The Triple-A level is perhaps the most interesting level of Minor League Baseball there is. There are players who have been in the Majors for 10 seasons, but who no longer have the longevity to play there every day. There are players who have been at the Triple-A level for five straight seasons, never getting the call to their parent club, waiting for that first taste of The Show. Then there are young prospects, thrown into the mix of them all, trying to prove they have what it takes at this level, and therefore the next one.
Bulls' outfielder Mikie Mahtook is the prospect.
Playing just his third season of professional baseball, the 24-year-old embarked upon his first taste of the Triple-A level in 2014, and he's doing it with a flurry. From April 9th to April 19th, the right-handed hitter tore up International League pitching, compiling a 10-game hitting streak which was just two games shy of his career-high. Over those 10 games, he was 20-for-41, while driving in five runs and scoring five runs.
Perhaps Mahtook's most impressive feat though came over three games from April 13th to 15th, when he recorded 11 straight hits, and reached base in 12 straight plate appearances with a walk on top of it all, including a career-high five hits on April 14th against Charlotte.
"It was one of those things that happens and you just try to ride the wave for as long as you can," Mahtook said with a smile. "I've never had a streak like that and I'd like to have a few more. It'd be nice but it was fun while it lasted."
Aiding his early-season hot streak is the experience Mahtook got in Spring Training this season, as he was invited to Major League camp for the first time in his career, batting 4-for-23 in 13 games. Although not producing at the plate as well as he would have liked, the young outfielder understood the importance of being around the big club for as long as he was.
"Big league camp was awesome," Mahtook said. "It was something that I've always wanted to do. After I was drafted I always looked forward to getting that invite and being able to experience camp with guys that have been around for a while and made their mark in the big leagues. Being there was awesome; I was able to pick the brains of some guys, interact with the managers and the staff and all the different types of people that are up there in the big leagues so it was a nice experience."
Drafted out of Louisiana State University as the 31st overall pick in 2011, the Lafayette, La. native had big expectations to fill, after he tallied a career .344 batting average at his dream school.
"People ask if I was always supposed to go there (LSU), if I always wanted to go there, if there was anywhere else I wanted to go," Mahtook said. "And to be honest, there wasn't. I was born and raised LSU. My dad played football there, my uncle played football there, most of my family went to school there so it was something I knew I wanted to do, and when I had the opportunity to do it I ran with it. I was fortunate enough to have a good career there and win a World Series (2009) and so it was been great."
From there he was sent to the Arizona Fall League, usually reserved for young players who have reached the Double-A level or higher. However, Mahtook proved himself more than capable of playing at the next level, earning Arizona Fall League Rising Star honors just months removed from the Baton Rouge campus of the Tigers.
"I think what helped was after I signed they sent me to the fall league and I got to experience a little bit there," he said. "It's the same type of competition as you see here and Double-A, so I was able to get my feet wet there and go into spring training with some experience."
As rare as it is for a player to play at the Advanced-A level in his first season, Mahtook took it all in stride, earning Florida State League Midseason All-Star honors in 2012 as he hit .290 in 92 games before he was promoted to the Double-A Montgomery Biscuits.
"When they sent me to High-A the adjustment for me was more playing every day and getting to know the new guys and stuff like that, but it was nice, it was something I needed to do and something that helped me grow as a player."
Mahtook spent all of 2013 with Montgomery, and had a solid campaign as he was named a Southern League Midseason All-Star, and finished the season with a .254 average, while ranking third among all Rays minor leaguers with 68 RBIs. This season, although just a few weeks in, Mahtook has been able to use his sharp baseball IQ to understand the difference in levels.
"I've only been up here a few weeks so I haven't had too much time to compare (Double-A and Triple-A), but the little that I've seen the pitching is a lot different just from the simple fact you have guys that have been up in the big leagues, have come back down and they're a little bit older," Mahtook said. "They know how to pitch a little bit better (than Double-A pitchers). They may not have as explosive as stuff as guys in Double-A, but they know how to throw, know how to pitch and they move balls around a little bit.
"Just being here I've noticed the ages vary from 35 to 22 so it's a wide range of different types of players and a lot of guys have big league time so that's the biggest adjustment."
This season, the name of the game for Mahtook is still to grow more and more, but being at the Triple-A level means more players he can turn to who have more experience than just two seasons.
"Talking to JC (Justin Christian) has been nice," Mahtook said. "He's been around and he's got some big league experience, and a bunch of guys on this team have been up and down and they've seen a little bit. It's nice to have a guy, especially in the outfield who's older, who has been around to kind of run things by and if you're struggling, coming back to talk things out with them and sort of pick his brain. It's nice to just talk because I'm sure he's been through it and it's nice just to have a guy to run things by."
Over the past decade, the Rays have drafted plenty of players in the first round who have gone on to contribute at the Big League level, including Evan Longoria, David Price and Jeff Niemann. And with the start Mahtook's gotten off to in his first season at the Triple-A level, it's clear he's on the right path to join the Rays sometime soon.
"Being a competitor and being an athlete you want to move up as quickly as possible," Mahtook said. "You want them to challenge you and you want them to put you in a position where you have to work hard and you have to figure out things for yourself."
The outfielder has handled every challenge thrown his way by the Rays and by opposing pitchers through his first three seasons. And now, as a young prospect learning more about the game, and himself, expect those challenges to continue to be overcome.