CHARLESTON, S.C. — Marcelo Mayer bounded out of the batting cage at Joseph P. Riley Jr. Field, beaming as he jogged around the warning track behind the plate. He slowed slightly as he approached the visitors dugout, leapt over a five-step descent, and ran down the tunnel to join his Salem Red Sox teammates in the clubhouse.
That simple, joyful act served as a testament to Mayer’s youth. The top Red Sox prospect, taken with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2021 draft, is a 19-year-old puppy who is delighting in the start of his professional career.
“I’m playing baseball. That’s my job. Not many kids get to do that,” said Mayer. “I get to put on the cleats every day in front of fans and play the best sport in the world. Even when I have a bad day, I still consider myself super blessed.”
There have been few “bad days.” Outside of a wrist injury that sidelined Mayer for almost five weeks in April and May, he has looked every bit the part of an elite prospect, offering one of the most dazzling first glimpses by a Red Sox minor leaguer in years.
Only a select few draftees jump from high school directly into a full-season league. Those who go directly to a full-season affiliate like Salem usually struggle with their initial exposure.
Mayer has excelled, hitting .324 (fifth-best among Carolina League hitters with 100 plate appearances) with a .389 on-base percentage, a .568 slugging mark (second), and a .956 OPS (fourth). He has 19 extra-base hits in 27 games, and he has shown remarkable polish everywhere — in the clubhouse, in his pregame work, in the batter’s box, and at shortstop. The early impressions have been breathtaking.
“From what I’ve seen, he’s going to be a superstar,” said Salem hitting coach Nelson Paulino, who in more than 20 years as a Red Sox minor league coach has seen future stars as Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, and Rafael Devers. “At some point, I’ll see this guy on TV from the couch in my house and I’ll say, ‘Wow. I worked with that guy.’ ”
Ready for the spotlight
Minor league coaches typically downplay expectations about players. Yet with Mayer, any concern about doing so is diminished by the comfort with which he has already worn the top prospect label.
Mayer comes from the highly regarded Eastlake High School program in Chula Vista, Calif. (former Red Sox first baseman Adrián González, the top pick in the 2002 draft, came out of Eastlake). High school teammate Keoni Cavaco was a first-round pick in 2019, affording Mayer familiarity with life under a scouting spotlight long before he emerged as one of the top prospects in 2021.
Mayer recalled the draft process as one of opportunity rather than pressure. He relished the chance to showcase his skills. On draft day last July, he wasn’t concerned with where he’d be picked — though there was plenty of conversation about whether he might be selected first — or what team would take him.
“The draft is one day, and it doesn’t define who you are as a player or as a person,” said Mayer. “[But] you only get drafted once. I had an awesome draft party with all my family and friends, and I’m blessed to be able to wear a ‘B’ on my hat.”
Once Mayer signed with the Red Sox for $6.64 million, members of his new organization were struck by how approachable he was.
Fellow Salem infielder Eddinson Paulino marveled (through translator Juan Rivera) at Mayer’s “humility,” and how easily the shortstop related to everyone. That was aided by Mayer’s bilingual upbringing.
Mayer, whose mother is from Mexico and whose father is from Nogales, Ariz., grew up in a Spanish-speaking household. In Salem, he has inspired players — Spanish and English speakers — to connect in their second languages to build mutual respect, understanding, and friendships.
“My dad always told me to be a good teammate, be a good person,” said Mayer. “It’s not always about baseball. People are going to remember you as a person. I always keep that in mind.”
As much as Mayer has been approachable to all, his remarkable self-confidence also stands out. Salem manager Luke Montz likened the 19-year-old’s demeanor to what he’d seen as a spring training teammate of a 21-year-old Bogaerts in 2015.
“He absolutely allows himself to be a teenager,” said first baseman Niko Kavadas. “But the minute he steps between the lines, he’s a grown ... man.”
All the tools
Mayer has tools that create that confidence. He features a gorgeous, simple, clean lefthanded swing with little wasted motion.
His bat speed is solid but not elite. However, his hands are exceptional, allowing him to get to pitches all over the strike zone and drive the ball where it’s pitched.
“He’s coming from high school, but he looks like a college guy,” said Paulino. “He reminds me of Mookie Betts with his ability to manipulate the barrel. That’s instincts. You can’t teach that. There’s natural ability.”
In a recent game in Charleston, Mayer ripped a hanging slider for a homer to right-center in his first at-bat, smashed a belt-high mid-90s fastball on the inner half for a double to the fence in right-center, then later caught an elevated mid-90s fastball away and hammered it to left-center — a ball that certainly would have cleared the Wall at Fenway but was knocked down by the wind.
Mayer’s ability to do damage against elevated fastballs stands out. Though he’s proven vulnerable to whiffing on breaking pitches below the zone, he shows a precocious ability to make in-game adjustments.
“One at-bat, he’ll go down swinging at a curveball in the dirt. Next at-bat, they’ll start him off, bang, bang, two curveballs in the dirt and he’ll leave them,” said Salem catcher Nathan Hickey. “His ability to adjust within the game and within at-bats at his age is insane.”
Defensively, Mayer looks advanced beyond his years. Despite the absence of elite speed, his feel for the game allows him to have a quick first step with good reads. He devours ground balls and makes clean transfers for true throws.
“He takes pregame infield and it just looks different,” said Kavadas. “The game is so slow to him.”
At 6 feet 3 inches and 200 pounds (up from 190 when he signed, thanks to an introduction to weight training in pro ball), Mayer is already big for a shortstop. There’s a chance he could outgrow the position down the road. Most evaluators see potential to be an above-average defensive shortstop.
“He’s tall and long. You can compare him to a Cal Ripken,” said Montz. “He’s not a blazer but his first step is big for him.”
Where most top high school players come with a boom-or-bust element, Mayer looks all but certain (assuming good health) to emerge as a big league regular.
“He fields it, throws it, has a knack [for game situations], has the awareness, hits for power, hits for average,” said Salem pitching coach Nick Green. “I’m still to this day trying to find a flaw. The kid does everything.”
“Stud,” said a National League scout. “Easily one of the better players I’ve seen this year.”
It’s not hard to imagine Mayer moving up soon. His skills certainly wouldn’t be out of place in High A Greenville.
But given the amount of time he missed with his right wrist injury, the Sox see no reason to rush him out of Salem.
Still, there’s an excellent chance that he’ll get to Greenville this summer. He has the traits of a player capable of fast-tracking to the big leagues.
Though Mayer found inspiration on his first visit to Fenway Park last summer — “It was motivational, like, ‘I want to be back here soon,’ ” he said — he is not asking when he might get to the big leagues or even when he will take his next step up the minor league ladder.
“There’s a lot of great middle infielders here in this organization,” said Mayer. “For me to say I want to be there at a certain time is disrespectful. I’m just going to work every day as hard as I can and do whatever I can to get to the next step, which is not the big leagues — it’s High A. Then when I’m in High A, I’ll do whatever I can to get to Double A.”
That outlook only serves to reinforce the high opinions that are forming about him.
“The coolest thing in my life is when Derek Jeter retired after playing 20 years of shortstop, he said I’m retiring and I’m still walking to the ballpark every day learning something,” said Montz. “That’s [Mayer] right there. That’s the makeup that he has.
“He is a special guy when you look at it saying, ‘OK, that track could be fast to the big leagues.’ ”