By Jim Holland
*photo courtesy of Milwaukee Brewers
With seven seasons now in the record books detailing the winning exploits of the West Virginia Miners in the Prospect League, there is one question that still remains unanswered. Who will be first player to formerly wear the colors of the Beckley-based team to make his debut in a regular season major league baseball game?
One of the most favorable responses to that question currently would be pitcher Kevin Shackelford, who finished the 2016 season pitching for the Louisville Bats, the AAA affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. The 27-year old native of Charlotte, NC joined the Miners for the 2010 Prospect League season after finishing his spring season on the pitching staff of the Marshall University Thundering Herd.
And, it was with the Miners at the beginning of that summer when Shackelford’s ascent up the baseball ladder ignited and pushed him upward to where he is now as he awaits a 2017 spring training camp that should earn him an extensive look from the Reds brass as they assemble their stable of hurlers to compete for the National League’s Central Division crown. It began innocently enough as manager Tim Epling began working with the 6’5″ 210 pound right-hander to make the conversion to the mound complete in his transition from his former position of catcher. Epling recalls how he acquired Shackelford, then a 21-year old virtual newcomer to pitching at the collegiate level. “Coach (Jeff) Waggoner at Marshall asked me if I would take Kevin for the summer and work with him in speeding up his transition to pitching while also getting some innings in for the Miners that summer,” commented Epling while also adding that he felt right from the beginning that although Shackelford was still in the development phase that he had good physical tools to be a long term success on the mound.
That summer with the Miners came to an abrupt halt when Shackelford signed a professional contract after being selected in the 21st round by the Milwaukee Brewers in June in the 2010 MLB amateur draft. Even though he only appeared in five games for the Miners in the 2010 season, manager Epling saw enough to know that Shackelford was on his way with what it takes to be a success in the “play for pay” circuit.
“Kevin had a good arm, a plus fastball, and a power slider all stored in a good body type where pitching is concerned,” assessed the three-time Prospect League title-winning skipper.
Shackelford has had a durable minor league career to date as he attempts to make the biggest leap of all to “the Show.” In seven minor league seasons, he has appeared in 221 career MiLB games (17 starts) while logging a 3.73 earned run average along with 244 strikeouts in 384 innings of work.
He toiled in the AA Southern League for 2 1/2 seasons but possibly his biggest break came when he parted ways with the Brewers organization to join the Reds at the beginning of the 2015 season, also at the AA level, to play for the Pensacola Blue Wahoos of the Southern League. Shackelford made his Triple-A debut with the Reds’ AAA Louisville Bats this past June 30 after spending all of 2015 and part of 2016 in Pensacola. The right-handed reliever was 1-0 with a 1.38 ERA in 10 appearances for the Blue Wahoos in the 2016 season. He tossed 13 innings, striking out 11 batters and walking four as a go-to guy in late innings for the Blue Wahoos.
The conclusion of the 2016 season with the Louisville Bats also seemed to agree with Shackelford as appeared in 25 relief stints and recorded a 1-2 record while also pitching effectively in closing games as indicated with the eight saves he notched versus opponents to go along with a 2.30 earned run average at the AAA level.
Winter is always the time that all baseball fans spend endless time discussing their favorite teams, both past and present. And, this winter in West Virginia Miners’ country, one of the predominant questions will be: Kevin Shackelford, is he the one to finally break through and grab the top rung of the baseball ladder?