KENT — On the cusp of what might still turn out to be a breakthrough season, former Wilder Baseball Club and Port Angeles High School Roughrider Cole Uvila was stopped in his tracks by the COVID-19 outbreak like thousands of other minor league baseball players across the country.
But Uvila, 26, isn’t despairing, instead keeping proper perspective and a “glass half-full” mentality as he continues to train and prepare for his next opportunity, whenever and wherever that may be.
“It was good to see [fiancee] Kayla [Andrus], and the dog [Lola],” Uvila said after a throwing session Wednesday. “You get to a point where, I thought I had a lot of momentum coming in and all signs were pointing to this being a big year for me. But it’s about perspective and my glass is half full. I’m trying a different diet now. I have all this free time to work on flexibility and range of motion. I’m getting ready for whenever my name is called again.”
Uvila’s professional career was upended when NBA player Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus March 11, shuttering that league and ultimately setting off a domino-like chain reaction that quickly paused all levels of sport, including the nation’s pastime.
“The NBA’s reaction was what really started making people realize that this is real,” Uvila said. “It was business as usual [before that]. Day in, day out, everybody was getting ready for the season. I had pitched in nine live appearances either facing a split squad [fellow Rangers divided into opposing teams] or against different teams. I also backed up some big league games. We had already been there a month and we were looking toward breaking camp.”
Major league teams soon found themselves in the same predicament as countless employers — needing to implement distancing while not entirely sure exactly how to proceed.
“An impossible situation to handle,” Uvila said of relaying postponement information. “It was such an evolving situation and they were finding things out as fast as the general public. They wanted to give us all the answers but they didn’t have them themselves.”
Flying back to the heavily-hit Seattle area last Sunday to live with his fiancee and her family in Kent, Uvila said he was shocked how many people were on the flight and how many were still crowding Sea-Tac Airport.
Uvila expressed a sentiment welcome from someone his age.
“I don’t have a ton of fear personally, because I’m young and healthy. But I just don’t want to have any part in spreading it to those who are vulnerable,” Uvila said.
With no minor league income yet, as prospects are only paid during the regular season and not during the offseason or spring training, Uvila said he was in a better spot financially than many of his fellow prospects from his offseason side job: playing poker at area casinos.
“If this happened at the same time last year I would have been in a really bad spot, so I am fortunate for that,” Uvila said.
Uvila entered spring training coming off a 2019 season that saw the right-handed reliever compile a 7-3 record in 64.2 innings with a 2.23 ERA, including 95 strikeouts. He was promoted to High-A Down East Wood Ducks early in the season and after an initial adjustment period, rebounded to earn a spot in the Arizona Fall League, a prospect-rich training program that routinely fields future MLB superstars.
“For a month and a half I felt like I was really important,” Uvila joked about the Fall League. “You are in big league clubhouses, everybody wants your autograph, you have clubbies [clubhouse attendants] taking care of you and you are fed with a big-league spread. There was a group of guys on the fall league team I think I will stay in touch with for a long time. You hear about other organizations and their philosophies. It was a blast.”
A strong performance in Arizona earned him a spot on the Fall League all-star team and the eyes of media tracking a particularly important pitching stat: curveball spin rate. Uvila posted four of the five best spin rates among Fall League hurlers and fanned Los Angeles Angels No. 1 prospect Jo Adell in the all-star game to get even more attention.
Not bad for a 40th-round #MLBDraft pick.#Rangers righty Cole Uvila not only had 4 of the top 5 spin rates on curveballs in this year's @MLBazFallLeague, but he had the top 3 since #Statcast began recording data in the AFL in 2015.
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) October 29, 2019
“My all-star game performance got some people talking, got some articles written,” Uvila said. “I would have liked to finish out a little stronger, but overall, I’d give my performance a solid 7 or 8 out of 10.
“The whole league is a big all-star game in many ways, so nobody is going to hold it against you if you struggle against other top-level guys.”
Uvila’s expectation was opening the season at Double-A Frisco (Texas), a chance to once again be a Roughrider.
“When you are in Double-A you are one call away from the majors. One or two good months and you could get promoted.”
Older than the average prospects thanks to a career that featured three separate college teams plus a lengthy Tommy John elbow surgery and recovery, Uvila knows time isn’t exactly on his side, even though the strides that he has made in two seasons have him higher up the ladder than he ever imagined.
“That’s the hardest part, knowing my clock is ticking,” Uvila said. “This was a year that if things went my way, I’d be looking at debuting [at the major league level]. And the more days spent at home, the less likely that possibility.”
But Uvila doesn’t dwell on the negatives.
He’ll continue to train, throwing sessions with Andrus’ little brother, himself a high school baseball player.
“It’s not a sob story for me at all,” Uvila said. “Everything that has happened the last two years has exceeded all of my dreams.”
Sports reporter Michael Carman can be contacted at 360-406-0674 or [email protected] dailynews.com.