Matt Jones is the online sports editor for the Arkansas-Democrat-Gazette and Northwest Arkansas Newspapers.
Pros find off-season home at Baum
NWA Media/JASON IVESTER -- Brandon Nimmo takes batting practice in the batting cages while training on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013, at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville. Nimmo is currently an outfielder in the New York Mets organization.
FAYETTEVILLE Brandon Nimmo never made it to the University of Arkansas to play baseball.
Selected 13th overall by the New York Mets in the 2011 MLB Draft, the best baseball prospect to come out of the state of Wyoming - and jewel of the Razorbacks' recruiting class that year - couldn't turn down a $2.1 million offer sheet. He is one of 12 Arkansas signees who have opted for pro ball the last three summers.
But despite not suiting up for the Razorbacks, Fayetteville and Arkansas' program left an impression on Nimmo. Gearing up for both of his full seasons as a pro, he has selected Baum Stadium as his off-season home.
"When I committed, I chose to come to college here for a reason," said Nimmo, 20. "I loved the city and I loved the atmosphere around it. It isn't too big, but it's bigger than where I'm from, so it has a lot of the amenities that I didn't have. It's a lot warmer most of the time than where I'm from, so I'm able to get outside. It's tough to get ready for spring training and on your feet for eight hours when you're inside."
Being at Arkansas has given Nimmo the opportunity to work on some fundamentals with the coaches who never had a chance to teach him as an amateur. Todd Butler, the Razorbacks' hitting coach and recruiting coordinator, and Brian Walker, Arkansas' catchers coach, have worked with Nimmo, offering pointers and throwing batting practice.
But the coaches haven't been alone in teaching Nimmo, and he hasn't been alone in learning from them. Fayetteville has become the off-season destination for several professional players with ties to the Arkansas program.
The off-season group has grown into a who's who of recent draft classes, with at least eight first- and second-round picks working out in and around Baum Stadium this winter. In addition to Nimmo, Drew Smyly, James McCann, Zack Cox, Nick Schmidt, Matt Reynolds, Brett Eibner and Nolan Sanburn have all been back this year.
DJ Baxendale, a 10th-round pick of the Twins last summer, is also back. Nimmo expects Michael Fulmer, a signing classmate at Arkansas and draft classmate with the Mets, to stop by on his way to training in Florida.
"The cages, the field, everything is big league," said McCann, a former Arkansas catcher who leaves this weekend for spring training at the Tigers' facility in Lakeland, Fla. "The minor leagues don't match up to it. That's a tough thing for some guys who leave here and go straight to the minors - it's not as nice and is definitely a change. That's why it's always nice to come back here where you have the luxury of these facilities."
The players learn from each other. Cox, thought to be the best lefty bat in the 2010 draft, explains which pitches are hittable and which to lay off to Nimmo, considered the best lefty hitter the next year.
Along with McCann, Cox and Nimmo share the same agent, who suggested they begin working out together last year. The three lived in the same apartment last winter, and Nimmo now rents a room in a house McCann recently bought.
"I really don't know if there is anything they haven't taught me," Nimmo said. "There are so many intricate things in baseball, especially when you get to the pro level, and they've all been to a higher level than I have. All these guys have been playing longer than I have. Zack works with me every day. We hit off a tee. I work with James and he can speak to me really well; stuff that works in his head works in my head. He always jokes around that if he weren't playing baseball, he'd be coaching baseball and he'd be good, but he's not joking about that. He sees little things other people don't see. It has been really beneficial for me.
"When I work out with these guys, they can always do something better than me. It just drives that competitiveness in me to be just as good or better than them. We all have a certain mentality that got us here and it's very competitive. We push each other very hard to get the best from each other. Working out with these guys is a great atmosphere to be around."
Smyly, who pitched for the Tigers in the World Series last season, throws bullpen sessions to McCann, who is only an injury or two away from being called up to the same level.
Where are They Now?
A look at current organizations for notable former Arkansas players
*Cliff Lee, Phillies
*Craig Gentry, Rangers
*Logan Forsythe, Padres
*Drew Smyly, Tigers
*Dallas Keuchel, Astros
*Blake Parker, Cubs
*#Eric Hinske, Diamondbacks
James McCann, Tigers
Matt Reynolds, Mets
DJ Baxendale, Twins
Nolan Sanburn, Athletics
Nick Schmidt, Rockies
Jess Todd, Tigers
Zack Cox, Marlins
Brett Eibner, Royals
Andy Wilkins, White Sox
*Player ended last season on MLB roster
#Spent last season with the Braves
"I'm able to learn from his emotional control," McCann said. "He controls his emotions well and he's never too high or too low. He keeps his same demeanor. Watching where he came from my freshman year to where he is now has been a lot of fun catching him and rooting him along."
Hitters are able to stand in on the mound during some of Smyly's pitches, giving them a first-hand look at the quality of pitching they will see if they realize their dream of making the MLB. Logan Forsythe, the third baseman for the Padres, worked out with the group last year, offering them a glimpse of how a position player works.
"That's stuff that you just can't get anywhere else," Nimmo said. "You're usually not going to face big league guys until you get big league camp. Just being able to stand in on a big league guy and just watch him work and see what he pays attention to and how precise he is, that's stuff you can't get. I feel blessed and know that I'm ahead of the curve on that.
"You usually have to get to big league camp to see that kind of pitching and hitting, and I've been fortunate enough to see both."
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Brushing up on fundamentals is a plus, but the players' main focus while here is to stay in shape. That's where Mike Strouhal, the strength and conditioning coach for the Razorbacks' baseball program, takes over. The players go through morning workouts together in the weight room before honing their individual skills.
"I have a huge comfort level with Mike," Cox said. "He's a very underrated, behind-the-scenes worker who doesn't get all the credit he deserves. I think very highly of the program he puts me on or I wouldn't come all the way back here and not see my family all year to work out with him."
Like Baum Stadium, the weight room is unlike anything the players have seen in the minor leagues. The workouts take place inside the football weight room - a 110-yard, 7,600-square foot wonderland for anyone wanting to stay in shape. McCann likened it to anything you'll find in spring training.
"They don't want you to be comfortable in the minor leagues because the object is to get to the major leagues, but at Arkansas, you're kind of treated like a big leaguer," Nimmo said. "It's quite a difference."
McCann hopes their presence on campus will help the current players at Arkansas, the consensus No. 1 team in the country. Some of those back now can recall watching Cliff Lee throw a bullpen session while they were in school and others who made it professionally stopping by scrimmages.
"It's good to see what they do and how they work in their off-season, and how they get prepared for their spring training because you know you're hopefully going to be in their shoes shortly," Cox said. "You can get a little information from them."
Added McCann: "There is a reason why they have that success. It shows something when you have guys with big league talent and they still choose to come here. It shows where their roots are, but it also shows they know what they need to prepare themselves to play, and this place has a lot to offer."