Mikie Mahtook: Forgotten First-Rounder Looking Major-League Ready

“Holy crap, I totally forgot about him!” That right there is one of my favorite parts about covering minor-league baseball. Today’s column is a product of that sentiment, seeing as I had that reaction just the other day. I was perusing the Triple-A batting leaders when I came across the name Mikie Mahtook for what seemed like the first time in years.

When the 24-year-old was drafted 31st overall by Tampa Bay in the first round back in 2011, he was seen as a relatively polished player who, despite not having a sky-high ceiling, could advance quickly through the minors. The Louisiana State product was an absolute stud in his junior season, leading the SEC in slugging percentage, steals, walks and triples, while finishing second in the conference in home runs, batting average, total bases and on-base percentage.

Despite those impressive collegiate accolades, there were questions about Mahtook. He wasn’t really expected to stick in center field and, while he produced good power numbers in college, it was uncertain whether that part of his game would translate enough for his bat to play in a corner. Still, it appeared that Mahtook was a pretty safe bet to be a quality fourth outfielder or second-division regular within a relatively short amount of time.

He played most of 2012 in High-A, putting up solid numbers (386 PA, .290/.358/.419, 5 HR, 19 SB), before advancing to Double-A. He didn’t adjust very well to Double-A pitching, as he posted a .248/.308/.405 line in 39 games there to finish 2012. Not a particularly alarming sample, but not altogether encouraging either.

Last year, he completely fell off my radar, and pretty much everyone else’s. His 2013 season (.327 weighted on-base average) was nearly identical to his mediocre performance from 2012 in Double-A (.328 wOBA), as he stumbled his way to a .254/.322/.386 slash line, with a promising 25 steals, but only seven homers in 568 PA. For a player who was expected to rise quickly through the minors, Mahtook was simply spinning his wheels in Double-A.

So it was that Mahtook started the 2014 campaign, advancing a level to Triple-A, but without much fanfare, as he failed to make the organization’s Top 15 prospects list here at FanGraphs. He was still a prospect — certainly more than an org guy — but no one was paying much attention to him anymore.

As it turns out, he’s been scorching hot at the plate all season long, posting an OPS of at least .825 in each of the season’s first three months, on his way to a .315/.386/.498 line. He still doesn’t appear to have a ton of home-run power, with five dingers in 311 PA, but his 25 doubles and five triples have helped him to second place in the International League in total bases, behind only Ruben Gotay, who I honestly had no idea was still playing affiliated ball. Mahtook is also 12-for-14 in stolen-base attempts.

Looking at the Rays, as currently constructed, the team could really use his bat right now against left-handed pitching. As a team, the Rays reach base at a .311 clip against lefties, placing them 12th in the American League, leading just the Royals, White Sox and Mariners. Mahtook is shredding southpaws to the tune of .485/.526/.712 right now, and while three months in Durham isn’t a huge sample, it’s enough to tell me that this guy could help the Rays boost their ugly performance against left-handers.

While Mahtook isn’t on the 40-man roster, the injuries to David DeJesus and Wil Myers have already forced the Rays to call up both Kevin Kiermaier and Brandon Guyer, meaning that while Mahtook may not currently have a spot on the 40-man, neither does any other healthy outfielder in the organization who isn’t playing in the majors right now.

Additionally, after being shifted from center to primarily playing right field upon reaching Double-A in 2012, Mahtook is back playing center as his primary position (43 games), while still also playing in right (22 games) and left (7 games). That versatility will be crucial to Mahtook getting significant playing time in the majors.

With Tampa mired in a lost season, limping their way to a 32-48 record to this point, it wouldn’t be surprising if a roster spot opened up for Mahtook as a result of the Rays shedding major-league talent to stockpile prospects for the future.

There are plenty of ways to see Mahtook making an impact in the majors sooner rather than later. Maybe the Rays see what they can get for, say, Matt Joyce on the trade market. Maybe Guyer isn’t good enough to stick in the majors. Heck, if one more outfielder gets hurt, the Rays won’t really have any choice but to call up Mahtook.

By this point in the season, AL-only owners with a roster spot or two to play with should be looking to stockpile minor-leaguers who could make an impact down the stretch. There are many scenarios which lead to Mahtook getting significant major-league playing time this season, and his decent power/speed potential could prove quite valuable in the coming weeks.

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Scott Strandberg is a writer by day and musician by night. He is the film critic for The Norman Transcript, and his baseball writing has been featured at The Hardball Times and MLBDepthCharts. He enjoys cooking and professional wrestling. Follow him on Twitter @ScottStrandberg.

12 Responses to “Mikie Mahtook: Forgotten First-Rounder Looking Major-League Ready”

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  1. Rob says:

    .415 BABIP with a 25% strikeout rate and a right-handed hitter. Playing way over his head. He’s a back-up at best.

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    • A high BABIP doesn’t just mean, “he’s getting lucky,” especially in the minors, when it can be an indicator that the player is simply too advanced for the pitching at the level. Joc Pederson has a .432 BABIP in Triple-A. Gregory Polanco had a .399 BABIP in Triple-A. Would you say that those guys are playing way over their heads, or do different rules apply to them due to their top-prospect status?

      Mahtook’s BABIP is largely driven by a career-best line-drive rate and a career-best ISO. And sure, there’s quite a bit of swing-and-miss in his bat, but he’s also drawing walks at a career-best rate. Referring to him as a “back-up at best” is ridiculous. That’s closer to his floor than his ceiling.

      Mahtook isn’t going to be the next Mike Trout or anything, but as I said, he should be a quality fourth outfielder or second-division regular. Most prospects have plenty of warts; simply cherry-picking the first bad-looking number you can find and making a blanket “He sucks” statement is entirely counterproductive.

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      • atoms says:

        What does “second division” mean in this context?

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      • A player who is good enough to hold down a starting job in the majors, but likely won’t ever produce All-Star numbers. You can think of it as the bottom half of major-league starters at a given position.

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      • Finn the Human says:

        4th OF and second division seem to scream backup to me, which is what the OP suggested.

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      • atoms says:

        Ah, thanks.

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      • scatterbrian says:

        Polanco and Pederson are both about two years younger than Mahtook. Don’t different rules apply for younger prospects at the same level?

        Regardless, yes, I would say Pederson is probably playing over his head right now.

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      • pudieron89 says:

        @scatterbrain age is a big factor for the spects, but you also have to consider IL numbers versus inflated PCL numbers for Pederson. Also in Polanco you’re comparing a consensus top prospect to a player highlighted specifically for his diminished prospect status. No one is trying to say Mahtook > Polanco/Pederson but simply that he could come up and provide some offense to the Rays’ turd-esque display.

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      • pudieron89 hit the nail on the head. Nobody’s saying Mahtook is a future All-Star, but that doesn’t mean he can’t help the Rays right now.

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  2. geo says:

    I realize these things have a way of working themselves out, but what do you think the Rays do when everybody is healthy again? DeJesus, Myers, Jennings, Joyce, Kiermaier, Guyer, Mahtook…lots of OFers…

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    • Andy says:

      2 have to be traded, right? Joyce is obvious, but so is Dejesus now.

      I don’t get how they are so bad against lefties. They only have 1 lefthanded regular…Loney.

      All 7 OF (if Zobrist is included in outfield discussions) are better than Mikie. I don’t see any PA for him even if 2 OF are traded. Myers’ will be back in a month, and Guyer has hit 3rd 2 of the past 3 games. Joe really likes his bat.

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  3. rustydude says:

    Wow! Ruben Gotay is still playing professional ball. I took him in my very first fantasy draft back in 2005 as a Royal. Each of the last 8 minor league seasons he’s started with a different team, although the Braves and Cards brought him back on non-consecutive years. A regular Crash Davis. He must really love baseball to play full seasons in the minors, with all the grind, no amenities and relatively shit salary.

    It actually makes me smile to think he’s still playing.

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