There was little that went wrong for outfielder Jermaine Mitchell during the 2011 regular season, but as soon as the season was in the books, his fortunes took a dramatic turn for the worse. Mitchell played through knee pain during the final weeks of the season and when the year was finished, he was scheduled for what was supposed to be surgery to repair a torn meniscus. It turned out that the meniscus tear was far from Mitchell's only problem, and he wound-up having a much more serious procedure – microfracture surgery.
Microfracture surgeries are becoming increasingly more common for NBA players and NFL running backs, but there aren't nearly as many cases seen in Major League Baseball. The recovery from a microfracture surgery can be a long one and Mitchell was originally given an estimated recovery time that would put him on the shelf for all of spring training and the first month of the 2012 season. It was a potentially devastating setback for the A's 2006 fifth-round pick, who went from after-thought to top prospect with his breakthrough 2011 season.
It was a long road for Mitchell this off-season rehabbing the injury, but the Texas native, who is known for his strong work ethic, made a remarkably fast recovery.
"I did a little bit of everything. Mostly stability work to get the knee to stay stable to strengthen that part of my knee up," Mitchell said of the rehab.
"It was kind of rough but it was just the fact it was a long process and I had never really been injured before. It was frustrating when I had it because it felt like it could kind of be a set-back or whatever, but I'm back and way ahead of schedule.
"I feel great. The strength's coming back and it's probably as strong as it was last year. I feel really good and my running is back to normal. I'm ready to go."
Being ahead of schedule with his rehab allowed Mitchell to participate in his first major league spring training camp this February and March. The A's were cautious with Mitchell and he didn't play in any of the big league spring games, but he was able to soak in the environment and spend a significant amount of time with major league veterans for the first time during his six-year professional career.
"It was fun. Getting to be around the big leaguers like Coco [Crisp] and Manny [Ramirez], who have been around the game a long time, you learn a lot from those guys, so that was a great experience," Mitchell said.
Mitchell's invitation to big league camp was stamped in November when he was added to the A's 40-man roster for the first time. It was quite an achievement for the UNC-Greensboro alum. Mitchell's professional career got off to a fast start when he posted a 967 OPS for short-season Vancouver in 2006. He followed up that season with a solid effort for Low-A Kane County, putting together an 803 OPS, and he was one of the A's better outfield prospects heading into the 2008 campaign.
Things began to go awry for Mitchell in 2008, however. Although he was part of the High-A Stockton Ports' California League championship season, he struggled with inconsistency throughout the year, posting a 715 OPS. Mitchell was sent back to Stockton for the 2009 campaign and had even more trouble in the hitter-friendly league, posting a 676 OPS. His career looked to be completely stalled at the start of the 2010 campaign when he was sent back for yet another run through the California League.
Mitchell finally found the key to dominating the California League in 2010, however. In 78 games, he put together a 936 OPS with 10 homers, 21 doubles, seven triples and 21 stolen bases. That effort finally earned Mitchell a promotion to Double-A, but he struggled during his first exposure to the Texas League. In 37 games, he managed only a 629 OPS. He did finish the year with a short stint with the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats. Although Mitchell collected only two hits in 11 at-bats, one of those hits helped the River Cats win a key game during their push to the post-season and helped boost his confidence going into the 2011 season.
The A's started Mitchell off in Double-A in 2011 and it didn't take long for Mitchell to establish himself as one of the top players in the Texas League. He spent the entire first half of the season with the Midland Rockhounds and in 74 games, he hit .355/.453/.589 and reached double digits in homeruns, doubles, triples and stolen bases. The A's moved Mitchell up to Triple-A after the All-Star break and, after a slow start, he became one of the River Cats' top hitters. In 56 games, he hit .302/.401/.453 with 13 stolen bases. Perhaps most impressive about those numbers with Sacramento was that he put them up playing through a significant amount of pain.
"I was playing through it, but I really wasn't going to let it affect me too much," Mitchell said. "I really just tried to block it out. It hurt but we were in the playoffs and I wanted a ring. I was going to keep on pushing."
The River Cats ultimately finished just short of capturing that ring, losing in the league championship series. However, Mitchell's effort was far from futile. The A's rewarded his perseverance by placing him on the 40-man roster in November. After so many years of struggling, Mitchell felt a great sense of accomplishment when the A's added him to the roster.
"I was excited because I had worked really hard for it, so I felt like some of the work that I had done had finally paid off," Mitchell said.
"It is always a great feeling when everything you work so hard for finally pays off. That's what you go out there every day for. It's still a learning process for me. I'm still learning every day and I'm trying to get better every day."
Mitchell will begin the 2012 season just a step away from realizing his big league dream. He is slated to share time for Sacramento in centerfield with fellow top A's prospect Grant Green, but both Mitchell and Green are also expected to see significant time in left and right field. Mitchell has spent the majority of his career in center, but he has experience playing the corners and is comfortable in all three spots.
"Center is my favorite, but I will play wherever they put me. Anywhere in the outfield, it doesn't matter. I will try to play all of them. Wherever they need me, I'll play there," Mitchell said.
Wherever Mitchell lines up on the field, he is expected to be at the top of the River Cats' line-up. Mitchell has posted on-base percentages of .350, .387 and .430 the past three seasons and he has had double-digit stolen base totals in every year of his career.
"I feel like [leadoff] is the best spot for me with the type of hitter that I am. I'm a guy who can run, so I feel like that is where I will be at the top of the line-up," Mitchell said.
After his breakout 2011 campaign, Mitchell may be hard-pressed to top those numbers in 2012. He isn't worried about statistics, or even a possible major league call-up, however.
"I just want to go out and start out strong and have a good season. I want to have fun and play the game that I love to play," Mitchell said.
"Whatever happens, happens. I can't steer the ball one way or another, but I just have to make good contact and run it out hard."