For the truly special talents, a decade of baseball is filled with All-Star appearances, World Series rings and various other awards and distinctions. But more often than not, playing professionally is a bumpy ride—you can do everything right and still fail due to factors beyond your control. Achieving the dream of competing in the major leagues is the culmination of unforgiving training and good fortune.
Aaron Northcraft’s past decade was never easy, but he enters the 2020s on the verge finally breaking through.
Northcraft’s story began in 2009 when he was drafted in the 10th round by the Atlanta Braves out of Mater Dei High School (CA). A 10th-round pick has a 17 percent chance of reaching the major league and only 3% of players have made it in the major league for longer than three years. Even against those odds, he was ready to compete every day to prove he belonged.
Aaron spent the next six years working his way up to Triple-A Gwinnett. Along the way, he was constantly battling to find command of his pitches at the lower minor league levels. In 2014, he finally had arrived in Triple-A and was beginning to see his chance of cracking through the Braves 40-man roster when the business of baseball came into his life: Northcraft was traded to the San Diego Padres along with Justin Upton.
This was an exciting time for Aaron despite being traded as he was going to be closer to the rest of the Northcraft family. Prior to that, he had spent a majority of his career across the country away from his family and his father was unable to ever see him pitch. Even with all of the positive aspects of the move, he did feel a little disappointment as he was leaving the original organization that had believed in him out of high school.
Northcraft spent the next two seasons between Double-A San Antonio and Triple-A El Paso, where he suffered his first major injury near the end of the 2016 season. It was three weeks before the playoffs started in El Paso when he left the mound after a routine inning, and he began to feel elbow pain. It went away before the next outing so he considered it just a minor thing that recovered with time. The pain was gone when his rotation spot came up again and he pitched as scheduled. But after that game, he was unable to grip a five-pound weight in the clubhouse.
The severe pain, the inability to do normal workouts...all of this was new to Northcraft. The team doctors diagnosed the injury as tennis elbow and mandated a two-week rest period so he could hopefully pitch in the playoffs. The two weeks rest had concluded and he went to the mound for to see if he could throw—he wasn’t able to.
That would be the last time Northcraft would step on the mound for a game for two years. He was about to go up against biggest obstacle of his career.
His contract with the Padres expired and Northcraft entered free agency. He was diagnosed with a partially torn flexor and UCL and he began his medical treatment right away to hopefully pitch in 2017. He received his first PRP injection in late January and the elbow pain over the next three months was 50% gone, which was a big success for him. The second injection he received removed the elbow pain completely, but it left him without feeling in his hand. He was unable to feeling anything except for tingling inside of the hand. Another setback.
In January 2018, Northcraft went under the knife to repair nerve damage, which carried a five-month recovery window. He had spent his entire life dreaming about being a major league pitcher and was now set to lose a second consecutive season to injuries at a critical stage of his career.
During the rehab process, Aaron knew he had to reinvent himself to stay in the game. For inspiration, he looked to his favorite pitcher, Byung-Hyun Kim, a sidearm pitcher who had won a World Series with the Arizona Diamondbacks. He wanted to give that unconventional delivery a try, hopeful that it would put less stress on his body. It may have been the best thing that ever happened to him.
The sidearm slot gave Northcraft better control on the mound, which he had been missing his whole career. He also gained a new advantage against unsuspecting batters who couldn’t pick up the ball out of his hand.
To get back into pro ball, he traveled to the Venezuelan Winter League to play for Tigres de Aragua. He posted some of the best numbers of his career (1.53 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 17 K in 17.2 IP) which gained the attention of the Seattle Mariners, who signed him to a minor league deal. He ended his 2019 in Triple-A Tacoma, yet again performing great (1.87 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 35 K in 33.2 IP). He had put up a 69% ground ball rate in this home run-happy era, indicating that perhaps this success was sustainable. He re-entered free agency with real momentum.
Despite his excitement, Northcraft’s next decision was difficult. Who could give the 29-year-old the best opportunity of advancing to The Show? The Marlins were the most persistent team and the team that made him feel the most wanted, so he decided it was the best fit moving forward in his career to sign with them. He’ll be reporting to spring training along with the other pitchers and catchers on February 12.
After a decade of memories, travels and adversity, Aaron Northcraft is nothing like the teenager who originally began this journey. He’s been forced to adapt. For Northcraft, it’s been all worth it, as he now enters this new decade with his goals very much within reach.
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To say the last couple years weren’t crazy would be an understatement. I want to thank the @mariners for giving me the opportunity to play again. I wouldn’t have this opportunity if it wasn’t for them. I could not be more excited to be heading to the @marlins and given another opportunity to compete. Just wish spring was now already!!!