggling to get all the way back from his arm troubles, and is currently searching for his second shot with an independent club.
Lintz says he regularly hits 93 to 95 with his fastball, finally harnessing the power Tunnell and others in the Brewers organization always felt was there. He’s still trying to find his command however, having walked 24 in 51 2/3 innings this season.
It may feel like a step back for players once thought of so highly, but Kintzler knows better than most that a detour still gets you to your planned destination.
"It just showed to me that all you’ve got to do is get hot," Kintzler said. "I was what, 26 years old, and I wasn’t even the (Brewers) baby. I wasn’t even a top prospect. I wasn’t anything. If you’re good, they’re going to find you. And if they need you, they’ll call you up."
He laughed, and then took a look at the digital clock on the wall in the Brewers clubhouse. It was time to suit up.
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.