Quinn Priester pulled the cable to the left with his left arm. As his arm extended, he grabbed the cable with his right hand and pushed it forward using his chest and core. Imagine a boxer turning around and throwing a right-handed punch.
Priester’s face contorted from the effort. There was a lot of weight holding the cable back. His lower body, legs like tree trunks, strained as much as his upper body.
“People misconstrue your core,” trainer Allen Thomas said. “Your core is your whole body, not just your abs.”
Priester, the 18th overall selection in the 2019 MLB Draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates, finished his set, and the weight clanged back down. The 19-year-old from Cary stepped away from the cable machine, and another top prospect took his place.
Almost every day this offseason, a handful of the Chicago area’s top prospects work out with Thomas, whose day job is the director of conditioning for the White Sox.
Rap music thumped from a speaker as they worked at this hidden South Side gym on 35th Street a mile west of Guaranteed Rate Field. Few ever would guess the top baseball prospects in Chicago train at the Bridgeport Art Center.
Beside Priester there was Alek Thomas, Allen’s son, a 2018 second-round draft pick by the Arizona Diamondbacks out of Chicago Mount Carmel. There was Jalen Greer, a 2019 fifth-round pick of the Oakland Athletics from St. Rita. Joining them on this Friday in January was J.P. Massey, a sophomore pitcher at Minnesota who played high school ball at Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep in Chicago.
The gym in the Bridgeport Art Center didn’t look like the type one imagines when making a New Year's resolution. They share the space with a local CrossFit gym. There were dumbbells, a cable machine, an elliptical, a few rowing machines, some empty racks and a lot of open space. There wasn’t a bench press in sight.
No, these guys were training with specific motions in mind. In the case of pitchers Priester and Massey, it’s all about maximizing how hard they can throw a baseball.
“Trying to get them to do strength and power is something they’re going to be doing for their career,” Allen Thomas said. “This is not for how their body looks. This is having an application for how their body can replicate the same pitch, the same mechanics that their pitching coaches expect.”
The Sox drafted Allen Thomas in the 45th round of the 1996 draft. He never rose above Class A ball, but he’s been with the Sox ever since. He trains the major league White Sox, and has trained countless aspiring athletes over the years. This winter he’s taking it easy, though. This handful of young ballplayers is his only appointment.
He’s been training Alek “since I could walk,” Alek said. The two went viral last year when Alek hit a home run off Sox pitcher Lucas Giolito in spring training. After numerous attempts to catch his father’s eye from the opposite dugout, Alek finally attracted a smile from his dad (Allen motioned for him to zip it, too).
Priester and Alek Thomas have the same agent, Sam Samardzija. Priester started working out with the Thomases last winter before his senior season.
“I was really happy with how my body felt throughout the entire season, especially at the beginning and continuing the stuff that I learned through the season,” Priester said. “I was just really happy and felt better than I ever have.
“For me, it didn’t make sense to change at all. Once the Pirates OK’d working out with him again, I was really excited to get back with him and get back to work.”
• • •
In the span of about a month last summer, Priester went from pitching for Cary-Grove in the IHSA Class 4A state tournament to pitching as a professional. His starts last spring drew hordes of scouts. Without ever working with a pitching coach until last winter, he became one of the top pitching prospects in the country.
While his friends at C-G were off to college, his was an education of another kind.
Priester spent most of the summer at Pirate City, as the Pirates call their minor league training facility in Bradenton, Florida. He played for the rookie ball Gulf Coast League Pirates.
At that level, it’s all about development. Priester learned to look at the game of baseball differently. Minuscule mechanical adjustments to his pitching motion make a big difference.
One day last summer, he was throwing a bullpen session when Pirates pitching coordinator Scott Mitchell noticed Priester was leaning backward as he lifted his leg into his throwing motion.
“Hey Quinn, do you ever see a hitter hit with their back bent backward?” Mitchell said.
“No, I never have,” Priester said.
“Have you ever seen a boxer punch with their back bent backward?”
“Then why are you pitching with your back like that?”
Priester didn’t have an answer.
“That was a big change as far as, all right, I’ve never thought about this,” Priester said. “I’m looking at it now, and it just makes all the sense in the world, but how come I’ve never thought about it?”
Priester worked on staying tall, keeping his spine straight. The Pirates have invested their top draft pick and a lot of money in the hopes that countless little adjustments such as that will turn Priester into a top big-league starting pitcher in the next few years.
• • •
At the gym in Bridgeport, somehow the topic of Allen Thomas’ Instagram account comes up.
“You never post on there,” Priester said.
“When I retire I’ll be posting on there,” Allen Thomas said. “I’ll be calling B.S. on a lot of things I see out there in the game of baseball.”
Allen Thomas has strong opinions on how baseball players should – and shouldn’t – train. The standing cable press is a perfect example. Most people walk into a gym ready for a chest workout, and they head for the bench press.
“The thing is, you’re not doing anything in sport on your back, pushing something off of you,” Allen Thomas said. “So you can obviously see the difference when you are on your back benching versus when you’re standing. It looks like emulating something you’re going to do as a pitcher.”
Not that he’s against bench pressing. Later, he has the group do one-arm dumbbell presses with heavy weight. Priester starts with 90 pounds and moves to 95 for his second rep.
Massey, a 6-foot-5 righty who threw 25 innings as a freshman at Minnesota last season, struggled with his off-hand – not an uncommon issue.
“We’ll work on this next offseason,” Massey said after setting the dumbbell down.
“This offseason,” Allen Thomas said. “This season.”
He mentions a Sox pitcher.
“We got him to 100 [pounds] during the season,” Allen Thomas said. “It can be done. And he was in a five-man rotation.”
There was another cable workout that emulated a throwing motion. When a pitcher goes into his motion to throw toward home plate, as his arm leaves his glove and elevates, there is a split second where the baseball is facing second base. Allen Thomas has the guys come to this position and use the cables to work their forearms.
Most people would think to do forearm curls with their arms in front of them. A baseball player uses those forearms to create spin on the ball, so why not work out the forearms from a throwing position?
“It’s all getting into baseball positions and being as effective as possible from the positions,” Priester said.
• • •
Priester didn’t want to answer the phone in late August.
He was in the middle of a game of Fortnite with his buddies, and picking up the phone would mean certain death to his character. But GCL Pirates manager Gera Alvarez was calling. Roommate Kaleb Foster and his teammates Sam Siani and Jasiah Dixon, who were playing in the same game online, were all in agreement – when the manager calls, you’ve got to pick it up.
So Priester caved and picked up the phone. His Fortnite character certainly met an unfortunate end, but Priester no longer cared. Alvarez told him he was moving up to Class A West Virginia.
“I turned my game off. It was like, 'This is awesome,'" Priester said. "It was the craziest rush."
Priester and the Pirates hope its the first of many promotions to come.
“I had to pack up everything I had that night to get out on like a 6 a.m. flight the next day,” Priester said.
He flew to Rochester, New York, and met up with the Class A short-season West Virginia Black Bears, who were playing in Albany, New York. His first start for the Black Bears was at State College, Pennsylvania, in front of 2,290 paying customers.
Priester struggled that day, walking four hitters in the first two innings. After the second inning, Pirates eighth-round draft pick Austin Roberts – and a good buddy of Priester’s – said to Priester, “Hey man, you want to stop pitching like a high schooler?”
The two shared a laugh. Priester retired the side in order each of the next two innings, and his day was done.
“As much as you want to get to the big leagues, as much as anybody wants to get to the big leagues, you can’t really do that on your own,” Priester said. “You’ve got to help each other out, and that team aspect of it doesn’t go unnoticed.”
Whether it was playing Fortnite or talking in the dugout, Priester made good friends last summer. He got to know Siani, Dixon and Jase Bowen, all outfielders also drafted out of high school in 2019.
He likened the atmosphere to that of C-G football in 2018 when the Trojans all had one goal: Win a state championship. The goal here is to reach the big leagues.
“That’s something that’s addicting and awesome to be a part of,” Priester said. “That’s why I’m so excited for this year.”
• • •
Toward the end of the workout, Alek Thomas strapped what was essentially a long cable around his waist.
Priester laughed, dismissing his workout buddy.
“You’re never going to to get on base against me,” Priester said.
Alek Thomas mimicked taking a lead off first base. Greer held the other end of the cable. Priester, a few feet away, acted as if he were holding a runner on.
When Priester started his pitching motion, Alek Thomas bolted as if stealing second. Greer held the other end of the cable, which was designed to help an athlete’s acceleration.
As he walked back for another rep, Alek Thomas said, “You don’t need to be on base when you’re trotting around the bases."
The two have never faced each other in a game. No doubt, they’ll both want the bragging rights if and when they finally do.
Priester has spent almost 50 days this offseason working out with the Thomases. He feels as if he’s in great shape for spring training. He will return to Bradenton in about a month.
“The next step for him is really continuing to build strength and endurance,” Allen Thomas said. “Your main purpose is to get as strong as you can through what you’re going to be doing the rest of your life. This is a professional commitment.”
Priester, Alek Thomas and Greer are all players who went pro right out of high school. They still have a ways to go before they reach the big leagues, if they ever do. Their bodies are still growing, and that’s as much a part of the process as is perfecting a swing or a changeup.
Alek Thomas spent his days growing up around the Sox's clubhouse with his dad.
“He’s seen minor leaguers that had all the potential but never made it because they simply just didn’t work, or their mindset wasn’t there,” Alek Thomas said. “He’s taught me all the variables that you have to have in order to get to the big leagues and stay there.”
They all have that same goal.
“These guys are going to have a chance,” Allen Thomas said. “You can just tell by their work ethic.”