What can he do for an encore? Rays’ Joey Wendle has a plan

After his 2018 breakout season, working man infielder is aiming for more and better.
Joey Wendle is focused on doing even better this season than his 2018 breakout performance. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)
Joey Wendle is focused on doing even better this season than his 2018 breakout performance. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)
Published Feb. 26, 2019

PORT CHARLOTTE — There are players who labor intensely to finally have that breakthrough season in the majors, then enjoy their success a little too much into the winter and next spring, getting lazy, cocky, even haughty.

Then there is Joey Wendle.

“He’s the last guy we would ever worry about,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “No chance. Wouldn’t happen, couldn’t happen and we wouldn’t allow it to happen.”

Wendle, 28, was one of the biggest 2018 breakout stories in the game, taking full advantage of his first opportunity at extended playing time in the majors after stalling most of the previous three with Oakland at Triple-A.

He hit .300 with a .789 OPS, played a sturdy second base among five positions total, finished fourth in the American League rookie of the year voting and amassed a 4.3 WAR per that led all candidates.

And he impressed along the way with his ever-present hustle, determination, workman-like approach (including no batting gloves) and team-first attitude.

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So, was there any temptation to take last year’s success and start feeling like he’s now made it big and could relax a bit?

“That’s something that for me I have to kind of consciously identify and then eliminate, I guess, and just know it’s not something that I have any interest in doing,” Wendle said.

“I want to come out with the same edge that I had last year. I don’t want to take anything for granted. I don’t want to take one day here for granted.

“I feel more motivated and more focused than I did last year. I feel like I’ve proven to myself to some extent what I feel like I’m capable of doing. And I want to build off that, not rest on that.”

That commitment was rooted in the intensity of his offseason workouts around his home in Kennett Square, Pa., (the noted mushroom capital of the world near Wilmington, Del.), as the chiseled Wendle, somehow, met his goal of coming to camp in slightly better shape each year.

Though he made big-league money over a full season for the first time ($546,900), he didn’t exactly splurge either. Did he buy himself anything expensive to mark his accomplishments?

“Does a new roof on our house count?” he said. “Because if it does, yeah.”

For the most part, it was a regular mellow offseason.

Hung with his wife, Lindsey, and soon to be 1-year-old son Jack, plus some other family. Hunted for deer a few times (more success with the gun than bow and arrow). Spoke, like usual, at a couple of local Federation of Christian Athlete events. Installed a new toilet in their house, painted a bit and, with help from his dad, built from scratch an island counter in the kitchen. “A fun offseason project,” he said.

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There was a better chance of Blake Snell giving up video games for botany than Wendle rolling into Port Charlotte upgrading the 2015 Honda Pilot he and Lindsey share in season (or the 2010 Accord he drives at home) for a fancy sports car, or sporting a thick swaggy chain and designer threads.

“His personality is not the type where he’s going to buy into the hype,” teammate Matt Duffy said. “When Joey puts on sunglasses, I’m like, “All right dude, I like it.”

Because of his every-man style, and that he wears glasses off the field (rather than contacts), Wendle gets teased by his teammates in the other direction.

Early last season ex-mate Brad Miller bought him a briefcase, complete with old-school handle, that Wendle carried every day: “They joked that I put stocks and bonds in it,” he said.

Also, in regularly calling him “Mendle,” as MLB Network mistakenly referred to him in a early-2018 graphic.

“He’s Clark Kent,” said centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier said. “And Joey does not do anything for the camera; I love that.”

There could be a challenge if Wendle gets off to a slow start, a natural instinct to press when comparisons to last season’s success pop up. Wendle is confident he won’t fall victim, that he will remain guided by what, in character, are straightforward goals for his encore performance.

“To get better,” he said. “Whether that shows up in the stat line isn’t an important to me. To show that last year wasn’t a fluke. To be steady and consistent. And to really build on what I was able to do last year.”

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Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTime_Rays.