Tampa, FL- He did that right? Well, he’s on third now and so, yeah, he must’ve stolen third, after stealing second. And now, there he is, crossing the plate.
If Jorge Mateo’s on the field, don’t blink. You might miss something.
That end-of-April moment was a reminder of the final weeks of the 2015 season, when Mateo was promoted to High-A Tampa. There were few games for the top Yankees prospect to make an impression. But in that short amount of time, he did. Mateo brimmed with charisma, and that raw, exciting pure talent that you imagine more polished in the near future. We predict big, magical things. Nobody knows, of course, but Mateo’s certainly inciting excitement throughout the Yankees organization.
In that April contest, a good old manufactured run came across the plate, a mix of a fine hit and those two stolen bases. Mateo easily scored the run. It’s the advantage of a player who’s not just fast on the bases, but smart about it. His confidence at the plate is there, but still growing. His confidence on the base paths doesn’t seem to waver.
Mateo’s mix of flash and instinct, pure athleticism, and unbridled energy always draw the eye. There are moments where the potential and possibility, just the way he moves, crackle with electricity. Other times, the roughness is apparent. You can see him figuring it out.
Just a couple of weeks earlier, in the home opener, he’d sometimes looked overmatched by a fastball that ran up in the zone on him. He never quite solved the pitching that night, but he was active defensively, showing strong command of his position. Similar to 2015, the flash is center stage, but there’s also defensive improvement from then to now. Late in the opener, he exhibited a slightly more patient approach. He swung at the high pitch again, but laid off when Lakeland pitcher Tyler Alexander took some off for an 81 mph pitch. Mateo followed that up by chasing another off-speed offering and flied out. He didn’t look like he had a plan against Alexander and he didn’t execute. His body language gave a lot away, his confidence lacking a bit. He came away 0-4 on the night with an error. As an aside, that game was a follow-up to an opening day game on the road that he lit up, with a triple, two RBI, two runs scored, plus (surprised?) a stolen base.
“In my first year in 2014 as GCL 2 manager, Jorge was on GCL 1,” said Tampa manager Patrick Osborn. “The first day of Spring Training, you knew right away that this is a very special talent.”
Osborn talked about how quickly he stood out from the pack. But he also acknowledged this is early in the developmental path for a guy who has potential to be an impact player.
With all that in mind, the task of helping guide a player with that advanced talent, who’s still very raw, and highly regarded, becomes a balancing act. When asked about harnessing the energy, and shaping it into helping him be a more complete player, Osborn agreed that’s the key.
“You’re exactly right. It’s tricky, because you don’t want to take that away from them. We’re not in this business to change kids. You have to let them be themselves. At the same time, you’re harnessing that. Sometimes the flair and the flashiness can affect his consistency. It’s a happy medium you’ve got reach,” he said.
Part of the process is helping him to repeat his mechanics daily in order for him to make accurate throws. He’s still working to reach that happy medium, and it’s obvious when he makes the play to first. Sometimes there’s a little too much performance, and the precision of the throw is compromised. But more often than not this year, he’s slowing down, setting himself, and making the play.
Hitting coach Tom Slater talked about Mateo’s wow factor last season, when he’d come up from Charleston after playing 96 games for the Low-A ball club. He’d left that level behind with 98 hits, 33 RBI, and 36 walks to his name. In 21 games with Tampa, he's added 27 more hits, 7 RBI, with 15 runs scored. And he used those wheels often in Charleston, ending the stint with 71 stolen bases. He added to that tally with 11 more for Tampa. It’s all the little things that he can do that have most impressed Slater.
“Whether it’s a good day at the plate or a bad day, he’s really doing a nice job of contributing; regardless of how many hits he has that day,” he said.
The Yankees signed Mateo as a non-drafted free agent out of the Dominican Republic in January 2012. The careful development process began. He debuted in 2012 in the DSL and played there again in 2013. Having played just fifteen games in the Rookie level Gulf Coast League in 2014, he entered 2015 unproven as a competitor through a full season, against experienced opponents. If maturity was a concern, Osborn gave high marks to Mateo’s level of focus. He’s smart, he said. But the Yankees, as well as his minor league coaches, understand that there’s a sensitivity required to keep developing his mentality and drive. He’s a kid who idolized Derek Jeter so much that he wears number 2 in his honor.
“Keeping him going about his business, doing the work the right way is going to be our main focus with him,” Osborn said.
As an example of going about his business, Slater recalled a game in Port Charlotte against the Stone Crabs, when Mateo made a ninth-inning play, with Tampa up by two runs. Slater couldn’t recall if he had a hit or not that day, but it was his ability to “lock in,” he said, that really knocked him out. He was a teammate playing at full capacity, despite whatever struggles he was having at the plate, despite the lead. He took a hit away from a guy, and that small thing showed Slater a level of maturity beyond Mateo’s 20 years.
Neither Osborn or Slater voiced any big concerns about his hitting. He’s hitting to all fields and excelling at situational hitting, according to both men. Slater reiterated the point that even when he’s not doing a lot, he’s creating results.
“The one night he had just the one hit, but he had five quality at-bats. He’s off the charts naturally talented. “
Osborn echoed that sentiment in April, that while it’s still early in Mateo’s development, there’s already so much to like, particularly looking ahead to when he reaches the majors.
“It’s going to be fun watching him. It’s also going to be fun helping him because he’s got a long way to go. But the ability he’s been blessed with is very special. He’s a guy who could possibly be an impact player at the big-league level,” said Osborn.
That potential was clear in a different game in April, when he made another memorable steal that had direct impact; this time, he stole home. After an excellent at-bat, in which he worked the count in his favor resulting in a walk, he took a chance, stealing second and third. But the risk seemed low, the way he seemed to glide by the glove, getting by the infielders, brazen, certain.
There’s a theme, yes. Every damn thing he does is fast.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a faster baseball player,” Slater said.
When asked to qualify that, he repeated the observation.
“For me, fastest guy I’ve seen.”
As the start of the season winded down, Tampa and the Brevard County Manatees faced off in a Double-header. Mateo played in both games and funny enough, the word “speed” showed up in conversation about him again. Osborn described the growing sense that Mateo’s development was something fans might want to hurry.
“It’s a unique situation because he’s so gifted. He’s got so many tools. People want it to speed up and see guys in the big leagues soon. But that’s not always the case,” he said.
Mateo struggled against Kodi Medeiros in Game 1, jumping on the second pitch of his first at-bat and flying out. Medeiros was working quickly and effectively with a mid-90s fastball, and mixing in off-speed stuff that Tampa’s offense chased. He was getting a nice helping of groundball outs and inducing a lot of free swinging. He got Mateo out again, but the shortstop showed more patience in his next two plate appearances. He worked the at-bats, recognizing Medeiros’ stuff down in the zone as a ball, fouling off a 91 mph fastball, and getting a good look at everything he had to offer. He’d receive a gift after tapping it for an easy groundout, and the ball was misplayed. And then he went to work, stealing a base, which led to him scoring a run on a Billy Fleming RBI-single.
He didn’t look great at the plate that game, but it was his defense that stood out, proving Slater’s earlier point that he always finds a way to contribute. Whatever he lacked that day, he found a way to do something. His power of observation in third inning helped him make a quick, but difficult play to first. There was no flash, just precision. It wasn’t just the challenge of the play, or what he does, but how. Later, he made a fairly routine play, but with the shadows in play, it looked tough. He took his time and somehow made it look easy.
Perhaps most interesting was the second game of the day, when a cat and mouse game unfolded between the opposing team’s starting pitcher and Mateo. Mateo’s confidence doesn’t allow for many mistakes. He’s trusted in this capacity, as Slater explained. Mateo knows he’s being held and he fearlessly challenges pitchers. Angel Ventura’s eyes kept darting to Mateo, who threatened with a considerable distance from the first base bag. There was a throw over once, then another. Ventura’s eyes narrowed, as he peered over his shoulder, his sneaky move was sharp, and only got sharper. Mateo took too big of a chance and Ventura finally got him. The tag was obvious to the eye, but Mateo wasn’t impressed, as his emotions spilled over, and he began yelling at the umpire, confrontational, loud, but beaten, for sure. Osborn argued for him, but that ended quickly.
Earlier that day, Osborn actually spoke about how Mateo’s handled himself when things don’t go his way.
“I’ve seen him handle himself better when he’s failed. Every young player wants to succeed every time they’re up there. But he’s shown improvement handling his failures. When you’re young it’s tough. He wants to be perfect."
Mateo lost the battle that night. But strangely, it didn’t feel like anything was different about him doing something right or wrong on the field. He was still exciting to watch, as he failed, and when he’s not been “perfect”, he’s often doing something that’s seemingly small, but adds up to a lot. There’s something special about that. Osborn saw it then and anyone can see it now.
“All that stuff is coming, and it’s coming fast.”
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