A childhood dream came true mostly because of a workout at Guaranteed Rate Field in late May of this year. After taking part in the Boston Red Sox’s pre-draft workout at Fenway Park, DJ Gladney impressed the White Sox with a power display at a similar gathering. Nick Hostetler, formerly the Director of Amateur Scouting for the organization, knew the Illiana Christian product from his time on the club’s Area Code Team the previous summer.
“He’s a guy that we’ve known forever with the ACE Program and Area Code Games in addition to the workout at the stadium,” said Hostetler. The scouting veteran knew about Gladney’s projectable body but said, “we didn’t know the strength he had until he came to our workout and started launching balls.”
The launching of projectiles continued as Gladney reported to the AZL affiliate after signing for $225,000 as a 16th round draft pick. The 6’3″ 195-pounder has smacked 8 homers in rookie ball and hit 5 of them before turning 18-years-old last month. Gladney is hitting .277/.325/.468 with a 109 wRC+ in his first taste of professional baseball. With a scholarship offer to play collegiately at Eastern Kentucky, it surprised some on the outside that DJ signed so quickly.
“Playing professionally was always something I wanted to do so when I got the opportunity, I didn’t want to pass that up,” Gladney said. “You never know if you’ll get that opportunity again.”
Hostetler echoed the sentiments of the teenager when asked about the signing process.
“DJ’s desire to play professional baseball is what drove the process,” Hostetler said.
Hostetler noted that Gladney wasn’t a target until day three because the staff was unsure of how much draft pool money they’d have available and Gladney’s representatives set a fair but steep price. The club ended up making a deal at the insistence of area scout J.J. Lally who stayed in contact with the player throughout the process.
The White Sox have landed intriguing prep talent on day three of the draft in previous years as well. Trusting the scouts on the ground is a big reason why.
Hostetler admitted that he hadn’t seen Gladney play since the Area Code Games the previous summer and was relying on his staff for reports. He did say that the Illiana Christian product was a “good looking kid who is tall and lanky with strength to him.”
Lally and national crosschecker Nathan Durst knew Gladney the best and vouched for his inclusion in the 2019 draft haul. Some organizations don’t rely on the word of area scouts as often as the White Sox have. The organization seemingly has a philosophy on that though.
“If we can’t trust our area scouts with $200K or $250K, then they shouldn’t be scouting for us,” Hostetler said.
Becoming A Prospect
“DJ was like a dog with big paws,” said Darren DeBoer, the head baseball coach and Athletic Director at Illiana Christian High School.
He coached Gladney for the entirety of his high school career. The veteran prep coach relayed that the staff started DJ with the freshman team upon his arrival on campus four years ago, but noted that it didn’t take very long for him to look like the biggest fish in the pond. DeBoer had previously coached another prodigious talent in the state of Florida and wasn’t totally shocked by what was to come.
“Scouts started coming out to my games during my junior season, but there was a scout at every single game during my senior season,” Gladney said.
Playing baseball, going to class and being a normal high school student in Chicago’s south suburbs was tough enough but the high school went through immense change while Gladney was on campus. Illiana Christian is a private coeducational school in Dyer, Indiana. The campus was previously located in Lansing, Illinois and was founded in 1945 as a school for the children of reformed Dutch immigrants. Back in 2014, Illiana proposed to move its campus 12 miles to the southeast in St. John, Indiana. The move was met with some consternation from residents but the new campus opened last year and houses roughly 520 students.
DeBoer said that “it was a crazy time and a very hectic experience” but he mentioned that the players got through it by taking things one day at a time and DJ’s eccentric nature helping to keep the team loose. The coach offered effusive praise for Gladney and raved about the young athlete’s character.
“It’s a testament to the fantastic family that he’s from,” DeBoer said. “DJ has awesome parents.”
Gladney also played basketball in high school but it became evident during his junior season that baseball would ultimately be his path. The high school shortstop went about his business and became used to playing in front of the scouts that littered the fields he would inhabit.
At times, it would have been easy for Gladney to get lost in his own mind focusing on playing a game where even the elite fail often. In the presence of scouts and knowing that rival coaches would instruct lots of bases on balls, he excelled regardless. DJ posted a .451 OBP and .769 slugging percentage playing on a team that finished 4-13 his senior year. The scouts still showed up though and the young slugger was paying close attention to two clubs in particular.
“Lots of teams showed interest,” Gladney said. “I wasn’t sure how day three of the draft would go, but I felt like the White Sox and Boston Red Sox had shown the most interest throughout.”
It didn’t take long for Gladney to break the White Sox’s rookie league home run record with his seventh homer just after his 18th birthday in July. Gladney was surprised when told of the accomplishment and Hostetler admitted that he was surprised at the early success as well.
“I was concerned with Gladney, as well as (James)Beard, Misael Gonzalez and (Victor) Torres because you just never know until you get them on campus,” Hostetler said.
Hostetler also reiterated that “there’s obvious swing and miss in his game, but that’s normal for a 17-year-old.” Gladney agrees that a strikeout rate over 30% isn’t something he plans on becoming a trend and he stated that “continuing to make contact while cutting down on the strikeouts” would be a goal of his moving forward.
The transition to professional ball has been a success for the local product but he did reference his initial struggles upon arriving in Glendale.
“Coming straight out of high school, the first week or two was tough to adjust to the pitching and overall speed of the game,” Gladney said.
DJ posited that the game has since slowed down for him and he hasn’t really struggled with velocity in Arizona. Identifying breaking balls has been more of a focus for the 16th rounder. Gladney said that his biggest struggle is “recognizing curveballs and breaking balls with spin in general.” The pitching machine at the facility has been Gladney’s friend as he sets it up to help him recognize the spin coming out of pitcher’s hands.
“He makes hard contact, makes adjustments within particular at-bats and hits the ball out of the park,” Hostetler said. “He makes an impact on the baseball and he’s expected to add weight and get even stronger.”
While most young hitters make their living off clubbing fastballs, Gladney’s approach at the dish runs counter to that thinking.
“Most of my homers have been from hitting mistakes, like 3-2 curveballs and changeups,” Gladney said.
While the powerful third sacker could drive fastballs out of the park to all fields as well, his approach has produced “lots of singles and doubles from hitting fastballs out over the plate.”
Growing up as an avid White Sox and Bears fan in Matteson, Ill., Gladney spent the majority of his baseball playing days as a shortstop on whichever team he was on as a child. He had some experience at the hot corner while playing travel ball in high school and that has helped him transition to third base in the Arizona League.
“(The scouting staff) worked him out and saw him a lot at shortstop and liked the skill, but thought that over the course of time, he’d get big and strong and move over to third base,” Hostetler said.
Farm director Chris Getz and his staff moved Gladney to the hot corner pretty much immediately and put him in a timeshare with 17-year-old Cuban Bryan Ramos. Gladney isn’t worried about his defense at third after playing in the middle infield for most of his life. He thinks he possesses a profile that fits over there.
“I see myself as a really good third baseman,” Gladney said. “My size and role as a power hitter makes me a good fit at that position.”
After a similar amount of success in 2018, 33rd round prep selection Bryce Bush got a taste of the Pioneer League prior to playing full season ball this year. Gladney is expecting to finish the season with his teammates in Arizona and a similar trek to Great Falls, Mont., doesn’t seem to be in the cards. The young third baseman is fine with that too. DJ raved about the facilities in Arizona and spoke highly of his new teammates.
“I love playing and interacting with some of the young international guys,” Gladney said.
Communication can be an issue at times and Gladney says that they have lots of fun in Spanish classes.
“We speak Spanish to them and they try to speak English to us,” he said excitedly. “It’s awesome to help each other out.”
The 18-year-old does notice that the differences don’t carry to the diamond. Gladney praised the play of Ramos and shortstop Jose Rodriguez specifically and believes that they should all move through the system together.
“Sometimes early success can give them something to fall back on,” Hostetler said in reference to Gladney finishing the year in the Arizona League. “He will benefit by continuing to feed off the success in the AZL by competing with Bryan Ramos.”
The 60-grade raw power the scouting staff put on Gladney will be his carrying tool and the 70-grade pull side power he possesses could show up in Great Falls right away. The advanced pitchers would bring a different challenge to an 18-year-old who has just embarked on the longest season of his life as well though.
With the influx of teenage talent pumped into the system over the past two years, plate appearances will be tough to come by with the Voyagers as well. Too much talent has never been a problem, but Hostetler believes that “opportunity and regular at-bats are more important than level” at this stage.
In regards to what finishing the season in Arizona would mean for the future, Hostetler hypothesized that instructional league would go a long way towards deciding a path for Gladney next year.
“Gladney will get every opportunity to break with a full season club and possibly earn his way to Kannapolis next season,” Hostetler said.
The White Sox have employed a college heavy approach to drafting historically and have more recently begun assimilating prep talents into their affiliates in the lower minors. Gladney is one of the players who could prove that a shift in philosophy was warranted. We ranked Gladney as the #29 overall prospect in the system in our midseason prospect rankings. Other publications are likely to follow suit and Matteson’s own should continue to be a player to watch on his path to a big league future.
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