How a bet won this prospect $50 -- and potentially a spot in the Majors

March 1st, 2024

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Few good things actually come out of a bet between friends, no matter how friendly it may seem. But , the Rangers’ No. 19 prospect per MLB Pipeline, has a different story.

Because of his quick development as a professional, it’s easy to forget Church’s trajectory as an amateur. Church was a shortstop in his first three seasons of high school and a middle infielder throughout travel ball. He didn't become a pitcher until the summer before his senior season after a teammate, Nick, bet him he couldn't reach 88 mph off the mound.

Church hit 90 mph.

“I obviously took the bet,” he said. “I won $50, and then I just knew from that day. I’m the type of guy where I like anything I’m good at. My coach said, ‘You're a pitcher.’ And then the rest is history. I immediately fell in love with it.”

As a senior at North Atlanta High School, Church tossed 26 2/3 innings with 40 strikeouts and 11 walks, good for a 2.62 ERA, while also hitting .397. He initially had a scholarship to play shortstop at North Carolina A&T before switching to pitching full time.

Despite pitching less than 30 innings in high school, the Rangers signed Church for $300,000 after selecting him in the 18th round of the 2019 MLB Draft. The pandemic delayed his professional debut until 2021, but he has moved quickly through the system and finished ‘23 with Triple-A Round Rock.

Since the day of that bet, Church’s velocity has steadily risen from the low 90s to the mid-90s. Now Church -- after recording his first save of Spring Training in Thursday's 7-5 win over the Brewers -- is competing for a spot in the bullpen come Opening Day.

In high school, Marc Church won a $50 bet after hitting 90 mph on the mound. Now, Church is betting on himself to make the Rangers' Opening Day roster.Texas Rangers

“I'm feeling good,” Church said. “I'm excited for what's to come. It does feel different than last year, because I was a lot more nervous. I didn't know what to expect last year, and this year coming in, my nerves are a little bit down. I'm just competing and doing what I can do.”

Church is as good an option as anybody in camp. The right-hander is on the 40-man roster and has impressed early in big league camp. In three Cactus League appearances this spring, Church has dealt three scoreless innings, while allowing just one hit and one walk. Texas added veterans Kirby Yates and David Robertson to the bullpen this offseason, but holes still remain within the group with a month left until the start of the season.

In 2023, Church had career highs in wins (nine), appearances (43), innings (62) and strikeouts (79) between Double-A Frisco and Triple-A Round Rock. The right-hander admitted that he struggled with the transition to Triple-A early on, especially after allowing two earned runs in back-to-back outings on May 28 and 31. From there, he didn’t allow multiple runs in consecutive outings for his next 23 appearances between June 3 to Sept. 9, good for a 2.10 ERA. Church finished the season with a 3.48 ERA between the two levels, leading to his addition to the 40-man roster this winter.

“Honestly, it was a lot of growing pains,” Church said. “The strike zone -- it's no secret -- is a lot smaller than anywhere else. Being a young guy, I just had to tweak some little things in my delivery and try to figure it out. I'm still young and I'm still figuring out a lot of stuff. I think I had to go through those growing pains.”

Marc Church (right) has emerged as a candidate for the Rangers' bullpen after striking out 206 batters across 138 1/3 Minor League innings.

In his three years in the Rangers’ system, Church has thrived on a two-pitch mix, complementing his fastball with a slider to accumulate 206 strikeouts in 138 1⁄3 professional innings (99 games). Since he debuted in 2021, Church's 13.4 strikeouts per nine innings lead all Rangers farmhands with at least 130 innings.

Church said veteran starter Nathan Eovaldi took him under his wing last year in camp, allowing him to feel more comfortable working through his delivery and mechanics. Eovaldi, who often watches and critiques his teammates’ bullpens and starts, is impressed with what he sees.

“His fastball and slider are electric,” Eovaldi said. “He’s got two pitches like that, where you can come out of the bullpen at any time. He's got really good stuff. I think he's one of those guys where he tends to try to overpower guys when his stuff is good enough to challenge them with what he has. If he can repeat his mechanics a little bit better, he's gonna have a better opportunity to go out there and get big league guys out.”

Much like easily taking a friendly bet and turning it into a career in baseball, Church is a competitor both on and off the baseball field. With just a month left until Opening Day, he’s in a good place to make his big league debut sooner rather than later.

“Honestly, whatever I do, if I'm playing video games, whatever, I don't like to lose,” Church said. “So if it's out here, it’s always been a competitive mindset. I think I'm the best that day, so I always go with that attitude and … now I'm knocking on a big league door. It's just a crazy feeling.”