Christina Carrillo / Salem Red Sox

Once college rivals, Red Sox prospects C.J. Chatham, Brett Netzer continue to thrive in High-A Salem

Vincent Gallo
August 14, 2018 - 4:13 pm
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Every once in a while, Brett Netzer would have to listen to his UNC Charlotte teammates talk about Florida Atlantic University’s (FAU) star player – a 6-foot-4, lanky kid from Plantation, Fla..

FAU had been the only program who had offered him a scholarship, and the original plan was to have him pitch. Yet the Owls’ star would rope line-drives into the outfield and proceed to patrol the left side of the diamond with dazzling fluidity in the next half inning.

The reviews from the 49ers’ dugout never changed: “Man, that’s the best shortstop I’ve ever seen.”

Similar to his counterpart, who hit .335 and .357 as an FAU sophomore and junior, Netzer, Charlotte’s second baseman, followed a .318 freshman campaign with a .384/.461/.555 slash line (53 games) in 2016. He had also experienced a quiet college recruiting process, having received offers from only Charlotte and the College of Charleston.

At that point in his career, Netzer had proven himself as one of the best players on his own team, and wasn’t going to budge on extending praise to a conference rival.

“All of our guys would just be drooling over this guy’s talent,” Netzer recalled. “I’d do the opposite, I’d go, ‘Man, that kid’s not any good, we’re playing against each other.’ You kind of have to have that mindset, you don’t want to give in to thinking someone’s better than you, so I’d be like, ‘Ah, screw that guy,’ I’d just kind of be joking around with it.’”

That player, C.J. Chatham, went on to be drafted No. 51 overall by the Red Sox in the second round of the 2016 MLB draft.

The Red Sox took Netzer the following year in the third round of the 2017 MLB draft, and the two former college rivals became teammates this past May. Though this was not before the two reconnected during spring training. They reminisced about their playing days in the C-USA, and Netzer light-heartedly filled Chatham in on the buzz the Floridian’s game caused on the Charlotte bench.

Chatham made it clear that despite Netzer being an in-conference opponent, he also always saw him as a special talent.

“I always thought he was extremely good,” Chatham said. “When he told me about college, I [saw him] as the opposite [as to how he saw me]. I’d see it as, ‘We’re playing Charlotte and this kid Brett Netzer, he’s really good’ – and [his skill] has carried over. He’s been great to hit behind because he sees so many pitches, I can see what the [pitcher’s] throwing, I get a good look at that just because he’s always in three-ball counts and working the count … he’s definitely been fun to play with.”

Chatham and Netzer formally had different reactions toward one another’s skillset on top of sharing a slightly different mentality of the game. Netzer had respect for Chatham’s ability, yet kept any praise mute for the competitive edge – a kind of mindset Chatham enjoys playing alongside.

“That’s who he is, he’s a competitor,” explained Chatham. “I respect it, and it helps him, it helps his game, and it helps him perform at his highest … and [his game’s] definitely grown. Obviously we competed against each other in college, but since playing with each other, I’ve fed off of his energy.”

After returning from a hamstring injury that costed him virtually an entire year (seven total games played last season), Chatham, 23, joined Netzer, 22, at High-A Salem, where the duo has been a prominent one-two punch in the second and third slots of the batting order.

Through 107 games, Netzer is hitting .286 with two homeruns and 46 RBIs. Chatham has a .307 average in 75 games with three home runs and 40 RBIs.

Netzer elaborated on instances when Chatham has helped him through batting slumps as well as how a certain kind of bond can help a shortstop and a second baseman succeed.

“Playing together kind of solidified that relationship,” said Netzer. “One of us can be struggling at the plate or something, and not take [the slump] out to the field, and just encourage each other and laugh about it and keep things loose. He’s a good guy, a special talent, he has a lot of fun out there and it’s been a lot of fun playing with C.J..”

Chatham and Netzer understand that familiarity and repetition is key for defensive communication and trust in the middle infield.

“That’s the thought, that the middle infielders usually are closer than any other two other positions on the field, and I think that’s holds true for most cases around the league for mostly every team,” Netzer said. “I don’t think it’s much different for me and C.J. … it’s just kind of a feel thing. The more you play the closer you get.”

Currently, Chatham tops out as the Red Sox No. 8 prospect according to MLB.com, while Netzer, for now, is flying under the radar at No. 25. But the Salem duo isn’t going to allow any placement or gap between them on a top 30 prospect list to faze them. The two both see the importance of positive mentality when moving through the minor leagues, where confidence means everything.

Netzer can easily recall points in his young career where a good batting mind began to hold some importance over skill.

This was true in the summer between his sophomore and junior year at Charlotte. Before settling in with the Hyannis Harbor Hawks, Netzer had been attempting to play for a temporary contract with the Wareham Gateman of the Cape Cod League. Before hitting .283 in 26 games for Hyannis, he had gone 2-for-18 at the plate for Wareham. Now that he’s playing in High-A for a professional baseball organization, Netzer has found the ability to relax a bit.

“I kind of put pressure on myself in that aspect knowing that [the Cape Cod League] was based on solely results,” explained Netzer. “And it’s tough to play baseball that way, focusing on base-hits rather than processing hitting the ball hard. This season’s just been an awesome learning experience, learning how to take advantage of every single day individually and not looking at your stats as a whole … and focusing on getting better today.”

Chatham sees himself as a player who shares a similar understanding of confidence and approach in the batter’s box.

“I really focus on the mental part of the game and watching guys stick to an approach, because I always change my game – if there’s something wrong, you need to fix it, so I’ve always been very open to change for the better.”

Chatham had played through his own share of pressure early in the season. He was a prospect with a certain amount of hype behind his name who was coming off a lost season, thanks to a hamstring injury suffered running to second base. Chatham needed to bounce back, and has responded with a season where he’s batted over .300. Chatham also sees the longevity of a season in Salem as a factor in being able to block out any negatives.

“In the beginning [when you first come back from injury] it’s kind of tough, but as it goes along – [the season] is such a long time, such a long process, that eventually after a couple of weeks I wasn’t bothered by [any pressure] at all.”

Netzer has never doubted Chatham’s ability. He’s glad Chatham is on his side now, and looks to further craft his skill and perfect a big league mindset, with the player he once called a rival, yet always respected.

“[C.J.] had all the raw talent in college …,” Netzer said. “Just seeing his game improve, kind of [from] a mental aspect, it’s kind of the same thing that I’m going through, just learning how to grind every single day and learning how to take advantage of every at-bat and getting your best swing off … It definitely helps being on the same page as somebody and keeping up with each other on things like that.”

After playing a full season in Salem with his new second baseman, Chatham hopes to not only one day see the Green Monster up close, but to also make it alongside Netzer.

Playing with each other all the way up would definitely be beneficial,” Chatham said. “That was the Red Sox' plan from the beginning, they’re big with that, especially with their big league team now. Those guys played together in the minors and built friendships throughout. Coming up with guys who you’re playing with every year doesn’t happen a lot and I think it’s going to help us in the long run.”

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