The road to the Major Leagues isn't paved with gold. In fact, it's often not paved at all, and that's where Jeren Kendall finds himself on the heels of his second full season as a professional.
As the 23rd overall pick in the 2017 Draft, big things were expected of Kendall. The Wisconsin native enjoyed a standout career at college powerhouse Vanderbilt, ending his time as an amateur with a .309/.386/.553 slash line. Best remembered for his walk-off homer as a freshman that lifted the Commodores to the 2015 College World Series, he made the jump to the pros two years later.
He was greeted with a harsh reality.
"No one wants to struggle. It's frustrating. I don't care what kind of player you are or how good you are," Kendall said. "It's a tough thing to go through, but at the end of the day I'm learning and creating some sort of game plan that I can use to push me forward."
Those struggles began in earnest during his first full season in 2018 with Class A Advanced Rancho Cucamonga. Kendall hit a respectable .253/.311/.444 in 40 games with Rookie Advanced Ogden and Class A Great Lakes in his debut the previous summer, but his promotion to the California League served as a wake-up call.
The 5-foot-11, 190-pound outfielder struck out 158 times, the fourth-highest total on the circuit, which contributed greatly to a .215/.300/.356 slash line with the Quakes. He returned to Rancho Cucamonga this season and showed flashes, slugging a career-high 19 homers among 40 extra-base hits and collecting 63 RBIs in 96 games. However, it was a late-season surge that gave Kendall some much-needed confidence and lent credence to the belief he was starting to figure it out.
Jeren Kendall was the Dodgers' first-round Draft pick (23rd overall) in 2017.
The 23-year-old was batting .183/.288/.401 on on Aug. 2. That day, Kendall began a stretch in which he hit safely in 10 of 11 games and put up a .316/.404/.653 slash line with 15 extra-base hits and 24 RBIs in his final 25 contests. He added a pair of solo homers and hit .267 in four postseason games.
Kendall can't point to a specific at-bat or instance where the light went on, but he finds it easier to return to that "feeling" as he calls it.
"At this point for me, it's about repeating those actions during that final month," he said. "It's nice to have that feeling and be able to go back to it. It's not so much mechanical, although that always plays a part. It's finding that swing in batting practice and getting that familiar feeling to carry through into games. It's not as hard for me to get that back now, and that's a good feeling."
Invited to the Arizona Fall League for the first time, Kendall is making the most of his time competing against some of baseball's best prospects. It's a challenge he's fully embraced.
"I'm continuously working on things, and that's what were' all doing down here," he said. "I'm working on my swing and concentrating on seeing the ball and hitting the ball. Of course, it's a great time to work on my entire game. I put in 150 percent effort with my work and it's nice to see some of that start to pay off."
The left-handed hitter has held his own for Glendale, belting two homers and driving in seven runs in 15 games. Seeing some gaudy numbers would be a pleasant sight when he steps to the plate, but Kendall understands the purpose of his AFL stint.
"Having consistent, quality at-bats is key for a hitter, and that's what I'm trying to work on," he said. "I'm facing much better pitching here than at any point in my previous two years. It's a tough but good test and having some success breeds confidence. Playing with and against top prospects has been fun and is a good mental lift for me."
So has seeing peers like Gavin Lux and Dustin May -- the Dodgers' top two prospects -- reach the Majors for the first time. Minor Leaguers don't need extra incentive to push toward the bigs and Kendall is no exception, but when players he calls friends and with whom he competed get the call, it gets the juices flowing.
Offseason MiLB include
"It's so exciting to see those guys up there doing their thing. I feel like I'm up there with them," he said. "I know these guys personally and I feel a sense of pride to see them playing in the Majors. It's my plan, too. ... Hopefully in the near future I'll be up there with them. The Dodgers have created a terrific culture that is very relaxing for players and I think it plays a big part in the overall success of the organization."
That culture, combined with a positive-by-nature personality, has Kendall excited for what awaits in 2020 and beyond. He knows the type of player he is and what he's capable of doing. Finishing this season strongly and carrying that renewed comfort level into the AFL has the two-time Wisconsin high school Player of the Year feeling good.
"Looking back at the end [of the regular season] and seeing what I did was nice," Kendall said. "It gave me confidence, but at the end of the day, I'm coming to the park to have some fun. It's a game and that's important to remember. This is my job now, but I want to play for the right reasons.
"I've gone through some struggles and it hasn't been fun, but at the end of day every player will face it. I've had to deal with adversity earlier than most, so hopefully, I've gotten it out of the way. That's how I'm looking at it."