With a 'layer of confidence,' Mead ready to build off breakout season

From Australia to the Arizona Fall League, top prospect reflects on his journey so far

March 4th, 2022

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Curtis Mead was home for the winter, training with the Adelaide Giants of the Australian Baseball League, when his phone lit up with missed calls and text messages on Nov. 20, 2019. He had been at practice when the Phillies acquired lefty reliever Cristopher Sánchez from the Rays. And Philadelphia officials were trying to reach Mead, then a little-known 19-year-old with no stateside experience above the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, to inform him he’d been dealt to Tampa Bay.

“Initially,” Mead said, “I didn’t love it.”

The Phillies signed Mead out of Australia when he was only 17, and he had quickly grown comfortable with the organization, his coaches and his teammates. All of a sudden, he had a new team he didn’t know much about. But a phone call from director of Minor League operations Jeff McLerran helped settle Mead’s nerves. McLerran spoke highly of Mead, saying the Rays thought he’d make a big impact on their organization.

“Ever since then, I haven't looked back,” Mead said. “I've been really, really happy that it happened.”

And the Rays have been really, really happy to have him. Mead broke out in his organizational debut last season, hitting his way onto the radar and emerging as one of the top prospects in the Rays’ deep system heading into this year.

Mead began the season with Low-A Charleston and dominated pitchers with a .356/.408/.586 slash line and seven homers in 47 games. He didn’t slow down much after a promotion to High-A Bowling Green, hitting .282/.348/.466 with seven homers in 53 games. The 20-year-old corner infielder spent a week with Triple-A Durham in September and went 6-for-14 with a homer and two doubles. And he capped his impressive year with a .313/.360/.530 showing and three homers over 20 games in the prospect-laden Arizona Fall League.

“I really think it was a dream come true,” Mead said after a Minor League Spring Training workout at the Rays’ Charlotte Sports Park complex.

Mead wasn’t exactly unknown entering last season. He was scouted by six to 10 teams as a teenager, earned a $200,000 signing bonus as an amateur and came to the Rays in a trade for a reliever who pitched in the Majors last year. But as Mead himself noted, he wasn’t even listed among Tampa Bay’s top 30 prospects this time a year ago.

So, you might be wondering, where did this guy come from?

Mead grew up with the game because his father, Tim, played baseball. So did Tim’s father. Tim never pushed any sports on his children, but Mead came to love baseball (his best sport, even if he admittedly didn’t try particularly hard at first) and Australian rules football more than his experiences with soccer, tennis and cricket. When he was 16, Mead sat down with his family to decide which sport he’d try to go pro in.

“Then I really put in the hard yards with baseball, and then it kind of clicked from there,” Mead said. 

Mead generated some interest after taking part in showcases in Arizona, signed with the Phillies, made his brief professional debut in 2018 then caught the Rays’ attention when he hit .285/.351/.462 in 44 games for the Gulf Coast League Phillies in 2019. Tampa Bay’s commitment to scouting, especially at the Minors’ lowest levels, paid off in a big way with Mead.

“I think we all knew Curtis Mead could hit,” Rays Minor League field coordinator Michael Johns said. “I don't know if we knew he had that kind of power with the speed off bat, and it just kept getting better.”

There’s a reason for Mead’s power surge. Now 21 years old, he has muscled up since the trade, putting on 30 pounds between 2019 and now with a “pretty strict” lifting program and 3,000-calories-a-day diet. Mead has found the added weight upgraded his ability to run, throw and hit the ball hard. It showed.

“When he was at the Arizona Fall League, he was [hitting] with better plate discipline but also hitting for more power. And right now, I think we have a guy that can be a complete hitter,” said Double-A Montgomery hitting coach Wuarnner Rincones, who coached Mead in Charleston and the Fall League last year. “He can be an everyday player in the Major Leagues who can hit 25-plus homers and be an elite player at the Major League level.”

Mead’s confidence and presence stand out to Rays coaches and players, too. Rincones said he treats everyone the same, from high-level baseball operations officials to his youngest teammates. He’s “fun to coach,” Johns said, someone who carefully listens to advice. Fellow top prospect Taj Bradley thought Mead was 23 when they first met -- not because of his stature, but because of his attitude.

“He’s really mature. He's a great hitter, great player,” Bradley said. “I always say there's gamers and there's showcase guys. He's a gamer.”

Two moments made Mead step back and appreciate what he did last season. The first came when he was called up to High-A, because he didn’t expect to succeed like he did in Low-A. (It was “challenging,” he said with a grin, to learn he wouldn’t hit almost .360 everywhere else he went.) The second came when he made a brief cameo in Triple-A -- a surprising promotion necessitated by injuries and callups -- and held his own. The confidence he gained there propelled him through the rest of the fall and winter.

“It made me work a little bit extra hard in the offseason, that's for sure,” Mead said. “That’s when I was kind of like, ‘Maybe I’m not as far away as I thought.’ So that was pretty cool.”

Mead’s breakout was properly reflected on prospect lists. He jumped to No. 14 in the Rays’ system, according to MLB Pipeline, by midseason and is slated to take another leap this year. Johns raved about the work he put in defensively while training this offseason in Nashville, Tenn. Mead will continue to play third and first base, though he’ll mix in a little time at second base to test his improved agility.

His mentality hasn’t changed, though.

“I think just continuing to build off last year and prove that it wasn't really a fluke and continue to work hard,” Mead said. “I think it'll be a little bit easier knowing that I've played at the Triple-A level. So whether I land at Double-A or Triple-A, I will have that layer of confidence.”