When we think about the Mets organization reaching out to the International market to look for quality prospects, the first thing that comes to mind is usually Central and South America and the Caribbean. Very rarely does a fan think about looking for prospects in Europe. But in 2008, the Mets signed catching prospect Kai Gronauer to a non-drafted free agent contract.
Gronauer started out playing baseball at 10 years old when a good friend took him to a practice in his home town of Solingen, Germany. He initially started out as a shortstop and center fielder, but at the age of 16, his coaches had other plans, “My coaches Peter Krueger and Matthias Winterrath thought it was best to put me behind the dish, because of my understanding of the game,” says Gronauer.
In the summer of 2008, the Mets sent him to the Gulf Coast Mets and in 16 games he batted .356 in 45 at bats. In 2009, he was sent to Savannah and in 67 games he batted .243, with 7 doubles, 6 home runs in 230 at bats. In 2010, he started out with Savannah and then was sent to St. Lucie and in a combined 88 games, he batted .291, with 41 runs scored, 15 doubles, 4 home runs and 43 RBI in 330 at bats.
In 2011, he split time between the B-Mets and the Gulf Coast Mets due to tearing his hamstring and was limited to just 58 games. He shared with me about the injury and how it affected him, “The injury cost me a lot of time, but another thing you have to learn is that injuries will happen. There is just not a lot that you can do about it. That was the first major issue I ever had and I was trying to get back on the field too soon. That did not help, but the training staff did a great job rebuilding what was ruptured and I haven’t re-injured it ever since,” says the catching prospect. During the injury plagued season, he batted .251, with 21 runs scored, 8 doubles, 4 home runs, in 179 at bats.
In 2012, he played with St. Lucie and Binghamton and in 40 games, he batted .209, with 2 home runs in 129 at bats. And this past season, in a backup role at Las Vegas, he played in 18 games and batted .250.
He shares with me how the leg forced him into a limited role, “The leg caused me to lose a lot of time and other catchers in the organization developed well. It’s just a new situation to be a backup. After the GCL season all the way to the 2011 season in Binghamton I was a starter. That changed and now I have to do my best whenever I get a chance to play. Even if it is just once a week,” says the German-born catcher.
I asked Mets pitching prospect Erik Goeddel what was his take on Gronauer’s abilities when handling a pitcher and a game:
“Does a great job behind the plate. Calls a great game. I’ve only thrown to him a few times but I felt comfortable with him back there immediately, and had success.”
Enjoy his interview:
David – Is there something that you would like to share with the Mets fans that they do not already know about you? Your interests, hobbies outside of baseball?
Kai – In the off-season my biggest hobby is playing Handball. Not very popular in the United States, but after Soccer its the biggest sport in Germany.
David – Has it been an honor for you to play on the German National Baseball Team?
Kai – Yes. Ever since I wore the German jersey for the first time it has been. I love representing my country all over the world through baseball.
David – Did you have a favorite player growing up and if so, did you model your game after him?
Kai – Early on I was fascinated by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, but when I started catching I was a big Pudge (Ivan Rodriguez) and Jason Kendall fan. I didn’t copy just one of those styles, but took little things from everybody and tried to apply it to my game.
David – You were signed by the Mets in 2008, was it hard on your family knowing that you were leaving for the United States to play baseball?
Kai – I think it was harder on me to leave my family then it was for them to be away from me. But especially my grandparents are always worried when I am leaving for the season.
David – Was it hard for you at first to adapt to living in the United States? Did you experience a culture shock?
Kai – I was not shocked by the culture. I had been to the United States on several occasions before and I knew what life away from baseball was kind of like. But I had to learn about the way baseball was played in the states. It was harder, faster and played every day. That was not easy to adapt to.
David – In 2008, you played your first pro baseball season with the Gulf Coast team, what was the experience like and how can you compare it to playing in Germany?
Kai – Playing in the GCL was a very interesting experience. The team was filled with talent like Jennry Mejia, Jeurys Familia, Robert Carson, Jordany Valdespin, Juan Centeno, Jefry Marte, Alonzo Harris and Cesar Puello. I was wondering where all the fans were and why people didn’t really seem to care if they won or lost. Since you play once a week in Germany the only thing you want to do on the game day is win. But in America you play every day. You have to learn from your mistakes and move on quick after a loss.
David – What teammate has impressed you the most this season, and who should Mets fans be most excited about seeing in the future?
Kai – The team in Las Vegas this season was great. I have never been around a more talented but also great personal group of guys. Travis d’Arnaud, Matt den Dekker, Wilmer Flores and Juan Centeno are great players that will make Mets fans very happy in the future.
David – Is there a Met manager or coach who has made an impact in your approach to the game and helped elevate your performance?
Kai – It was my second season playing for Wally Backman and everybody knows that he is a great players manager. He supports you no matter what, has great baseball knowledge and is always good for a joke. He helped me by staying positive and supporting the team even though I didn’t play a lot. It was also my second season working with George Greer. His ability to work on your swing to the finest detail is amazing and this year I have never felt better at the plate and was ready even if I didn’t see a pitched baseball for over a month.
David – Do you feel like you are on track with the goals you set for yourself? If so, what are you expecting for 2014?
Kai – Obviously last season was disappointing since I didn’t play a lot. I did reach a higher level in the Mets system and when I got a chance to play, I did well. My goal for next season is just to play more and stay healthy.
David – Moving forward, what stands between you and the big leagues? What do you specifically need to work on as a player, and improve upon, in order to be ready to compete on the big stage?
Kai – I feel like if I get a chance to play consistently at the level I am at now, there should not be a reason for me not to be ready to take the next step.
David – When the off-season arrives, what do you look forward to doing the most? Family time, friends time, or just rest?
Kai – I am a big family guy, so that is always a priority, but friends and rest is huge as well. I just like to do things that I can’t do during the season. Garden work, going to church when I get a chance on the weekend or just watching a soccer game of my favorite team, Borussia Dortmund.
David – How will you prepare over the winter; can you describe your workout regimen?
Kai – I started working out after I took a little time off after we won the German Vice Championship with my local team the Solingen Alligators. But I am also looking to play winter ball somewhere to get some more at bats that I did not have this last season.
David – Anything you would like to tell the Mets fans?
Kai – I think Mets fans can be really excited about their team. The young group of guys with Matt Harvey, Travis d’Arnaud, Matt DenDekker, Wilmer Flores, Juan Lagares and the experience of David Wright, Jon Niese, Ike Davis, Dillon Gee, Bobby Parnell and Daniel Murphy is a great mix. The future does not look bad if those guys are healthy and play to their abilities.
Thank you Kai for allowing me to share your story with the Mets fans. I truly am inspired when I find out the journey that each ball player has taken to follow his dreams. Germany to the United States may have seemed like a long trip, and sitting on the bench may have dampened his outlook, but the love he has for the game has kept him humble enough to understand that he will get his shot again. I look forward to watching Gronauer regain the form that made him a starter as he makes his way up to the big club.