DUNEDIN, FLA.—As Rowdy Tellez made the rounds on Blue Jays photo day this past week, the 21-year-old prospect was told that Major League Baseball’s website wanted an interview.
The promising first baseman responded: “They know who I am?”
He was only half-joking, Tellez said later. The non-roster invitee — a 30th-round draft pick in 2013 who many believe could make his major league debut this summer thanks in part to uncertainty at first base at the big-league level — didn’t have a jersey of his own and figured he was near anonymous without a name and number on his back.
The seemingly minor moment meant a lot to him.
“There are a lot of people out there who don’t ever get interviewed, so just to have an interview, and just to mess around and have a little fun at any given time, is always something I look forward to, just to keep everything light,” he says.
It’s that approach — doing the work while enjoying what he calls a “kids’ game” — that has the Blue Jays believing the California native is the real deal.
“Our optimism is much more based on his process and his work and his joy for competition than it is how hard he hits the ball, how far he hits the ball, his plate discipline,” general manager Ross Atkins said before Tellez doubled and scored in Saturday’s spring opener against the Braves.
Genuine passion for the game can be rare in young players, Atkins adds.
“There are guys . . . that are 21 and are in Double-A and have plate discipline and power, and I can think of a couple who didn’t pan out. But you have such a high level of confidence that it will happen for Rowdy because of those things.”
For his part, Tellez says he’s focused on becoming the complete player.
“That’s the best way to stay in the big leagues,” he says. “I don’t want to be labelled just a hitter. I want to be a Gold Glove defender, too.”
This is his second spring training with the Blue Jays after posting a .297/.387/.530 slash line in Double-A New Hampshire last year. He says he looks to Dodgers all-star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and retired slugger Jim Thome as role models, as well as current teammate Justin Smoak.
Tellez and Smoak have known each other since before the former was drafted. Smoak, then with the Seattle Mariners, once took in Tellez’s batting practice at high school. Tellez — who stands six-foot-four and weighs 220 pounds — is taller and thinner now, Smoak says with a laugh before adding that it’s cool to see how far his teammate has come in the last four years.
“He’s a very talented guy,” Smoak said. “I think offensively it is what it is, but the defensive side is what I’ve talked to him about more than anything, probably. . . . He’s a great guy, and I’m hoping for the best for him.”
It’s just a matter of time before Tellez — one of the Jays’ top 10 prospects — gets the call, as far as Smoak’s concerned.
He moved to Tampa full-time this off-season to learn from veteran players in the area, trying to match their work ethic. Tellez says Jays shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, in particular, took him under his wing last season.
“You come in with the expectation of making the team, and that’s what I’m going to strive for. I’m going to push the envelope,” Tellez says.
“I’m going to force them to make their decisions and play my best, and learn as much as I can from everybody in camp — pitchers, position players, infield, outfield, hitting guys, everybody I can. I’m going to learn a little something about what makes them good, what makes them great mentally and physically.”
Atkins wouldn’t put a timeline on Tellez’s future, but says his progress was a factor when the Jays were negotiating with free-agent first baseman Edwin Encarnacion, who wound up signing with Cleveland.
“There’s no question that you have to be thinking about where you feel you have some depth and alternatives, and where you don’t. But this off-season, we were focused on doing everything we can do to win this year.”
Tellez jokes that he would “play shortstop left-handed” if that’s what it takes to get him to the major leagues. But while he waits for that call-up, he’s focused on leaving nothing to chance.
“If they want to make the call, they want to make the call. I just want to do everything I can that I’m allowed to do, that I can control. Outside of my control I’m not going to worry about.”
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