AFL focus, part 1 - Danny Mendick

“Sox fans: the future is bright and hot like the Arizona sun in the middle of June. Just be patient a little longer. #KillerZs #AZL”

Before you start with the “Captain Obvious” remarks, I sent that bold, 130-character statement into the Twitterverse in the summer of 2015 when I was midway through a fun season covering the Arizona League (AZL) White Sox for FutureSox. The rookie level club, diverse in age, experience, and nationality, was a team of grinders. You know the type: overlooked, undervalued, plays hard, works harder, and never loses sight of the goal. As a fan, you always root for them; as a player, you want them on your team because you know they’ll find a way to win.

Manager Mike Gellinger, pitching coach Felipe Lira, and hitting coach Gary Ward led that team of winners to the final game of the season. The championship game featured a couple kids who were drafted in June and who shined bright when their team needed them the most: a 19-year-old starting pitcher, and an 18-year-old first-baseman who was among the youngest in the league. Chris Comito was brilliant in his 5-innings pitched against a relatively experienced AZL Mariners lineup, and in a one-run game, Corey Zangari was equal to the moment as he made the catch in foul territory giving his team the championship and Comito the win.  Hope was on its way!

As much fun as it was in the Arizona League, life was different back then for White Sox fans in Chicago. They cheered for a Robin Ventura-led team that played their games at “The Cell”; the starting rotation included a few lefthanders – John Danks, Jose Quintana, and Chris Sale, and a right-handed shark – Jeff Samardzija; the outfield was patrolled by guys named Melky and Spanky (Cabrera, Adam Eaton) and the clubhouse was still a welcoming environment for Adam LaRoche and his son. Sadly, the team was on its way to a third consecutive losing season; its 6th since winning it all in 2005. Not fun. Not easy for a loyal fan base.

General Manager Rick Hahn would add and subtract from the roster in Chicago, but nothing signaled a sea change until the Winter Meetings in 2016. That’s when mild-mannered brainiac GM Rick Hahn introduced the world to his alter ego, Wrangler Rick the Prospect Hoarder. Armed with a lasso custom made of waxed red thread, by Rawlings just for him, and rusty spurs loud enough to announce his arrival. Wrangler Rick appeared twice in three days that December, and though Sox nation was on high alert for his return throughout the season, the first jingle-jangle-well, you know, was heard as the trade deadline neared. From then, Wrangler Rick was reeling in prospects in loud succession, like a fireworks finale on the fourth of July. That’s the kind of flashy, over-the-top, brag-to-your-friends-at-recess-about kind of moves that this fan base has been waiting for and deserved.

But here’s the thing: even without Wrangler Rick’s shiny new additions, help was already heading north on Hope Highway. The best kind of help too – homegrown. It doesn’t get any better than watching the major league debut of a player drafted / signed and developed by the same organization. And, as they prove each June, the White Sox area scouts are very good at finding smart, talented athletes who check their egos at the door, do anything to help the team win, and will never be out-worked. They know what it takes to win, and they do it. It is impossible to not be excited about a team like that; a team like the AZL White Sox, with grinders like shortstop Danny Mendick.

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GRINDERS ARE COMING BACK TO GLENDALE

When the White Sox announced who they were sending to the Arizona Fall League in 2017, I was thrilled that Danny Mendick and Seby Zavala were coming back to Glendale. I’ve watched them develop since they were drafted. I was at the 3rd game of the AZL season when Mendick, a kid who was raised in and played baseball in the cold, hit his first career home run in 110-degree heat… at 8 o’clock at night. We'll talk more about Zavala's AFL campaign in a future article - for now, we are focused on Mendick.

I understand the confusion among some fans. After the flashy new additions Wrangler Rick reeled in, some were hoping to see NAMES. Do you remember watching Fernando Tatís Jr. with Zangari, Zavala and Mendick during the Fall Instructional League (Instructs) 2015? I do. That was good, homegrown talent on one field. But now Tatís is with the Padres and the Sox fans have James Shields – a NAME.

Don’t sleep on homegrown guys.

group-2015Moving along…

ARIZONA FALL LEAGUE  

The Arizona Fall League (AFL) is often referred to as the “finishing school for prospects” and is a product of Major League Baseball. For players who meet the eligibility requirements, it is also an option to make up plate appearances or innings pitched that were lost during the season.

For more details on the AFL and how it works, you can go here. The White Sox contingent plays for the Glendale Desert Dogs, in the West Division. There is an All Star game component to the league as well, called the Fall Stars.

**FALL STARS GAME SELECTION CLARIFICATION:  To avoid confusion as well as unwarranted attacks against anyone on the Fall League staff: the participants in the annual Fall Stars Game are pre-selected by the parent club. The White Sox chose left handed pitcher Jace Fry to represent the organization, but he did not appear in the game. There are two spots (one on each of the East and the West rosters) for the fans to vote on. The field staff is determined by the team leader in each division by a specified date, usually one week before the game. As a foreshadowing of the championship game match-up, the staff from Peoria and Mesa led the West and East teams respectively, with the East scoring 3 in the bottom of the 8th and winning 4-2. The line-ups are also predetermined and no longer in the hands of each division manager.

GLENDALE DESERT DOGS

Each MLB organization is represented by 7 players on a roster at one time. The White Sox assigned a total of 8 including Mendick and Zavala: Pitchers Dylan Covey, Matt Foster, Jace Fry, and Connor Walsh, and outfielders Tito Polo and Charlie Tilson, who filled Polo’s spot in late October.

Playing time is distributed as evenly as possible. However, roster spots occupied by those who missed innings or at-bats during the regular season or who are transitioning to a new position are the priority at their position. Glendale’s shortstop duties were split evenly between Mendick and the Pirates’ Kevin Kramer.

The Desert Dogs play their home games in the stadium at Camelback Ranch and rotate the use of home dugouts and clubhouses as they do in the other shared facilities (Surprise, Salt River and Peoria). Unfortunately for this year’s Glendale team, 2017 was their turn to use the Dodgers 3rd base / spring training home dugout, which thanks to its south-facing position, is like sitting on the face of the sun during day games in October/November. Never mind the fact that there is little respite from the sun anywhere in the stadium, at least the 1st base / White Sox home dugout faces east and is the best option for eventual shade. A physical setting made even worse as there were only day games played in Glendale this season. The only team – and location – without a night game at home was, ironically, the one it would have benefited the most.

TEAM STATS:  The final team numbers for Glendale include the production from prospects in the White Sox, Dodgers, Indians, Phillies, and Pirates organizations. If the Desert Dogs finished the season in the top half of the 6-team league, their rank is indicated below. Glendale finished strong, with a 7-game winning streak and weren’t eliminated from winning the West until the final days of the fall.

glendale

Hitting – and power-hitting, at that – was popular everywhere in 2017, and the Arizona Fall League was no exception. As you’ll see, both Mendick and Zavala represented the organization and the area scouts who recommended / signed them (Joel Grampietro & George Kachigian) exceptionally well. High-A Winston-Salem hitting coach Charlie Poe agrees.

Charlie Poe knows a little something about the White Sox farm system. Drafted by Chicago in the 6th round of the 1990 draft out of West Covina High School, California he played for 6 years before moving on to Oakland and San Diego. As a coach / manager “C-Poe” as he’s better known, is an instant favorite of everyone he meets. Mention his name and fans throughout baseball will smile and share the impact he’s made on their lives. C-Poe spent a week in Glendale this fall, not on the field but in the stands with other club personnel watching their guys perform. Mendick spent the first half of 2017 with him before being named to the Carolina League All Star Game and then promoted to AA Birmingham.

“They [Seby and Danny] put themselves on the map this year with how they produced at Winston-Salem. In order to be successful in the Carolina League, you must be successful putting the ball in play.” Poe explains, “We work on hitting the ball hard up the middle consistently, then hitting high line drives, consistently, and if we do those things, consistently, the home runs take care of themselves.”

Watching how the boys took batting practice, the positioning of their hands, especially on pitches that were mid-away, was one area C-Poe monitored. He was very pleased with what he saw. “Mendick responded really well; great job."

DANNY MENDICK   

mendick-2    mendick-3

Matt Cassidy of FutureSox wrote a great piece on Mendick and his adventurous past couple years. One paragraph explains Mendick and his path better than a million words ever could. Matt writes, “The Barons still have a handful of games to finish, then it's on to Arizona for Danny. There he's going to face some very tough arms, but also get some time in the spotlight. He won't be the guy getting the most attention there, but that's a position he's familiar with.”

If you aren’t familiar with Mendick’s adventurous 2016 season, here’s a quick recap: he appeared in games at 3 levels (Low-A, High-A, Triple-A) and was assigned to a different level 8 times in three months with the bulk of it during a 3-week-period at the end of June.  He was in a state of flux more than he was in North Carolina. Even if baseball players weren’t already creatures of habit, this certainly showed that along with everything, Danny has mastered the soft skill of adapting-on-the-fly, as his production varied very little. Commendable especially as it was his first full professional season.  Matt Cassidy tells Mendick’s story in detail - give it a read.

So, how did the former UMass-Lowell River Hawk do in the AFL? Let’s take a look below, with his team rank noted below:

mendick-alone

For a broader look, with a breakdown of games played at the shortstop position, here’s how the top producing players (identified as SS) fared offensively. Glendale’s shortstops are highlighted.

mendick-ss

TOP 3 PRODUCTIVE GAMES:

mendick-8

3) November 16 at Salt River Rafters, playing 3rd base. Final game of the fall. Went 3-for-5, scored 2 runs and drove in one. He led off the 4th inning in a way that is quintessentially Danny: hit a grounder to 3rd and he was bustin’ his you-know-what to first, as always and he was called safe on a really – really – close play. It’s easy to take that kind of hustle for granted. Mendick sets the standard high for his performance and he meets it every time he takes the field. Here is some video of Danny from that game:

2) November 11 at Scottsdale Scorpions playing shortstop. Went 2-for-4 including his 4th double of the campaign, scored 2 runs and drove in 2 more. What you won’t see in the box score is the distraction he is to the pitchers when he’s on base. He’s smart about when he attempts to snag an extra bag and the pitchers who’ve faced him during the regular season know it. It’s just enough to keep them off balance, giving the hitter behind him a better opportunity to get on base. He didn’t steal a base this game, but it felt like he did.

1) October 26 at Surprise Saguaros, only game playing 2nd base. Went 2-for-4, including a home run off Cardinals righthander Jordan Hicks, with 2 runners on base, and even stole his 3rd base of the fall. In March, the White Sox will travel to Surprise to play the Rangers and Royals one time each. If I were Rick Renteria and company, I’d add Danny to the traveling squad.

Here’s the video of his home run, thanks to Will Boor (MLB Pipeline/ MLB.com) for the footage.  Exit velocity 105.

HIS SEASON IN CHARTS

Many thanks to Daren Willman / BaseballSavant.com for the charts.

danny-chart

Prior to the AFL Championship Game, Director Steve Cobb announced the finalists, and presented awards to the winners, of two awards. Danny Mendick was announced as a finalist for the Dernell Stenson Sportsmanship Award and though the winner was Eric Filia from the Mariners, Mendick should feel proud being a finalist. The award was created in 2004 in memory of former AFL player Dernell Stenson, who died during the previous Fall League season. According to the AFL, “One player is selected who best exemplifies Stenson's character on and off the field: unselfishness, hard work and leadership.” Congratulations to Danny, to the recipient Eric Filia and to the other nominees. May winning the Stenson Award be the goal of every player, each fall league season.

During the pregame festivities, I caught up with an area scout I hadn’t seen in a couple years. We paused to hear the Stenson finalists, and when Mendick’s name was announced, the veteran evaluator said,

“I saw Mendick the summer before he was drafted, liked him a lot. He’s worked his ass off for every opportunity. You know what else I remember about him? He was always smiling. Classy lookin’ kid, too. Like he could be a CEO of a company. He’d be dangerous too; like a stealth grinder. His competitors wouldn’t expect him to be so tough, but he is…he’s a grinder.  Saw him a few times this week, and he’s the same. Still smiling. Good defense, good bat, good on the bases. Good hustle.”

I assumed he was elaborating because he knew of my connection with Danny. He did not. He was just giving me an honest evaluation, and I was delighted to be wrong.

Danny is a fan favorite everywhere he goes. He has a business degree from UMass-Lowell and a blue-collar work ethic from his parents. He is kind, light-hearted, and respectful; he’s also quick to smile and make eye contact with fans, teammates and members of the media. And, if that isn’t enough to win over even the biggest curmudgeon, his uniform is always clean… until the umpire yells “play ball!”

Want another reason why fans in Glendale, Kannapolis, Winston-Salem, Birmingham, and Charlotte are rooting for him? Ask Tiffany Wintz, a great fan in the Carolina League (and occasional photo contributor to FutureSox). She loves the game, knows the players and is pretty good at picking good ones to follow. She checked in with me as soon as the AFL rosters were announced. Her excitement that both Mendick and Zavala were given the opportunity to make their mark on a bigger stage was tempered only by the fact that their draft cohort - lefty hitting outfielder Tyler Sullivan who, like Mendick probably had to tip the clubbies a little more because of how dirty their uniforms would get - wasn’t with them. Coincidentally, Tyler’s brother, Rays catching prospect Brett Sullivan was selected to represent Tampa Bay. Until Tyler signs with a new team, Brett will be the recipient of Tiff’s support.

Fans like Tiffany – knowledgeable, consistent, positive – are appreciated by the players, staff, and especially by the players’ families more than they will ever know. Danny and Seby took a moment to thank Tiff for her loyalty and support. It was a spontaneous expression of gratitude and that’s it. Quality human beings recognizing their own kind.

A LITTLE BIT MORE ABOUT DANNY

Aside from Joel Grampietro, the area scout who signed him, you could say that Mendick’s path to the pros was made possible by the Atlanta Braves and the Durham Bulls. Indirectly, that is.

Durham, North Carolina, 1990: free-agent infielders Dave Brust and Ken Harring were teammates in the Atlanta Braves organization and spent the season with then-High-A Bulls. Their skipper was former MLB manager Grady Little, and they shared the field with eventual big leaguers Mike Mordecai, Ryan Klesko, Eddie Perez, and Pedro Borbon. Brust returned for the 1991 season, while Harring was released, but the two New Yorkers stayed in touch as they began their college coaching careers, and Danny Mendick is happy they did.

Mendick wasn’t recruited in high school; wasn’t invited to participate in the showcases that catapult your exposure. He also understood that if he wanted to be a success, he would have to out-work and out-hustle everyone else. He played two years at Monroe Community College, and was en route to winning a championship when his coach at MCC, Dave Brust, got a call from friend that would change Mendick’s life.

The UMass-Lowell River Hawks ended the 2013 season and their Division II membership, in desperate need of a starting shortstop. Head Coach Ken Harring called his old Durham Bulls’ teammate, “Brusty”, who was now the head coach at Monroe Community College taking his Tribunes to the Division II Region III championships explaining his need. Harring had a choice, but after watching Mendick prepare for and then play in a championship game, it was an easy decision as to who the River Hawks head coach wanted on his team, especially in their inaugural Division I season. Danny agreed. Two weeks later, he was on campus with his parents and younger sister for his official visit. Six months after that, and to no one’s surprise, Danny etched his name in UML’s history when he recorded the team’s first hit as a Division 1 school.

However, it’s a lesson involving Mendick’s preparation and work ethic that will be most impactful to current and future River Hawks baseball players, at least as long as Ken Harring is there. Here’s the skipper sharing A story from May 2014, a few weeks before the MLB Draft...

“We were getting ready to play the University of Hartford and their starter was Sean Newcomb, a projected first round pick. Scouts were out in droves to watch him. As I headed up the stadium stairs to turn on the BP music, a group of scouts stopped me and asked, 'Who is your shortstop?' I said, 'Danny Mendick. Why?' They were so impressed with his pregame routine and how he took every ground ball during batting practice at game speed. He was diving all over the place as if he were playing in a game. They noticed his motor right away and how he set an example for his teammates. I use this story all the time when talking to my current team, or when I am speaking to young kids. You never know when someone is watching."

In his senior season, Mendick was the River Hawks’ leader in RBIs (30) doubles (16) and total bases (71). His signature defense and hustle still give evaluators cause to debate which side of his game is strongest. Coach Harring can argue in support of both sides, “He’s special…just special.”

Can’t argue with logic like that.

Harring and Mendick are in regular contact throughout the year. If Danny is in a slump, Ken listens then offers a simple (secret) reminder and, voila, like magic, Mendick is back to being a menace on the bases!

At the end of 2015, Joel Grampietro, the area scout who found and signed Danny, was recognized by the White Sox as their scout of the year. Coincidence? You tell me.

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