For­mer Hogs chas­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties in the big leagues

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - THE SECOND PAGE - RICK FIRES Rick Fires can be reached at rfires@ nwadg.com or on Twit­ter @NWARick.

Oh, to live the life of a pro­fes­sional ath­lete like Clay­ton Ker­shaw, who tops the list of 38 play­ers in the ma­jor leagues whose salary is at least $20 mil­lion this sea­son.

But for ev­ery mega star, there are dozens more ath­letes just try­ing to hang onto their pro­fes­sional ca­reers. Guys like for­mer Ra­zor­backs Craig Gen­try, Blake Parker, and Zack Cox, who is dan­gling by his shoelaces af­ter play­ing with an in­de­pen­dent league team last sea­son.

By now, you’ve heard or read about the trades that sent Drew Smyly to Seat­tle and Lo­gan Forsythe to the Los An­ge­les Dodgers, where he’ll join Brett Eib­ner, an­other for­mer Ra­zor­back, who ar­rived from Oak­land. Smyly and Forsythe will play pri­mary roles with their new teams, but Gen­try, Parker, and Cox could all be out of base­ball by the time the reg­u­lar sea­son be­gins in April.

Spring train­ing is the time of year when the fi­nal scores mean noth­ing but in­di­vid­ual per­for­mances mean every­thing. So, I’ll be check­ing the boxs­cores from games in­volv­ing the Bal­ti­more Ori­oles (Gen­try), Los An­ge­les An­gels (Parker), and Detroit Tigers (Cox).

Gen­try, 33, will at­tempt to res­ur­rect his ca­reer with the Ori­oles af­ter miss­ing most of the last two sea­sons be­cause of in­juries. The for­mer Fort Smith Chris­tian stand­out is a ca­reer .261 hit­ter and de­fen­sive ace who has played parts of eight sea­sons in the ma­jor leagues. But he ap­peared in only 14 games last year and 26 games in 2015 at the ma­jor-league level while miss­ing time with a bro­ken right hand, a bro­ken left hand, and a lower back strain.

Gen­try started in right field and bat­ted sec­ond for Bal­ti­more in Satur­day’s ex­hi­bi­tion game with Pitts­burgh.

“The last cou­ple of years, ob­vi­ously, have not been up to stan­dard,” Gen­try told the Bal­ti­more Sun last week af­ter sign­ing as a free agent with the Ori­oles. “Es­pe­cially, when you’re get­ting into your 30s, you don’t know what the fu­ture holds. I’m just glad I got an op­por­tu­nity. That’s all I was look­ing for.”

Bal­ti­more man­ager Buck Showal­ter said Gen­try has a chance to make the team if he can avoid the in­juries that have jeop­ar­dized his ca­reer.

“He’s a guy who for a cou­ple of years was con­sid­ered one of the premier fourth out­field­ers,” Showal­ter said of Gen­try, who is 77 of 90 in stolen-base at­tempts in the ma­jors. “Plus run­ner, plus de­fender. He wore out left-hand pitch­ing.”

Per­haps no one is more fa­mil­iar with the un­cer­tain­ties of pro­fes­sional base­ball than Parker, 31, who has been signed, re­leased, or waived seven times by ma­jor league teams since he was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in 2006.

Base­ball fans in Ar­kan­sas saw Parker pump­ing his fist on ESPN last sum­mer af­ter he earned a save for the New York Yan­kees at Yan­kee Sta­dium. But true to form, Parker (3-3, 3.87 ERA in 91 ca­reer games) was back in Fayet­teville help­ing with his for­mer high school team af­ter be­ing cut loose by the Yan­kees.

He’ll get an­other chance with the An­gels, who’ve in­vited him to spring train­ing.

Cox’s dis­ap­point­ing ca­reer ap­peared over when he was re­leased by the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als af­ter be­ing sent to Triple-A Syra­cuse. That was quite a blow for the for­mer first-round draft choice, who was se­lected 25th over­all by the St. Louis Car­di­nals in 2010.

But Cox, 27, picked him­self up and signed with an in­de­pen­dent league team in Wi­chita, Kan., where he hit .290 with 12 home runs and 64 RBIs. That pro­duc­tion caught the eye of the Tigers, who signed Cox to a mi­nor-league con­tract with their Triple-A club at Toledo, Ohio.

He’ll play third base at Toledo, where Cox’s for­mer Ar­kan­sas team­mate, James McCann, played be­fore he was pro­moted by the Tigers in 2014. Cox hopes to fol­low a sim­i­lar path in what could be his last op­por­tu­nity in the big leagues af­ter he signed for $3.2 mil­lion with the Car­di­nals in 2010.

That’s about $32 mil­lion less than Ker­shaw, a first-round pick who reached the ma­jor leagues when he was 20 years old, will make this year.

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