SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Texas Rangers summoned top prospect Joey Gallo from Double-A Frisco in June when third baseman Adrian Beltre went on the disabled list with a sprained left thumb. Two weeks later, Gallo enjoyed an out-of-body experience when he launched a 439-foot home run off Clayton Kershaw at Dodger Stadium.
Gallo filed away more than just the memory of that ball clearing the fence and the ensuing trot around the bases. In the clubhouse before the game, he was watching Louisiana State University play in the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, and it dawned on him how fate can work in mysterious ways. Gallo received a scholarship offer from LSU out of high school and was committed to becoming a Tiger before the Rangers chose him 39th overall in the 2012 draft and offered him a $2.25 million bonus to convince him to turn pro.
“I was watching LSU on TV and thinking, ‘I could have been a junior in the College World Series, instead of at Dodger Stadium facing the best pitcher in the game,’’ Gallo said. “If I had gone to college I would have been there, using a metal bat and hopefully not hurting people.’’
Gallo, an imposing 6-foot-5, 240 pounds, has 133 home runs in 1,485 professional at-bats, so he’s shown his ability to devastate and demoralize with wood. But he also has endured enough setbacks and generated enough swings and misses to realize that prospects can fall in and out of fashion.
“People love prospects,’’ Gallo said, “unless they watch them play every day.’’
Gallo, who turned 22 in October, still ranks high on every list of elite up-and-comers in baseball. ESPN.com’s Keith Law pegged him at No. 12 in his latest top 100 rankings, based on his potential upside as a 40-homer, 70-80 walk-per-season slugger. Baseball America, also citing Gallo’s gargantuan power, ranked him 10th on its top 100 list.
Gallo hit 42 home runs and won the MVP Award at the All-Star Futures Game in 2014, but last year can charitably be referred to as a “formative experience.’’ He went 3-for-5 with a homer in his Rangers debut, but big league pitchers quickly exploited his holes at the plate, and he dropped down to .218 by the time the Rangers sent him back to the minors in late June. Gallo batted .195 with Triple-A Round Rock, and the whiffs kept mounting. He enters his fifth professional season with a career strikeout rate of 42 percent, on 625 punchouts in 1,485 at bats.
While scouts have compared Gallo to the likes of Adam Dunn and Russell Branyan, Baltimore’s Chris Davis might be the more accurate comparison. The Rangers point to Gallo’s strong arm, athleticism and baserunning instincts as evidence that he’s more than just a one-trick pony. During a late-June game in Toronto, Rangers manager Jeff Banister threw everyone a curve when he started Gallo in center field.
Banister, adhering to a time-honored theory about struggles being beneficial to prospects unaccustomed to failure, thinks Gallo’s short-term travails will make him more resilient in the long run.
“You gotta get punched,’’ Banister said. “You’ve got to learn how to overcome it, so that when you have those obstacles again in your career, you know they’re not so devastating. He had early success and he was Superman for a few days, and then the league said, ‘Hold on, big man.’ The thing I love about him is how hard he works. He’s very determined.’’
Gallo channeled his disappointment over his 2015 numbers into some rigorous offseason workouts with Jason Giambi and Rockies catcher Nick Hundley in his native Las Vegas. When Gallo arrived in camp, the Rangers told him he should expect to log a lot of time at third base. But if Josh Hamilton is slow to return from offseason knee surgery, Gallo could wind up in the left-field mix with Justin Ruggiano, Ryan Rua and several others.
The more likely scenario calls for Gallo to return to Triple-A Round Rock and play every day to begin the season. He’s still quite young, and the more at-bats he accumulates against left-handed pitching and repetitions he gets at third base, the more well-rounded a player he’ll become.
“There’s nothing wrong with it, if we go that path,’’ general manager Jon Daniels said. “He’s here in camp competing. We haven’t made that call. But you could certainly make a case that’s best for him, too.’’
As Daniels duly notes, the Rangers’ two biggest home walk-up crowds last season came on Hamilton’s return to Arlington and Gallo’s major league debut. If Gallo can display the type of seat-denting, windshield-breaking power that’s so rare in big league lineups these days, the Rangers and their fans will happily live with his shortcomings.
It’s not an easy road to navigate. Last year, when Gallo was striking out with regularity, he made a sincere effort to put more balls in play. But when shortening up began to detract from his ability to drive balls, he wondered if the process wasn’t counterproductive.
“I know I’m going to strike out more than an average baseball player, especially being tall and long,’’ Gallo said. “I tried to do that approach where I just dumped balls and slapped balls, and it was hard for me because I’ve never learned to hit like that. I was too aggressive and I swung at pitches outside the zone and my swing just wasn’t right. I remember joking with my Triple-A hitting coach, ‘I’m just going to hit the ball soft today. Maybe I’ll get a couple of hits.’
“It was the toughest year of my life, but you get better from it and you learn from it.’’
Gallo’s mindset quickly improved when he stepped in the cage and commenced hacking in the offseason, and spring training brought the usual sense of comfort and renewal. He might not experience the thrill of his first Opening Day when the Rangers host Cleveland on April 1, but his attributes are simply too numerous to ignore. The Rangers have faith that he’ll be hurting pitchers’ feelings and denting big league baseballs for an awfully long time.