Playing in a major league spring training game is going to be nothing new for Orioles outfield prospect Mike Yastrzemski. He’s played in 30 such games in four different seasons. The difference is that he previously came over from minor league camp. This spring - for the first time in his pro career - he’s in major league camp as a non-roster invitee. He’s got a locker at Ed Smith Stadium.
“Very excited,” Yastrzemski said last week from Nashville, where he trained at his alma mater, Vanderbilt University, again this winter. “Almost a sense of relief. I’ve gone over so many times and felt a part of that camp but not being there. It’s an emotional roller coaster. You’re happy to go over for games, but wish you could be there full time. Now getting a larger part of that is very rewarding.”
Now 28, the 14th-round pick out of Vandy in 2013 is about to enter his seventh season with the organization. He can be a minor league free agent after this season if he doesn’t make the big league roster.
Yastrzemski had parts of both 2016 and 2017 impacted by injuries. He had core and hip labrum surgery entering 2017, but he’s 100 percent now and was throughout last season.
Since 2016, the grandson of Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski has spent time between Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk. He’s watched good friends and fellow outfielders Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins and DJ Stewart get the call to the bigs that he has yet to get.
“It’s a funny thing. Baseball is a business of opportunists,” Yastrzemski said. “When you get the opportunity to strike, you have do it while the iron is hot. You are always happy for guys that get to go up, as you are watching people fulfill their dreams. You also want your own opportunity. It’s an interesting spot because you are still working to get where you want to go, but you’re never going to take away from someone who works in that same realm as you. It’s also inspiring. Because there are chances for people, and to see it happen is really cool.”
Yastrzemski had a somewhat magical first full season of pro ball in 2014, playing at three levels. It started with a stunning 63-game run at Single-A Delmarva. He hit .306 with 14 doubles, 10 triples, 10 homers and a .919 OPS, and he also played at Single-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie before the season was finished.
Each of the past three seasons, he’s produced better numbers for Triple-A Norfolk, with an OPS of .680 in 2016, .739 in 2017 and .801 last year, when he hit .265/.359/.441 with the Tides with a walk rate of 11.8 percent. That was a Triple-A high for Yaz and he generated 126 wRC+ (weighted runs created plus).
“I think I learned how to handle some things on my own (each year at Triple-A),” Yastrzemski said. “Trying to understand my value, which is getting on base and scoring runs. I took that to heart, really tried to take as many walks as I could and make something happen on the basepaths.”
He just kept pushing forward and trying to get better on the farm, even as he dropped off prospect lists and faced the possibility of moving down the depth chart of minor league outfielders in the organization.
“It’s been a huge learning experience,” Yastrzemski said. “There have been some big ups and some big downs. It’s really humbling, to be honest with you, because you see so many times when guys get sent down and they might come with a bad attitude and bad energy, and I took it to heart. First time I got sent back to Double-A, I felt you really need to get some things in check if this is going to be your lifestyle and career. So I tried to be as positive as I could to get better, rather than stay the same or get worse. It was probably for the better that happened. I needed to hold myself more accountable.”
Baseball America ranked Yastrzemski as the Orioles’ No. 9 prospect after the 2014 season and No. 25 a year later. But he then dropped off the list. The O’s minor league staff, however, didn’t stop noticing his work ethic and intensity, and I’ve heard that several of the holdover staffers recommended to the new O’s management that Yastrzemski get this spring invite.
Yaz said he had not heard that, but was thankful.
“I most certainly appreciate it,” he said. “The O’s staff has done so much to help me in my career. Also to help many of my friends, like Trey (Mancini). I can remember one year he was struggling at Frederick and they told him, ‘Hey, no one will feel sorry for you. You have to take control of your own career.’ That put it into perspective for him and he really flourished after that. For them to speak of me in such a way really means a lot.”
So now he heads to Sarasota this week, reporting to the Ed Smith Stadium complex and not Twin Lakes Park. He’s excited to be headed that way, even if he’s not sure that he’ll get much of a look this spring.
“I don’t go into this expecting anything,” Yastrzemski said. “I just look at this as a positive opportunity, and there are new eyes (new coaches), so not going to try and turn someone’s head. Can’t get out of my game and try to hit 10 home runs or something like that. It will be very controlled aggression is the best way to say it.”