A.J. Achter made it. He wasn’t supposed to make it. The 26-year-old right-hander lasted until the 46th round of the 2010 draft and was offered bupkis for a signing bonus. Now he’s stepping onto the big stage. The Minnesota Twins called up Achter from Triple-A Rochester when the calender flipped on Sunday night.
Achter enrolled at Michigan State University after going undrafted out of an Oregon, Ohio, high school. He didn’t sparkle with the Spartans. After going 8-13 with a 4.29 ERA over three seasons, he was selected 1,395th overall by the Twins. Knowing he was a long shot, the education major made plans to return for his senior year.
“I was taken in a round that doesn’t even exist anymore,” Achter told me on Sunday, hours before news of his promotion broke. “They didn’t even offer me a signing bonus. It was, ‘Hey, we drafted you, congratulations, but we can’t afford to give you anything right now – unless you’re willing to sign for a plane ticket.’ I wasn’t willing. I was plenty fine with going back to Michigan State.”
Two months later, following a strong performance in the Cape Cod League, he changed his mind. So did the bean counters. Achter’s work out of the bullpen — he’d been a starter at MSU — and was impressive enough that bonus money appeared in Minnesota’s draft-budget coffers.
“We agreed to terms an hour and ten minutes before the deadline, which was August 16 that year,” Achter said. “I loved Michigan State and was dead set on going back to school. But for some reason, my gut told me to take their offer.”
The gut won out after a prolonged battle that took place between his ears. His parents – a level-headed mother and a father who understands the business side of sports – played a role in his ultimate decision.
“There was a lot of back and forth in my head,” Achter admitted. “One thing that was big was my parents letting me know I had their backing, both financially and emotionally, no matter what happened. My dad was drafted by the Vikings and also played for the Bengals and Jets, and a little bit in the CFL. He never played in an NFL regular season game – only in preseason – so he knew what it was like to pursue a dream and fall short. He wanted me to at least pursue that chance.”
Achter took the chance and found it wasn’t easy sledding. He began 2011 in extended spring training after failing to make a full-season team out of camp. A May promotion to Low-A Beloit followed, but so did some soul-searching. After logging a 4.52 ERA, Achter found himself pondering a return to East Lansing.
“At that point, I was very much aware of how heavily things were stacked against me,” Achter said. “I knew I wasn’t getting any younger and would have to decide: Was I going to keep after it or was I going to go back to school?”
Achter opted to give it another go. The Big Ten product returned to the Midwest League in 2012 and lowered his ERA to a cool 2.48. He really heated up after a mid-season move to Ft. Myers. In 19 relief outings for the High-A Miracle he allowed just three earned runs in 34.1 innings. A corner had been turned.
Strong performances in New Britain and Rochester over the past two seasons haven’t been accompanied by hoopla. Achter remained conspicuously absent from prospect rankings, but his progress has been palpable. The reasons behind his breakthrough have been harder to define. According to Achter, good old-fashioned obstinance and desire probably have as much to do with it as anything.
“I’m not really sure if there’s any one reason,” Achter said. “My slider has gotten a little bit better from a grip Mike Pelfrey taught me when he was down rehabbing, but for the most part my stuff is pretty much the same. My velocity is about the same. I’m usually between 90-93 mph, so my fastball is about average. My offspeed isn’t the best either. If anything, I feel I have a competitive edge on a lot of people.”
The competitive edge that manifested itself in a 2.38 ERA and an 8.6 K/9 in 72 innings at Rochester this season now moves to the Twin Cities. Achter remains more underdog than impact arm, so it will be interesting to see how his talent translates to the big leagues. Especially intriguing will be his matchups against the team he rooted for as a boy in suburban Toledo. His family had season tickets to Detroit’s Triple-A affiliate.
“I was a Tigers fan growing up, and still like them to do well because of Toledo’s stake in the Mud Hens,” Achter saod. “But being in the Twins system, it’s more that I respect the Tigers and can’t support them too much. I hope to get a chance to compete against them for years.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.