If you've been following minor-league baseball closely, then you likely have seen players who have found themselves on the edge of unemployment. Sometimes, those players rally just enough to hold on for one more season. Often, they fail. Other times, they get to hear the whole "the team has decided to go in another direction" speech.
More often than not, it's the end of the line.
From time to time, a player has a fall-back plan: switching from the field to the mound, or vice versa. If they know what they're doing out there, they might just find their career resurrected, if only for a short time.
There are exceptions. Just as with any other rule, there are the outliers; players who suddenly find themselves near or at the top of the prospect charts after a time as an unheralded talent.
Drew Muren finds himself in that position, after five seasons in the outfield. Formerly an Astros center-fielder, now (incredibly) a flame-throwing closer prospect with the Diamondbacks, his story is an interesting one. I had the chance to speak with Drew on his recent history in the game, his off-field priorities, and what lies in store for his future:
Clinton Riddle: I'd like to start with your HS years. Did you always know you wanted to be a pro athlete? What were you expecting of your post-college life?
Well, I’d say I knew baseball was my career choice at a pretty young age; it was all I wanted to do the rest of my life.I got hooked on it during Pony baseball and right from the start it just clicked. I was addicted. A lot of that, in my opinion, had to do with everyone around me at the time who made the overall baseball experience that much better. Our little Pony baseball organization in Ramona (California) was an extremely well-oiled machine and we were very proud of how well we would do in tournaments. I played with some really good players and that competition brings out the best in people. So by the time I was in HS, my mind was well made up. It was just about carving out the path to get to professional baseball. I knew I would most likely need to go through college to get there so I kept my nose out of trouble in HS and got decent grades to get there.
After the Draft, was there any particular reason you wanted to focus on the outfield as opposed to pitching? You had a great rep as a two-way players with Cal State-Northridge; did you feel you had a better chance in the outfield?
I did, absolutely. My coach at CSUN my first three years, Steve Rousey, thought CF was the right choice for me. I always loved playing center field. Everything about it was awesome. There are a ton of guys in baseball, not even just pro baseball, that are throwing 93-96, and that's about where I was at in college. So, being as tall as I was and as athletic as I was, he saw that as a major advantage and I felt good about getting to the Bigs as a center-fielder.
What were the best personal experiences you took from your time in Houston's organization? Were there particular players or coaches who made an impression on you?
My time with Houston was nice. The group of guys I was drafted with and climbed up the organization with were great dudes. We had a ton of fun on and off the field, and I really learned how far I could push myself off the field during season with those guys, which is really an important part of baseball that not many think about. There are 140 minor league games a year, and you deal with a ton of stress from what happens between the chalk, and dealing with those stresses are vital to your success. I think I really developed mentally in that organization with those guys around me. We knew when to have a good time and how far we could push it and still come out the next day and dominate.
I was also lucky to be on really good teams those years, that always helps. As far as coaches we had several coaches and managers that were great. Like any organization there were some coaches on the other side of that coin, but that's irrelevant; everyone deals with that their own way. But the coach that impacted me most would have to be Keith Bodie; hard nosed, intense and extremely caring about your success. He had his own way of showing it, but deep down he wanted you to get to the Bigs, period. He preached paying attention and locking in on every pitch in the game; a key focus that my CSUN coach preached, as well. I was lucky to already have been taught how important it is to be into every single pitch, especially on defense. That’s really the reason behind my ability in the OF; I never missed a reaction, and was never surprised by a play. Constantly thinking in your head who’s up, where does he hit balls, what's the count, what's he throwing, where are the runners, etc. Those are things you have to think every single pitch. I loved it. It was a major mental challenge.
So the end of March 2014 came around and the Astros released you. What was this experience like for you? Did you expect you would catch on with another organization, or were you having thoughts of hanging 'em up?
Hanging them up never crossed my mind. And getting released was a total shock; not because I didn’t think my time as an outfielder was coming to a close, but because I talked with the development staff there and the plan was to convert me to a pitcher right after ST ended. I was pretty excited about it, honestly. A lot of players told me I need to get on the bump, which irritated me because I wanted to stay in CF, but I knew they were just being honest and saw I had potential on the mound. So when they released me it was pretty out of the blue, and for lack of a better word sketchy in how they did it, and I’ve carried that with me these past 3 years. It stung pretty bad.
I'm interested in your thoughts on the time you spent in the American Association (Sioux Falls, Gary, Fargo-Moorhead). How would you compare it with your years in organized ball? Independent leagues are often noted for the loyalty of their fans. Can you relate any particular fan interactions that you recall specifically?
Yeah, my time spent in Indy ball was fantastic. It's an interesting business and the fact that Indy ball teams can survive by paying these contracts themselves, which are much much larger than salaries in MiLB, makes you really question how MLB has set up paying MiLB (players). I’ve played in many affiliated leagues and attendance in all them has been roughly the same, so how players aren’t getting paid from those teams like the Legends, etc. is a bit odd. But that's a total different argument for a completely different day. Indy ball was a blast. You always hear when you’re in affiliated ball that these guys that get released go play Indy ball and rave about it. Well, they were right. Obviously, no one wants to experience it because they want to get to the Bigs the first try, but it is a good outlet for those wanting to continue playing. The fans in most cities were extremely loyal. The host family situation is the same, which makes it that much easier. But the relationship between the front office and players was way better than affiliated. Maybe I was just lucky with the teams I was on in Indy ball.
A minor-leaguer spends a ton of time on the road; lots of time in hotels, on buses, etc. How does that wear on you, over time? What sort of extremes have you experienced while working your way up the ladder?
Yeah, the "hotels and buses" life is just part of it. I don’t think anyone enjoys it, but it is what it is, and you have to deal with it. I personally hated buses due to my height. And that first year in the AA for me being young and on that team was brutal, having to double up. But it's funny how all the rough parts of minor league life seem much nicer when you’re playing well, which I was then, so it wasn’t all that bad. As far as extremes: off the top of my head, I couldn’t really think of anything too juicy. Everyone has stayed at a Super 8 motel with rooms that smell and sheets you don’t want to touch. I remember this year, in Clinton, I slept in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt over my head, tied up tight, because I was not about to touch the bed. It's ironic, because in Indy ball I never once stayed in a hotel that was even close to as bad as so many minor league hotels.
So when your second season in Indy ball began, where did you see yourself heading professionally?
Yeah, that second season was interesting. That was actually after I tried out for Arizona, pitching in February right before Spring Training. I thought I threw well enough to get signed but it didn’t happen. So I was pretty down. I went into Fargo thinking this would be one last year of playing CF and having a blast, then join the San Diego Police Academy and be on my way in life. But as you can see, that’s not how it ended. That year in Fargo was a blast; I was actually able to get my manager to trade for my college roommate and best friend for the past 8 years, and we had an unbelievable time playing together again.
Tell us about your conversion to the mound. You obviously had experience as a pitcher, but how did the switch come about? You were known for having a great arm in the outfield, as I recall your time in Lexington, and I imagine you were aware that you threw hard in pre-game warm-ups.
Yeah, my arm from the OF was far above average I would think, and I give the credit to playing OF in the minors for my bizarre increase in velocity over the past 5 years. I left college sitting 94 or 95, max. Now I’m at 96-98. And the conversion started after 2014 at a workout in Tampa for Indy ball guys.
I went as an outfielder, and they saw me throw from RF and asked if I would throw in live BP. So I got on the mound with a college buddy's glove who I ran into (at the workout), and apparently hit, in order: 90, 91, 92, 93, 94. And that was the first time I (had been) on the mound since 2011. So they had me keep working on pitching all off-season and they were going to take a second look in January to see if I was worth a damn.
Well, their organization was in a total reboot that year, so I assume I kind of got lost in the shuffle with them; just another chip on my shoulder.
But what led to me being signed was due to Nick Hundley (playing for) the Rockies. He works out at the same gym I do. He’s a great dude and talked to me for a bit and found out I was trying to pitch, and he invited me out to UNLV to throw with him and about six other guys.
I started doing that, and it was great. He even went out of his way to get me a workout with the Rockies, who passed as well, and I haven’t forgot it.
You've gone from a prospect on the edge of unemployment to a top-level closer candidate, bringing high-90's heat. It's not the sort of thing that happens often. Have you been getting a lot of attention from sports media now that they see you as a future ML closer?
Well, there have been a few articles that friends of mine have come across, mostly about that Rule V (Draft) a few weeks ago.
I try not to get too high or too low on things in the media. It’s nice getting attention and hopefully that brings good things, but at the end of the day all that matters is how quickly I get three outs.
Tell us about Drew Muren, the man off the field. What do you do to relax? Any favorite hobbies or pursuits?
Well, I met my wife last year in Fargo, and she decided to move out to Vegas with me just after a summer of getting to know me. So she must have saw (sic) something in me to pick up and move clear across the country. I popped the question this year at the all star break and we actually got married during it, too, close to her little hometown of Devils Lake, North Dakota. And now we are expecting our first child, a boy! So I’m thrilled about that.
As far as hobbies, I like outdoor activity, paintball, fishing. Trying to get out to ND next off-season and go hunting for my first time. My wife Ashley’s father owns a major sports store in Devils Lake, and is a hunting guide, as well. So I’m pretty excited about that connection.
If you weren't playing baseball, what would you be doing?
If ever that does happen, I will be a police officer, most likely in San Diego. My father spent 30+ years with SDPD, and I knew that was my second goal in life. I went to work with him when I was 13 or so. Just seemed awesome to me what he did and how well he did it. I don’t expect to be as good as he was, but if I can come close I’d be a very good cop.
Becoming a pro athlete means some people are liable to act differently toward you, to an extent. How did you feel about that, initially?
Well, being in the minor leagues isn’t as glamorous as people would think. Maybe if I were a bonus baby, people would try and treat me differently, but for the most part nothing changes. I keep a close group of friends that are great people. Nothing will change that, no matter how successful I become.
At this point, it's all but guaranteed that you will make the majors as a short reliever or perhaps a closer. MLB is an entirely different world, for a ballplayer, and it brings its own pressures and expectations. How has your growth as both an athlete and as an individual readied you for that world?
Yes it has, exactly. I can’t imagine how different it will be in the Bigs with day-to-day things. It’s something I think about but not too much; it would be wasted energy. That will be something I will tackle when the time comes, and I am not worried about it.
I consider myself pretty professional on and off the diamond. I got a couple of pointers from Zac Curtis who I played with for a very short time in High-A this season, and who got to the Bigs this year straight from High-A. I got to sit down with him for sushi while he was in Arizona and he just told me a few stories and things. It was nice.
As I said earlier, I learned a lot about myself in the Astros organization on how to handle myself off the field. I feel totally ready for what can and will happen in the Bigs. I’m just excited to start this season and see where I can get to. I’m still waiting to hear when they want me in AZ for ST, and I’m hoping it's sooner rather than later!