Mike Yastrzemski was leaving a poor position — cast as an organizational player and not a true prospect in a system with plenty of outfield options — for one that held promise he hadn’t seen as a professional player.
The ones he left behind were in a strange position: Rooting for a player no longer wearing their jersey.
“I was in big-league camp when it happened,” Gary Kendall, who managed Yastrzemski for parts of five seasons at Double-A Bowie, said over the phone. “I was sad that we were going to be losing a player like that. But I was happy for Mike because I knew that he was going to go out there and play for Bruce Bochy.
“… It was going to be a win-win. Nobody was more happy for Mike than our coaching staff and the players — the likes of a Trey Mancini and Austin Wynns — guys that knew he really went out there and competed day in and day out.”
One year ago today, Yastrzemski left a region of the country his last name was legendary and entered an organization that had a rosier view of his talent. He left a system he had touched every part of — except the top step — for a chance at an easier escalator toward the big leagues. The Giants dealt righty Tyler Herb for an Orioles outfielder who had lost his prospect luster in what appeared to be just another minor shuffle from Farhan Zaidi that has become major for the club and player.
San Francisco had been trying to acquire the falling prospect for months, but it took until toward the end of spring training for Baltimore to start playing its roster numbers game and realize it didn’t have a spot.
The Giants “spent a lot of that offseason looking for outfielders in organizations that were deep with outfielders that might be blocked,” said Zaidi, the president of baseball operations, who said there were other options with Triple-A numbers that were attractive, but the Giants liked Yaz’s well-rounded game. “Even beyond being a really good baserunner — a really good defensive outfielder and obviously [he has] the bloodlines going for him.”
In a mostly lost 2019 season for the Giants, the grandson of Carl Yastrzemski was a find, slashing .272/.334/.518 and emerging as the team’s best hitter and a rare constant in the San Francisco outfield.
Until the coronavirus interrupted the world and baseball season and Giants camp, the 29-year-old sophomore positioned himself as the Giants’ likely Opening Day center fielder, especially after the team optioned Steven Duggar to Triple-A Sacramento last week. He took a chance that wasn’t coming in Baltimore and has not let it escape his grasp.
It all brings so much joy and not that much surprise to Kendall, who managed Yastrzemski in Bowie (Md.) from 2014-18.
“Mike got it. Mike was the type of guy who had one gear,” Kendall said of Yastrzemski, who was promoted to Triple-A Norfolk in ’16, ’17 and ’18 but couldn’t make the final leap. “He showed up every day. As a manager you love those types of guys. There were times left on left, where they were giving him the bunt, he would bunt. He would take an extra base. He was a heads-up player, and you want to see good things happen to a player like that.”
It wasn’t happening in Baltimore, which had to be perplexing for the former Vanderbilt star. The pop he showed last season was not present; before hitting 21 big-league home runs, the most he hammered in the minors in a season was 15. His plate discipline was always strong, finding his way on base even when his bat was failing him, and his defense has always been regarded as a plus.
But as other prospects for a struggling club were touching Camden Yards grass, Yastrzemski’s big break didn’t come until March 23, 2019, when he was traded to a team that believed more in him and that already had shown a willingness to let anyone play his way to the majors. There was not one standout tool — which may have hurt him in a system Zaidi said “still has a bunch of good outfield prospects” — but the Giants liked the all-around package.
There were so many difficult conversations between player and manager that led to Yastrzemski’s chance.
“I had a couple of those players that felt like time was flipping,” said Kendall, whose 2015 Baysox were led by Yastrzemski to an Eastern League championship. “In coaching development, sometimes it’s how you convey your appreciation for what they bring to the table and how they can help a club, what they provide for a team.
“… Mike was the leader. Mike was the guy everybody looked to. There were conversations [about not getting called up], but Mike was never fazed by anything. He believed in his ability, he believed that all his hard work was going to pay off.”
The only times Kendall saw frustration surface were when Yastrzemski’s body failed him, with surgery to a sports hernia and a torn hip labrum following his 2016 season. But when he would get demoted from Triple- to Double-A — as happened in 2017 — Yastrzemski remained level-headed.
The patience eventually paid off, and Yastrzemski is no longer dominating the Eastern League playoffs, hitting .406 to spearhead one title. He’s earning the title of major league player.
“He’s going to try to beat you so many ways, and that’s why the Giants have something special,” Kendall said. “The guy that will lay down a bunt, the guy that’s going to take the extra base. Sometimes those little things add up, and when you have a tight ballgame, they’re huge. Mike was that type of player.”