When the 2016 American Association season began, the Wichita Wingnuts had arguably the deepest and most formidable starting rotation in the league. With four veteran starters, all of whom had impressive credentials, it looked like they were the team to beat in the South Division, if not for the league title. Since two of those starters had Major League experience and two others had proven that they can win at any level, this was a shutdown group to say the least.
The team was well stocked for a title run, but needed one additional piece to fill out what was seen by many as the top rotation in the league. That key piece became right-hander Eddie Medina.
Baseball Was the Family Passion
When you meet and get to talk to Eddie there is a great deal to like about him. The young man from Staten Island, New York has proven that he not only has the physical skills to be a top performer, but that his level of maturity makes him someone that could easily be seen dawning a Major League uniform one day.
Growing up, Eddie Medina always had a passion for the sport of baseball. Living in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, it was easy to fall in love with the sport. Both his father and grandfather loved the game and spent many hours teaching and showing him how to become a star at the game.
During his early years he played shortstop, but always had a good enough arm to be a starting pitcher. It wasn’t just the physical tools that made him excel on the mound, but also the mental part of it that intrigued him the most.
“I found that pitching was a little more challenging. There’s the mental aspect to it as well and it is more like a chess game on the mound; what you’re going to throw and when you will throw it, how you’re going to throw it to get guys out.”
His understanding of the game and how to perform on the mound garnered a lot of attention from scouts. He had proven to be a quality pitcher and shortstop, so his next decision was to determine what would permit him to have the greatest success on the diamond.
“In high school I was being recruited as a position player and a pitcher. I really had to sit down and ask myself what was going to make it more likely that I could succeed at the next level.”
Eddie chose St. John’s University to pursue his dreams of being a professional baseball player, and established himself as one of the top pitchers for the Red Storm. Eddie starred at SJU all four seasons there. In his freshman year (2009) he appeared in 17-games, posting a 5-3 record with a save and a 3.81 ERA. Working out of the bullpen he became an integral part of the team’s staff.
He continued to work out of the bullpen for much of his career at St. John’s, pitching against some of the best talent in the country. This included appearances in the Big East Tournament where he faced off against No. 14 North Carolina in his junior season. He got to face some of the best baseball talent in the country in schools like Notre Dame, Louisville, and Minnesota, and proved that he had the stuff that could make him a professional baseball player.
Turning a Bad Break into a Chance to Prove Himself
Coming out of St. John’s, Eddie Medina was on top of the world. The right-hander who was a wiry 5-11, 155 in high school, had proven that this transition from shortstop to full-time pitcher was a smart one. He always knew he had a strong arm, hitting over 90-mph on the gun frequently and, as his body filled in, he got even better.
At the end of his senior season the Toronto Blue Jays drafted him and he reported to Dunedin for Spring Training. This was the shot he had been waiting for, looking to take his game to the next level. Sadly, that dream would turn to a nightmare of sorts.
The right-hander had suffered from a herniated disk in his senior season, but the condition was better. However, he failed the physical exam and, instead of giving him a chance to heal and join the organization, the Blue Jays decided to release him.
Eddie was shocked by the sudden turn of events, however, it did not turn his attitude on the game he loved. Instead, it became an inspiration to prove that the organization had made a big mistake.
“That kind of put a little fire in my belly. Somebody, somewhere thought I was good enough to be a professional pitcher, and that really gave me a lot more confidence that I had what it took.”
The release would have crushed the spirits of most men, but it only demonstrated one of the most important characteristics of Eddie Medina – his maturity. While barely over 20 at the time, the young man was philosophical about how things had changed.
“I am a believer that everything happens for a reason, so maybe I was not supposed to be there at that time. So it just pushed me to work harder and get better at my craft.”
Eddie decided to take the rest of the year off. He threw for some affiliate clubs the next season, but he was at a sizeable disadvantage in comparison to many others. They liked his arm and thought he could really make it, but he had no real numbers to support that arm, and he was already a year removed from graduating from college. Many scouts recommended that Eddie play independent baseball and that is exactly what he did.
In 2013, he auditioned for several clubs in the American Association, Can-Am League, and Atlantic League, but he found that he was getting baseball’s version of the runaround. Affiliate clubs weren’t willing to take a chance on him because he had no professional experience. Independent clubs weren’t willing to give him a shot because he had no affiliate experience. It was a viscous circle that would have ended the careers of most, but Eddie was committed to making his dream a reality.
He opted to go to Las Vegas in the Pecos League to get some experience. The Pecos League is not the most premier of independent leagues, but it was a place where he could play professional baseball and get the experience that scouts and executives told him he needed. In his one season there he was outstanding. The then 23-year-old made 18 appearances, 10 of which were starts. He posted a 3.95 ERA and a 4-1 record, striking out 66 batters in 68.1-innings.
In 2014, Eddie moved to the United League. He split time between Brownsville and Fort Worth demonstrating, once again, that he had the right kind of stuff. He made just two appearances in Fort Worth, but in Brownsville he was the No. 1 guy in their rotation. In 12 starts he went 4-3 with a 2.71 ERA, and had one complete game shutout.
The numbers were outstanding, but the United League did not have a summer season in 2015, so Medina was out looking for a job again. He opted to play for a new independent league in Maine, the North Country Baseball League, joining Old Orchard Beach. The league was committed to getting guys a shot by letting them showcase their talents.
“They did everything they could to help us, and that is why guys like myself went with that group. I knew they knew a lot of people there, and I knew that this was my only way to really have a chance at a place like Wichita. It was a guy seeing you and taking a liking to you and then spreading the word to the guys he knows about you. That is what happened.”
The purpose of the league was to showcase the talent and that proved to be a very successful idea. Eddie was signed by York in the Atlantic League, but they were expecting the return of two of their pitchers, and there simply was not going to be room for the young right-hander. Eddie returned to Old Orchard Beach, where a circumstance that is far more common than most would think became a big break for Medina.
Joining the Wichita Wingnuts When Needed the Most
“I went back to Maine, and I got a call asking if I have a passport. I told them yes. Sandy DeLeon tells me that Wichita needs a guy to make a start or two in Canada and that was all it was at the moment. It was for those two starts because there was some problems with visas.”
For Eddie Medina, this became a golden opportunity. His first start against Ottawa showed that all the confidence the righty had in himself was justified. He allowed just 4-hits in 5.2-innings, allowing only one unearned run in the team’s 4-2 victory. Five nights later he appeared in Quebec, where he shut down the Canadian team, allowing one-run in 6.2-innings. His two starts left him with a 0.73 ER, and the Wingnuts realized that they had discovered a diamond in the rough.
The Wingnuts were struggling at the time, and Eddie seemed to infuse a new energy into the team. Former Wichita Manager Kevin Hooper knew he had something special in the young right-hander and realized that the team seemed to have picked up after he joined the club.
“He came along at the right time for sure. We were struggling with some injuries and had some guys signed by affiliate clubs, so we really needed a spark. Eddie really gave us a chance to win every time out, and that was something the team needed.”
Eddie was signed to a contract to remain with the team for the rest of the season. He became just what the doctor ordered for Wichita, making eight starts for the Wingnuts and posting a 4-1 record and a 3.49 ERA.
Putting His Maturity to the Test
When the 2016 season rolled around, there was a lot of changes going on in Wichita. Hooper moved on to become the San Diego Padres minor league infield coordinator. Pete Rose, Jr. was the new manager, and more than half of the players that helped the team win the South Division were gone.
To weather the storm, the club was expecting their starting rotation to be the anchor that held the club together. With the four veterans going and the way Eddie had pitched the season before, it seemed that the club would have no worries winning with their starters only giving up one or two runs a game.
That was the plan at least, but for the first few weeks of the season the Wingnuts were struggling. Their vaunted pitching staff was getting hit hard, and that included Medina. Through his first three starts the right-hander had allowed 20 earned runs in 17-innings and he was 0-3. It was one of those moments that many would have started to doubt their abilities, but this was Eddie’s time to put his faith in the skills and maturity that he had developed.
“It’s just the attitude of being from the East Coast of not letting things bother you. Whether you are in the Majors or the Pecos League, it is still 60 feet, 6-inches. I have been pitching for a long time, so I know what I can do. I just had to focus on doing the things that led to me being successful. So that was the mentality I had and kept because these guys were going to give me a chance and so I am going to do everything I can to help them win.”
Trusting in himself and his stuff, Eddie began to turn things around. In his last seven appearances he has seemingly gotten better with each outing. During that span he has allowed 12-earned runs in 29.2-innings, helping to lower his ERA more than four full runs.
While some may be surprised by the turnaround, Eddie always knew he had it in him. After all, he came to Wichita for one reason.
“I came here to compete no matter what. I am going to go out there and compete, compete, compete. I have had success here, but I would not be doing so if it were not for the guys behind me. The defense behind me is so outstanding. Every time I am out there someone is making a great play for me.”
As the Rotation Goes, So Goes the Wingnuts
On June 1, the day that Eddie suffered his last loss, the Wichita Wingnuts were 4-9, and it looked like the Laredo Lemurs were going to run away with the division. The starting staff was in disarray and the club had not won any of their first four series of the season.
Since then, however, this has been an entirely different team. The Wingnuts are 29-7 since then, the best record in the American Association, and the pitching staff has been a key reason. It has been the work of the starting rotation, especially that of Link, Medina, Brown, and converted reliever Alex Boshers that have led the turnaround.
What was once a five-game deficit is now a three-game lead, and the team is only getting better. An eighth straight appearance in the playoffs seems almost assured now, and it is the dedication to their craft and to the team by this rotation that has led the charge.
Medina has been one of the leaders of this resurgence. While just 26-years-old, his poise on the mound and the way that he approaches the game gives this team five veterans to their starting rotation. The plan at the starting of the season was for this pitching staff to carry the Wichita Wingnuts all the way to the American Association championship. With Eddie Medina and the rest of the staff pitching the way that they are, it looks like that plan is about to come to fruition.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA