Spring training had rolled around and the phone calls Jake Esch expected hadn’t materialized.
The Cretin-Derham Hall product, a Star Tribune first-team baseball player in 2007 and 2008, had completed his seven-year professional baseball career after a season in the San Diego Padres system and was a free agent. Despite missing much of 2017 because of a strained flexor in his right forearm — his pitching arm — Esch was confident that someone would want him.
But the past winter was rough on free agents at all levels, with even major league teams slow to make commitments.
“There were a lot of guys who were in the same shoes who had a lot more tenure and time in, guys like [Yu] Darvish and [Jake] Arrieta and [Mike] Moustakas and [Eric] Hosmer,” Esch said Sunday, referring to prominent major leaguers who languished longer than expected on the market. “Everybody got in late.”
Esch decided to take his future in his own hands and called buddy John Straka, a pitcher from Chaska who had stints with the St. Paul Saints in 2016 and 2017. Straka told Esch to call Saints manager George Tsamis.
“George seemed excited to have me,” Esch said.
After a week of cajoling from Tsamis, Esch signed with the Saints. He is expected to be the team’s No. 1 starter, hoping to bolster a pitching staff that was decimated in 2017 by injuries and signings by major league organizations, leading to a 48-52 record.
“It was kind of a no-brainer as far as indie-ball goes. This is the best place to play is all I’ve ever heard,” Esch said Sunday, when the Saints held a workout and media day.
With his summers booked since his high school days, Esch has good memories of the Saints former home, Midway Stadium, where he pitched in the baseball state tournament, but until Saturday he had never stepped foot into CHS Field.
“I have positive memories of Midway. The last high school game I ever pitched was there,” he said, recalling the Raiders’ 2007 Class 3A championship game victory over Eden Prairie in which he picked up the victory in relief. “I haven’t been here [to CHS], but my parents come here all the time. They say it’s just fantastic.”
The Saints built their fine reputation in part by going a combined 135-65 in the 2015 and ’16 American Association regular seasons, their first two seasons at CHS Field in Lowertown. Last year, they started 27-13, but the season fell apart from there. Tsamis emphatically said there will not be a repeat.
“You can’t get much worse than the second half of last season,” he said. “It was an embarrassment. We’re here to win. ”
The team hopes Esch — who pitched in three games with the Miami Marlins in 2016 and one with the Padres in April 2017 — will be part of the improvement. Of course, Esch is hoping his stint with the Saints will result in a call from a major league organization, but for now, the 28-year-old is happy to revive his career in his hometown.
“It’s kind of like a bookend,” Esch said. “I like to think of St. Paul as where everything began and now it’s a new beginning.”