The Third Time’s a Charm for Michael Gretler and the Pirates

Michael Gretler was drafted three times before he signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates this past summer. He was a solid draft prospect coming out of high school in 2014 and put up strong numbers as a junior at Oregon State in 2017. He had things he wanted to accomplish before going pro though. With the way everything worked out in 2018, it’s safe to say that Gretler made the right decision.

Gretler grew up in the northwest and went to high school in his hometown of Bonney Lake, Washington. He had an excellent four-year span in high school, beginning with a .305 average as a freshman back in 2011. He was named first-team all-league as a sophomore thanks to a .403 average, with eight extra-base hits and ten stolen bases. That was followed by a big junior season, where he was first-team all-league and second-team all-state. Gretler hit .395 with 14 extra-base hits and 23 stolen bases in just 26 games that year. His stats continued to get better year-by-year, finishing up big as a senior in 2014 when he was named his league’s MVP and made first-team all-state. He batted .500 and smacked six homers.

Those performances and improvements in high school led to him being selected in the 39th round of the 2014 draft by the Boston Red Sox. For many players in his situation, he would have ended up signing right out of high school, but Gretler had other plans.

“Being drafted out of high school was a dream come true,” Gretler said about not signing in 2014. “The Red Sox were my favorite team growing up so it was special. There wasn’t really any decision to be made as I had decided before the draft that I would be going to Oregon State and working on my degree.”

So Gretler went to Oregon State and had a tough freshman season, while seeing a decent amount of playing time. He hit .171/.267/.181 in 41 games, collecting just one extra-base hit, but he did put up a solid 17:21 BB/SO ratio considering the slash line that went along with it.

A lot of players at major colleges struggle during their first season before putting up better numbers as a sophomore, while also receiving more playing time. Things didn’t work out that way for Gretler though. When looking at his .322/.375/.424 slash line in 31 games, it would be natural to assume that an injury cut short his season. That wasn’t the case, as he got squeezed out of playing time early by being with a strong college program.

“Sophomore year we had lots of great infielders and I just didn’t do enough early on in the year to prove myself,” Gretler said. “As the year went on and I started to capitalize on opportunities, then more opportunities came and towards the end of the year I was starting a few times a weekend.”

That strong finish he mentioned carried into his junior year, where he had a breakout campaign. Gretler hit .301/.364/.468 in 62 games, with 22 extra-base hits. That was after collecting just five extra-base hits in his first two seasons combined. Oregon State set a school record for wins that season after not making the postseason in 2016. They felt that they deserved a postseason spot in 2016, so they were out to prove something in 2017. When the season ended one game short of the College World Series, it felt like unfinished business to Gretler. He was drafted in the 39th round by the Pirates, but never really considered signing.

“Being drafted by the Pirates after my junior year of college, that was a much tougher decision than 2014, as I always felt like I would leave college after my junior year,” Gretler said. “But then after things played out and we came up short of winning a national championship along with me being so close to finishing my degree, I again decided before the draft that I would be coming back to school.”

That ended up being a wise decision. Gretler hit .305/.379/.473 in 68 games as a senior. Besides finishing his degree, he helped take care of the other unfinished business. Oregon State won the College World Series, leaving Gretler with no regrets about putting off his pro career for one more season.

“Winning the World Series was one of the best moments of my life. It’s the reason I wanted to go to Oregon State ever since they won their first championship when I was in sixth grade. Growing up in the northwest, that’s where a lot of guys wanted to go. Then just all the guys we had on the team is what made it so special. So many good guys and you build such strong relationships with them all because we were always together year round. It was very special and something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.”

Before winning the national title, the Pirates selected Gretler in the tenth round of the amateur draft. Due to the College World Series, he was one of the last draft picks to sign. There weren’t any worries that he would sign, but his delay in signing caused the Pirates to wait a little longer to sign some other players requiring over-slot bonuses. Gretler received a $50,000 bonus, which is a strong amount for a college senior who has no eligibility remaining, which gives them no negotiating leverage. Most teams will select college seniors late in the top ten rounds with the idea of saving a lot of money to put towards over-slot picks later in the draft. The Pirates really liked what Gretler offered though and they followed him for the better part of two seasons.

“I stayed in contact with Max Kwan who is the northwest area scout [for the Pirates] and we built a really good relationship over the course of my senior year,” Gretler said. “He’s from Seattle so we know some of the same guys and we hit it off. He’s been a great mentor and friend for the last few years.”

Gretler signed with the Pirates on July 2nd and made his pro debut just two days later in the 19th game of the season in Morgantown. He would go on to play 45 of the final 56 games for the Black Bears, putting up a .274/.372/.396 slash line. For comparison sake, the New York-Penn League is considered to favor pitchers, so his .768 OPS was .103 above the league average. He fell ten plate appearances short of qualifying for league leaders, but only 15 players on that list put up a better OPS and the bottom three of that group were just two points ahead of him.

I watch a lot of Morgantown games early in their season on MiLB.tv to get some look at the newest players in the system. That is partially due to the fact that we do an updated top 50 prospects list after the draft picks sign. With Gretler arriving late, I didn’t get to see him often.

Since starting the player features, I have watched a lot of the games that I missed so I can get to know more about the players I’m interviewing. That group recently included Morgantown pitchers Zach Spears, Will Gardner, Conner Loeprich and Joe Jacques. I also watched a few others to get information for our 2019 Prospect Guide. One thing I noticed from focusing in on pitchers specifically is that they had a really good defensive player behind them every day at third base.

Gretler was a shortstop in high school up until the summer of his junior year when he began to play third base. In college, most of his time was spent at third base, though he took some turns at first base and even added catching. No matter what position he’s at, Gretler is confident that he can make the plays. He told me that he didn’t play middle infield in college, but he’s comfortable at either position. The athleticism, range, hands and arm that I saw at third base when I was watching game replays makes me believe that he could at least be serviceable at any spot on the diamond.

Besides 38 games at third base with Morgantown, the Pirates gave him two starts each at second base, shortstop and catcher. That last position is the most interesting, because it gives Gretler an advantage over most other players who never take a turn behind the plate. For some players, that added ability to play multiple positions well is what helps them move up the minor league ladder and having catching as an option is an added bonus.

That sophomore season at Oregon State when Gretler play sparingly actually helped add catching to his resume. He started learning the spot, seeing most of his time there during practices, but he also caught a few innings in some games. Over the next two seasons, he played occasionally behind the plate in actual games, while getting most of his experience at the position during bullpens and team practices. That led to him being more comfortable back there, and in turn, the Pirates had enough confidence in him that he could catch some games. So while it’s not a spot he’s going to see full-time at this point, Gretler believes he could handle catching regularly if that’s what is needed from him.

Since the regular season ended, Gretler has made three trips to Pirate City in Bradenton. The first was for the rookie camp held during the Fall Instructional League, where draft picks from 2018 went through physical training and team-building exercises, rather than play exhibition games.

“Rookie camp was great to be able to go down to Pirate City for the first time and check on all the facilities and resources available to us,” Gretler said. “Getting to know all of the first year guys who weren’t in Morgantown was cool as well.”

That was followed up by a strength camp, where groups of players gathered at Pirate City for a week or so and worked out together. That’s done to not only supervise their training, but to check up on their off-season program, which is designed by the training staff for each of the players individually, rather than a universal workout program for all of them. Gretler went a third time, and was the first player (this year) who I talked to, who went back for a hitting camp.

“Good environment, just trying to help us understand our own swings better,” Gretler said about what he learned at the hitting camp. “What pitches and locations we handle well, as well as struggle with. We talked about looking to do damage every at-bat, which starts with getting pitches in your own zone.”

Those three camps are all designed to help players become more complete individuals. The rookie camp is physical, but it’s also focused heavily on the mental part of the game. The strength camp is for better conditioning going into the following Spring Training, while the hitting camp gives them a better idea of what they are doing at the plate, better preparing them for what they will see daily in pro ball. Combined, those camps also help players reach their goals for the upcoming season. For Gretler, he had his sights set on better conditioning and stamina for the 2019 season.

“When it comes to goals I really wanted to focus on gain more strength and being able to keep it throughout the season which is tough due to the demands of the professional season and 140 games.”

As for that 2019 season, we could see Gretler begin the year at third base for the new affiliate in Greensboro. There’s also a chance due to his extensive college experience and success at Morgantown, that he could move up to Bradenton to begin the season. He has the plate patience and hitting ability to handle the jump to High-A ball.

It remains to be seen whether he will be an everyday third baseman, or the Pirates will take advantage of his versatility and use him all over the field. He has experience at all four infield spots and three years or practice behind the plate. His athleticism and arm would likely allow him to at least play either corner outfield spot if that’s where he was needed. Wherever he plays, the Pirates will have a player who is confident in his ability to play the position well and a hitter who has put up big numbers at a major college program that he helped lead to the national title.

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