Shohei Ohtani is going to be the Rookie of the Year in the American League this season. Make up the trophy now. Nothing is going to change that. But there are plenty of other first-timers out there that are deserving of your attention too. Perhaps the most interesting of them all is Joey Wendle of the Tampa Bay Rays.
Wendle has actually been in the bigs twice before this season. In both 2016 and 2017, Wendle had a cup of coffee with the Oakland Athletics as a September call-up, but he could never keep a regular spot on the team. After six years with the organization, the A’s moved on and decided to trade Wendle to the Rays at the Winter Meetings this past offseason. The deal has already paid off for Tampa.
Through 41 games, Wendle is slashing .287/.340/.390 with a home run, five doubles and 13 RBI. FanGraphs rates him as the third-best fielding second baseman in the game and believes he has already been worth 1.0 wins above replacement, whereas Baseball Reference credits him with a bit more (1.6 WAR).
The offensive numbers could be a bit of beginner’s luck. Wendle’s .359 batting average on balls in play is due for a slight dip, but his .106 ISO should also jump up at some point. What is not just random fortune for the freshman is his defensive acumen. During both of his previous call-ups, he has shown an ability to handle the leather. Second base is a position that traditionally prioritizes defense over all else. Anything he does with the bat in Tampa is extra. The real value here is in his glove.
At 28 years old, Wendle is a bit old to still maintain his rookie status. His 2017 season was his third straight at Triple-A in the Oakland system. While there is some modicum of worth in providing depth for the major league team from the minors, it’s certainly not the role that many want to fill. Where’s the glory? Where’s the fortune? Where’s the fun? That’s all in the bigs, not Triple-A Nashville.
A move to Tampa was almost too perfect of a fit. The organization is in the midst of a rebuild. They have been on the lookout for players that other clubs undervalue and have years of team control. Wendle fits that mold with his fringy bat and outstanding work with the leather. Even better, he can’t hit free agency until 2024, when he will be 34 years old. At this rate, he could very well be a Ray for life. Wendle may not always be a starter, but he has the ability to play just about anywhere on the diamond, a perfect player for a creative manager like Kevin Cash.
More than just Joey’s play on the field has been cause for celebration in the Wendle household. He and his wife welcomed the birth of their first baby boy last week. Joey came off of the paternity list on Friday and celebrated with hits in back-to-back games.
Watching Ohtani play is a privilege. He could end up being one of the most special talents in baseball history. He is a once in a generation player that should be appreciated, but this is a league built on Joey Wendles.
These are the guys that fill out rosters and provide the supporting cast for the Ohtanis of the world. These aren’t players with marginal skills or anything of the sort. They can play, and every good team needs a handful of Joey Wendle types. It has been fun to watch Wendle battle through the first third of his late-to-arrive rookie season. Hopefully there is much more to come from the 28-year-old West Chester University alum.