Baseball

Great expectations surround Blue Jays prospect Rowdy Tellez

New Hampshire Fisher Cats first baseman Rowdy Tellez is seen during a game against the Harrisburg Senators on June 2, 2016, at FNB Field in Harrisburg, Pa. Tellez, an Elk Grove High School graduate, is a former Sacramento Bee Player of the Year.
New Hampshire Fisher Cats first baseman Rowdy Tellez is seen during a game against the Harrisburg Senators on June 2, 2016, at FNB Field in Harrisburg, Pa. Tellez, an Elk Grove High School graduate, is a former Sacramento Bee Player of the Year. Four Seam Images

Buck Martinez, baseball lifer and current play-by-play announcer for the Toronto Blue Jays, often arrived for work last season with an update already prepared – gleaned from the previous night’s minor-league box scores.

His intended audience: the rest of the Blue Jays’ broadcast team. His subject: a fellow Elk Grove High School alum.

“My partner Pat Tabler in Toronto gets tired of me telling him about Rowdy Tellez,” said Martinez, who managed the Blue Jays and played 17 major-league seasons. “I say, ‘Hey, this guy’s coming from Elk Grove, boys. He’s going to put Elk Grove back on the map.’ 

Still weeks shy of his 22nd birthday, and yet to play a game above Double A, Ryan John “Rowdy” Tellez is nonetheless making noise in the Toronto system with a left-handed swing that generated a .297 average and 23 home runs last season in the difficult Eastern League and a 6-foot-4, 240-pound frame that, by all accounts, brims with a determination to validate Martinez’s optimism.

Baseball America ranked Tellez, a first baseman and former Sacramento Bee Player of the Year, the Blue Jays’ sixth-best prospect entering this season and top left-handed hitter. Though on the younger end of the Double-A spectrum, Tellez finished last season tied for fourth in the Eastern League in homers and third in on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.917). Gil Kim, the Blue Jays’ director of player development, hesitated recently to put a schedule on Tellez’s road to the big leagues but allowed: “Rowdy’s going to be a very, very good major-league baseball player, and a very good first baseman.”

His timing, meanwhile, may be just right. The departure of All-Star Edwin Encarnacion to Cleveland this offseason leaves a void for the Blue Jays at first base. While they have options on their major-league roster, Tellez, who is expected to at least start this season in the minors, represents a potential longer-term solution – if he continues on his current trajectory.

And if that, plus the hopes of fans and the geographic relevance of his high school, seems a lot to put on a 21-year-old, Tellez counters that outside expectations of him pale compared to his own.

“I set my goals so high, people are like, ‘You know there’s only so many people who’ve done that,’ ” Tellez said. “Well, you know what? There’s room for one more.”

I say, ‘Hey, this guy’s coming from Elk Grove, boys. He’s going to put Elk Grove back on the map.’

Buck Martinez, Blue Jays broadcaster, on Rowdy Tellez

Driven to succeed

Consider one goal Tellez said he set for 2015, his second full season in pro ball, was to hit 80 doubles. The major-league record for doubles in a season is 67. But the goal was less about a number than an approach. Tabbed as a power hitter since high school, Tellez said he wanted to become a better all-around hitter, so he made a point that year of trying to stay within the big part of the field, between the left- and right-center-field gaps, using the 80-double benchmark as a reminder.

The hardly attainable number had another purpose.

“If my goals aren’t that high, you’re going to be content with where you’re at,” Tellez said, “and you’re never going to get better.”

This side of Tellez reveals itself quickly. He said with no trace of irony that he won’t be content “until I get that call from New York – from Cooperstown.” Jeff Carlson, varsity coach at Elk Grove High, uses the word “driven” five times in a two-minute span when talking about Tellez. Kim said he heard constantly last season about Tellez seeking out Double-A manager Bobby Meacham for extra work on his defense at first base.

“It wasn’t his strength going into it,” Kim said, “and his determination to improve that area of the game and actually work on some of his limitations there really transformed him into a defensive first baseman.”

A commitment to strength and conditioning, Kim said, has also helped Tellez increase his mobility and durability in the field. Tellez, who committed just seven errors in 101 games last season at first base, bristles a bit at the idea of people questioning his defense.

“I’m a major-league defender, I can tell everybody that right now,” he said last week from Florida, where he is working out daily with Blue Jays players and prospects.

“I know when push comes to shove, my infielders are going to be confident with throwing over to me. My pitchers aren’t going to be worried about throwing inside to left-handed hitters. That’s what I’m confident in. I can play the game at a high level on defense. Not to mention I’m pretty good offensively.”

Polished at the plate

Carlson, the Elk Grove coach, recalled one home run Tellez hit at Raley Field that sailed onto the right-field berm in pouring rain. Another time, at Laguna Creek, he hit a ball that cleared the right-field fence – and a two-story house beyond it.

“You just don’t see high school kids of that age hit balls like that,” Carlson said.

A surprisingly low 30th-round pick in 2013 amid questions about his signability – he still garnered a record $850,000 signing bonus for a post-10th round player – Tellez increased his home run totals in each of the past three seasons, from six to 14 to 23.

Last year’s total masked a slow start that left him batting .164 at the end of April. But the Blue Jays were just as happy with Tellez’s final on-base percentage (.387, second-highest in the Eastern League), which reflected his command of the strike zone.

Asked about Tellez’s strengths as a hitter, Kim pointed to “the maturity and the patience to wait for his pitch to hit. He’s got really good hands at the plate, he has good power, and instead of selling out for the power and trying to swing at everything thrown up there, he has a polished, mature approach and really good direction in his swing.

“I think he looks like a mature hitter, acts like a mature hitter, and he is a mature hitter.”

Growing up, Tellez said he emulated hitters such as Jim Thome, Adrian Gonzalez and Ryan Howard – big, strong left-handers like him – but also admired Wade Boggs and George Brett, players who “knew how to hit and set things up.”

“George Brett had the same power to the left-field pole as he did to the right-field pole,” Tellez said. “It was the same power all over, and that’s what I want.

“I want to be able to be that threat that any pitcher that looks at me goes, ‘OK, well let’s try not to mess this up – oh, there’s a bad pitch.’ And I capitalize on the mistake.”

I set my goals so high, people are like, ‘You know there’s only so many people who’ve done that.’ Well, you know what? There’s room for one more.

Rowdy Tellez, Blue Jays prospect

Waiting for the call

Martinez, who is nearing his 50th year in baseball, met Tellez during his senior year at Elk Grove, started following his progress after the Blue Jays drafted him and has stayed in touch as a mentor of sorts. When Martinez learned of Tellez’s interest in Brett – his roommate with Kansas City in the 1970s – he used Brett to illustrate a point to Tellez: Don’t worry about numbers; just be consistent.

“He’s grounded,” Martinez said of Tellez. “He understands where he wants to go. He’s not about flash and dash. He wants to be a major-league baseball player for a long time.”

First he must get there. This spring, Tellez will be in major-league camp with the Blue Jays as a non-roster invitee, a long shot to win an Opening Day roster spot.

“I’m going to force them as best I can with my play on the field and how I handle myself,” he said. “When the Blue Jays feel the time is right, the time is right.”

Martinez then will no longer need to update his colleagues on Tellez’s progress.

“I’ll be talking about him in action,” Martinez said, “hopefully not too far in the distant future.”

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