Spring training a learning experience for Demons draft class of 2016

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NATCHITOCHES – Trips to Hammond and Abilene have been replaced with junkets to Jupiter and West Palm Beach.

The familiar terrain of the Southland Conference has been exchanged for the scenery of Florida and Arizona. Sights and locations like Kyser Hall and Brown-Stroud Field have been swapped out for BrightHouse Field or LECOM Park.

For a trio of former Northwestern State players who were picked in the 2016 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, this is what spring looks like now.

Outfielder Nick Heath, right-handed pitcher Adam Oller and catcher Daniel Garner all heard their names called in June, signing with Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, respectively. After making their professional debuts during the summer, all three are enjoying their first tastes of spring training where they join Minnesota’s Mason Melotakis as former Demons in preparing for the 2017 season.

“The biggest adjustment has been getting used to the routine,” said Oller, a 20th-round pick of the Pirates after being named to a pair of All-American teams following his junior season. “You go from college where you play three games – sometimes four or five at most – games a week or all you have is practice for two or three hours. Here at 6 a.m. you start your day. You have meetings. Then you have the work day. Then you play a game. It goes from 6 to about 4 or 5 o’clock.”

Heath enjoyed a strong debut at Rookie-level Idaho Falls after the Royals tabbed him with their 16th-round selection. Heath led the Pioneer League in stolen bases, adding that to his 2016 Southland Conference stolen base crown.

Thanks to his performance on the basepaths, Heath earned the Royals organization’s 2016 Willie Wilson Baserunner of the Year Award.

Those credentials helped Heath open some eyes around the Kansas City organization, but this spring, it is Heath who has had his share of eye-opening experiences.

Like many major league organizations, the Royals keep key pieces of their past close to their present players. Hall of Famer George Brett has been a visible presence in Surprise, Arizona, as has Willie Aikens, one of the Royals’ top hitters during their pre-eminent days of the 1980s.

All three former Demons have used their first spring training experiences to soak up wisdom from their fellow minor leaguers as well as the former big-league standouts who permeate all 30 MLB spring training camps.

“We share a weight room with the big-league team,” Heath said. “We get a chance to talk to them, but it’s not like I’m able to stand next to them and have a full-blown conversation. I saw (Terrence) Gore the other day and asked him a few questions after the workout. Peter O’Brien has been the one guy I have communicated with the most baseball-wise. I pick a lot of brains, and ask a lot of the same questions so I can apply it to how I’m trying to come up through the minor leagues.”

The Pirates organization took things a step further in a quest to assist and accelerate their younger players’ development on and off the diamond.

“We had a Q and A session a few weeks ago,” Oller said. “Four big leaguers came over, including Ivan Nova and Steven Brault. They came over and it was just them and the players. No coaches were in there. You got to ask whatever you wanted. We got to pick their brains around that.”

The beauty of spring training is players from all levels have the ability to mesh and connect. While Garner, Heath and Oller find themselves on the back fields day after day, it is a common occurrence for well-known major leaguers to make their way over to those same back fields to ply their crafts.

Those experiences allow for young players to learn via osmosis from players like Kansas City’s Jorge Soler, Pittsburgh’s Tony Watson and Philadelphia’s Maikel Franco.

While Heath is in Surprise, Arizona, before the season begins, Oller and Garner find themselves in close proximity along Florida’s Gulf Coast.

The pair, who were linked by a distance of 60 feet, 6 inches during their one season together at NSU, are in Bradenton and Clearwater, Florida, respectively. The Pirates’ and Phillies’ spring training complexes are located 52 miles apart, but Oller said the two have not seen each other during spring training games.

Whether direct or in an indirect way, the former Demons have learned one of the key components of any successful baseball player’s mental toolbox.

“Control what you can control,” said Garner, a 31st-round draft pick by the Phillies.

And in a sense, they have their experiences at Northwestern State to
thank for that.

“The most enjoyable part has probably been all the learning I’m still doing,” Heath said. “My game is better than it was when I was in school, but I appreciate what everybody at Northwestern did for me. They really taught me the fundamentals. This is just a heightened version of what I learned in college.”

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