It’s been a year and a half since Jared Young was playing meaningful games as an everyday baseball player but it won’t take him long to get back into that routine.
For the next five months the 25-year-old from Prince George is going to get his chance to prove himself as a Chicago Cubs prospect now that the minor leagues are back in business after a season lost to the pandemic.
Young is starting his fourth year of professional baseball with the Tennessee Smokies, the Cubs’ double-A affiliate, coming back to the team he played for in the spring and summer of 2019.
He’s one of 10 returning players on the Smokies roster and being reunited with his baseball brothers in familiar surroundings is a comfort Young hopes to use to his advantage as he resumes his drive to become a major leaguer.
Listed at six-foot-two, 185 pounds, Young has worked hard in the gym and on the practice field to get stronger and improve his skills and he’s confident he will show that when he gets tested in game conditions this season. After 10 games the past month in minor league spring training in Arizona, he’s looking forward to a long hot summer taking his swings with the Smokies, playing either first base or in the outfield.
“I expected to be here,” Young said Sunday, from his hotel room in Knoxville. “I was hoping to prove something and move up (to the triple-A Iowa Cubs) but I’m glad I’m here right now.
“It was a shorter spring, we played 10 games and we normally try to get in at least 20, but it was good. There was less people there and we kind of bonded as a team because we played with the same guys most of the time and it kind of got everyone fired up for the season. We have good returning guys and the then new guys are studs, so it’s going to be fun. I know all the guys pretty well and that’s what’s fun about it.”
After a year of baseball stadiums remaining dark, MLB has contracted its minor leagues. Some teams lost their major league affiliations and the rookie leagues are no longer in operation. To reduce travel costs, minor league teams have been grouped according to their geographic location and teams will play fewer opponents.
It’s not exactly a glamourous life riding the buses on minor league roadtrips but Young says he cherishes that time, spending as much as 15 hours a day together forming lifelong bonds with his teammates.
The Smokies are part of the eight-team Double-A South and will play a 120-game schedule with weekly six-game series against the same opponent from Tuesday-Sunday. The Smokies open their schedule at home on Tuesday against the Montgomery Biscuits.
Now that COVID-19 vaccines have become more widespread, fans will be allowed in the 6,000-seat Smokies Stadium, located in Kodak, Tenn., about a half-hour drove from Knoxville.
“It’s a great place, it brings back a lot of memories from a couple years ago, so I’m happy to be back,” he said. “I think I’m going to like it, one series a week and a lot less travel.”
Young was disappointed with his own performance in his first season at the double-A level, in which he hit .235 with five home runs and 57 RBI in 123 games with the Smokies. The Cubs’ minor league player of the year in 2018 went on to be selected by Chicago for the Arizona Fall League and played the six-week schedule with the Mesa Solar Sox. He’s learned from that experience and says he’s had a bit of an attitude adjustment that should help produce more satisfying results in his return to Tennessee.
“As cliché as it sounds, I want to take it one game at a time this year and not try to do too much,” said Young. “I think the last time I was here I put a bit too much pressure on myself to do great things instead of just playing how I normally play and letting everything else take care of itself.
“I had a year and a half to become a better player and I feel like I am but it’s time to show it now. You don’t know until the season comes around. Now it really means something. I think just being here as a second-year guy has just added comfort. I kind of know how things work in a bit more of a veteran role and I think it’s going to go well.”
Picked in the 15th round of the 2017 MLB draft after playing NCAA Division 1 college baseball at Old Dominion in Virginia, Young had minor league stops in Eugene, Ore., South Bend, Ind., and Myrtle Beach, S.C. before he got to Tennessee. In three years as a minor league ball player he’s had 277 hits in 1,042 at-bats for a .266 batting average with 22 home runs, 148 RBI and 18 stolen bases.
Double-A is just two steps removed from the major leagues and Young has already seen one of his former minor league teammates, Nico Hoehner, earn regular duty this season in Chicago as the Cubs’ starting second baseman. Smokies catcher Miguel Amaya, who played with Young in Eugene and South Bend, is considered Chicago’s No. 3 prospect and is on the Cubs’ 40-player MLB roster.
Young has already taken his game further than anybody with Prince George roots has ever gone but he knows he’s still years away from his peak and like any minor leaguer he won’t be satisfied until he reaches the top.
“I try not to look back too much because it’s not going to help you in the long run, but I think so far I’ve been solid and I want to build on it and get better,” he said. ”I think there’s a lot more in there and I want to tap into that. I want to see how far I can take this.”