Kaleb Cowart was on a dead-end path, the Angels third base prospect struggling so much at double-A Arkansas in 2014 that he abandoned switch-hitting, considered moving to the mound and was demoted to Class-A Inland Empire to start 2015.
Cowart’s career has taken another surprising turn, this one more scenic: from triple-A Salt Lake to the Angels lineup for Tuesday night’s 5-3 victory over the Chicago White Sox in Angel Stadium.
“I honestly can’t put it into words,” Cowart said of his emotions. “From how I struggled the past two years, to coming here … there were times when I never thought this day would come. It’s an incredible feeling.”
When Cowart, 23, learned he would replace Conor Gillaspie, who was designated for assignment, he called his parents and girlfriend.
His third call was to Inland Empire hitting coach Brent Del Chiaro, whose late-night counseling sessions and hitting tutorials helped Cowart regain the approach, timing and confidence that made him one of the organization’s top prospects.
“He told me he had goose bumps,” Cowart said of Del Chiaro. “He was extremely excited for me.”
A first-round pick in 2010 out of Cook High in Adel, Ga., Cowart had a big year at Class-A Cedar Rapids and Inland Empire in 2012, hitting .276 in 135 games with 16 home runs, 31 doubles and 103 runs batted in.
But Cowart hit .221 with six home runs, 42 RBIs and 124 strikeouts in 132 games at double A in 2013. He remained at Arkansas in 2014 and hit .223 with six home runs, 54 RBIs and 99 strikeouts in 126 games.
A strong-armed defender, Cowart toyed with the idea of pitching.
“It’s something that always crept into your mind when you struggle for two years,” he said, “but I never got there.”
He gave up switch-hitting last season, figuring it would be easier to fix one bad swing than two. He was left off the 40-man roster last off-season, but no one selected him in the Rule 5 draft.
“That was the low point,” Cowart said. “Nobody picked me up. Why would they?”
The Angels acquired another third base prospect, Kyle Kubitza, from Atlanta, and Cowart was sent to Inland Empire. Cowart’s career was going backward.
“We wanted him in an environment where he could create some confidence,” farm director Bobby Scales said. “We thought he could kick-start his career, hit the reset button.”
Del Chiaro helped Cowart find the right key stroke. The two lived in the same Redlands apartment complex, and Cowart would often text the coach after games in April and May, asking to come over to talk, to vent, to listen and learn.
The two pulled up video from the spring of 2013, when Cowart was going well, and noticed differences in his swing. Cowart reverted to his old stance, moving his hands farther away from his body, standing more upright and refining his toe tap.
“I had a problem with my timing,” Cowart said. “I was getting my foot down super early and becoming stagnant. It was causing me to be even more late. Now I’ve incorporated more of a small leg kick that allows me to be on time more often.”
Though Cowart hit .242 in 51 games at Inland Empire, he began to feel more comfortable. The promotion of Kubitza to the Angels in June created a vacancy at triple A, and the Angels filled it with Cowart, who hit .323 with six home runs and 45 RBIs in 62 games at Salt Lake.
“It was a struggle the first couple months,” said Cowart, who resumed switch-hitting this season. “There were a lot of 2 a.m. conversations [with Del Chiaro]. We finally figured something out that clicked.”
Cowart was hitless in three at-bats Tuesday night. Third baseman David Freese (broken right index finger) appears a week or two from returning, and Manager Mike Scioscia said Cowart will play regularly in his absence.
“This kid has great makeup — he’s a grinder, a blue-collar player with a lot of skill,” Scioscia said. “He plays premium defense and runs well. If his bat starts to mature the way we think it can, we’re going to have a really good player.”
Right-hander Jered Weaver (4-9, 4.60 ERA) will oppose White Sox right-hander Jeff Samardzija (8-8, 4.78) on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Angel Stadium. TV: FS West; Radio: 830, 1330.