The Auckland Tuatara have found a diamond in the rough, and Major League Baseball clubs have taken notice.
After an impressive start to the Australian Baseball League season, Tuatara starting pitcher Jared Koenig is attracting plenty of interest from MLB franchises.
Tuatara pitching coach DJ Carrasco, who has been working as an advanced scout with the Los Angeles Dodgers in recent years, told the Herald Koenig was a player of particular interest to scouts at the moment.
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"There's some interest in some of these guys. I think (Jared) Koenig is a big name that's getting some interest…there's several teams looking at him," Carrasco said.
Koenig, a 196cm 25-year-old, was selected in the late rounds of the 2014 MLB draft by the Chicago White Sox, but chose not to sign with the club and return to college. He left college in 2016, and since 2017 has been playing in the independent leagues.
In four starts with the Tuatara, Koenig has a 1-1 record and has allowed fewer than two runs per outing on average. He has struck out 22 hitters in as many innings, while allowing just five walks. With a fastball that pushes the 100mph (160kph) mark and quality secondary pitches, Koenig's tool kit is an attractive one to MLB teams looking for strong young pitchers.
He's the second import in as many years to garner interest from MLB teams, with former relief pitcher Brandon Marklund signing with the Kansas City Royals after impressing in his time with the Tuatara last season.
Koenig has been the leading light in a strong Tuatara starting rotation this season, finding a way to keep runners from scoring despite the smaller dimensions of ABL ballparks. In the team's most recent series in Brisbane, which they won three games to one, the Tuatara allowed a total of seven hits – six of which were solo home runs.
For Carrasco, who pitched for eight years in the major leagues, making sure the Tuatara pitchers know giving up a home run isn't the worst thing in a small ballpark has been key to the team's success.
"The home run is OK," Carrasco said. "It's just another hit here, don't put your head down or get outside of your game plan.
"For instance, I think of the seven hits in Brisbane, six were home runs and everyone was in a hitters count. I preach getting ahead, staying in pitchers counts, because then the aggression, the execution, the conviction of a swing is not nearly going to be as good as if they're in a hitter's count."
The Tuatara return home to North Harbour Stadium this week for a series against the division leading Sydney Blue Sox, starting on Thursday night. After four rounds, the Blue Sox hold a two-game lead over the Tuatara at the top of the North-East division and the first of two series' between the teams could prove to be vital in the run to the playoffs later in the campaign.