By Rob Rains
For 614 high school and college baseball players, being selected in the MLB Draft this week gave them a chance to begin their professional careers and fulfill their childhood dreams.
For others, however, that dream doesn’t have to disappear simply because they weren’t one of those 614 selections.
Just ask Noah Mendlinger, Jacob Buchberger or Wade Stauss, all with the Double A Springfield Cardinals.
They, along with others at all levels of the Cardinals’ farm system, are members of the same club – the non-drafted club.
They are in uniform, every night, from Memphis to Springfield, from Peoria to Palm Beach, standing right next to first-round draft picks and players who received seven-figure signing bonuses.
“We all play for the Cardinals,” said Stauss. “It’s not like there’s a Cardinals A team and a Cardinals B team. It’s a very even playing field.
“You can come from anywhere. You have to perform to a certain standard to sign, even as a free agent, but you can still be a pretty good player regardless of what your bonus was or where you got drafted.”
Said Springfield manager Jose Leger, “Everybody gets an opportunity to play here. When you get a chance, just be prepared. There are good stories about guys who go undrafted and make it to the majors. These guys use that as motivation.
“We just tell them to enjoy the moment, enjoy the camaraderie, enjoy the fact that you are competing at Double A. You are two steps away. You never know what can happen.”
Every non-drafted player has his own story. These are three of them:
The Cardinals signed Buchberger in June of 2020, which meant of course, that because of Covid, he had to wait almost a year to begin his professional career.
When he did, Buchberger knew his immediate challenge was to combat questions that had followed him for years, first because he was from a small town in western Michigan (Montague, population 2,400) and went to a Division 2 college (Davenport University in Grand Rapids).
“There’s always a chip on my shoulder, just coming from a small town in Michigan, then to a D2 college,” he said. “Basically, they knocked me for being from Michigan, not able to play baseball year round. There’s always been a chip on my shoulder to go out there and prove that I am just as good if not better than a lot of other guys.”
Because of Covid, Buchberger was only able to play 15 games during his senior year in college. Then, with that year’s draft shortened to five rounds, there were a lot of players left undrafted.
He was contacted by the Brewers and the White Sox as well before signing with the Cardinals.
“The Cardinals are really good with developing players, no matter if you are a first-rounder or a non-drafted guy,” he said. “That’s what I love about this organization. They put equal time into everybody. I’m super happy I made the choice to come here.”
Buchberger, who played for his dad in high school, spent 2021 mostly in Palm Beach, then played most of last season in Peoria. So far this year in Springfield, he already has hit a career-best 13 home runs.
“When I was at Palm Beach I didn’t have much confidence in myself,” he said. “I was supposed to play two or three times a week but slowly I started to hit better and more consistently. My confidence got better and I thought to myself, ‘I can hang here.’
“I was playing with Masyn (Winn) and Jordan (Walker). I was older, but they were first-round guys. It was cool to hang around them.
“We play against guys who were top-round picks. We are on the same field; no one knows if I was drafted or non-drafted as long as I go out there and perform and help the team win.”
The more he has played, the more Buchberger, now 25, has been able to relax and enjoy his role on the team, mostly playing third base.
“The biggest thing I have learned is definitely to just be yourself,” he said. “A lot of guys get too big and try to press and speed the game up. I do it sometimes too, but (Jose) Leger is really good at getting us to slow the game down.
“They have confidence in you, that’s why they signed you. You might not have got as much money as a first-rounder but they are still putting money into you, and the Cardinals as an organization care about their money and use it wisely.
“They trust you, just trust yourself. At this level, people always say how close you are but in my mind it’s the same game. It doesn’t matter if it’s low A or Double A. The pitchers have to throw the ball over the plate and you have to be able to hit it.”
The new pay structure in the minor leagues this season also has been something Buchberger has enjoyed.
“It’s made it a lot easier,” Buchberger said. “When I go home in the winter I still have to work every day to pay the bills but the new pay rates definitely helps a lot.”
Mendlinger also played at a Division 2 school, Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, Ga., about an hour and a half southeast of Atlanta. He had finished his 2021 season and was looking into transferring to a larger school when a telephone call changed those plans.
“I was sitting at lunch with my parents when I got a call from the Cardinals’ area scout,” Mendlinger said. “He said they wanted to bring me to Busch Stadium for a pre-draft workout. I just thought even if all I get to do is take batting practice on the field that would be good enough for me.
“The next thing I know I was sitting on the dugout bench with Randy Flores (the scouting director) and it all unfolded from there. A week later I was on my way to Palm Beach.”
Mendlinger, now 22, hit .340 over his three-year college career but didn’t know how that would translate into professional baseball. The fact he can bounce all over the field, playing both infield and outfield, was something that he did know would be an asset to his game.
“I remember my first game,” he said. “I hadn’t seen velocity like we were facing but I was just like ‘screw it.’ Whatever happens happens. I’m here now. It all felt like a bonus from there.
“I’ve just tried to make sure I keep that perspective each and every game. During the stretch I take time to look at the stadiums. It’s cool to see the stage we are getting to play on and it’s something I truly never thought I would get to do.”
Getting the chance to play in the Cardinals’ organization opened another unexpected door for Mendlinger, when he was asked to play for Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic.
“It was a pretty random way that shaped up,” he said. “I got a direct message on Instagram from the team’s GM. Shortly after that I was on the field in Miami, sharing the field with some of the best players in the game.”
After spending last year in Peoria, Mendlinger started out there this season before earning a promotion to Springfield, where he has posted a .282 average with three homers and 23 RBIs in 44 games.
“Last year I had a little bit of trouble in high A but I was proud of the way I turned things around and finished strong,” Mendlinger said. “It was a long season and I had never experienced that before, with the ups and downs. Now I have a better grip on that, understanding how this works.
“Every day is a work in progress. You can be happy with your week or month, but there’s always another game coming up. You have to do what you can to be ready for that.”
Whatever happens, Mendlinger is always going to try to appreciate where he is and the opportunity he has been given.
“If you are at the right place at the right time doing the right things then things can kind of come through,” he said. “The Cardinals have given us plenty of opportunities since day one. It’s been a really good fit so far. I just appreciate the opportunity.”
Much like Mendlinger, playing professional baseball wasn’t something Stauss spent a lot of time thinking about as he was finishing up his collegiate eligibility at Southeast Missouri.
Bur when his hometown Cardinals called and invited him to a pre-draft workout at Busch, he was elated.
“I was extremely blessed to get an opportunity from my hometown team,” Stauss said. “It came out of the blue.”
Stauss had hit 14 home runs as a senior at Southeast Missouri but said he never considered himself a prospect for the draft. Now 24, Stauss was promoted to Springfield this year after playing just four games at Peoria.
That came after he received a non-roster invitation to the Cardinals’ major-league spring camp as one of the extra catchers needed to accommodate all of the pitchers in camp.
One of three catchers on the Double A roster, Stauss has had limited playing time but has posted a .282 average.
He said he has never felt at a disadvantage because of the fact that he was signed as a non-drafted player.
“When you get on the field, it’s just baseball,” Stauss said. “You wipe away how you got here, or where you played ball before in high school or college or whatever. It’s an even playing field.
“There’s a reason why I am here. I’m not worried too much about how I got here, but I just worry about where I can go from here.”
That answer will come based on Stauss’ performance, which he knows is how it should be – the same as it is for the other non-drafted players on this roster, those in Memphis, and on the other Cardinals’ affiliates.
It will be the same for all of the new non-drafted free agents the Cardinals will be signing this week following the draft. Stauss wants to welcome them to the club.
“It’s an opportunity,” he said. “Take it and run with it.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Main photo of Jacob Buchberger, other photos courtesy of Springfield Cardinals
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