Following the 2011 Twins minor league season, I named Andrew Albers the Minnesota Twins Minor League Relief Pitcher of the Year. Because of that, I wrote the below story about him that appeared in the 2012 Minnesota Twins Prospect Handbook. Like so many other Twins this season, including Chris Colabello and Caleb Thielbar, Albers' story to the big leagues is terrific.
After this article was written, much more happened in a successful 2012 season. In 2013, he represented Canada in the WBC, and he's been Rochester's best starting pitcher all season.
Enjoy the story below, most of which is in his own words:
Less than a month before Twins minor league training camp began, Andrew Albers was sitting in Arizona, hoping for an opportunity with an affiliated team. He was 25-years-old and wondering how long he would continue to play baseball. Since signing with the Twins shortly before camp, things have been going very well for Albers. The story is incredible, but let’s start from the beginning.
Albers was born in North Battleford, Saskachewan in 1985. Understandably, he was not a Twins fan as a child. “Twins fans may not like this, but when I was growing up in Saskatchewan, I was a big Blue Jays fan. That was back in the day of the two World Series Championship teams. I used to love the players on those teams. Guys like Devon White, Roberto Alomar, Joe Carter, Juan Guzman, Pat Hentgen, and the list goes on.”
Like most Canadian children in the ‘90s, Larry Walker was also a major influence while he was growing up.
Albers played some hockey as a youth. When he turned 12, he realized that he wasn’t a great hockey player. “So, once I got to high school, I retired from my brief hockey career and began to play volleyball, basketball and badminton in high school. I really enjoyed getting the opportunity to play some different sports and enjoyed what each one had to offer. Plus, I feel like it gave me an opportunity to improve my overall athletic ability which certainly helped with baseball and with all sports. In addition, it allowed me to not get burnt out from only playing baseball all the time.”
There is no high school baseball in Canada, so he only played baseball in the summers. “We were a AA town, and the best teams were usually AAA caliber. My summer midget team (15-18 year olds) played in a senior men’s league around the province of Saskatchewan. So I played in that league for three years and got to pitch against all kinds of senior men’s teams. Then we always had some other tournaments and Provincial playoffs that went along with that season. Our baseball seasons were fairly short and spanned from about the end of April to the middle of August.”
Albers is proof that if a player can play, a scout will find him. In 2004, Albers was drafted in the 12th round by the Milwaukee Brewers. Instead of signing, he went to the University of Kentucky. “For me, it was a matter of maturity. I don’t think I was mature enough coming out of high school to go into professional baseball. I knew I had a good situation if I chose to go to the University of Kentucky. I was going to have great coaching and was going to have the opportunity to play in one of the nation’s top baseball conferences. I also knew that I had to get a lot stronger and had never lived on my own, so I thought college would be a better fit for me. It would also allow me to work on getting my degree in case baseball did not end up working out for me. I have never regretted my decision to go to school.”
At Kentucky, he played for coached John Cohen and Gary Henderson (pitching coach). “Coach Henderson was very influential on me growing, both as a person and as a baseball player. He was such an outstanding coach that helped me learn so many things about the game and about myself. There is no doubt in my mind that I would not be where I am without Coach Henderson.”
At Kentucky, he was a starter as a freshman and a junior, and pitched out of the bullpen his sophomore and senior seasons. Albers helped his team to an SEC championship in 2006. In 2008, they played in a regional tournament in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Following his senior season, the San Diego Padres selected Albers in the 10th round of the 2008 draft. His transition to professional baseball did not go smoothly. “I came down with an elbow injury almost immediately, and as a result was unable to compete much that first year. It made for a long few months in Peoria, Arizona, because I was continually rehabbing my elbow and was frustrated that it wasn’t getting any better. I was also in Rookie ball as a 22-year-old playing against a lot of players fresh out of high school and just over from LatinAmerica.
When he came to spring training in 2009, his elbow was still injured despite resting and rehabbing throughout the offseason. “I came to spring training with the attitude that either I was going to throw until my elbow started feeling better or I was going to blow it out.”
Unfortunately, the elbow got worse, and in April of 2009, he had Tommy John surgery. In August, he was unable to regain his range of motion and needed to have a second surgery to remove some scar tissue from his elbow.
He continued to rehab, but in spring of 2010, he was released by the Padres. He was released the day after he threw to live hitters for the first time since his surgery.
He returned to Canada and tried out for Quebec Capitales of the independent Can-Am League. Although his elbow was still not feeling healthy. He wasn’t certain how it would hold up over the full season. In training camp, he tore a ligament in his ankle doing PFPs (Pitcher’s Fielding Practice). He returned a week later, pitched in an exhibition game and made the team. He proceeded to go 3-0 with 17 saves and a 1.40 ERA in 40 games. In 57.2 innings, he gave up 41 hits, walked 16 and struck out 59.
“During my time there, I learned a lot about who I was as well as about various things related to the business of baseball. For me the entire season was about trying to get another shot at affiliated baseball and seeing how my arm would respond. The more I was able to pitch, the better my arm began to feel. I was having an outstanding season for the Capitales and was hoping eventually someone would take notice.
However, that was not in the cards and I did not receive an opportunity to get on with any affiliated teams that season. It helped me to learn not to worry about the aspects of this game that I cannot control. I only need to worry about the parts of the game that I can control. That is,how I go about my daily business, how I prepare for a game, my response to external factors and the adversity that players face. I think that was a big step for me and it allowed me to quit worrying about all the other things outside of performing on the diamond. It was a matter of having faith that one way or another everything would work itself out. Whether that meant I would be playing baseball or not, I had the faith in God that He would point me in the right direction. From a player standpoint the season was also an important stepping stone for me. It allowed me to pitch against wooden bats for my first full season and to see what worked against hitters with wooden bats was important for me. The season also gave me a chance to work on my change-up and continue to try and improve my other deliveries.”
That brings us back to spring training of 2011. After having a terrific season in Quebec, Albers was able to line up some tryouts.
In his own words, “The teams that I lined up tryouts with were the Angels, Rockies and Brewers, all of whom had their spring training down in Arizona. I had been throwing back home during the winter in my old high school gym using an archery target as a mound to throwoff of, just throwing against the wall. I figured if I was going to give these tryouts an honest chance that I had better get outside a few times and throw off of a real mound before I went down trying to earn a job in Arizona. So I called up my old college pitching coach Gary Henderson, who is now the head coach at the University of Kentucky, and asked him if I could come down to Lexington for a couple weeks and use some of their facilities to throw, and maybe get a catcher to throw to, as well as face some hitters. He said that would be fine so I drove from home (North Battleford, Saskatchewan) to Phoenix, AZ (about 30 hours) and left my car with some family members who had headed to Arizona for the winter. From there I flew over to Lexington.
While I was in Lexington, I had thrown a couple of bullpens and coach Henderson asked me how everything was feeling. I told him everything was good, arm felt nice and strong and the elbow was feeling good. So he suggested that he would try and get a couple of area scouts out from the Twins to come watch me throw to some of UK's hitters. I told him that would be great if he could set that up for me. So he called up Earl Winn and Tim O'Neil who were gracious enough to come watch me throw to some hitters in Lexington. When I was talking to Tim and Earl after my session they told me they had liked what they saw and would see what they could do about getting me an invitation to spring training. Unfortunately there were a lot of little details that needed to be ironed out. The Twins wanted me to pass a medical exam from their doctors to make sure that my elbow was ok. My independent ball contract would have to be bought out if they were to invite me to spring training. They wanted to see all of my past medical history with the Padres. Finally, being Canadian, I was going to need a visa if I was going to play for the Twins. So we were talking back and forth over the next week and just couldn't line everything up so Tim suggested that I go to Arizona and go to these open tryouts and if nothing came about to call him back.
So I flew back to Phoenix, and had the Angels tryout lined up for the next day but it ended up getting cancelled at the last minute. So it was down to the Brewers and the Rockies. So I went to the tryout with the Brewers. It was a closed bullpen session. I felt like I threw the ball pretty well but unfortunately, I did not impress them enough to receive an invitation to spring training. I then went to the Rockies tryout two days later. It was an open tryout and there were about 50 guys there, pitchers and hitters. The tryout was throwing 15 pitches to three different hitters, and then it was over. It went very quickly and once again, I did not impress enough to receive an invitation to spring training. I called Tim back and told him about the tryouts and how I was still looking for a spring training invite. He got on the phone and was talking to some of the higher-up members of the organization. He told me the Twins may be interested in flying me down to Fort Myers, so I could see their team doctor and throw for some more people before they made a decision on whether or not to invite me to spring training. He said that it probably wouldn't happen for another couple days though. So as I was sitting in my hotel room, I came up with a different plan. I really just wanted one more shot at affiliated ball. Just wanted a chance when I was healthy to see how far I could go and see at what level I was able to compete.
So I called Tim back and explained to him that I would drive from Phoenix to Fort Myers (about 37 hours) and see the doctors and throw for whoever wanted to come watch me throw. Then if the Twins were willing to offer me an invitation to spring training, they could reimburse me for my travel. If not, I would just drive home from there. (Fort Myers to North Battleford is about a 47 hour drive). So he made a couple phone calls and called me back that night and told me that would be fine. So I hopped in my car the next morning and made the cross country drive over to Fort Myers. Once I arrived in Fort Myers, I saw the team doctor. He checked my arm and said everything looked fine. Then I threw a bullpen for Raz (Twins minor league pitching
coordinator Eric Rasmussen) and a couple of other coaches. Luckily
they liked me enough to offer me an invitation to try and make a club in spring training.
I was really excited when I heard the news that they were going to give me a chance at spring training. That was all that I could have asked for.”
The 25-year-old was thrilled for the opportunity and ready to make the best of it. However, in minor league camp, he was working on the rookie ball roster which meant that he would not be starting the season with a full season team.After talking to Rasmussen, he learned that was because his visa had not yet arrived. The Twins needed to wait for that in order for him to play. When Alex Wimmers and Miguel Munoz went on the Disabled List a couple weeks into the season, Albers and Matt Schuld were promoted to Ft. Myers.
In 22 games with the Miracle, he went 4-1 with four saves. In 52.1 innings, he gave up 48 hits, walked seven and struck out 46.
“My plan was to just go out and be aggressive and pitch to my strengths. I guess I surprised myself a little bit with the first half that I had. Everything kind of went my way, and I caught some breaks and got a little lucky. The defense was outstanding with the likes of Brian Dozier, James Beresford and Aaron Hicks up the middle. Those three guys can make up for a lot of mistakes that I make as a pitcher.”
He was then promoted to Double-A New Britain where he pitched in 13 games. He went 4-1 with a 2.91 ERA. In 43.1 innings, he gave up 44 hits, walked seven and struck out 34.
“Overall, the Eastern league was certainly filled with teams who had better lineups than in the FSL. However, I still found that it came down to me being able to make quality pitches. When I was able to work down in the zone, ahead in the count and make my pitches I was successful. It was just when you fell behind and had to groove a fastball to the guys in the Eastern league instead of hitting a sharp single, they were able to find a gap or put it out of the ballpark. So for me, it was all about being aggressive and trying to work ahead. When I was able to do that, I was able to get them a little off balance with my off speed pitches and get outs.”
On the season, Albers made 35 appearances, seven of which were starts. “There is the obvious difference of having a set routine as a starter and never knowing when you're going to pitch as a reliever. I also change my approach on the mound depending on if I start or come out of the ‘pen. As a starter, it is important to try and go deep into ball games and try to keep your pitch count down. In order to do that, you have to be very aggressive and throw a lot of fastballs early to try and get early contact and quick outs. You also have some time to find your secondary stuff. If it isn't there in the first and second innings, you usually have some time to figure out what adjustment needs to be made and make it within the next couple of innings.”
“As a reliever, it is a totally different mindset. You have to be ready to go immediately, especially as a left hander because you might only be in the game to face one hitter. You have to try and find all of your pitches in the bullpen and have confidence in them when you go into the game. As a reliever your pitch count is irrelevant, you pretty much just need to find a way to get guys out. It doesn't matter how you do it either. Also if you're pitching late in the game, you don't have the luxury of giving up an early run. Every run is important and you can't give in to hitters late in games. This usually results in me throwing more off speed pitches instead of just fastballs.”
Overall between Ft. Myers and New Britain, Albers went 8-2 with a 2.16 ERA. In 95.2 innings, he walked just 14 and struck out 80. However, that wasn’t the end of his tremendous 2011 season.
Following the minor league season, Albers was named to Team Canada and participated in the World Cup tournament in Panama. Fellow Twins prospect Tom Stuifbergen led the Netherlands to the World Cup championship. He threw 17 scoreless innings and was named the tournament’s top pitcher. If there were a runner-up for Top Pitcher of the tournament, it would have been Albers who threw 15 shutout innings.
“For me the World Cup was a great experience. It was my first time getting a chance to play on my national team, and I was very honored to get the opportunity to play for Team Canada. I had a tryout when I was younger but had come down with tendinitis and was unable to even really tryout. So going into the games I felt like I had something to prove and had a bit of a chip on my shoulder. I was surprised when they told me I would be starting the first game of the tournament against Puerto Rico. I was thankful to get the opportunity though and went out with my same game plan. I was aggressive early with fastballs and luckily they hit the ball where my defense could make plays behind me, which they did. I also threw three innings against the Netherlands, threw two against Chinese Taipei and started against South Korea. It was a fun tournament for me because it felt like I could do no wrong. My defense was outstanding behind me, and I just tried to force guys to put the ball in play early and it worked extremely well. Balls just seemed to keep finding gloves so I just continued to be aggressive and pound the zone. Pitching is a lot of fun when things go the way they did in the World Cup. The group of guys that I got to play with was outstanding as well. We meshed really quickly and got along well. It was fun playing baseball where the only thing that mattered was winning and your stats were irrelevant. I just wanted to do what I could to contribute to helping us win ball games. Fortunately, I was able to do that.”
From the World Cup, Albers and Team Canada participated in the Pan Am Games.
“The Pan Am Games was the experience of a lifetime. I pitched two innings in relief against Puerto Rico. I got myself into a huge jam in myfirst inning in the games but was able to induce a big double play ball to get out of it. Then I didn't pitch again until the final. When Ernie (Whitt) our manager decided to go with me for the final, I was really looking forward to the challenge. We had won a huge game against Mexico the night before where the fans had created an electric atmosphere. That game was great in itself. As I prepared myself for my start, it was weird to think about the journey I had made over the last eight months. Having gone from being almost out of baseball, to getting the chance to pitch in Canada's first ever gold medal game at a senior men's international tournament. It was a neat feeling.
The game itself went really well. I made a mistake to (Brett) Carroll in the first and caught a little too much of the plate with a change-up and he made me pay for it with a double down the line. I was able to limit the damage and manage to work through five pretty clean innings after that. They were going to pull me after the sixth, but my catcher and I convinced Ernie and Greg (Hamilton) to leave me in for the seventh. I proceeded to give up a line drive single to Matt Clark, and after a sac bunt, another line drive single to Chad Tracy. Luckily he hit it so hard that Clark couldn't score from first. Ernie came out to talk to me and asked how I was doing. I told him I had one more batter in me. He chose to leave me in to face Tommy Mendonca. It was a huge at-bat and getting him to punch out after a battle was once of the best feelings I've experienced in baseball. After that they pulled and brought in Scott Richmond who was just outstanding in finishing the game off.”
“It was so awesome to play that kind of role in the gold medal game for Canada. It's neat to think that I get to be a part of Canadian baseball history as the winning pitcher of what is at the moment our only gold medal in senior international competition. So that's a neat feeling. I was just so thankful that Ernie Whitt and Greg Hamilton had enough confidence in me to give me the ball and then to stick with me even when things didn't go so well. Now, getting to look back on that accomplishment, it is something I will hold dear for the rest of my life. I will never forget standing on the podium receiving our gold medals and having beat Team USA in such a huge game was really special. It will be an experience that is tough to beat.”
It’s been a pretty crazy 2011 for Andrew Albers. The story is remarkable. He went from trying like crazy to find an affiliated team to give him a spring training invite to my choice for 2011 Twins Minor League relief pitcher of the year. He represented Canada in international competition and was very successful. He heads into the2012 season knowing that he will be going to spring training with the Twins.
So what has he learned about himself along this journey?
“I found out that I could still pitch. I had been through a bit of adversity and come out better from it. I learned that I didn't have to live and die with every game and that there are a lot more important issues out there than winning or losing a baseball game. I think being out of the baseball world and not having a job in affiliated ball allowed me to gain a new perspective on different areas of my life. I began to enjoy baseball a lot more and was able to relax more on the mound instead of putting so much pressure on myself to perform every time out. I think that attitude has greatly contributed to my success.”
- 2012 Minnesota Twins Prospect Handbook