Pirates top prospect Austin Meadows getting major-league 'vibe'
March 19, 2017 12:00 AM
Pirates Austin Meadows bats against the Atlanta Braves on Monday at Champion Stadium in Orlando.
Pirates center fielder Austin Meadows talks with Barrett Barnes during batting practice March 6 at LECOM Park in Bradenton, Fla.
John Jaso congratulates Austin Meadows after hitting a two-run home run against the Braves March 7 at LECOM Park in Bradenton, Fla.
Pirates center fielder Austin Meadows talks with teammates during batting practice March 6 at LECOM Park in Bradenton, Fla.
By Stephen J. Nesbitt / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
BRADENTON, Fla. — On Austin Meadows’ first day in the Pirates organization, shortly after the first-rounder from Grayson, Ga., agreed to a signing bonus of $3,029,600, Andrew McCutchen took him under his wing. As the Meadows family toured PNC Park June 28, 2013, McCutchen walked over and met the 18-year-old who might one day take his place in Pittsburgh’s outfield.
McCutchen knew the route Meadows was on. The Pirates drafted them eight years apart, high school center fielders selected 11th and ninth overall, respectively. McCutchen shared some advice about the potholes and pitfalls along the long road to Pittsburgh, about smoothing the transition from the absurdity of the pre-draft mania to the obscurity of life in the low minors.
“McCutchen told him, ‘Trust the process,’ “ Meadows’ father, Kenny, recalled. “Austin took that to heart. A lot of kids coming out of high school think they’re going to go right to the big leagues.”
Meadows, 21, isn’t there yet, but he’s no longer so far off. A non-roster invitee at major league camp this spring, he’s taken advantage of the extra at-bats available in the absence of McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco, who are away at the World Baseball Classic.
In the weeks he spent around the Pirates’ starting outfielders earlier this spring, Meadows said, he saw not just their talent, but their infectious energy and chemistry and passion.
“It’s a pretty special vibe here,” Meadows said.
In his first 12 Grapefruit League games, Meadows, the youngest player in Pirates camp, was 6 for 20 with three doubles, a home run and six walks. On Monday, he roped an RBI single to center field off 43-year-old Atlanta Braves starter Bartolo Colon, whose professional career began when he signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1993, two years before Meadows was born.
Having played only 37 games at Class AAA Indianapolis, Meadows isn’t quite at the doorstep of the major leagues. He needs a healthy season first. Last spring training, a deflected baseball fractured Meadows’ orbital bone. He had hamstring and oblique issues later in the year.
Meadows is blocked at all three outfield spots in the majors until — or unless — McCutchen departs. So he will wait, Meadows said, and he plans to savor this season, to bookmark this chapter so one day he might look back and remember what it was like on the cusp of the majors.
“I really don’t want to take any moment for granted,” Meadows said. “You want to be where your feet are. For me, I want to work each and every day to get better. I don’t want to worry about where I should be, where I could be, or any of that stuff. Let the moment take care of itself.
“The front office has a job to do. They’ll determine where you end up. Put the matter in their hands and, for me, enjoy the moment and enjoy the process as you go through it.”
‘That sounded different’
For now, before the bright lights of the big leagues, there is a simplicity to Meadows’ life.
In the offseason, Meadows lives at his parents’ home in Grayson — it saves him a little money, his father says — and rises before the sun most days for yoga classes or to work out at GATA Training in nearby Johns Creek., Ga., where he’s gone since halfway through high school.
Meadows’ mother, Staci, teaches at the elementary school in Grayson. His girlfriend, Alexis, teaches at the middle school. His little brother, Parker, is a 6-foot-5 junior center fielder and pitcher for Grayson High School. Parker is committed to Clemson, like his brother was, but he too has caught the attention of scouts and could be drafted next summer. Meadows motors his lifted pickup truck to and from his brother’s games and tells him to enjoy the process.
“You only go through it once,” Meadows advised. “Play your game. Scouts will notice that.”
The Meadows boys have strong pedigrees. Staci played softball at Georgia Southern and Georgia State, and Kenny played baseball and football at Morehead State. They went to high school together, started dating during college, married and settled close to home in Grayson.
Grayson, a small town about 40 miles northeast of Atlanta, is where Meadows made his name.
In 2009, Jed Hixson, Grayson High School’s head baseball coach, didn’t immediately see how the skinny, blonde-haired kid at summer baseball camp was anything special. He heard it.
“Just the way the ball jumped off his bat that day,” Hixson said. “I remember throwing him some (batting practice), and the way the ball went by me, I went, ‘That sounded different.’ ”
Attention soared once Meadows was picked for Team USA Baseball’s under-16 team in 2011.
“That was pretty special,” Meadows said. “That’s when I kind of knew. That’s where it took off.”
Meadows, following in his father’s footsteps, punted and played on offense for the Grayson High School football team. On Dec. 10, 2011, Meadows’ last game before giving up football to focus on baseball, the Rams won a state championship.
Meadows’ paternal grandmother grew up in McKeesport, and her sisters still live there. When the Pirates called Meadows on draft night, Kenny Meadows remembered, “I think we could hear them yelling all the way up in McKeesport when we were at home watching.”
On the rise
Ten days after signing with the Pirates, 10 days after being paraded around PNC Park and meeting McCutchen, Meadows was in uniform for the rookie-level Gulf Coast League Pirates.
There were no autograph seekers, young or old. There were no packed grandstands with scouts scattered throughout. The statistics, rankings and five-tool grades were tossed aside.
“It doesn’t matter, you realize,” Meadows said. “The Pirates do a really good job of treating everybody the same. No matter where you’re drafted, everyone is treated the same.”
Meadows climbed from obscurity more quickly than most, hitting his way up the ladder. His OPS was .977 in 2013, .881 in 2014, .781 in 2015 and .869 last year. He played in the Arizona Fall League. He rose from fourth to first on Baseball America’s rankings of top Pirates prospects, and he was on the magazine’s cover in January alongside the headline: HE’S GOT NEXT.
Every September, Hixon and his wife take an anniversary trip to a major league stadium. This past year, they were drawn instead to Indianapolis. They watched a ballgame and went to dinner downtown with Meadows.
The context is different, Hixson said, but Meadows isn’t.
“A few years ago he was just a student, an athlete who played for us,” Hixson said. “He’s a millionaire now. It’s strange to think about. But you wouldn’t even know it by the way he carries himself. There’s nothing lavish that he’s done. It’s been neat to see how grounded he’s stayed.
“He’s mature beyond his years. Whether in athletics or in any walk of life, to be able to look at the negatives and say, ‘I’m not going to let this ruin me. I’m going to use this to propel me.’ For a kid of his age, in the limelight and the exposure, to look at things that way is what makes him great.”
Stephen J. Nesbitt: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.
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