The 2013 season marks the fifth in the brief history of the Gwinnett Braves Baseball Club. To honor that milestone, GwinnettBraves.com will feature some of the great players from the previous four seasons of G-Braves baseball on "5th Season Friday." The feature will run each Friday until Opening Night on April 4.
Friday, March 29: Ernesto Mejia
The Gwinnett Braves have seen no shortage of powerful hitters, be it Barbaro Canizares in 2009 and 2010, Freddie Freeman in 2010 or Stefan Gartrell and Mauro Gomez in 2011. Following in their legacy and putting up a legendary offensive season of his own in 2012 was first baseman Ernesto Mejia. The 6-foot-5, 245-pound behemoth waged an assault on International League pitchers all throughout his rookie Triple-A campaign with the G-Braves. What resulted was a .296 average, 24 home runs, a league-high 92 RBI and numerous accolades, including the IL Rookie of the Year award.
Mejia began his pro career in the Braves system from 2004 to 2009, reaching as high as Double-A Mississippi by the end of his seventh season. During that span, he played only one full season in 2008 with Advanced-A Myrtle Beach. He led all of Minor League Baseball with 47 doubles that year, also setting career highs in home runs (21) and RBI (93) while he attained Carolina League All-Star status.
However, after an injury-plagued 2009 season, Mejia was cut loose from the Braves. He'd sign on for one season with the Kansas City Royals, where he produced modest numbers between Advanced-A Wilmington and Double-A Northwest Arkansas.
In 2011, Mejia returned to the Braves as a minor league free agent and was assigned back to Mississippi. It was there that he regained his 2008 form as he posted a .297 batting average, ripped 37 doubles, homered a career-high 26 times and drove in 99 RBI for the M-Braves. At season's end, he was named both a Southern League postseason All-Star as well as a Braves' organizational All-Star by MiLB.com.
After a productive trip home to the Venezuelan Winter League in the offseason, Mejia entered 2012 as a non-roster invitee at Atlanta Braves Spring Training. Though he'd hit just .133 with a home run and one RBI in 14 games at big-league camp, the experience would be the foundation for his most important season to date.
Mejia was named to Gwinnett's Opening Day roster, marking his first Triple-A experience after nine years of toil. Batting cleanup in manager Dave Brundage's batting order, he immediately displayed consistency by hitting safely in 12 of his first 13 games with the G-Braves. That span included back-to-back three-RBI efforts against Norfolk on April 18 and 19, establishing his role as Gwinnett's prime run producer.
On May 12 against the Toledo Mud Hens, Mejia provided all of the offense for the G-Braves, connecting on a three-run homer in the first inning. The clout, his fifth of the season, gave Gwinnett the edge in a 3-2 victory. Just over a week later on May 21, he was named the International League's Player of the Week thanks to a .464 average and seven RBI in a seven-game span.
May proved to be Mejia's hottest month of the year. From May 11-25, he strung together a 13-game hitting streak, the third-longest on the club all season. He hit .417 with four homers and 16 RBI, including a season-high four RBI on 2-for-5 hitting on May 25 vs. Rochester. For the entire month, the Venezuela native hit .355 with five blasts and 25 RBI.
The summer months showed no slowdown for Mejia. He launched seven more home runs in June, including clouts in three straight games at Pawtucket from June 10-12. By June 23, he became the first G-Brave to reach the 50-RBI plateau, going 2-for-4 with a two-run shot - his 14th - at Syracuse. Mejia added three more longballs before the Triple-A All-Star Break, and sat with a .302 average, 21 doubles, 17 home runs and 59 RBI.
Mejia joined pitcher Cory Gearrin as Gwinnett's only selections to represent the International League in the 2012 Triple-A All-Star Game. One of 13 players elected by fan vote for the showcase game in Buffalo, NY, he started at first base and went 0-for-3 at the plate.
The hitless national debut wasn't a setback as Mejia came out swinging to start the second half. He tied a season high with three hits on July 15 at Louisville, going 3-for-3 with his team-leading 23rd double, 19th home run and 62nd RBI. In a four-game series with Durham from July 24-27, he added six more RBI to raise his now league-leading total to 74. On July 29 at Charlotte, he ripped his 22nd home run to drive in his 75th RBI. All told for July, Mejia hit .327 with nine doubles, seven home runs and 22 RBI.
August and September weren't quite as kind to him, but Mejia still produced several memorable games down the stretch. On August 3 at Durham, he cracked a three-run homer in the eighth inning to bring the G-Braves back to within two runs of the Bulls. However, his 76th, 77th and 78th RBI wouldn't be enough in a 5-3 loss. Two days later, he got his revenge against Durham, smashing a two-out, two-run single in the ninth to lead Gwinnett to a 6-4 win.
Mejia's final home run came on August 12 in a home contest against Louisville. Facing former G-Braves teammate Todd Redmond, who earlier in the year was dealt to the Cincinnati organization, he muscled up for his most prodigious blast of the year. A towering drive to straightaway center cleared the Coolray Field batter's eye for a two-run homer - his team-leading 24th - to give Gwinnett a 2-0 edge. Mejia's fireworks ignited the offense as both Rusty Ryal and Brian Friday also added homers in the same inning, giving the G-Braves a 5-2 win.
Though driving in only seven more runs over his final 17 games, Mejia was the International League's runaway RBI champion, recording 92 to beat Charlotte's Dan Johnson by seven. He'd also finish atop the league in hits (152), total bases (258) and at-bats (514) while also ranking among IL leaders in slugging percentage (3rd, .502), extra-base hits (3rd, 57), home runs (T-3rd, 133) runs scored (5th, 73), doubles (6th, 32), OPS (6th, .849) and batting average (9th, .296).
Mejia rightfully took his place in Gwinnett Braves and International League history on August 28. That day, the league named him a postseason All-Star at first base, as well as the IL Rookie of the Year. In following Freeman (2010) and Julio Teheran (2011), Mejia became the third-straight G-Brave to take home the league's honors for top rookie.
His 2012 season didn't end with a call-up to Atlanta, but Mejia was rewarded in the offseason by being added to the Braves' 40-man roster for the first time. The now 27-year-old likely returns to the G-Braves to start 2013, but it could be the year he breaks through to the Major Leagues. Mejia has certainly made himself worthy of the opportunity thanks to his historic Triple-A debut in Gwinnett.
The Gwinnett Braves are honoring five great former players during Season Five in 2013 with the Alumni Bobblehead Series! Collect bobbleheads of Brandon Beachy (4/6), Freddie Freeman (5/18), Jason Heyward (6/22), Kris Medlen (7/6) and Craig Kimbrel (8/10)! Want to secure your tickets to all five G-Braves Alumni Bobblehead dates? Purchase the Bobblehead 5-Pack starting at just $50 today!