J.J. Bleday, Victor Victor Mesa and Jerar Encarnancion Take Different Paths To The Same Spot
TAMPA, Fla. — The Marlins’ system has improved by leaps and bounds over the past eight months. Ranked 25th entering the year, development by the scores of prospects added through trades and injections from both amateur avenues has pushed Miami’s organizational talent all the way to No. 8.
That’s been helped by strong comebacks from pitchers like Braxton Garrett, Trevor Rogers and Jordan Holloway, as well as further development from other pitchers—Jordan Yamamoto and Edward Cabrera are just two examples—and strong seasons from players up and down the system.
For a brief period this summer, the diversity of the Marlins’ prospect depth could be clearly illustrated simply by watching the team’s high Class A affiliate in Jupiter, Fla., when its outfield was aligned with J.J. Bleday in left field, Victor Victor Mesa in center field and Jerar Encarnacion in right field.
Three talented players with three different profiles. Bleday, fresh off winning the College World Series with Vanderbilt, came to the Marlins as the fourth overall pick in the most recent draft. He tuned up for a few games in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League before being skipped over short-season Batavia and low Class A Clinton and reporting directly to the pitcher-friendly Florida State League.
Just 24 days after dogpiling with his teammates in Omaha, Bleday was batting third for Jupiter in the beginning stages of his professional career.
“It’s been a rush. I’ve been trying to take it all in. It doesn’t even feel like we won the World Series because we haven’t had time to soak it all in,” Bleday said. “It’s just one of those things where you’ve got to go with the flow and stay in the day to day, try to develop relationships here now because now you’re part of this organization and you’ve got to commit yourself to it fully.”
Entering the spring, Bleday checked in at No. 6 on Baseball America’s annual ranking of the country’s 500 best amateur prospects. He had long earned a reputation as a potential plus hitter with a discerning eye at the plate, but his junior season with the Commodores answered questions about his power potential as well. He swatted 27 homers, which led all Division I players.
Tapping into his power will allow him to profile in a corner outfield spot, which is his likely home as he moves up the rungs of the Marlins’ system. Through Aug. 22, Bleday was hitting .248/.298/.389 with seven doubles and three home runs.
As would be expected, Bleday has adjustments to make as a pro. He’s ready for the challenge.
I think I’m one of those players who gets better on a daily basis, who’s going to do everything he can to put himself in a successful position and it’s shown in the past three years I was at Vandy,” he said. “You start off and you’re all right, and then you consistently get better and better each year. I’m never satisfied with at-bats, I try to never give up at-bats and I’m a quick learner. That’s the best way you can sum it up."
Bleday was coming off of nearly as long a college season as is possible, starting in February and ending in late June. Mesa, however, has spent his first season as a pro dealing with the opposite problem.
Two years had passed since Mesa and his brother, Victor Mesa Jr., had left Cuba to establish residency in the Dominican Republic. Unable to play in any organized games, there was considerable and understandable rust to kick off once he signed with the Marlins, who gave him a $5.25 million bonus on the strength of his athleticism and potential as a four-tool player.
Jupiter manager Todd Pratt knows how much the layoff wore on Mesa, and he saw plenty of potential in the outfielder before he was promoted to Double-A Jacksonville.
“Defensively, he’s got plus range, plus arm. It’s all coming together,” Pratt said during a series in late July. “He hasn’t played in almost two years, so I think there were a lot of expectations early, but we had to slow those down and just get him used to playing every day and just to the baseball we play in the United States, meaning we play every day and see the good pitchers every day.
“It probably took a half-year or a half-season of baseball (for the rust to come off). At 70 or 80 games, he started physically getting better. He had some injuries early in spring training that kind of held him back at the beginning of the season, but I couldn’t be happier with his growth right now.”
Mesa started to feel more comfortable in the season’s second half. The daily grind became easier to bear and the long, humid days in Florida took less of a toll than they had in April and May, and the numbers started to show progress. In 37 games after the all-star break, Mesa hit .297/.329/.324 and was promoted.
“It’s definitely more of a mental grind than anything else because it’s every day,” Mesa said. "The first half, I wasn’t there mentally, but as the season has gone on I’ve obviously improving and seeing a difference.”
Mesa’s slow transition to the minor leagues after a long layoff isn’t unique. Yoan Moncada went through a similar developmental path four years ago. He left Cuba in 2013, didn’t play in 2014, signed with the Red Sox in March of 2015 and then went straight to low Class A Greenville. He got hurt in May, scuffled in June and then caught fire in July and August before finishing with a respectable .278/.380/.438 slash line.
Two years later, Moncada was in the big leagues. A year after that, he was traded to the White Sox, with whom he struggled for two seasons before breaking out this season as a 24-year old. If Mesa can jump on a similar path, the Marlins will be pleased with their investment.
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Unlike Bleday and Mesa, Encarnacion did not come in with a high profile. He was signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2015 and quietly broke out in 2018 with an excellent turn in short-season Batavia, where he hit .284/.305/.448 and earned midseason all-star honors and a late-season promotion to low Class A Greensboro.
He started 2019 back at low Class A, though this time his destination was the Midwest League, which is famously known for its frigid first halves. The climate tends to depress offense in the season’s early months, which makes Encarnacion’s debut there even more impressive.
“I always try to make the best out of all the negative situations,” Encarnacion said. "So I told myself that the cold weather wasn’t going to affect me and that I was going to be stronger than the elements.”
Using that mentality, the 21-year-old Encarnacion hit .298/.363/.478 with 10 home runs at Clinton before getting bumped to high Class A. He’s slugged six more home runs since joining Jupiter, and his 16 combined long balls are the second-most among Miami minor leaguers.
He entered the season with a reputation as a strong defensive player with what Mike Jacobs, his manager at Batavia, called a “rocket strapped to his arm,” but this year has begun to show signs of a more well-rounded tool set.
“I think he jumped on the map last year. He did well in Batavia and then did well in Greensboro and was a little bit overmatched, but it didn’t bother him—that’s what I was impressed with, his composure,” Pratt, who managed Encarnacion in Greensboro, said. “Pitchers made adjustments at the next level, and once again he was doing great up there in Clinton, came up here and started off hot and just made adjustments.
“Pitchers are watching analytics and watching video to make adjustments to the hitters, and hitters have to make adjustments to the pitchers. I couldn’t be happier with Jerar. He’s going to be a major league player.”
Bleday, Mesa and Encarnacion arrived in Jupiter, respectively, as a high draft pick, a high-dollar Cuban signee and a low-profile international acquisition. In a few years, they could each find a spot in Miami’s outfield.