Chula Vista, California — Along the left-field foul line at Michael J. Martinez Field, beyond a fence that encloses this ballfield tucked in a mountain basin 10 miles south of San Diego, palm trees tower 30 feet skyward into the sunshine and blue above.
What a metaphor for an 18-year-old man standing and bending in such stately rhythms at shortstop during a morning workout for the Titans of Eastlake High.
Marcelo Mayer is perhaps the best prep baseball player in the country, even if a shortstop at Jesuit Dallas High in Texas, one Jordan Lawlar and his fan club, differ.
But it is Mayer who is believed to be held in just such esteem by the Tigers, who have the third overall pick in next month’s MLB Draft. They appear, as much as appearances can be trusted in any draft, to want Mayer as their man. That is if the Pirates, who pick first, bypass Mayer and bequeath him to the Tigers, while the Rangers, who choose second, seem intent on picking Lawlar.
Watch the man they call ‘Celo or ‘Mar at shortstop. Savor that sweet left-handed swing in the batting cage. Marvel at the smoothness as a 6-foot-3, 190-pound teen with legs that seem as tall as those palm trees, takes ground-swallowing strides, gloves a hot-hopper and whips a silky relay to first.
Take another gander at Mayer’s swing and those hands, as big as a NFL edge-rusher’s, which throttle his bat. Full-figured but absent any hitch, his cut is a blur through the zone and, some MLB scouts believe (the Tigers probably included), a better bet to hold up against premier big-league pitching than is Lawlar’s or that of another prep shortstop superstar, Brady House of Winder, Georgia.
Mayer is batting .400 in 29 games, with 13 home runs — numbers that would be far superior if teams not interested in watching him demolish a game hadn’t walked him 27 times. In his 117 plate appearances, Mayer has five strikeouts.
Scouts have been arriving in swarms for every Mayer game, headed by the Pirates and the Tigers.
“All day, all night, all times,” said David Gallegos, Eastland’s round mound of coaching pounds, who is a fascinating blend of baseball instructor and geniality.
Center of attention
This is not Gallegos’ first bullfight. He was coaching at Eastland in 2000 when a Titans first baseman named Adrian Gonzalez became the first overall pick, to the Marlins.
The Marlins’ scouting director then? Al Avila, who now happens to be Tigers general manager and part of a personnel stream of Tigers scouts and front-office execs who have personally scoped Mayer as they chew on that third-overall choice.
The Tigers’ interest is natural, and not only because Mayer’s smorgasbord of skills is so alluring.
Detroit needs a franchise shortstop. There is nothing — yet — on the big-league roster or on the farm that implies the Tigers will have that most essential piece of a playoff contender: a two-way star at the most important position on a baseball field.
A player with Mayer’s grace in the field — accompanied by an arm that can hold up on plays in the hole — and who swings a bat that smacks of power and consistency is a rare find. It’s what the Astros have in Carlos Correa, what the Yankees had in Derek Jeter, and what the Tigers had in another San Diego prep shortstop named Alan Trammell. Trammell is known to have been part of a Tigers contingent eyeballing Mayer.
The Tigers, of course, are saying nothing. Neither, for that matter, are the Pirates, who annually are one of MLB’s toughest teams to peg when it comes to the draft. But if sheer numbers are proof positive of a team’s obsession with Mayer, the Pirates appear to be advertising their choice at one-one.
“The Pirates have had more people than I’ve ever seen,” said Gallegos, speaking of Pittsburgh’s scouting pressure. “And then they want film from every infield (workout), every game. Hitting-wise, they want to know what pitch he hit, every game.”
Somehow, a young man a few days out of high school has coped easily with all this attention, with these throngs of scouts following his every breath on a baseball field.
“You can’t hide the fact you have a chance to be drafted,” said Mayer, taking a break from Eastland’s morning practice to talk about a future that will be shaped so singularly by what happens on July 11. “You embrace it.”
So, that’s why he appears so relaxed this day, decked out in his royal-blue Titans jersey as he talks about a draft that almost certainly will earn him as much as $8 million-plus and steer him from a Southern Cal scholarship.
“So few people get to experience it,” he said, his dark eyes and eyebrows a match for that bushy hair spilling from his cap. “It’d be a shame to not have fun with it.”
What you interpret from even a minute of conversation with Mayer (the name rhymes with “tire”) is unmistakably strong parentage. It’s difficult to be this grounded, this confident, this amiable, without mom and dad being intricately involved.
And they are.
His father, Enrique, is an investment banker and primary baseball mentor, while Marcelo’s mother, Myriam, from whom Marcelo learned his fluent Spanish, has made sure her two sons and a daughter have received the constant at-home attention kids are blessed to enjoy.
Gallegos had spoken earlier this spring, during a phone conversation, about Marcelo’s makeup and how it melds so easily with the Titans, who had a rugged 2-1 tournament victory Wednesday in the greater San Diego prep playoffs.
“Great kid, great person, great teammate,” Gallegos said then. “If someone’s not having a good game, he’ll pat him on the butt and encourage him.”
This is a fun bunch, for sure, as the workout makes clear, with its blend of banter and all-business baseball. Mayer simply fits neatly into the mosaic — a primary piece and burgeoning national baseball celebrity who doesn’t act like it. Nor, in this quick-witted, deft-with-the-zinger gang, would he ever be treated as such.
His teammates hoot and toss barbs when the time is right — at him or anyone else targeted. Otherwise, they play tight, well-schooled baseball that’s disciplined and efficient.
“We’re not here for a long time — we’re here for a good time,” hollered Titans assistant coach Ramon Orozco during a situational-hitting drill, alternately chewing-out a right fielder for making a no-chance throw to home plate that allowed a baserunner to advance.
Where, though, does Mayer fit within the larger MLB galaxy and its draft history?
Gallegos has perspective there, beginning with his years coaching Gonzalez.
“He’s right there with Adrian,” Gallegos said. “He has more power than Adrian had in high school. And he’s more athletic than Adrian. Faster, too.”
What hasn’t been entirely clear in recent weeks is how Mayer will stack up against good pitching. That is, if you go by the standard-issue San Diego prep arms. Only a handful, including Tuesday’s starter, Holden Carpenter of San Marcos High, are of the high-horsepower crowd.
What can be missed, apart from scouts’ files, is that Mayer has seen his share of velocity, including last summer when he played for the San Diego Show travel team and high-octane abounded.
Scouts this spring have sensed that Mayer might be a bit pull-happy, hoping to show his muscle, which has been evident enough. But the big-league game depends on blistering pitches to all sectors of a field.
Mayer is aware — of all the critiques. That includes thoughts he’s feasting on slower-gear pitching he can drive over the right-field fence.
“A little bit,” he said. “It’s something I’ve got to work on — just being quick to the ball. But especially with guys throwing 95, you’re not gonna worry about the ball getting deep.
“I think that’s more of a lack of them not seeing me,” he said, returning to the matter of driving pitches to all fields. “I think I’ve always had that (power and ability to hit lasers to left-center and elsewhere). I just think not a lot of eyes have been on me.”
What scouts say, virtually without exception, is that Mayer will be staying at short. This is a big man with the footwork and radius to handle an up-the-middle position’s range requirements.
“Me and my dad focus on not getting too big,” Mayer said. “My goal is to be a Gold Glove shortstop. Ever since baseball started, shortstop’s been a defense-first position. I get the same satisfaction from making a good play that I get on a good hit.”
Which brings about the essential Motor City question: What would Mayer think if the Pirates and Rangers pass on July 11 and a team from Detroit jumped at him?
It’s customary in these pre-draft moments for players to run, hide, or develop a spontaneous case of laryngitis when asked about specific towns or teams. Just ask a pair of one-overall picks named Casey Mize and Spencer Torkelson, who early in 2018 and in 2020 pretended that the MLB Draft was something with which they had no familiarity.
Mayer doesn’t bother with charades.
“One hundred percent a great organization,” he said of the Tigers, which he knows have been on him, tight. “I’d be extremely pleased to have a chance with them. Great fan base. Really classy team. Being able to put on a Tigers jersey would be very nice.”
If this sounds as if not only dad, but others might have been involved in tutoring him on how to handle the draft question — bull’s eye.
He has an “adviser,” as they say before a prep celebrity who is still an amateur can call his “adviser” his “agent.”
Mayer’s man is John Boggs, based in San Diego, whose most recent Tigers client was former manager Ron Gardenhire.
Coincidentally, Boggs also was adviser/agent for Gonzalez.
Mayer and Boggs are headed for a nice payday next month. Exactly who pays the freight, no one is precisely sure. Boggs is keeping his lips tight, but it is known there will be no discounts offered and that the Pirates, if they pounce, will be asked to pay something very close to the $8.415 million they have been granted as a ceiling for their first-round pick.
The Tigers are capped at $7.221 million, which isn’t as rigid as it sounds. They have a Rob Manfred-approved overall budget of $14.25 million (the Pirates are at $14.39 million) and can exceed by 5% their overall money, with only a tax applied. Any more than 5% and they would lose a future draft pick.
The Pirates have a reputation for being modest in their draft-day expenditures and could decide to pay less than their first-round allotment, using excess funds on later picks they might want to steer from college commitments.
The Tigers, conversely, are known as a “flexible” club that likely wouldn’t balk at paying Mayer more than $7.22 million — if that’s what it takes to keep him from Southern Cal.
But two business realities interfere with Detroit’s dreams there.
The Pirates are not likely to be penny-wise and pound-foolish if they see Mayer as being the indispensable prospect their scouting ardor thus far indicates.
Nor, practically, does anyone expect Mayer and Boggs to sneeze at, say, $7 million or $6.5 million, and head for Southern Cal when who-knows-what might befall Mayer before his next draft turn would arrive, in 2024.
If he’s gone, presumably to Pittsburgh, the Pirates will cheer and Mayer will say all the warm and fuzzy things about the Steel City’s team that he said Tuesday about Detroit.
And if he’s gone by the draft’s third turn, the Tigers will shrug at the lottery’s tough luck and then happily get on with business.
Jack Leiter of Vanderbilt? Or, even more likely, Jackson Jobe of Heritage High in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma?
They’ll be thrilled with either young pitcher, knowing, privately, that the kid they most wanted, a brilliant young shortstop from a school 12 miles north of Tijuana, Mexico, is headed elsewhere. Maybe to be the Pirates’ prized prospect possession, and maybe a star so bright the Tigers will long remember the treasure they were so close themselves to owning.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.