In an article that ran here 10 days ago, Chicago White Sox GM Rick Hahn was quoted as saying that people in his role tend to “spend a lot more time trying to unpack what goes wrong, as opposed to examining all the things that may have gone right.”
Danny Mendick fits firmly in the ‘right’ category. Unheralded coming into the 2019 season — he ranked No. 26 on our White Sox Top Prospects list — the 26-year-old infielder earned a September call-up and proceeded to slash .308/.325/.462 in 40 plate appearances. As the season came to a close, Sunday Notes devoted a handful of paragraphs to his Cinderella-like story.
Mendick’s story deserves more than a handful of paragraphs. With the calendar about to flip to 2020, let’s take a longer look at where he came from. We’ll start with words from Hahn.
“When we took him in the 22nd round, as a senior [in 2015], I think we all knew he’d play in the big leagues,” the ChiSox exec said when I inquired about Mendick at the GM Meetings. “OK, no. I’m messing with you. We didn’t know.”
Continuing in a serious vein, Hahn added that the White Sox routinely ask their area scouts to identify “one or two guys they have a gut feel on.” These are draft-eligible players who “maybe don’t stand out from a tools standpoint, or from a notoriety standpoint, but are true baseball players; they play the game the right way and have a positive influence on others.”
In other words, organizational depth. And maybe — just maybe — they will overachieve and one day earn an opportunity at the highest level.
Mendick wasn’t drafted out of high school. Moreover, he didn’t receive any college offers. He initially considered walking on at Niagara, but ultimately ended up playing close to home at Monroe Community College. Late in his sophomore year, the Rochester, New York native caught the eye of UMass-Lowell head coach Ken Harring.
“He was like, ‘We need a shortstop for next year,’” recalled Mendick. “‘Can you come play for us?’ I was like, “Yeah, absolutely.”
Harring’s ability to project talent was akin to that of White Sox scouts two years later. The JUCO infielder who intrigued him was built more like a bat boy than a future big-leaguer.
“Oh god, no,” was Mendick’s response when I asked if he was the same size then as he is now. “I was probably 5′ 7″ and 155-160 pounds. Now I’m about 5′ 10″, 190. I hit a late growth spurt in my junior year of college. That’s when I started to put on muscle, and realize what my body could handle.”
Mendick believes that he first began to get noticed by scouts early in his senior year. Playing on the road against the University of Hartford, the under-the-radar infielder recorded a pair of hits against Sean Newcomb, who would soon be drafted 15th overall by the Angels. It was after that performance that he was first asked to “fill out a few forms.”
Mendick finished his senior season with a .321/.408/.455 slash line, then sat by his computer, waiting to see where he’d go in the draft. As noted in the late-September notes column, he eventually gave up and went golfing. Mendick was on the 15th hole when he got a phone call telling him he’d been taken by the White Sox with the 652nd-overall pick.
Had no phone call come, his baseball days were going to be behind him. Independent ball had little appeal. Mendick majored in Business at UMass-Lowell, and a career in commercial real estate — his father’s line of work — was the backup plan.
Instead, Mendick has found himself living a dream on well-manicured diamonds. His first big-league hit came at Cleveland’s Progressive Field, and while it didn’t leave the infield, it might as well travelled a million miles.
“It was a bunt on an 0-2 count,” recalled Mendick. “I’d pinch-run in my debut, and this was in my first start. It was supposed to be a sacrifice. They put the sign on, I got it down against Zach Plesac, and it ended up working out. Standing on first base, I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ It was pretty cool. Actually, this whole thing is pretty cool. I’m getting paid to play baseball.”
The Cleveland Indians keep coming up with pitchers. More to the point, they keep developing pitchers — the majority of which didn’t enter pro ball with the highest of expectations. None of the four hurlers on the current roster who worked at least 100 innings in 2019 were taken in the earliest rounds of the amateur draft.
Mike Clevinger was a 2011 fourth-round pick acquired via trade (from the Angels, for Vinnie Pestano). Shane Bieber was a fourth-round pick in 2016. Zach Plesac was a 12th-rounder that same year. Adam Plutko was an 11th-rounder in 2013. Another notable is 2016 third-round selection Aaron Civale, who logged a 2.34 ERA in 57-and-two-thirds innings.
Who is next up in Cleveland’s pitching pipeline? According to the club’s president of baseball operations, that’s anyone’s guess — and not because of a lack of quality arms. Rather, few teams in baseball are as proficient when it comes to pitcher development.
“If you’d have asked me at this point last year, I’m not sure I would have identified some of the guys that came up and contributed,” Chris Antonetti said at the Winter Meetings. “So there are a lot of guys who could fit into that bucket. We didn’t even invite Civale and Plesac to major league camp last year, and they ended up being huge contributors. It’s hard to predict who could jump up and take advantage of an opportunity if a need arises, but we feel good about a lot of our [young pitchers], and we’ll continue to try to develop them.”
Mike Chernoff piggybacked on Antonetti’s comments.
“Our whole focus is, ‘How do we provide them the right tools, resources, and environment for them to thrive?,” said Cleveland’s GM. “And we partner with them to succeed. Where they take that is going to be up to the individual player. They help us determine who is going to contribute. Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale took advantage of exactly that. They partnered with us, and worked their tails off. They made themselves options to contribute to the major leagues. We didn’t sit there and say, ‘Oh, these are going to be the guys who go on and contribute.’ Shane Bieber, three years ago. Mike Clevinger. Those guys weren’t who they are now.”
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
Zac Gallen has been bouncing around. A third-round pick by the Cardinals in 2016, the University of North Carolina product was subsequently swapped to the Marlins in December 2017, and last summer he went from Miami to Arizona in exchange for Jazz Chisholm. The Diamondbacks are pleased to have him. Gallen made his MLB debut in June, and proceeded to log a 2.81 ERA, and strike out 96 batters in 80 innings.
I asked Torey Lovullo what makes the 24-year-old right-hander effective.
“He has great mound presence, and sharp stuff, very sharp stuff,” the Arizona manager said at the Winter Meetings. “The ball takes off at different angles at different times late in the hitting zone. And he’s willing to learn. He’s willing to get ahead of things and figure out how to use that stuff to the best of his ability. He’s a great student.”
Lovullo added that Gallen doesn’t want to be just average, he wants to be great. At the same time, the 2017 NL Manager of the Year acknowledged that the former Tarheel is “still a young pitcher, a work in progress.” For that reason, the D-Backs aren’t ready to etch Gallen’s name into the starting rotation just yet. But based on what they saw last season, “he’s going to get some very, very strong consideration.”
It’s unlikely that Gallen will pitch out of the bullpen if he fails to earn a starting job in the spring. Ditto the other contenders for that role.
“Every organization has the five starters and then six, seven, and eight continuing to grow and learn,” Lovullo said when asked about Gallen’s pen possibility. “Starting baseball games in Triple A, I think that’s extremely important. You’re going to go down and get those guys, no doubt. I wouldn’t say anybody that doesn’t make it is going to be sent to the bullpen.”
Pierce Johnson reportedly signed a two-year with the San Diego Padres earlier this week. The 28-year-old right-hander had a 1.38 ERA in 58 relief appearances this year with NPB’s Hanshin Tigers.
Tyler Higgins has signed with NPB’s Orix Buffaloes. The 28-year-old right-hander spent the 2019 season with San Diego’s Triple-A affiliate, which has previously employed Akinori Otsuka as its bullpen coach.
Ryosuke Kikuchi has signed a four-year contract extension with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp. The 29-year-old second baseman had explored a move to MLB, but with no guaranteed offers forthcoming, he’s opting to remain in NPB.
Delmon Young is slashing .326/.379/.616 with a circuit-best seven round-trippers for the Melbourne Aces in the Australian Baseball League. Gift Ngoepe is slashing .318/.403/.530 for the Sydney Blue Sox.
Norm Angelini, a left-handed pitcher who appeared in 28 games for the Kansas City Royals in 1972-1973, died earlier this week. Angelini was 72.
During one of his Winter Meetings media sessions, Orioles Executive VP & General Manager Mike Elias referred to Richard Bleier, Paul Fry, and Tanner Scott as “sort of established left-handed relievers.” Scott’s name piqued my interest. The hard-throwing 25-year-old logged a 4.78 ERA, and walked 19 batters in 26-and-a-third innings last year. Disappointingly, he ended up making more appearances for Triple-A Rochester than he did for the rebuilding Birds.
Not surprisingly, Baltimore’s top executive sees improved command as the 2014 sixth-rounder’s biggest need going forward.
“He’s got two vicious pitches in his breaking ball and his fastball,” Elias said of Scott. “They play almost equally well to lefties and righties. I think he can be a monster reliever with his stuff, but he’s got to throw more strikes. It seems like he’s got nights where he does it, and then nights where he can’t find the rhythm. So yeah, I think you’re right in that he hasn’t established his talent level in the way that he’s capable of.”
Scott’s fastball averaged 96.3 mph last year. His 89.1-mph slider was above average in both horizontal and vertical movement.
A bench coach serves as the manager’s right-hand man, and as a result, the position is often filled by someone the manager knows and trusts. For the Padres and the Pirates, the trust part of that equation has yet to be fully formulated. I learned as much when San Diego’s Jace Tingler, and Pittsburgh’s Derek Shelton, met with the media during the Winter Meetings.
Tingler said the following when asked about Bobby Dickerson:
“I didn’t have any experience with him personally. I saw him from across the field, and I’ve admired him. Obviously, when we had a chance to interview him for the bench coach job, I was coming from winter ball [in the Dominican Republic]. He drove in from the Mexican league and met us. We had dinner. We talked. We did an interview and immediately connected.”
Shelton said the following when asked about Don Kelly:
“I did not know him. I met him for an hour. I watched him play for a lot of years across the field and really liked the way he approached the game. I was fortunate, I talked to A.J. [Preller] about him — A.J. raved about him — and I talked to Jim [Leyland] about him. It was more the fact of who he is as a person, and how bright he is, and the fact that he wants to learn and he wants to grow.”
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
Yuki Yanagita — the only NPB player other than Sadaharu Oh to lead his league in OBP and SLG in four consecutive seasons — has signed a seven-year contract with the SoftBank Hawks, essentially squelching his chances of playing in MLB. Jim Allen has the story at jballallen.com,
At The New York Times, Tyler Kepner took a look at baseball’s fight over the minors, and what it might lose.
At The Detroit News, Lynn Henning wrote about how Randy Smith gave it his best shot while presiding over a turbulent Tigers era.
Sports Illustrated’s Stephanie Apstein addressed how the composition of the baseball may be influencing the game’s economics.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
From 2010-2019, Kansas City Royals batters led the AL in singles and stolen bases. They had the second-most triples and sacrifice hits. They had the fewest home runs, walks, and strikeouts.
The Houston Astros hit 108 home runs in 2010, and 95 home runs in 2011. They hit 288 home runs in 2019.
Don Robinson, a RHP for three teams from 1978-1992, went a combined 14 for 34 (.412) with three home runs against Steve Carlton, Ron Darling, Bruce Hurst, Phil Niekro, JR Richard, Jose Rijo, and Mike Scott.
Nick Esasky had 30 home runs and a 133 adjusted OPS with the Red Sox in 1989. Diagnosed with vertigo the following spring, at age 30, Esasky played just nine more big-league games.
On this date in 1977, Sports Illustrated writer Melissa Ludtke sued MLB, and the New York Yankees, for having been denied access to the clubhouses during the World Series.
Sanford Braun was born on December 30, 1935, in Brooklyn. He later took his stepfather’s surname and became known as Sandy Koufax.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.