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Lutz re-signs with Reds amidst Brisbane's playoff run
01/13/2016 11:06 PM ET
Donald Lutz re-signed with the Cincinnati Reds on Wednesday.
Donald Lutz re-signed with the Cincinnati Reds on Wednesday. (SMP Images/ABL Media)

BRISBANE, Qld. - Almost fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, at the tail end of the Australian Baseball League season with the first-place Brisbane Bandits, proudly presented by WellDog, Donald Lutz is headed back into familiar territory.

The 26-year-old outfielder re-signed with the Cincinnati Reds on Wednesday after spending the last eight years with the same organisation that took him out of Germany as a free agent wildcard and turned him into a big leaguer.

"It's cool," Lutz said. "I appreciate all the work they've done for me and I've got a good relationship with them. They've always treated me well, from Day 1 when I came in 2007, and it's a good group, with good leadership, and I'm just excited to go back there…

"I was talking to other teams and for this year this is the best option. They [have moved] a lot of players and I'm comfortable with them, so hopefully it will open up an opportunity during the year…I'm glad they're still interested in me and they still like me, so this should be a good year."

Last season, one throw from left field to home at the end of April put a temporary halt to Lutz's career. He was playing for Cincinnati's Triple-A affiliate, the Louisville Bats, against the Clippers in Columbus, and after an attempt to make an out at the plate, he was left with few choices.

"It was probably one of the best throws I've ever made because I let it rip," Lutz said. "Usually guys feel a pop right away, but I just felt a little weird a couple minutes after. So I went to my buddy, who's a pitcher, and said, 'Hey man, check my elbow real quick.' They do a test, push it in, and all of a sudden it hurt so bad. I could tell it was messed up.

"I was up that inning so I didn't tell anyone. I had to get one more at-bat, and after my at-bat I came out and told my manager that was it. The next day we drove back to Cincinnati and got my MRI and [my ulnar collateral ligament] was torn about 90 per cent or something pretty good.

"Then the doctor gave me the option - he said I could try to rehab for three or four months, let it scar over and go from there - and then it could be good to go or it could still rip at any point again. It was so early that I knew I would be 100 per cent again for spring training [with surgery] so I said, 'Let's just get it out of the way.'"

The decision wasn't an easy one for the American-born native of Germany, who had hopes of another call-up to the majors after spending time there during both of the previous seasons, but also knowing that the sooner the procedure could be done, the more quickly he could return. 

"For my career it was probably the smartest thing to get it out of the way and be ready for spring training," Lutz said. "About a month later they called me and they had to take me off the [40-man] roster…It wasn't too bad because my contract and everything was still good and it was my last year so I wouldn't have played anyway.

"It sounded really bad and I appreciated everybody calling me but I told them either way I'm not going to play this year and I'll be in the same situation where I have to go into spring training somewhere and make a team. It was just a bummer that I couldn't play this summer. It really hurt."

Lutz made his return to the field with the Bandits in November, taking over the role of the team's designated hitter on its run to the first post-season berth the squad has seen in the six-year history of the revamped ABL, and has three home runs and 10 doubles through 19 games so far.

With the option to play winter ball in Mexico or return to the land down under, where he played club baseball with the Windsor Royals for years of off-seasons to help his development, the 6-foot-3, 240-pound slugger believes it has been exactly what he needed.

"It has helped me a lot," Lutz said. "It was one of the reasons why I actually chose to come here, because for me right now it was more important to get in the right mental state for spring instead of going to Mexico and playing there.

"Here, it's like playing with good, old friends, and it's like a big family here. They treat me well and I'm just enjoying being here, so that was the best option to get ready for spring because the rehab process was tough, sitting there for nine months out of the game."

Getting his start in baseball later than most, Lutz travelled a very different path from the beginning. After being signed by Reds scout Jim Stoeckel and getting his first professional experience in the Fall Instructional League, he ventured back and forth between pro ball in the States and developing during his winters playing low-leverage competitive games in the Greater Brisbane League, continually gaining a greater understanding of the road he'd chosen.

 "I didn't start playing until I was 15 or 16," Lutz said. "I played ice hockey for a long time and I remember at some point, it got too expensive for my family. I tried out baseball and picked it up late. I started playing with a junior team and made the national team the first year. The next year I was on the senior national team and went to a World Cup and people saw me.

"A scout came up to me and said, 'How would you like to play pro ball?' I thought, yeah why not? That's pretty cool. I had no idea about anything. I remember when I signed I thought I was going straight to Double-A or Triple-A, I didn't know about all the levels and extended spring training and all that stuff, so I was a little shocked when I got there."

It wasn't long before Lutz was living a dream he never knew he had, eventually figuring out where his level of talent fit among his peers.

"I didn't really dream it until I almost got there," he said. "Once I got to the States and realised I could hang with those guys, and I had certain stuff that some guys didn't have - I had power and speed - and I thought okay, I can hang with them, and I realized it was a lot of fun."

On April 29, 2013, Lutz became the first German-born-and-developed player to reach the highest level of the game when he made his debut with the Reds. Though he didn't feel the weight of the impact immediately, he was proud to have the support of an entire nation behind him.

"It was pretty cool," Lutz said. "It wasn't a huge deal. It was cool obviously, and I was aware of it, and of course I'm proud of it, but it wasn't a distraction or anything. It was cool because I knew all of Baseball Germany was behind me. I remember I had to turn my phone off before games because it was just too crazy, but it was really exciting. It's definitely unbelievable."

Hoping to see more young athletes venture off the beaten path and explore the option that baseball might give them, Lutz is excited about the way the game is developing and the level of interest he's seen firsthand from his home country.

"I feel like baseball is growing in Europe definitely," Lutz said. "I would say especially in Germany…I know in Italy, Spain, Holland, they're already playing at a pretty highly competitive level, and Germany is getting there too. They're starting to play more games and the level is getting a little better.

"I actually went back this year and watched my big brother play his last couple of games in Germany. There's better coaching, and what was amazing was just going to the field and seeing little kids playing catch around the sides. I remember it wasn't like that probably seven years ago. Now little kids are getting into it early and that's really important to have the youth involved, to have somebody coming up."

Giving those young players something to aspire to, Lutz is happy to currently be on the field with a squad making a run for the Claxton Shield before returning to the only organisation he's ever known.

"I'm excited to go back to spring training and show them what I've got," Lutz said. "The good thing with them is that they know what I can do, so I think it will be a little less stressful. I can just go in there and do my thing. Of course I have to prove myself again and show that I'm healthy, but it should be fun. I'm always looking forward to new challenges, and it's going to be a good one."

This story was not subject to the approval of the Australian Baseball League or its clubs.