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T-Rat Talk: Joe Gray 'Hungry' in Return to Wisconsin

April 18, 2022

It was a cool day on April 6 as members of the media met the 2022 Wisconsin Timber Rattlers for the first time under cloudy skies and intermittent light rain but if it bothered outfielder Joe Gray, Jr., he certainly didn’t show it.

It was a cool day on April 6 as members of the media met the 2022 Wisconsin Timber Rattlers for the first time under cloudy skies and intermittent light rain but if it bothered outfielder Joe Gray, Jr., he certainly didn’t show it.

Joe Gray Jr. is interviewed during Timber Rattlers Media Day prior to the start of the 2022 season. Wisconsin Timber Rattlers

“Oh, I’m hungry,” Gray told a gathering of reporters during his ten minute media session, the longest of any Timber Rattlers player that day. A few weeks earlier he had spent 22 minutes with the Brewers’ beat reporters in Phoenix, a session Adam McCalvy of MLB.com said “could have gone on for hours.”

At both sessions Gray and the assembled media had a lot to talk about: He returned to Wisconsin for the 2022 season after a big year in 2021, where he was one of just a handful of players across all of Minor League Baseball to rack up 20 home runs and steal 20 bases. He earned a promotion to Wisconsin after posting a 1.039 on base plus slugging in 51 games for Carolina, then held his own across the season’s final months at the High-A level for the first time.

During his session at Neuroscience Group Field he discussed all of that and fielded questions about new Timber Rattlers manager Joe Ayrault (who also managed Gray with Carolina in 2021) and sharing an outfield with Brewers top prospect Sal Frelick. In between those topics, however, he also took an opportunity to reflect on a challenging start to his professional career.

“I feel like there’s a lot of players with a lot of stories. And then there’s a lot of players that, if they would have went through that they probably wouldn’t be playing baseball anymore,” Gray said.

Gray was 18 years old when the Brewers made him the #60 overall pick in the 2018 draft, but he was just a few weeks into his professional career when a bout with pneumonia dramatically altered the course of his first season. He appeared in just 24 games before getting sick, and ended up losing 50 pounds over the duration of his illness.

When he finally made it back onto the field in 2019 he quickly suffered another setback, a hamstring injury that would bother him off and on through the entire season. He was limited to just 31 games at Rookie-level Rocky Mountain and never found his footing offensively, batting just .164 and attempting just five stolen bases all season. His first three stints on Rocky Mountain’s roster lasted just seven games, two games and one game.

Gray was finally healthy in 2020 but there was no baseball to be played: The pandemic wiped out the entire minor league season. As such, when Gray returned to the field with Carolina in May of 2021 he had just a few dozen minor league regular season games in his three-year career and it had been 605 days since the last one.

“At the end of the day I kind of have to think about it like this: Last year was my first full season. I was drafted in 2018, but I was hurt. The next year: Hurt. The next year: COVID. So while everyone else was kind of getting games under their belt, I never had that luxury. So last year was my first full year and this year is going to be the same memo, stay healthy and stay on the field and everything else is going to happen how it happens,” Gray said. “As a baseball player, you can't learn and adjust if you don't have at bats. So you have to play games, you have to stay on the field, you have to stay healthy.”

Gray described himself as someone who’s “used to ripping and running, not stretching when I play,” and he’s had to make that adjustment to stay on the field through a strenuous professional schedule. While he learned that lesson, however, his long layoff had a significant impact on Gray’s prospect status: Before the 2019 season MLB Pipeline rated him as the #7 prospect in the Brewers’ organization, but he slipped down that list as he continued to miss time. More importantly, having to wait for opportunities took a toll on Gray’s confidence.

“I definitely started to question my own ability, but why was I doing it? I don’t know. Because I didn’t play. I didn’t have a game to show for it. And of course, I had a little bit of circumstances wherever I was. But there was no need for me to beat myself up about it. So I kind of got to that point of view that it’s all about staying on the field, staying healthy, and I’ve just got to trust my ability,” Gray said. “I’ve definitely had those nights and those days where I’m like, ‘man, this isn’t what I thought pro ball was going to be.’ But that’s what makes you. That’s what builds you into a better player and you build that mental fortitude to be mentally strong.”

Finally, in 2021 Gray was able to play his first full professional season and quickly started to make up for lost time. As he climbed the ladder in the Brewers organization his prospect status also rebounded: MLB Pipeline has him back up to the #13 spot in the Brewers’ system this spring. Last fall he represented the Brewers organization in the Arizona Fall League, one of the game’s premier prospect showcases.

While Gray’s stock has risen, however, the Brewers’ organizational depth in the outfield has skyrocketed. Five of the 12 players ahead of Gray on the MLB Pipeline rankings are also outfielders. The list includes Sal Frelick and Garrett Mitchell, the Brewers’ last two first round picks, and Joey Wiemer, the organization’s reigning Minor League Player of the Year. Wiemer and Mitchell started the 2022 season with AA Biloxi, and Frelick and Gray both spent extended time with that team this spring as well.

“Me and Sal and a few guys, we were up and down with the AA team and things like that, but we all support each other. There’s no envy on this team. And that was felt, even at the beginning of spring training. Everybody wants everyone to succeed,” Gray said. “A lot of times you find yourself in organizations where the other player might not want you to succeed, because at the end of the day it’s the same position, you know? We don’t have that problem over here. We support each other and we want everybody to succeed.”

Gray also had several opportunities this spring to spend the day on the big league side of camp, and got into three Cactus League games during the Brewers’ abbreviated exhibition schedule. While there he had the opportunity to work alongside 2013 Timber Rattlers outfielder Tyrone Taylor, who can certainly relate to many of Gray’s experiences: Like Gray, Taylor was a highly regarded prospect early in his career but had to battle through adversity and wait for opportunities on his way up the organizational ladder.

“The biggest thing with Tyrone is he’s somebody that didn’t necessarily have the rise to success that came to everyone so quick,” Gray said. “That was a guy who went through stuff, he understands that sometimes you’ve just got to relax, chill out. So that was my thing, because I do get amped up a couple of times where my mind starts running and I can’t calm down. So that was one guy that got me to understand to just calm down and realize that everything’s ok, just let it be how it be.”

At the end of the day, however, Gray’s patience should not be confused for complacency.

“I kind of feel like I have a point to prove. At the end of the day, I like being put with my back against the wall. That's why I play this sport. I don't like easy. If I had went and played football or basketball, it'd be end of story. The best athlete on the court or on the field, you're pretty much going to be the one that comes out of that gym victorious. In baseball, everything's an equal playing field. So that's what gets me excited. You have to go out there, you have to grind, you have to show mentally you're there. Physical ability just doesn't do it. So I like being put with my back against the wall, I love it, and that's why I'm really happy because it's always a challenge,” Gray said.