SURPRISE, Ariz. -- It was late in the Single-A Florida State League season when Marlins catching prospect Joe Mack was called into the manager’s office. The Marlins’ second pick in the 2021 Draft, taken in the Competitive Balance Round A (No. 31 overall), had been through a bit of a frustrating season, interrupted for a significant amount of time by a hamstring injury, and he didn’t know why Jupiter skipper Ángel Espada needed to talk to him. He was about to find out his year was being extended by going to the Arizona Fall League.
“I was kind of thrown off,” said Mack, the Marlins’ No. 9 prospect. “I was ready to kick back and relax for a little bit in the offseason and then grind it out. But I was called into the manager’s office, and he told me that he’s going to send me here. At first, I didn’t really know what it was. I didn’t know what it meant. I talked to a bunch of people and they all were happy for me, and I was excited to go after that. Ever since I’ve been here, it’s been better and better every day.”
His performance with the Mesa Solar Sox has been getting better and better every day as well. The fifth-youngest player in the AFL this year, the left-handed-hitting catcher launched his second homer of the season on Friday, a line-drive solo shot in the third inning as Mesa beat the Surprise Saguaros, 9-2. It was a home run all the more impressive because it came against a lefty, Colton Gordon of the Astros, and Mack’s ability to make adjustments -- he struck out against Graham in the first -- shows an advanced approach at the plate that’s improving rapidly here.
“The previous time I was up, he threw me a couple of sliders and I kind of bit on them and chased them,” said Mack, who now has a .300/.462/.650 line over his first 20 AFL at-bats. “I knew he was going to come back with them, so I just sat back on it, waited for the slider. He threw me two of them, they were both balls. Then I was thinking fastball, he threw it right there and boom.”
Mack has now homered in two of his past three games and has picked up a hit in four of his six while also drawing five walks. He was far from the only one to make offensive contributions on Friday, with Rays outfielder Mason Auer going 2-for-5 with a homer and four RBIs, Cubs first baseman Matt Mervis following up his two-homer game from Thursday with another long ball and A’s outfielder Denzel Clarke going 2-for-4 with an inside-the-park home run and a double.
Given that Mack is just 20 and played in just 44 total games in his full year, he’s definitely leaned on a lot of his new teammates. The Fall League is a developmental league and as much as instruction from coaches helps, the amount of information that’s shared has helped Mack shorten the learning curve from Single-A to this advanced level.
“It’s been big,” Mack said. “All these guys on my team help me out. If it weren’t for these guys, I wouldn’t be learning a lot. They all talk to me about certain pitches the pitchers [throw]. They love communicating, seeing what they do in each spot. The batters are always communicating, telling each other what pitches they were throwing, how they move, how they look. It’s a team effort, and if it weren’t for those guys, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do out here.”
It’s not just the offensive side of the game that has the chance to improve exponentially here. Getting behind the plate and catching the Mesa staff a half dozen times already has undoubtedly helped Mack with that part of his game. He entered pro ball with reports of him having the chance to be a solid all-around backstop and the extra reps, especially with more advanced arms, has been huge.
“The Miami Marlins pitchers are really good, really fun; I love catching them all,” Mack said. “These pitchers here are a little bit different. I think they’re a little more developed. They’re older, they’ve been around and they’ve been playing the game a little bit more. So they know what they want to do and they have a firm and strong idea of what they want to do and get accomplished during their outings.
“I learn from that, pick up on it and I’m definitely going to use that, learn and help my teammates in the future with all that information.”
Where that will be in 2023 remains to be seen. It’s possible the Marlins could send him back to Single-A, at least to start the year, given how little time he’s been able to play. But a continued strong showing here could very easily prepare him for a move to High-A and beyond next season. Regardless of where he goes, the Marlins’ sending him here gives him a boost of confidence and a chance he knows not to squander.
“I believe they put me here because they want me to get better and they want me to develop and they want me to see higher level of competition, see if I can play up to it or fall behind,” Mack said. “Based on this Fall League, I don’t know what’s going to happen, if they’ll do something different or put me at the same level. But I think they want me to get better and sending me here is telling me that.
“I think it’s a great opportunity. I really l like it here and I think it’s going to help me get used to the game, grind it out, play that full season. Obviously, I missed a little bit of time and I don’t really know exactly what a full season is and going past the season is kind of letting me know you have to work and grind for that and you better do some work in the offseason, which I will. I definitely want to get back better, stronger and healthier next year.”