Headed to ‘the show’?
Outlaws ace pitcher Kris Honel may not be long for Chico
Kris Honel threw a no-hitter in his first start as a Chico Outlaw. To say it was an omen would be an understatement, and the big 6-foot-5 righty from Illinois says it was a surreal experience, to say the least.
“It was so weird,” said Honel, the 27-year-old ex-White Sox prospect. “My mind frame was nowhere near that going into the game. It was just, ‘Let’s get a nice little start in here.’ ”
With his deep voice and unhurried way of speaking, Honel fits the classic model of a subtle yet confident Midwestern hurler. That confidence has been built up over a baseball-packed lifetime. The game has been an addiction from infancy for this player whose father coached several high school teams as well as the University of Evansville in Indiana while he was growing up.
“He put the ball in the cradle, and I was basically a baseball rat,” Honel explained. “Eventually he stopped coaching so he could come and watch me play.”
Honel was a 2001 draft pick of the Chicago White Sox, his “hometown team,” as he would say—Bourbonnais, the small town where he grew up, is an hour’s drive from Chicago—and got picked up in the first round at 16th overall. A product of the same draft as Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer and current Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira, Honel was touted highly enough that he was taken before five-time MLB all-star David Wright of the New York Mets.
Honel’s crash course in being a professional ballplayer came at the age of just 18.
“Getting drafted out of high school is a unique experience of its own, let alone getting drafted to your hometown team,” Honel said. “I basically grew up in the minor leagues with a bunch of older brothers because I was always the youngest guy on the team.”
Taken out of Providence Catholic High School, Honel was indeed young even for the minors when he started working his way through the White Sox system, making it as far as AA with the Intimidators of Kannapolis, N.C., in 2002.
Honel, battling elbow injuries—requiring the infamous Tommy John surgery—ground his way through 2007 with the White Sox system, before bouncing around with the Cardinals’, Marlins’ and Twins’ organizations en route to the Golden Baseball League and Chico.
In fact, after spending some time with the Edmonton Capitals in 2009, Honel was traded mid-season to Long Beach for now-deceased former Major League pitcher José Lima. In the off season, he signed with the Outlaws, as he already knew reliever Josh Dew and new Outlaws manager Garry Templeton, who coached him last year in Long Beach.
Templeton could see that the young pitcher was back on the right track.
“Honel had a plan from last year; he knew what he was capable of doing,” Templeton said. “He sacrificed a little speed, and he’s throwing more strikes now.”
Nettleton Stadium has been the perfect fit for Honel, who, as of press time, was tied for second in the league in wins (six), first in strikeouts (55) and is third in ERA (1.98). He is also one of five Outlaws selected for the Golden Baseball League all-star team.
Honel, unlike many other independent ballplayers, remains very committed to his baseball dreams. He said that he still feels he can pitch at the Major League level.
“I’m hungry, man. I’m pitching the way I am right now because I believe in myself a lot more than I have in the past,” he said. “I’m 27, and I wish I could put my head that’s on my shoulders right now on me back when I was 18.”
That wisdom and patience allow him to ignore unnecessary distractions, like the way Japanese sensation Eri Yoshida tends to fill the stadium much more than he does—despite his presence as the ace of the rotation. For example, Honel’s June 23 start in which he had a no-hitter in the fifth inning drew far fewer fans than any of Yoshida’s starts (including her best performance on June 12, during which she gave up one earned run and had her only career strikeout in four innings).
“What she’s doing is pretty amazing,” Honel said, genuinely impressed by the 18-year-old female knuckleballer. “I can’t even imagine myself being 18 and pitching in a foreign country in front of so many people.”
Honel’s goal of making it to the majors is certainly a possibility.
Daniel Nava, the first ex-Outlaw in the major leagues, proved that when he hit a grand slam home run on the first pitch he saw as a member of the Boston Red Sox, on June 12 against the Phillies. Nava, an outfielder who was cut by both Santa Clara University and the Outlaws at one point, has become an inspiration to independent players all over the country. He is only the second person, along with Oakland A’s current third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff, to hit a grand slam on his first pitch at the plate.
Wayne Franklin, the pitching coach and a left-handed reliever for the Outlaws, has great confidence in Honel. “He challenges hitters, and that right there is a big plus for pitchers,” Franklin said. “He goes right at the strike zone.”
Franklin, 36, enjoyed a seven-year tenure in Major League Baseball with the Astros, Brewers, Giants, Yankees and Braves. He knows that interest from just one scout on the right day would be enough for Honel to get another shot at the “road to the show.”
“Just a phone call, just somebody takin’ a chance on him. That’s it, that’s all it takes,” Franklin said.
Templeton is just as confident about the possibilities for the young pitcher’s career rejuvenation.
“I’d love to see him go. … It’d be unfortunate for us, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles,” he said.