For a decade or so after it opened, First Energy Park would host the circus during a long, late-summer Lakewood BlueClaws away trip. It was a nice little local traveling circus setup; First Energy has a big parking lot and until recent suburban development, was located a few miles into the middle of nowhere, in the depths of an industrial park off the highways. For whatever reason, the circus stopped coming a few years ago.
The circus returned this past week. The ringleader was a former Heisman Trophy winner, one of the greatest players in college football history, trying his hand at minor-league baseball in much the same way that Michael Jordan did over two decades ago. It was presented by the Columbia Fireflies, but really by the parent club New York Mets. Over three days and four games, more than 23,000 folks came to see Tim Tebow try to hit baseballs.
I can’t explain why so many people showed up to see Tim Tebow hit baseballs; coastal New Jersey may be one of the least college football-friendly markets in the country, with the only major local team representation coming from perennial doorstop Rutgers. Tebow’s professional stints with two local teams, the New York Jets and the Philadelphia Eagles, were both wildly unsuccessful. Yet here were thousands upon thousands coming to see a 29-year-old famous person take batting practice, sign autographs, do warm-up stretches, sign autographs, play against guys up to 11 years younger than him, and sign even more autographs.
What did they see? I genuinely don’t even know how to evaluate Tebow as a prospect. He’s 29 in Low-A, but his “baseball age” is probably closer to some of the recently-drafted prep guys he was playing with. Jeffrey Paternostro and I were batting around comparisons, and came up with everything from “two-way high school player drafted as a pitcher and converted to a hitter after blowing out” (read: Stetson Allie) to “Cuban toolbox gets held up in the defection process for years” (read: older Andy Ibanez) to “super-athlete from non-baseball country is discovered late” (read: Rinku Singh, but a hitter).
He is certainly a super athlete, a point I made when he was signed but is even more noticeable when he’s lined up next to baseball prospects who get noted for their athleticism, like Desmond Lindsay. Tebow is tall and built like an Adonis, the type of body that rarely ends up in baseball and stands out when it does.
At the plate, there’s actually aspects of this to like. Tebow has legitimate plus raw power, and puts on a show in batting practice that eclipses most of his teammates, several of whom are legitimate prospects. (Of course, the guy usually putting on the other big batting practice show for Columbia is Brandon Brosher, backup catcher and former 36th-round pick. It’s batting practice.) During games, Tebow will display quality bat speed but little barrel control, leading to a lot of off-balance contact. He has little to no feel for spin, and his swing is long enough that he’s also beaten easily by premium velocity.
He’d be something of an interesting offensive prospect if he were 10 years younger simply due to the body and raw power, along the lines of players like Micker Adolfo and Jose Pujols who get a bunch of chances to see if they can learn how to hit. At 29, it’s hard to say how the physicality holds up long enough for the rest of the hitting profile to develop, if there even is that possibility of development.
Complicating things is a weird truth: Tebow can’t throw or field a baseball at all. He might be a legitimate 20-grade arm, and he’s definitely a 20-grade outfielder. Now, if you watched the guy in the NFL, you’re probably not surprised, given how he threw the football and his occasional forays into trying to catch it, but I really expected an average or above-average arm out of him. Instead it’s an inaccurate rainbow machine. His mechanics throwing a baseball look every bit as off as his mechanics throwing a football were, and then some.
He also showed terribly in the outfield on defense overall, repeatedly failing to get to balls typically caught by the left fielder, and booting several of those which he got to. Were this a serious prospect situation, I would implore the Mets to start getting him time at first base, which is the only position I give him any shot at handling, but that’s not really what we’re doing here.
What is happening is that a heck of a lot of people up and down the Atlantic seaboard are coming to see minor-league baseball because of Tebow, and that’s undeniably a good thing. And Tebow, despite his lack of experience and long swing and inability to hit old no. 2, has been something close to a league-average hitter for the level. It would be one thing if Tebow were embarrassing himself out there, but he’s more than competitive at the plate. Based on our observations from the stands, he also seemed to be a leader on the field, encouraging and bantering with his younger teammates. If there’s real value being returned to the Mets here past the financial incentives, it’s probably in impact on young prospects.
The biggest thing I’ve been pondering over the past few days is whether Tebow has a major-league future. It goes without saying that given all of my above observations on his talent, he won’t make the majors on merit. Yet reports have been flying around for some time that the Mets plan on not just making Tebow a midseason promotion, but skipping him a level to Double-A—past High-A Port St. Lucie, which is not only just a couple hours from the heart of Tebow Country, but also a team-owned affiliate. You’d only make that move if you were actually trying to get Tebow to the majors, right?
The Mets don’t just put any circus in the Citi Field parking lot. They have put Cirque du Soleil out there, though. Tebow in the majors would be, like Cirque, the biggest circus of them all—and yet I’m increasingly convinced the Mets are going to try to put together a resume to make Tebow a vaguely palatable September call-up, especially as the 2017 season spins further and further out of control.