Blue Jays prospect Tellez puts slow start behind him with strong finish

BUFFALO — A couple of hours from now, on this Tuesday night, Buffalo Bisons first baseman Rowdy Tellez will break a 12-game hitting streak with an 0-for-4 performance at the plate in an 8-3 loss to Indianapolis.

Though his hot streak is over, Tellez has been on a run of late, and he’ll be the first to admit: “It feels a lot better.” Because overall, his season has been one to forget—at least, statistically speaking.

The lengthy struggle at the plate, though, is only the latest lesson for the enormous lefty who ranks 13th among Toronto Blue Jays prospects, according to MLB Pipeline. The guy with the perfect baseball name you’ll never forget admits he “didn’t believe in defence” just a couple seasons ago, and he’s dropped 30 lbs. in the last two years because, as he says, “I believed my bat would take me to the big leagues anyway.”

This latest lesson with the Bisons has been particularly humbling, however. To date, Tellez’s slash line of .221/.289/.336 is hardly what was expected from a player known for his big bat, one many were talking about ahead of this season as a candidate to earn some time at first base with the big club following Edwin Encarnacion’s departure (belated apologies to all-star Justin Smoak, who has done quite alright).

There’s been no talk of Tellez’s promotion of late.

“I’m grateful that the Blue Jays let me struggle at this level,” Tellez says, his overwhelming 6-foot-4, 220-lbs. frame folded into a red Bisons chair in a small video room just off the team’s clubhouse. The bearded 22-year-old wears a grey Hammer Strength t-shirt and blue shorts overtop white Nike tights.

“This is truly the first time—and every year I say I handle failure, because I don’t start as well as I want to—but this is the first year I’ve struggled for four or five months in a season,” Tellez says. “Not many organizations will let their guys struggle this long. They’ll usually send them down, but the Blue Jays have faith in me, and I really appreciate that.”

The Blue Jays aren’t the only ones with faith in Tellez. Because if you think the struggles this season have shaken his confidence, you’d be wrong.

“I always play with a chip on my shoulder,” Tellez says. He has, ever since he was the overweight kid from Sacramento, Calif., who figured he’d go in the first two rounds of the 2013 draft, but was selected in the 30th.

“I don’t think everybody was right,” he adds, of the draft. “I was the 895th pick, or something like that. 894 picks, they missed. And 29 other teams.

“I’m very fortunate, and can’t give enough thanks to the Blue Jays for giving me an opportunity to show them they made the right choice.”

While he’s been struggling offensively, his defensive play—that’s always been the knock on Tellez—has come a long way. When he first signed with the Blue Jays two seasons ago, assistant infield coordinator Mike Mordecai took one look at the kid fielding grounders and asked: “Have you ever played first base before?”

“Yeah,” Tellez replied.

“Well,” Mordecai told him, “It doesn’t look very good.”

Tellez has been dedicating himself to defence since, and not always by choice. During a five-week stint at Instructional League, he wasn’t allowed to hit. Instead, he fielded grounders daily at 7:30 a.m.

Bisons manager Bobby Meacham has noticed a big improvement. At the start of last season, which Tellez spent at double-A New Hampshire, Meacham noticed Tellez’s defensive play was night and day compared to the player he first saw a couple years before that. Tellez had improved so much that Meacham figured he had natural ability, he’d just never dedicated himself to defence.

“I talked to him, I said, ‘you must’ve just been lazy, didn’t work at it,’” Meacham says. “He said, ‘Yeah, they didn’t let me hit unless I did.’”

Meacham kept up the work on defence with Tellez, but for a while earlier this season, the manager “laid off” the focus there, he says, “because his offence was struggling so bad.” The former Yankees shortstop saw his cleanup hitter “struggling mentally, wondering if his swing was ever gonna come around.”

“I was struggling myself to figure out how much to push him, how much to let him just kinda squander a little bit,” Meacham says. “Right now we’ve got a good balance of me stepping in and saying, ‘we’re gonna do this every day.’

“Things are coming around for him. He’s starting to see the results that he’s hoping for, and I think we’ve struck a good balance.”

Tellez says he looks forward to working on his defence now. Before this game, Meacham wires a few grounders his way and he fields them from his knees, then from either side of his body.

He has learned by repeated practice, but also thanks to some valuable advice from Smoak over the last two years at big league spring training. Smoak told Tellez to trust himself, to try and be perfect in practice, and gave him a valuable grounder tip.

“He taught me to make sure when the ground ball’s coming to you, you’re not standing flat-footed,” Tellez explains. “Create a better hop, use your hands. The looser your lower half is, the looser your upper body is. He taught me to be free. You time it to where you’re not getting an in-between hop where you’re trying to body it up—use your hands to go get it, and be comfortable.”

With just 15 games left in the Bisons’ regular season, comfortable is the way Tellez is now finally starting to feel, both at the plate and in the field. With guys in front of him hitting better, he says he’s feeling less pressure, and with the team winning more of late, things are falling into place for him personally.

He’s also thinking less about all the hype and expectations that surround him, which he found difficult to handle at the start of the season.

“I think I let it get to me, figured I’d struggle but I’m gonna come out of it real quick,” Tellez says. “It’s been a humbling year so far, understanding that there’s gonna be times when you’re gonna struggle real bad.”

And though it may not have been a fun season until recently, Tellez says he’s better for it.

“To me, it’s been a positive year, and I’m grateful it’s happened,” he says. “As a personal player, I’ve struggled a lot and learned, and it’s starting to turn around now.”

A night later, in the game after he breaks his hitting streak, Tellez rips a triple, one of two hits in a 5-4 win over Indianapolis. His slash line for August, through 18 games, is a much-improved .324/.385/.408.

The big first baseman never doubted things would turn around, of course.

“He’s really confident—even after being terrible,” Meacham says. “That’s tough to do.”

How To Get An Autograph
“When kids are yelling, ‘Give me the ball!’ and they don’t have manners, I’m like ‘No, I’m not gonna give you the ball. If you have manners, yes I’ll give you the ball.’ A kid says, ‘Can I please have a ball?’ The other kids are like, ‘He already has seven balls!’ Well, he has manners so he’s gonna get eight. When kids come up and say, ‘Excuse me sir, do you have time to sign an autograph for me please, it would be greatly appreciated.’ I’m like, ‘Yes, and where are you parents? I need to give some compliments out.’” — Rowdy Tellez