At the outset of the 2009 season, Thomas Neal was a man on a mission.
“I want to make it to the big leagues,” Neal said three years ago as a burgeoning Giants prospect. “But, when I get up there, I don’t want to just make it. I want to make an impact for 15 or 20 years and eventually help the team win a World Series.”
But, with the Giants doing the unthinkable by winning the World Series the following year, not only was Neal still climbing the organizational ladder. The Giants also started opening eyes with a pair of top-flight outfield prospects in Francisco Peguero – who hit .329 with a .448 slugging percentage and 40 stolen bases in 2010 at Single-A San Jose – and first-round draft pick Gary Brown.
And so it goes, in 2011 when the Giants were considering anything and everything short of duct tape to keep their big-league infield from collapsing amid a playoff push, Neal became expendable. On July 30, just before the trade deadline, Neal was dealt to the Indians for veteran shortstop Orlando Cabrera.
“It was a little shocking, but it wasn’t personal,” Neal said. “It was a business decision … and I think it worked out for both teams.”
Now, Neal is once again on a mission. Despite hitting .295 at Triple-A Fresno in 2011, Neal’s power production tanked. He hit just two home runs in 220 at bats. As it turns out, a previous shoulder injury that required surgery in 2007 was troubling him throughout last season.
“It was something that just wasn’t right all season … and cost me some time last year,” Neal said “Now, it’s a matter of staying on top of it and making sure it doesn’t [get reinjured].”
So, Neal reported early this year for his first full season with his new club. He was in Goodyear, Az. in January to strengthen his right shoulder. And, after a slow start at Double-A Akron, the 24-year-old slugger is starting to heat up. He has hit safely in six of his last seven games, including a 5-for-9 stint over his last two games in a pair of wins to help Akron to an 11-6 start. He is currently hitting .293 (12 for 41) on the year.
“I’m getting close to where I need to be,” Neal said. “I feel a lot better than I did last year.”
Despite switching uniforms, Neal isn’t exactly a stranger in a strange land. Akron is in the Eastern League, the same league in which Giants Double-A affiliate Richmond plays. In 2010, Neal hit .291 with 40 doubles there in the Flying Squirrels’ inaugural season. And, he has also reconnected with two other former Giants farm hands, with infielder Ryan Rohlinger and outfielder Ben Copeland both currently at Akron.