Jeremy Barfield, the son of former major-league outfielder Jesse Barfield, was following a similar path to his father’s—working his way through the Oakland Athletics chain as an outfielder.
Barfield, 25, was an eighth-round pick by the A’s in 2008 out of San Jacinto College in Texas and he flashed some power in the minors—hitting 64 homers in six seasons, including 17 at High-A Stockton in 2010.
As Barfield worked his way up the ladder, his batting average began to drop and he found himself as a reserve outfielder at Triple-A Sacramento last July hitting .188/.269/.316 with four homers and 15 RBI in just 35 games.
According to MLB.com, that was when a decision was reached by the organization. They told Barfield to head back to Arizona and start the climb over again—this time as a pitcher.
“I don’t know if I was breathing or blinking, I was so shell-shocked,” Barfield said. “To this day, if I had a choice, I’d rather hit, because that’s just who I grew up as. They said they’d give me time to decide, but there was really nothing to decide.”
Barfield credits his father’s former teammate in New York—A’s special advisor Rickey Henderson—for Barfield’s status as the rarest of baseball players. Barfield throws left-handed, but bats right-handed.
And that left arm has some zip.
According to A’s director of player development Keith Lieppman, a lot of zip.
“I think it ou pureached a point where we knew it wasn’t going to be an easy road for him to get to the big leagues,” Lieppman said. “But we always thought he had a genuine tool that was worth looking at. There’s that debate from within: When do yll the plug on one side and try to go another direction?”
If Barfield’s story sounds familiar, it should. A’s reliever Sean Doolittle traveled the same path, from struggling first-base prospect to nasty left-handed reliever. Doolittle was the best in baseball last season at stranding inherited runners and is one of the candidates heading to spring training with a chance to replace Grant Balfour as Oakland’s closer.
For Doolittle, the transition went fast—really fast. He pitched his first game in organized baseball with the A’s Arizona League affiliate in 2011. He made his major league debut on June 5, 2012, and last season was 5-5 with a 3.13 ERA and 0.957 WHIP in 69 innings over 70 appearances with 60 strikeouts.
Barfield’s fastball is currently topping out at around 93 mph and he also throws a slider—he’s been working with former big-leaguers Dontrelle Willis and Mark Jackson on that pitch—and a split-finger that he developed on his own.
The lefty pitched in the instructional league this fall and threw some games in the Dominican Winter League. Now he’s in Arizona, working out with A’s minor league rehab pitching coordinator Garvin Alston at the same facility where Doolittle trains.
In an era where left-handed relievers are valued—heck, craved—by managers in much the same way cats are drawn to catnip, it might turn out to be the smartest switch Barfield ever made.