Toledo, Ohio — He grew up in the right town, and now plays for the right organization at the right time.
It’s partly a series of circumstances that led St. Clair’s Jake Cronenworth toward a trend: The 25-year old Tampa Bay Rays prospect is a two-way player, one of the first in pro baseball.
Playing in Toledo this week for the Durham Bulls, Cronenworth was a lead-off designated hitter on Monday and then took his regular position at shortstop on Tuesday, clubbing four hits and scoring twice.
He was expected to pitch Wednesday or Thursday for his now-weekly appearance on a Triple-A mound.
“I think it’s definitely made it a little more interesting,” Cronenworth said before Monday’s game. “We had talked about it in spring training, they had brought it up as an idea.
“I sat down a little bit, thought about it, honestly just wanted to make the right decision, for myself and for the organization. And then once the season started, I thought it was a great opportunity, so I took it.”
As a two-way player at Michigan, Cronenworth had a .312 batting average over three seasons at second base. On the mound, he had a 2.76 ERA in 52 career appearances, striking out 104 and walking 37 batters.
Cronenworth saved all four games for the Wolverines in the 2015 Big Ten tournament, earning MVP for the champions.
He thought he would be drafted as a pitcher, but the Rays surprised him by saying he could play infield. He’s since been converted to strictly shortstop — on non-pitching days.
After over three years away from the mound, Cronenworth is there again, boosting his value and making him a possible chip as MLB’s trade deadline approaches on July 31.
The multi-positional dimension is like Little League all over again for Cronenworth, which is another part of a story where his good fortune shines through.
About 5,000 people live in St. Clair, where the Cargill Salt factory and historic St. Clair Inn sit as landmarks, and locals will celebrate St. Clair Riverfest with the annual offshore powerboat races later this month.
Twelve miles south of Port Huron, the St. Clair County city is 1,000 yards or so across the St. Clair River from Courtright, Ontario.
And about a decade ago, a remarkably talented group of teenagers were pushing each other on the hockey rinks, baseball diamonds and basketball courts.
Many teenagers have dreams of being pro athletes, but these boys had good reason.
“We joked that they were all like pros when they were little,” said Matt Distelrath, who was a coach for St. Clair’s Little League baseball team.
Cronenworth was part of an impressive run of youth baseball success, cresting in a 2006 state championship berth where St. Clair lost to Union Township, which is near Mount Pleasant. The dominant shutdown pitcher for the opponents was Evan Hill, who would later play with Cronenworth at Michigan and then pitch three seasons in the Tigers organization.
“I think he was the same size when he was 12 years old,” Cronenworth said of the 6-foot-5 Hill. ”But yeah, they beat us pretty bad.”
Distelrath said seven St. Clair boys from one team went on to play college baseball, that’s after finally getting their state title as members of the St. Clair High School baseball team in 2011’s Division 2 tournament.
From a place far from pro athlete hotbeds like South Florida, the Los Angeles area or greater Dallas, some of the St. Clair teens are still playing: Cronenworth, lefty reliever Jared Tobey of West Michigan, the Tigers Low-A affiliate; pitcher Joel Seddon, who spent seven seasons with Oakland’s organization after starring at South Carolina, still pitches for the independent Winnipeg Goldeyes; Detroit Tigers bullpen catcher Jeremy Carrell; and hockey player Tyler Motte, who this month signed with Vancouver for his fourth NHL season.
Distelrath said two others from that St. Clair youth team played baseball at Grand Valley State, another played at Cleary and still another played at Hillsdale.
“It was always fun. We had so many great athletes, so many good competitors,” Cronenworth said. “Just looking back on it, it was some of the best years.”
Cronenworth and many of his former teammates give back to the St. Clair youth leagues, said Distelrath, who coaches his son this summer on one team.
“They always donate stuff for raffles,” Distelrath said. “Jake gave us a Wilson A2000 (glove) autographed by Cronenworth he got from the Rays — it’s used every game by my kid now.
“It’s crazy just to watch what they’re doing now and to think back that they were the age of the kids I’m coaching now.”
Cronenworth said growing up in St. Clair definitely contributed to his success.
“I don’t think, looking back on it, people would’ve been like, ‘Oh, we’re going to have a handful of guys playing professional sports and one of them is in the NHL,’” he said. “But yeah, we all went to each other’s houses on the weekend, had fun, and then we all went to high school and that was great.”
Since being drafted in the seventh round by Tampa in 2015, Cronenworth has steadily moved through the Rays system, but rarely appearing on organizational top prospect lists.
But this year, Cronenworth was approached by Rays decision-makers with the offer he couldn’t refuse.
Although he’s taking the year off pitching because of Tommy John surgery, Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels is currently the two-way gold standard after a successful first season, winning American League Rookie of the Year.
But the forward-thinking Rays also invested early in two-way players, as rookie Brendan McKay has pitched three games and had four at-bats in the big leagues though Tuesday.
The organization’s No. 2 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, McKay had 127 at-bats in 38 games this season with Durham and Double-A Montgomery, in addition to 13 appearances on the mound.
Though they have converted players, the Tigers have not yet had a two-way talent.
Pitcher Nick Ramirez is a former first baseman and 2017 draftee Dane Myers was a two-way star out of Rice, though he has settled in as a pitcher for the organization.
Kaleb Cowart, a former first-round pick for the Angels, came to spring training in Lakeland as a two-way prospect for a short-lived tryout with the Tigers.
“You’re always talking generally about a suburb athlete, just to be able to handle the workload,” Tigers roving pitching instructor A.J. Sager said. “I know some of the concerns that people have are if they’re going to get enough reps. Being successful in either or in professional baseball is such a tough task, and then you wonder if they’re going to get enough reps in the mound or enough reps in the field. “But again, there’s been some that can handle it.”
Sager played his rookie season in San Diego in 1994, pitching alongside a converted infielder who would go on to be one of the game’s best closers ever in Trevor Hoffman, a Hall of Famer.
Sager said he’s never played with or coached a true two-way player, though.
“You look at the skillset, what’s the best chance at success? Of course, you have to take into account the player: Where’s his passion at?” Sager said. “I’d say 99.9 percent of them have to pick one or the other, but there are that percentage out there that are skilled enough to attempt both.”
Two-way versatility helps roster flexibility for clubs and the payoff will be more valuable going forward.
MLB is expanding rosters next season by one player but will cap the amount of pitchers on a roster. So, any two-way players on a team will benefit their clubs by being able to add an extra arm to the staff.
“I think the opportunity that they presented is incredible,” Cronenworth said. "I think going into it, that was probably my biggest question was can I do this at the next level, can I sustain it, and will it help me in the long run?
“Thinking about it for a while, I think that it’s something that not many guys are doing and especially with us, it could be a huge weapon.
“I think it’s a great chance.”
It wasn’t a perfect transition though, as Cronenworth’s command has been shaky. In his first road pitching appearance and second overall as a pro, he walked three batters in one inning, but kept Charlotte off the scoreboard in the first inning. Only 12 of his 28 pitches went for strikes.
“There’s always going to be those things, especially coming back from something you haven’t done in a while,” he said. “But working with the coaches here, figuring stuff out that helps me on the mound, and just stay consistent with fastball command and controlling my breaking pitches has helped a lot.”
It has not hurt his hitting, as through Tuesday, Cronenworth was hitting .342 through 80 games with 10 home runs and 42 RBIs. On the mound, he had not allowed an earned run in 7 1/3 innings over seven appearances, six in the opener role.
Cronenworth’s last outing was the opener of a seven-inning no-hitter for the Bulls, the team’s first since 2016. Once this season, during a game last month at Toledo, he went straight from shortstop to pitcher, and stayed atop the lineup.
Cronenworth’s first season on the mound has been his best season at the plate, and it may not be a coincidence. He made the Triple-A All-Star team, leading off and playing shortstop for the International League team.
“When I have the days where I’m starting on the mound, I get to kind of take my mind off hitting, kind of focus on something else,” he said. “Because hitting can be a grind and really grueling mentally.
“The stars aligned, and I thought it was a great chance.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.