How I Met Your Aeros: Thomas Neal
It’s been an interesting, adventurous year for Akron Aeros outfielder Thomas Neal.
At this point last year, Neal was riding the wave of being named the San Francisco Giants’ 4th best prospect in 2010 according to Baseball America (only behind Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, and Zack Wheeler) and their 7th best prospect in the Giants’ system headed into 2011. Neal was described as having a “combination of power, arm strength and surprising ability to cover ground in either outfield corner” and drew comparisons to Jermaine Dye. In their view, Neal had a “chance to establish himself as an everyday player in 2012.”
Fast forward to July 30, 2011. Neal had a respectable .295/.351/.409 slash line in his first experience in AAA, but he had been limited to 60 games and only 2 home runs due to a hand injury. With his prospect stock falling and the Giants in need of infield help, the Indians acquired him in exchange for Orlando Cabrera. After the trade Neal would only manage 10 more games as a shoulder injury he originally had in 2007 flared back up on a throw from the outfield.
Luckily for the Indians and for Neal, things are starting to get better. He acknowledged that injuries have been a problem in the past when I interviewed him before Friday night’s game at Canal Park, but he said that “everything’s good though." He has been going above and beyond this year to battle his injury problem, thinking way out of the box.
“I’ve actually been working with our pitching coach, Tony [Arnold],” Neal said. “I pulled him to the side and asked to kinda work on the mechanics of my throwing, because I knew that was a big part of why I injured my shoulder. The changes that I have made throwing-wise, they’ve helped tremendously and I’m starting to feel like I’m getting to where I can be and should be.”
Working with Coach Arnold is an example of how Neal really feels he fits into this organization. While Neal admitted that “both organizations [the Giants and the Indians] help out their players,” he feels that “the Indians do just a little bit more and I think they definitely have to put that investment in.”
He’s even getting used to Ohio now, after growing up and playing most of his professional games in California. “Early on, it was a little bit colder than I’m used to,” he said, “but you kinda get used to it and it’s been warming up and it’s starting to be fun.”
In addition to adjusting to Ohio, Neal has been working on his swing. He worked on some adjustments in the offseason, but he says that “I’m still tinkering with some things; the biggest thing is trying to get comfortable.”
Neal knows that people like me and scouts are concerned with his lack of power, but he said, "The biggest thing I’m trying to do as a hitter is get to a spot where I can be the most consistent, making hard contact.”
Neal’s even using his demotion to AA as a learning tool, considering how Canal Park plays. As he describes it, “You hit a high fly ball here, you’re going to be out. So in my eyes, there’s no point trying to hit a high fly ball here; you might as well hit it hard – hard line drives, hard ground balls – and take your base hits.”
That hitting approach has been showing its dividends. The season’s still young, but Neal currently holds a .278 BA, .381 OBP, and .343 wOBA, nothing to sneeze at. His 10.4 K% and 10.4 BB% are also encouraging to see his second time through the AA level, so even as the power has not shown through yet (he only has a .067 ISO and no home runs), Neal is using a good approach at the plate.
Neal may not hold the infinite promise that he seemed to hold in 2010 or 2011, but considering that he’s only in his age-24 season, he still has time to develop into at least a fourth outfielder. The Indians may have removed him from their 40-man roster earlier in the year, but he understands that.
"Tthey had to make a business decision," Neal said. "My job is to go out there and play the game. I know I can play it well and I’m going to continue to go out there and work hard and do everything I need to do to make it to the big leagues.”
Neal is a likeable guy who loves to interact with fans (his Twitter handle is @TdaddyNeal – though he won’t be on it again until he either has a .300 batting average or 25 RBI) and is working hard on his game. He has been a treat to watch in Akron and hopefully for everyone’s sake he will develop into a right-handed outfield bat the Indians so desperately need.
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If you want to follow Jim on Twitter, he’s @JimPiascik. If you want to e-mail him, you can do so at email@example.com. If you want to read his Master's thesis on college athletes and Twitter, you can do so here.