BROOKINGS – It is a weird time for everyone right now in Brookings, but it is especially weird for Caleb Thielbar.
Theilbar, who went to South Dakota State, is usually playing professional baseball and traveling around the country during the summer. Right now, due to COVID-19 he is in Brookings and trying to stay in baseball shape.
“It’s kind of just been an extension of the offseason. I’ve been doing bullpen sessions a couple times a week and throwing six or seven days a week depending on the week. I’ve been lifting two days a week. … I throw all over the place, but mostly I throw at the batting cage in Brookings. I throw bullpens a couple times a week down in Sioux Falls, too,” Thielbar said.
Thielbar grew up in Northfield, Minnesota, and SDSU was the only Division I school to have interest in him. He would walk on at SDSU and said he started to realize that he could have a chance at getting drafted and playing at the next level during his junior season.
“When I started to throw hard during my junior year there were some scouts that started to contact me. … A couple guys called me during that season or a little bit after the season and [getting drafted] started to become a little bit more of a reality. I knew that they were watching, but I didn’t know when I was going to get drafted or how high,” Thielbar said.
Thielbar was drafted in the 18th round of the 2009 draft by the Milwaukee Brewers. He played on the Brewers Arizona League team for the first two months of his career before being called up to the Helena Brewers where he played for the rest of the 2009 season. He split time between Helena and the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers in 2010 before being released by the Brewers organization at the end of the season.
Thielbar then signed a minor league contract with the Minnesota Twins before the 2011 season and was assigned to their A-team, the Fort Myers Miracle to start the season. He would work his way up the ranks the next couple of seasons, playing for the Twins’ AA-team, the New Britain Rock Cats and their AAA-team, the Rochester Red Wings.
“[Those first couple years] were just minor league life. Living on nothing, living with a bunch of people. Just trying to scratch by. It was different because I didn’t really know what it was going to take to get to [the majors] and no one really does. … It was only three or four years but it felt like a lot more work than it probably was in the grand scheme of things. The most difficult part was understanding the mentality that it was going to take. I think the toughest part of the entire thing is finding what works for you. It’s a combination of stuff and I think that’s why baseball is the toughest sport to make it in,” Thielbar said.
At the beginning of the 2013 season Thielbar was playing for the Red Wings and on May 20, 2013, he would get a call in the morning that he was being called up to the Twins and had to get on a plane to go to Atlanta where the Twins were taking on the Braves that night. Thielbar would make his debut that night.
“I don’t remember a whole lot because it was such a whirlwind day. I got the call a little bit past noon. I got packed up as quick as I could and got to the airport and got to the ballpark in Atlanta about a half hour before the game. Normally, you would get there six or seven hours before. I didn’t get out to the bullpen until the second or third inning and I was in the game in the seventh. There was really no time to process anything until after the game. Then it kind of hit me like ‘this is pretty cool’,” he said.
Thielbar pitched two innings in his MLB debut and faced seven batters. He gave up one hit and had three strike outs. Thielbar would remain on the Twins for the rest of the 2013 season. He appeared in 49 games and pitched 46 innings. He had an earned run average of 1.76 that season. He would then pitch for the Twins for the entire 2014 season. He appeared in 54 games and pitched 47.2 innings and had an ERA of 3.40.
Being born and raised in Minnesota, Thielbar grew up a Twins fan. He said it was cool to play for his favorite team, but the best part was being able to pitch in front of family and friends every time the Twins played in Minnesota.
In 2015, Thielbar started the season on the Twins. He appeared in six games, pitching five innings and had an ERA of 5.40. Thielbar was experiencing pain in his arm during this time and the Twins designated him for assignment on July 31, 2015, sending him back down to Rochester.
“That year was frustrating because my arm hurt the whole year and I wasn’t throwing hard. It was basically a year where I couldn’t throw the ball hard, so I wasn’t able to throw the ball where I wanted to. … Going back down and knowing I wasn’t the guy that probably should have gone down and then never getting another chance after that was probably the toughest part. Looking back, I know why the designated me because I was a lefty throwing 87, 88 and velocity was climbing in the game. I was walking more guys and striking less guys out, so why wouldn’t they cut me. It makes sense. I got pretty down about it though and it was just a tough year,” Thielbar said.
Thielbar has bounced around from team to team for the past four years, but has yet to make it back to the majors. He played two seasons with the St. Paul Saints, who are in the same league as the Sioux Falls Canaries, in 2016 and 2017. In 2018, he appeared in 39 games, playing for both the Toledo Mud Hens, which is the Detroit Tigers AAA-team and the Erie Seawolves, which is Detroit’s AA-team. He pitched 57 innings that season and had a 2.05 ERA.
In 2019, he started the season with the Mud Hens and played 50 games for them before he was traded to Atlanta’s organization where he would play one game for their AAA-team, the Gwinnett Stripers. He pitched 78.1 innings in 2019 and had a 3.22 ERA.
Thielbar was not planning on playing this summer. In fact he took a coaching job at Augustana in September. But then he started to get some calls from teams and decided to go to the Minnesota Twins spring training and try to get back to the majors.
“I wasn’t exactly expecting to go back to spring training. … It was one of those things that I wasn’t expecting to happen. All of the sudden when the free agency period hit, I started to get calls from a ton of teams and I was not expecting that after not getting called up last summer. So when all of the sudden I get all of the interest it was kind of hard not to do that opportunity. [Getting to the majors] is always going to be a dream no matter what age you are. It still wasn’t an easy decision and I made sure it was the right situation. I wasn’t going to go just because someone called. It was the right team and the right situation,” he said.
On March 12, the remainder of spring training was canceled and the beginning of the 2020 Major League Baseball season was delayed. The MLB and Major League Baseball Players Association have yet to come to an agreement. Thielbar said he expects the MLB to have some sort of season this summer.
“I think there will be season,” he said. “What that looks like, I don’t know. I’m not in those negotiations and I don’t know the in’s and out’s of it. There’s just too much to lose,” Thielbar said.
Thielbar said he felt really good at spring training this year and was looking forward to seeing if he could get back to the majors this year.
“I felt like I was in a good spot as far as how I was feeling and how I was throwing. The making the roster part is not exactly something I think about all the time. I figure if I just go and take care of business that kind of stuff will take care of itself. I felt really good going into spring training and then spring training went well. I don’t know what that would have meant had we kept playing, but it was going well and I still feel good and still feel like it’s going well,” he said.
Thielbar is still holding out Thielbar hopes that if there is an MLB season he will be a part of it because the minor league baseball season has been canceled. He said if the season is canceled he does not know if he will try to give it a shot again next year.
“I’m kind of taking it one day at a time right now. Right now it’s real frustrating because spring training was going so well. I pretty much banking on the season being back and then we’ll see what happens during the season. I feel fine and I know my stuff is there, but if the season gets shut down it’s going to be so demoralizing. I honestly don’t know what I’d do after that,” Thielbar said.