Koronka hopes to unearth another Draft gem
Former Cubs lefty, now scout, recommended Almora, club's '12 first-rounder
MESA, Ariz. -- In 2011, John Koronka was pitching for the Lancaster Barnstormers, a team in the independent Atlantic League. It was his 14th season in pro baseball, and his last.
The left-hander, who had pitched for the Cubs in 2005, the Rangers in '06 and '07, and the Marlins in '09, had developed a bad case of the yips. If that happens to a golfer, he could cuss, take a bucket of balls to a driving range, and work it out.
"I wish it happened to me on the golf course," Koronka said.
His career included a stop in Japan in 2008, and three other seasons with an independent league team. He'd appeared in 260 plus games in the Minors and just 33 in the big leagues. It was time to move on. Koronka wanted to stay in baseball, and wrote a letter to then Cubs general manager Jim Hendry about possibly becoming a scout. He also contacted the Rangers, who sent him to scout school.
Koronka and Lukas McKnight, now the assistant director of amateur scouting on the Cubs, had roomed together in Spring Training in 2004. In December 2011, Koronka joined the Cubs as an area scout, assigned to South Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. And who was the first player he recommended that the Cubs sign? Outfielder Albert Almora, who was the team's No. 1 pick in last June's First-Year Player Draft.
"That was just right place, right time," Koronka said, laughing.
He was at the Cubs' Fitch Park facility Wednesday for the team's organizational meetings, watching pitchers and catchers go through the same drills he did nine years ago as a pitcher. But finding the next Almora is his task now, not throwing bullpen sessions.
The first time Koronka watched Almora was a scrimmage game early one day in Miami.
"I first laid eyes on the kid, and he's a decent-sized kid, 6-2, got to be 185 [pounds]," Koronka said. "He was put together well. Then I watched him play and it was pretty impressive, the instincts.
"You put him out there and to see the instincts in a young player like that, I don't think I'm going to see that again for a long time," he said.
Almora, who prepped at Mater Academy Charter School in Hialeah, Fla., did stand out among his teammates and is well advanced in his skills. During a workout at Wrigley Field in September, Cubs manager Dale Sveum was so impressed with the 18-year-old that he told Almora he could play center field in the big leagues now.
"I said that same thing," Koronka said of a conversation he had with one of the Cubs' brass before the Draft. "I told them, if I was at Wrigley Field, the way the dimensions are and everything, 368 [feet] in the gaps, it's not a huge park, and I said, if I was pitching and that 18-year-old kid was behind me, I would be perfectly comfortable in the big leagues right now. Just his instincts and the way he reacts and the jumps he gets on balls and his feel. He just pays attention to what's going on."
He's not kidding.
"I saw him field a ball in right field from center field," Koronka said of Almora. "The pitcher they had was [throwing] mid 80s, which is pretty good. The hitter was tardy. He was really tardy and fouled a ball off. I watched Almora to see if he knew what to do, and sure enough, he came in and shot over to right field a little bit. This was the first real game I saw him play.
"The guy fouled another one off, and [Almora] did it again," Koronka said. "He's in right-center -- more center than right-center. Sure enough, the guy hits a ball right over the second baseman's head and he fielded it before the right fielder got there, and I'm like, I'm all in."
So were the Cubs, who took Almora with their first-round pick, sixth overall. It was a significant pick, the first since Theo Epstein took over as president of baseball operations. The Cubs want to develop their own impact players and Almora is part of that core group. He was eased into pro ball last year, playing in the Arizona Rookie League, and then Class A Boise. He batted .321 combined. Not a bad start.
Koronka, 32, wasn't in the Cubs' war room when they made their picks in June, but having dinner with his father in Florida.
"It was exciting," he said about hearing the Cubs take the player he had followed. "It was a different experience. I was completely overwhelmed -- I felt like I won something, like the lottery or something."
He had spent a lot of time with Almora and his family and knew the outfielder well. It's part of the thorough process Epstein and Jason McLeod, director of scouting and player development, expect.
"The good thing about it is all the stuff we do and as much as they expect out of us, it's like when we want a player, we have so much conviction because we feel like we know that player inside and out," Koronka said. "That's how it should be. It's a lot of work, but look what you're going to get in the long run. In a few years, you're going to get a championship team."
Koronka, drafted out of high school in the 12th round in 1998 by the Reds, can't wait to see Almora advance.
"The thing I liked about him is he works his butt off," Koronka said. "He's never going to have to be watched. He knows how to push himself. Sometimes you don't get that out of the higher-round kids. With him, I don't think you'll ever have an issue with that kid."
Koronka wasn't surprised that Almora had roomed with Jorge Soler when they played for the Rookie League team, and helped the Cuban outfielder adjust to life in the U.S.
"Being in the clubhouse, at some point, he'll be a leader because of things like that," Koronka said. "You never have to ask him to do things, he'll just do it."
On Thursday, Koronka was headed back to Florida to watch more amateur games in preparation for June's 2013 First-Year Player Draft. The Cubs have the second pick overall. The veteran Cubs scouts have been teasing the rookie Koronka about whether he's found the next Albert Almora.
"I would love to know that, too," he said.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.