PORT CHARLOTTE — Curtis Mead knows the jokes about shrimp on the barbie and Outback Steakhouse usually are coming.
“I’ve heard them all,” the Rays minor-league infielder said. “I can promise you that.”
Then there are the questions about the animals indigenous to his Australian homeland, which he addresses by clarifying that while kangaroos, koalas, dingoes and wombats can indeed be fascinating, it’s not like they’re hanging out on the streets of the big cities.
“You don’t really see them,” Mead explained. “They’re not, like, in the downtown area. But you go 45 (minutes) to an hour in any direction, they’re all over the place.”
But lately, Mead is getting asked about a different kind of rare species:
The impactful big-league position player from Australia.
Of the 33 native Australians who have played in the majors, according to baseball-reference.com, 23 were pitchers (including onetime Rays Grant Balfour and Damian Moss).
Not counting Joe Quinn, who played from 1884-1901, only two of the other nine played more than 140 career games: catcher/first baseman/outfielder Dave Nilsson and infielder Craig Shipley. And only Nilsson, who spent parts of eight seasons with the Brewers, had a positive WAR rating (10.6).
Mead, who grew up playing mostly Australian rules football and baseball (after dabbling in soccer, tennis and cricket) and signed for $200,000, would like to be the next to bring some thunder from down under.
“There’s a little bit of pressure,” Mead said. “You know everyone back home is checking the stats and really wanting you to do well. But I think that now I’ve kind of put myself in the position where if I continue to work hard, hopefully I can play every day in the big leagues.”
Mead, 21, is definitely in the conversation, which is a lot more than you could say a year ago, when he was a complex-league player still waiting for his first chance to get on the field as a Ray.
He was acquired in one of those seemingly minor-at-the-time trades (with the Phillies in November 2019 for lefty Cristopher Sanchez, who debuted in the majors in 2021) and sidelined when the 2020 minor-league season was canceled.
Mead made good use of the time. He added 30 pounds on a program of weight-lifting and 3,000-plus calories a day, which allowed him to run and throw better and hit the ball harder. Plus, he felt more comfortable after getting some at-bats during the offseason with his hometown Adelaide Giants.
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But to go from an unknown after 2019 to a spot on the three most prominent Top 100 prospects lists, ranked 64th by ESPN, 94th by The Athletic and 97th by Baseball America, after 2021?
“I really think it was a dream come true,” he said. “I never would have thought — obviously, at the start of last season, I wasn’t even on the top 30 for the Rays.”
But Mead earned the accolades.
He started at Low-A Charleston, where he hit .356 with 7 homers, 35 RBIs and a .994 OPS in 47 games. He moved up to High-A Bowling Green, hitting .282 with seven homers, 32 RBIs and an .814 OPS in 53 games.
He got an unexpected week-long promotion to Triple-A Durham in mid-September, hitting .429 (6-for-14) with one homer, two RBIs and a 1.214 OPS in four games. And he wrapped his year in the Arizona Fall League, hitting .313 with three homers, 11 RBIs and an .890 OPS in 20 games.
Mead’s confidence, understandably, soared.
“Towards the end of the year, it was actually hard to manage expectations,” he said. “I started off so well, and then towards the end of the year, like, understanding that I’m probably not going to hit .360 everywhere, so that was challenging.
“But then it was kind of refreshing to go to Triple-A, and then also in the Fall League, being one of the younger, more underrated guys at both of those levels — to be able to go there and not really expect anything and see what I could do was kind of cool.”
Meads’ Rays bosses have been quite impressed with what he has done, and his drive to do so.
“I think we all knew Curtis Mead could hit,” minor-league field coordinator Michael Johns said. “I don’t know if we knew he had that kind of power with the speed off bat, and it just kept getting better. And then I think what’s really, really turned the corner is defensively. He’s put a really big emphasis on his agility, being able to play third and first, and now we’re introducing some second base to him, as well.”
The Lowe down
Wuarnner Rincones, Mead’s hitting coach at Charleston and in the fall league, has high expectations of his own for Mead based on his ability to make contact, improving plate discipline and increasing power.
“I think we have a guy that can be a complete hitter,” Rincones said. “He can be an everyday player in the major leagues who can hit 25-plus homers and be an elite player.
If Mead, who is likely to start the season at Double-A, gets to that level, he may have something else to address in his distinctive accent.
ESPN prospect guru Kiley McDaniel dubbed Mead, “an Australian Brandon Lowe,” which may not have been total coincidence. Mead is repped by the same Bledsoe Agency as the Rays’ slugging infielder, and the two spent the offseason working out at the group’s Nashville facility and talking hitting.
“I joke a lot with Brandon back at the agency about that sort of stuff … ‘’ Mead said. “So he told me that I’ve got a lot of work to do.”
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