In 10th year, Zaleski not ready to give up his dream
Drafted by White Sox in 30th round in '04, righty has yet to make Majors
CHICAGO -- Matt Zaleski begins his 10th professional baseball season when White Sox Minor Leaguers report in the next two months to Spring Training.
His name won't be thrown about among the top prospects or even the mid-level possibilities. In fact, Zaleski has never appeared in a Major League contest, and at this point in his career, there's a good chance he never will.
Those cold, hard facts don't stop the 31-year-old from continuing on with his baseball dream.
"My brother [Kevin] played for the Marlins Minor Leagues a few seasons [1996-97], and he always said to play until they tear the jersey off you because the real world is no fun," said the married Zaleski. "As I get older, getting to the Majors becomes more and more of a long shot, but you never know what could happen.
"People could get hurt, trades could happen, some sort of crazy rainout, where schedules and stars align perfectly. It's why I keep doing it."
In nine previous seasons, Zaleski has made stops with every team at Rookie ball level or above but Bristol in the White Sox organization. He spent parts of four seasons with Class A Winston-Salem and Double-A Birmingham and the 2013 campaign marks Zaleski's fifth with Triple-A Charlotte.
Over that time, Zaleski has closed, worked in long relief and started, making 22 of his 25 appearances for Charlotte in 2012 as part of the rotation. His career record checks in at 46-47 with a 3.81 ERA in 297 games and 101 starts.
Zaleski doesn't have the stuff of a Chris Sale or even a pitcher who is not considered at the superstar level in the big leagues like the supremely talented southpaw, posting 598 strikeouts and allowing nine hits per nine over his 895 innings. But Zaleski knows how to pitch.
"He's a competitor," said White Sox director of player development Nick Capra, who also managed Zaleski in the Minors. "His stuff is short across the board, but he can mix up his pitches and throw to both sides of the plate. In and out, up and down, he's a steady workhouse."
"If someone was to watch me throw a bullpen or throw a game, they wouldn't be like, 'Wow, we have to have him,'" Zaleski said. "Nothing is extremely special or will open eyes. I think I do a good job at everything, whether it's holding runners, mixing speeds. I'm trying to take control of the game, rather than showing eye-opening velocity."
A sinker, cutter, curve and changeup all are part of Zaleski's repertoire, while his fastball ranges anywhere from 86-91 mph. He was selected in the 30th round of the 2004 First-Year Player Draft out of Indiana State University, after growing up as a White Sox fan because his father and grandfather were White Sox fans.
Just to be drafted was an exciting moment for Zaleski, a resident of suburban Yorkville, Ill. For the local boy done good to be taken by the team he always liked and rooted for added to that excitement. What followed was somewhere beyond 100 bus trips, by Zaleski's recollection, including one memorable journey where the bus driver woke everyone up at 3 a.m. to announce they were crossing the Continental Divide.
"You always think if you are good enough to get drafted, you should be good enough to get to the big leagues as long as injuries and other stuff don't happen," Zaleski said. "As the years go by, the time gets shorter and shorter.
"It's still a dream to get up there. If it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen. No regrets. The career I've had and the people I've met, everyone in the organization has been fantastic to me."
As a Minor League free agent, Zaleski's agent shopped him around at the Winter Meetings in Nashville and found some interest. Ultimately, Zaleski trusted job security with the White Sox.
Countless Zaleski teammates have made that jump to the Majors, including his good friend Brian Omogrosso in 2012 and other friends such as John Ely and Donny Lucy. When asked for one player that stood out immediately for him, talent-wise, Zaleski pointed to Dayan Viciedo.
They originally were part of the 2009 Birmingham club, playing in a ballpark where it was very tough to hit home runs. Viciedo launched some "missile rockets to right-center," according to Zaleski, which seemed to continue going upward on a line off his bat.
Spending those parts of four seasons with Winston-Salem, from 2006-09, was emotionally draining at times for Zaleski upon returning to the same A ball level. That stress seemed to disappear once he got to Double-A.
Zaleski admits offseason thoughts creep into his mind that the past season might truly have been his last. But as the weeks go by and he gets sick of laying on the couch, he realizes that competitiveness still exists for him at a level such as Triple-A and the preparation begins.
So, it's back to Charlotte, where he now has favorite restaurants such as Dean & Deluca for lunch and The Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar. Coaching might be in his future, as he helps out pitchers at his friend Randy Dunnett's full indoor baseball facility in West Chicago.
For at least the next three or four years, the baseball dream lives on as long as someone wants him.
"I've always told everybody to play until they take the uniform off you," Capra said. "As long as he's having fun and competitive, play as long as you can."