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Travis Demeritte eyes a new beginning with the Braves

ADELANTO, Calif. — Stockton Ports pitcher Brett Graves can’t stop smiling as he stands outside the visitor’s clubhouse in this small, wind-swept high desert city. Minutes ago, the righty—a top prospect in Oakland’s organization—threw eight one-hit innings for the Ports in a 2-1 road win against the High Desert Mavericks. An infield single, the hit was quickly erased on a double play and Graves needed just 74 pitches to face the minimum 24 hitters through those eight innings.

The outing is no doubt a testament to Graves’ ability, his power sinker throwing off Mavericks hitters all night long. It’s doubly a testament to Graves’ stuff, considering High Desert is perhaps the most hitter-friendly ballpark in all of minor league baseball. But as much credit as Graves deserves, there’s one player on his mind that didn’t factor into Wednesday night’s California League game: Travis Demeritte.

Hours before, news broke that the Texas Rangers traded the power-hitting second baseman to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for two pitchers. Demeritte was in Adelanto saying goodbye to teammates on Wednesday before getting his travel itinerary back east to join the Braves’ Double-A affiliate, but he wasn’t in uniform—and Graves was happy about that.

“I heard about the trade on the bus ride here from the hotel. Somebody read it off Twitter to me,” Graves said, smiling. “I was like ‘hey, that’s one less stud I’ve got to worry about.’ I’ve got a ton of respect for him because he of what he did in this league. He’s a really good ballplayer.”

What Demeritte did before Wednesday’s trade was exceptional. He led the Cal League in slugging percentage (.583), home runs (25; nine more than the second-best total), total bases (193), runs (73), and was second in OPS (.935). Add a Cal League All-Star nod, the league’s Player of the Month award in April, and a spot in the Futures Game during All-Star Weekend, and Demeritte leaves the Rangers—and the Cal League—a special player. And yes, the second baseman slugged one of his 25 homers off Graves earlier this summer.

Now, Demeritte is gone, off to a rebuilding club playing not for this year’s hopes, but rather next year’s. Or maybe the year after.

“Good for him, man,” High Desert catcher Jose Trevino told me a few hours after the news broke. “He’s going to have some opportunities in the Braves organization, but it’s really hard to see him go, man. He’s one of my good buddies.

“Everybody plays a role, and he played a real big one,” Trevino continued, visibly emotional over Demeritte departing a Mavericks club that has locked up a Cal League playoff spot. “It seemed like whenever we needed that big hit to get the lead or something, Travis would come up and, just, bam.”

Demeritte will get notice for what he’s done this year in High Desert, of course; his counting stats are impressive. He’s drawing consistent walks, and getting on base at an exceptional rate. His bat speed is notable. He strikes out a lot, yes—and it’s something he plainly knows he needs to address—but he has obvious physical tools.

Oh, and the home runs.

You can’t talk about Travis Demeritte without acknowledging the home runs.

Yes, High Desert is an incredibly hitter-friendly park. Yes, the wind constantly blows out to center field. Yes, if a ball gets up in the air, the jet stream will take it out with little resistance. No, Travis Demeritte does not think that alone defines him or his season.

“Whenever I hear that, I just turn the cold shoulder to it, man. People can say whatever they want, but I’ve still got to hit the baseball regardless,” Demeritte said about Heritage Field’s unique park factors. “There have been one or two that squeaked out due to the help of the wind, but they were still balls that were hit decently well, and then the wind helped them out or whatever.”

Heritage Field is decent size—340′ down the lines, 410′ to center—and though it may not always play that way, Mavericks hitters are quick to point out reality isn’t inextricably tied to the reputation of the park… or the player.

“I’ll be honest with you, I haven’t seen Travis hit any cheap home runs out of here,” Trevino told Today’s Knuckleball, defending his now ex-teammate. “Everything he’s hit has just been…”

Trevino trailed off, shaking his head while searching for the words to describe a blast Demeritte uncorked on Tuesday night against Stockton—a grand slam that nearly cleared the top of Heritage Field’s massive scoreboard in left-center.

“That homer [on Tuesday], oh man,” Trevino said, laughing. “That dude is just good, man. He can hit. He can get to the ball, he’s got some quick hands. He can hit.”

You can’t talk about Travis Demeritte without acknowledging the suspension.

Last summer, playing for Low-A Hickory, the prospect was suspended 80 games after testing positive for a masking agent. It nearly derailed his career.

“It was a mistake, and it was stupid, but it actually helped me a little bit,” Demeritte admitted about the suspension, never hesitating to own up to the act and account for the aftermath. “It helped me re-channel my energy back to baseball, and get away from the outside distractions. It was obviously a defining point for me. I had to take time and really realize what I wanted out of my life.”

“Now, I can definitely call it a blessing in disguise,” he continued. “Sometimes we need that eye opener, that wake up call. I’m glad I got mine early, rather than have it come in late.”

Trevino was with Demeritte at Hickory last summer when the suspension came down, and he’s been with Demeritte all summer here in High Desert up until the trade yesterday. So he wasn’t surprised to hear Demeritte take responsibility.

“He’s really growing, man,” Trevino said. “Everybody makes mistakes, you know? But like you said, he looks you in the eyes, he fesses up to it, and now he’s gotten around it. I know that from speaking to all of the guys around here, everybody has noticed it. He’s different this year. He’s doing his thing.”

You can’t talk about Travis Demeritte without acknowledging the comeback.

Not even a full year after serving his league-mandated PED suspension, Demeritte was named a California League All-Star, and granted that spot in the Futures Game. In a game typically dominated by Double-A and Triple-A talent—many of whom will be making their big league debuts later this summer—Demeritte stood out, representing both the Rangers at the time, and High-A more broadly. He didn’t miss a beat at Petco Park.

“I felt like I belonged, and I had a good time with those guys. That was a good experience,” he said. “It’s just baseball, man. Obviously it’s better competition, better pitching, but at the end of the day it’s just baseball.”

Still, it’s not just baseball—it’s also a well-regarded prospect getting his trajectory back on track a year after making the worst mistake of his career. That journey—and the growth Trevino references—all point to a resounding comeback for Demeritte.

“I came into spring training with a clear mindset this year, and the Rangers didn’t hold my past against me, so I’m not going to hold it against myself,” Demeritte said. “I try not to put too much pressure on myself or worry about the past and all the stuff that’s happened. I’m trying to move forward every day, and keep getting better every day.”

It’s refreshing to see how matter-of-fact Demeritte is about the PED past. More encouraging than maybe any other personality trait he possesses, it’s exactly that no-nonsense attitude that’s allowed him not only to grapple with the scarlet letter of last summer, but now, to keep it firmly in his past.

“You have start somewhere,” he acknowledged, shrugging. “Last year was bad for me, yeah, but I’m trying to learn from it now. This is me. I’m more focused on my craft and not so much on outside distractions, and I’m starting to learn this is what it takes to be a big leaguer.”

And now, you can’t talk about Travis Demeritte without acknowledging the trade.

Dealing with the aftermath of Demeritte’s departure on Wednesday, and seeking a unique perspective on what it’s like to suddenly move organizations like this, one name popped up: James Harris. Now an outfielder for the visiting Ports, Harris was in the Tampa Bay Rays’ organization for four years before being released last March. Almost immediately, the Athletics picked him up, so he knows a little bit about what Demeritte will go through this week with the Braves.

“He can’t get discouraged by a new scene, new people,” Harris told Today’s Knuckleball when asked about seeing Demeritte depart from the opposing dugout. “Don’t try and do too much too soon to impress them. I think that’s the biggest thing. Don’t think that you’re expected to do more than what you’ve already done. They like you for who you are, so don’t try to be more.”

That’s easier said than done, of course—especially when the book on Demeritte coming to Atlanta revolves around those gaudy power totals. Expectations will be high, and Demeritte will find himself a focal point for the new organization. To that end, the second baseman himself recognizes the competition he’s facing from others, both within his current organization and elsewhere around baseball.

“There are guys above me that I’m trying to get to, and there are guys below me that are trying to get to me,” Demeritte acknowledged. “But I’ve seen guys from this league make their Major League debut this year, and that’s been a real eye opener to me. If I continue to do what I’m doing, I could be one of those guys. That’s everybody’s dream, but I try not to worry about all the promotions, that can throw you out of your game very easily.”

Harris knows a thing or two about that—and like Trevino, the Stockton outfielder was happy for Demeritte and the chances he ought to get with Atlanta.

“Every day when you’re in the minor leagues, you’re playing for 29 other teams,” Harris admitted. “Anything could happen at any time, so it’s always an audition for 29 other teams until you get to the big leagues. And then even once you get there, other teams are always looking for the next guy in their organization to be the guy.”

In the grand scheme of things, this trade may never be anything more than a transaction on the log, an exchange of talent that never quite pans out as expected. Lucas Harrell is a journeyman pitcher who was in Korea last year before the Braves took a chance on him with a minor league contract. Dario Alvarez has had but a cup of coffee in the big leagues, and comes to Texas an unknown bullpen option. Demeritte, of course, has yet to even do that.

But for the second baseman, this is far more than a roster move; it’s a life-changing, career-altering transaction. It’s a homecoming for the Georgia native. It might be a better shot at getting to and sticking in the big leagues during Atlanta’s rebuild. As Harris said, it’s an opportunity.

“Travis is a really talented athlete,” Harris said. “If he goes over there and plays like he knows he can, he’ll be fine. Any team would be lucky to have him.”

In the exchange, Harris loses an opponent against whom he’d been competing for the league lead in offensive categories this summer. Graves loses a tough out, and has already clearly benefitted from the absence of Demeritte’s bat in the High Desert lineup.

And Trevino loses a friend.

“Man, I’m so proud of him, seriously,” Trevino said, beaming. “He’s a really good guy. Hopefully I’ll keep in touch with him.”

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