Less than two years into his professional career, Marcelo Mayer will make his Double A debut Tuesday for the Portland Sea Dogs against the Somerset Patriots in New Jersey. He’s moving on a faster development track than any other Red Sox draftee in more than a decade, the first one since 2009 to join Portland before turning 21.
In some ways, his path seems preordained. Mayer, after all, was the No. 4 overall selection in the 2021 draft, the highest Red Sox pick in more than a half-century. They had a chance to pick a potential star.
Still, the Sox did not take his development as a given, particularly because Mayer was unable to compete against other top amateur prospects on the prep showcase circuit — which was largely canceled in 2020 — in the summer before his senior high school season.
The Sox viewed Mayer’s potential as irresistible. And to this point, everything he has done in the minors — including hitting .290 with a .366 on-base percentage, .524 slugging mark, 7 homers, and 19 extra-base hits in 35 games this year in High A Greenville — has reinforced that view.
“He’s projecting the way we projected him as a 17-year-old,” said Sox vice president of amateur scouting and player development Paul Toboni.
So what kind of player is he at the start of his time in the upper levels of the minor leagues?
To start with, Mayer has retained the fluidity, ease, and grace in pro ball that he’d shown throughout his amateur career. Everything he does seems attuned to the rhythm of the game. Nothing is rushed, whether it’s the easy swing with which he barrels pitches in any part of the strike zone or the ability to vacuum grounders and quickly throw from a variety of arm angles.
He is a true shortstop who anchors the infield. While he has below-average speed, his baseball IQ and athleticism allow him to play quickly in the field, a fact that — coupled with his 6-foot-2-inch frame — has elicited comparisons to players such as Cal Ripken Jr. and Brandon Crawford.
“Everybody, myself included, has to remember that this is still a 20-year-old kid who is going to make 20-year-old mistakes,” said Red Sox infield coordinator Darren Fenster. “But something he’s shown over the course of his time with us is that he has a really, really fast learning curve from mistakes.
“The athleticism, the ability to read and create hops, the arm, the baseball intellect, all that stuff continues to shine through, almost to the point where you get surprised when he does have a routine miscue.”
Because Mayer has a very sound fundamental base, Fenster said, many of his improvements have been in the finer points — for instance, running through a ball to field it on the glove side rather than backhanding it to get a quicker release.
“There’s just a lot of things that he’s able to do,” said Fenster. “The more options guys have to make a play, the more plays they’re able to make. He’s the epitome of that.”
Offensively, Mayer’s natural swing remains a head-turner. Some players require mechanical tweaks to get to velocity once they enter pro ball. Mayer is not among them.
“I saw him take one swing in spring training and my jaw dropped,” said Red Sox director of hitting development Jason Ochart. “It was like, ‘Wow, that’s what it looks like.’ He’s incredibly gifted. I’ve never had the chance to work with a player like this before.”
Mayer didn’t lift weights in high school, resulting in power and bat speed that, as a 17-year-old, graded as fringy to average on a major league scale, but with obvious room for progress as he matured physically.
Where is he now on the 20-to-80 scouting scale, where 50 is average?
“Probably in the 55-60 range,” said Toboni. “Our hope is he gets to the 70-plus range, which I think is totally within reach.”
The reason for that optimism relates to the pace at which Mayer learns. As talented as he is, he has been open to instructors who push him.
Ochart introduced Mayer to a weighted bat program this year in spring training. Most players, when swinging bats with unfamiliar weight distributions, struggle to make contact. Mayer almost instantly adapted.
“He was able to just do it really, really fast,” said Ochart. “He’s just, like, a freaking superhuman.
“The ceiling is high and his ability to make adjustments, his ability to learn, and to improve — he’s not slowing down. He’s already got above big-league average bat speed and he still has room to develop physically. He’s going to keep learning his approach and learning how to be a hitter. He’s really, really special.”
Indeed, one of the great separators for Mayer is his openness to developmental risks rather than complacency about his considerable talent base. That trait was part of the Red Sox’ thinking in promoting him to Double A at this early stage.
Mayer has endured slumps — albeit brief ones — both offensively and defensively, yet he’s been able to maintain perspective as part of the developmental process. He has used failure as a teacher in a way that suggests a mature player who can handle the challenge of playing in Portland at age 20.
“To be in Double A before June 1 in his second full season, I don’t know if anybody would have predicted it would have been that fast,” said Fenster. “From the way that he’s performed not just this year but since coming into the organization as a very, very high-profile prospect, every step along the way, he’s kind of forced that decision on us.”