Derrick Mitchell isn't the best known or most highly regarded of the prospects in the Phillies organization. In fact, it wasn't until last season that he really started to make a case for himself as a prospect at all. Coming into the 2011 season, Mitchell was a career .238 hitter in six minor league seasons and had risen only as high as High-A Clearwater where he spent the 2010 season.
That's when everything started to change.
Being given a shot at Double-A, Mitchell made the most of the opportunity and hit career-highs in home runs (19), RBI (76), average (.265) and on-base percentage (.326) while playing in 135 games with the Reading Phillies. "I'm a guy who obviously started out slow in my career and it was a big jump, coming out of high school. I felt that I was ready to make that jump, but the numbers were just never there. These past couple of seasons I feel like I'm starting to figure things out and I feel good about how I've been playing, especially last year, that was a big year for me to show them that I really am coming along."
For all of the success that Mitchell had last season, he didn't find himself being added to the 40-man roster and was instead, a minor league free agent able to sign with any team that he would like. There was some concern in the organization that Mitchell might look for another opportunity. After all, Mitchell was coming off a strong season, is capable of playing all three outfield positions with a well above average arm and has good offensive potential, including the ability to swipe some bases. Instead, Mitchell gave a nod to loyalty and returned to the Phillies organization even though minor league free agency was a tempting proposition.
"After having a solid year like that, I would have liked to see what was out there, but only having that one good year to fall back on, my agent and I felt that it would be best to come back with the Phillies. They've stuck with me for a while and they've given me some chances, so I'm going to work my butt off this year and see what happens."
As things started to shake out in spring training, Mitchell was on the cusp of heading for Triple-A or winding up back at Double-A Reading for another season. The turning point for Mitchell may have come when Lehigh Valley manager Ryne Sandberg arrived in minor league camp after spending time with the big league club as an additional coach and instructor. As Sandberg took over the Triple-A squad, Mitchell caught his eye. "Derrick impressed me when I really got to see him at the end of spring training. He really looks the part, he looks like an athlete and he's got all the tools and I was impressed with the way he approached the game."
As minor league assignments were being decided, Sandberg argued the case for Mitchell to join his Lehigh Valley squad and the Phillies brass listened. Perhaps it was Sandberg who will eventually be credited with putting Mitchell on the radar among Phillies prospects. "At least in the organization, I don't think he's under the radar anymore; he really opened some eyes in spring training."
Mitchell has appreciated basically being hand-picked by Sandberg and the fact that the Phillies have given Mitchell the opportunity to play as a member of the IronPigs.
Mitchell's climb through the minor leagues didn't start with him playing in the outfield. The Phillies drafted Mitchell primarily for his bat and found that his infield defense simply wasn't going to cut it and made the decision to move him to the outfield. "I started my career as a shortstop and that was the only position that I played coming into pro ball," explained Mitchell. "I started in left field at Clearwater and then wound up in right and last year spent the whole season in center, so I can play wherever they need me to play."
That move was a comfortable one for Mitchell and it's allowed him to be more than simply a designated hitter type player who doesn't truly have a position to play. Not only has Mitchell done well with the glove in the outfield, but his arm has been proven to be much better than initially thought. Since moving to the outfield in 2009, Mitchell has amassed 32 outfield assists and is starting to gain a reputation as having an arm that runners simply don't run against. Mitchell believes that his arm may have been another reason why he wound up with Lehigh Valley instead of starting further south at Reading.
"I'm aggressive in the outfield and I don't like to see guys get an extra base on me and I had a couple of assists late in camp and I think that might have tipped the scales for me to wind up here instead of back at Reading."
Offensively, Mitchell is struggling early in his first Triple-A season, hitting just .213 in 23 games, but Sandberg isn't backing off of what he believes was the right decision and continues to play Mitchell everyday. Mitchell hasn't allowed his confidence to waiver and believes it's all a matter of working through the adjustments that need to be made and he believes that he'll be able to turn things around, if the patience from Sandberg and the Phillies continues.
"I think I've flown under the radar a lot and I think the Phillies have seen some good things in me and I guess that's why they keep thinking the best is yet to come."