Hayden Simpson’s first professional baseball stint did not go as planned.
The former first-round pick of the Chicago Cubs in 2010 battled mononucleosis for nearly a year, lost the velocity that made him the 16th overall pick and finished a combined 5-17 with a 6.42 ERA in two years in the minor leagues.
Today, the former Southern Arkansas standout is back on the mound with the Southern Illinois Miners. And he’s in a place that reminds him of his hometown, Magnolia, Ark.
“There for a long time I didn’t know what normal was, because I was dealing with all that, but I’m excited to play the game again, and I’m just looking to get out there and play, and play the game as well as I can,” Simpson said.
Simpson, 23, pitched in Arizona, Peoria, Dayton and Boise for the Cubs’ affiliates before getting released in April this year after spring training. His velocity, which hit 97 mph on the gun when he was at Division II Southern Arkansas, has now come back to the mid-90s, according to Miners manager Mike Pinto.
With an acute breaking ball, Pinto believes Simpson could be one of his five starting pitchers when the team opens the season May 17 against Windy City.
“Here’s a kid that had exceptional, plus-plus velocity a few years ago, comes down with mono, and, really, has a rough time regaining physically for the next year and a half, and didn’t get the velocity back,” Pinto said. “I know from the Cubs guys that I spoke to, he was 92-94 in spring training this year. Now, that’s not the 97 he was at a few years ago, but 92-94 in our league, with an exceptional breaking ball, which he has shown, that will get a lot of guys out.”
Unlike the desert of Arizona and the beaches in Florida, Southern Illinois has given Simpson a bit of relief as he attempts another run in pro ball.
He can go fishing or hunting in his spare time fairly easily, and even has a few friends on the squad. Simpson grew up with last year’s Frontier League Championship Series Most Valuable Player, Cannon Lester, and played with former Cubs prospect Mario Mercedes, one of three catchers in camp.
An avid golfer, he also has one of the best courses in the state, The Links at Kokopelli, literally, just past the left field fence at Rent One Park.
Lester, currently a graduate assistant with Southern Arkansas’ baseball team, grew up 40 minutes down the road and turned Simpson on to the Miners after he was released. A few minutes after Pinto told him about the opportunity in Marion, an older, wiser Simpson decided to give it another go.
The 6-foot, 170-pound right-hander still throws the basic four pitches of a starter, a fastball, curveball, changeup and slider, but with a bit more feeling now, he said.
“Being where the Cubs had taken me, I had to get back as quick as I could, and I had to perform, and I had to perform now. I could go on, but, it affected me,” Simpson said. “As far as things go now, I’m good. I enjoy the game. I wake up every day wanting to come up here and throw, and I want to play. It’s kind of getting back to the roots of it, and why you fell in love with the game.
“We get to be a grown men and play a little boy’s game.”
On Twitter: @THefferman_SI