SCOTTSDALE — One of the biggest decisions of Ian Gardeck’s life didn’t turn out as hoped — and he has absolutely no regrets. In fact, he thinks the move is a big part of the reason he’s here in big league camp.
The Chicago White Sox chose Gardeck, then a hard-throwing right-hander at Angelina College, in the eighth round of the 2011 draft. It wasn’t a bad spot for a JC pitcher, but Gardeck had heard from teams eyeing him in rounds three through five, and when Chicago’s offer came up short, he chose to transfer to Alabama. A year later Gardeck was picked again, but this time he had fallen to the 16th round before the Giants called his name.
“I never, ever look back on a decision and say that was a bad decision,” Gardeck said. “Every decision creates a path and a journey for something else. I look back and say, well I could have done this, but something else could have happened.”
Gardeck isn’t sure if he would have developed the same way in another organization. He isn’t sure if he would have had a breakthrough season in A-ball with other coaches and teammates, or earned a 40-man roster spot and an invite to big league camp. Everything has worked out with the Giants, and when asked about foregoing that first draft offer, he chooses to focus on the random experiences that have come from every past decision.
After not playing at Dayton as a freshman, Gardeck transferred to Angelina, a small school in Lufkin, Texas, where he remembers meeting a local star — Brandon Belt — at the gym. He wanted to play in the Cape Cod League after his year in Lufkin and it was there that he roomed with Angels pitching prospect Andrew Heaney and made so many friends that the employees at a local Italian restaurant recognized him when he recently went back for a wedding. The next stop was Alabama, and although Gardeck didn’t quite live up to his expectations on the mound, he cherished every moment spent up close with the country’s best college football program.
Gardeck hoped he would improve his draft stock at Alabama. Instead he lost eight rounds but found an organization that has made a habit of developing big arms. As with every stop along the way, he’s soaking in each moment of his time at Scottsdale Stadium. He made his debut in front of the big league staff on Friday, striking out two in an explosive inning against the Reds that had one team exec saying, “If you wouldn’t have seen the name on the jersey, you’d think you were watching our (big league) eighth-inning guy.”
“It was awesome,” Gardeck said. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have butterflies. It was an incredible experience. Every kid dreams of getting to this level.”
The 25-year-old was put on the 40-man roster in November after striking out 104 in 86 1/3 innings for the San Jose Giants, and the Giants believe he could move quickly through the upper minors. It took a while for Gardeck to find his stride in professional ball and he was slowed by a hip injury, broken foot and concussion. He finally put it all together during the 2015 season. Scouts say Gardeck learned to be consistent with his mechanics, and after walking 28 batters in 24 innings in 2014, Gardeck walked just 24 in 86 1/3 innings last season.
“It was just finding my own identity on the mound, and I spent the entire offseason before that getting healthy and working on mechanics,” he said. “I had a role and a rhythm last year. The bullpen just took off. It was awesome, and not one person could have done it on their own.”
This is how Gardeck believes dropping in the draft proved to be a positive. He ended up with a dominant group of relievers that fed off one another in San Jose and should stay together in Richmond. Jake Smith, who also in big league camp this spring, struck out 118 in 84 1/3 innings; Tyler Rogers, the right-hander with a submarine delivery, posted a 1.47 ERA pitching in front of Gardeck; Ray Black struck out two batters per inning and Dan Slania whiffed 90 in 71 1/3 innings.
There were plenty of big arms in San Jose and Gardeck, who first hit triple-digits in junior college, stands with any of them. One scout who saw the team last season had Gardeck sitting 97 to 100 mph on back-to-back nights, with a 90 mph slider. Ty Ross, San Jose’s catcher, said what sets Gardeck apart is the fact that the big fastball is never straight.
That’s the kind of stuff that one day could have Gardeck feeling at home in San Francisco. For now, he cherishes the journey that took an Illinois prospect to Dayton, Ohio and Lufkin, Texas and Falmouth, Massachusetts and Tuscaloosa, Alabama before the Giants scooped him up.
“I’ve seen so many different parts of the country,” he said. “It’s cool to see how different people do it, but there’s always been one common ground, and that’s baseball.”