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Blasts from futures past: Daniel Mengden, Joey Wendle remind us they exist

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Both players fell off the map in 2017, but have come up big in September.

Raise your hand if you saw that grand slam coming. *crickets*
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

On last-place clubs like the Oakland A’s, September is a time for young players to get some reps and try to put their names on the map. Whether it’s in an everyday role or getting stray at-bats off the bench, a big performance now can open eyes entering the offseason. Don’t fall in love with September stats, especially against other losing teams, but don’t ignore them either.

We’ve talked a lot this month about some star rookies, many of them named Matt, but a couple more youngsters have forced their way back into the picture: pitcher Daniel Mengden, and second baseman Joey Wendle. Both looked like bright spots by the end of 2016 but fell off the radar in 2017, only to reappear once more with some recent highlights.

Daniel Mengden | RHP

2017, AAA: 4.17 ERA, 41 ip, 40 Ks, 18 BB, 5 HR, 4.89 FIP
2017, MLB: 3.30 ERA, 30 ip, 18 Ks, 5 BB, 5 HR, 4.62 FIP

Mengden was one of the most fun parts of Oakland’s 2016 season. He roared through the upper minors, needing only two months to leap from Double-A to MLB. His excellent pitching was augmented by his impeccable baseball style: a Rollie Fingers mustache, high socks, and a delightful old-timey over-the-head windup.

After a strong debut month in Oakland, Mengden cooled off and finished 2016 with a 6.50 ERA in 14 starts. His underlying peripherals were more promising, including a strikeout per inning, but it was an anticlimactic finish to an otherwise wildly successful year.

At that point, it was easy to pencil the right-hander into Oakland’s long-term plan. Maybe he’d only end up settling into the back of the rotation, or maybe he’d develop into more, but he looked like one of the guys to move forward with.

That all changed before spring training could even get underway. Mengden required foot surgery in early February, which put him out of the running for the Opening Day squad. He finally returned to Oakland at the end of May, but he got shelled in both his appearances and before long he was out again with a rib injury. By August he seemed like an afterthought on the depth chart, with many in the Athletics Nation community wondering if his future would be in the bullpen.

And then ...

The bulldog is back, and better than ever. His three September starts:

9/9, vs. HOU: 6 ip, 3 runs (2 ER), 4 Ks, 2 BB, 5 hits
9/15, @ PHI: 9 ip, 0 runs, 7 Ks, 0 BB, 2 hits
9/20, @ DET: 7 ip, 0 runs, 4 Ks, 0 BB, 7 hits

Here are those stat lines translated to English:

  • Solid showing against baseball’s best offense
  • Shutout against budding young lineup similar to Oakland’s
  • Scoreless gem against a pathetic post-firesale doormat

This is the part where we apply our grain of salt. The opposition has been middling at best, which makes the already small sample even less reliable. There was nothing vastly different about his pitch selection or the velocity on any of his offerings, so we can’t attribute this new success to any procedural adjustment. Right now it’s just a hot streak, and we don’t have to reach back far for a relevant cautionary tale — Jharel Cotton looked amazing last September but got right back on the young-pitcher roller coaster this year.

But dang. Mengden’s ERA had been 10.13 after his two midsummer nightmares, and these three outings dropped it nearly seven runs. Perhaps even more meaningful than that is the zero walks in the last two games, as free passes have been one of his primary areas of concern in the minors. And it’s not like anyone else is lighting it up in the rotation right now anyway, which makes it even easier to latch onto any piece of encouraging news on that front.

As a fun bonus, his shutout against the Phillies came with another milestone: his first MLB hit, thanks to silly NL rules.

Three September starts are not enough to guarantee anything about Mengden’s future. This might just be a fresh arm beating up on poor, tired opponents after spending most of the season on the shelf. But it has to at least put his name back in the conversation for the 2018 rotation (don’t get too hung up on the order here):

  • Kendall Graveman
  • Sean Manaea
  • Free agent please
  • Daniel Gossett
  • Jharel Cotton
  • Daniel Mengden
  • Paul Blackburn
  • Andrew Triggs?
  • Jesse Hahn?

An ace still needs to emerge, whether from this group or lower down the minors, but otherwise there’s a lot of competition — or, at worst, depth in case of injuries, in the form of productive tryouts rather than throwaway detwilers.

Not long ago it was easy to forget about Mengden, but that’s changed quickly this month. Suddenly the 24-year-old is Oakland’s hottest starter, with the chance to end a lost season on a serious high note.

Joey Wendle | 2B

2017, AAA: .285/.327/.429, 94 wRC+, 8 HR, 13 SB, 3.7% BB, 16.1% Ks
2017, MLB: 4-for-12, HR, 2B, 1 BB, 2 Ks

Wendle’s case isn’t nearly as compelling as Mengden’s, but he still merits a mention. After arriving as the seemingly light return for banged-up All-Star Brandon Moss, he’s spent three full seasons toiling in Triple-A as a merely league-average hitter. He showed flashes of being a sparkplug glue guy in an audition last September, but this spring a shoulder injury robbed him of any early opportunity and then a resurgent Jed Lowrie locked down second base thereafter.

With a productive veteran blocking him and eleventy middle infield prospects coming up behind him, time appeared to be running out for the 27-year-old. It still is, but at least he’s not going down without a fight.

In his first plate MLB appearance of 2017, as a pinch-hitter, Wendle stood up cold and slapped the first pitch to left for an RBI single.

Granted, that hit came in garbage time in a blowout. It also came against a position player, as third baseman J.D. Davis had subbed in to help out in the marathon first game of a doubleheader. But J.D. managed to strike out both Khris Davis and Marcus Semien in the same inning, for what that’s worth.

Wendle started the second game that day and went 1-for-4 with a double (and an intentional walk!). His next major action came in a start in Philly, against his favorite team from childhood, the stands packed with local friends and family. Aaaaand ...

... boom. That’s a go-ahead grand slam that absolutely nobody saw coming, against a legit young reliever. Gotta tip your cap to that one.

Wendle chipped in once again in Detroit. He came off the bench to pinch-hit leading off the 8th, with the A’s down 8-5. He made enough contact to earn a hit, which began a rally that culminated in Lowrie’s go-ahead grand slam. And this list isn’t cherry-picked; I’ve only left out one pinch-hit out, and one more quiet start. He’s contributed nearly every time he’s stepped on the field.

It’s not a lot of data, and it doesn’t change the 1,600 plate appearances of meh he posted in Nashville. But if you’ve ever believed in Wendle then it was probably for his defense and situational playmaking ability rather than his raw hitting stats, and this month he’s provided the type of out-of-nowhere jolt you’d expect from his profile. He’s the do-everything, heads-up gamer who dominates the margins; the kind of guy who can roll out of bed and knock a sac fly, then stop on the way to the kitchen to turn a double play.

The question remains where he might fit in the grand scheme, and the answer is still ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Lowrie has a contract option for 2018 and it’s anyone’s guess whether the A’s will choose to keep him as a bridge to Franklin Barreto, who himself could be ready sometime in April just as easily as he could need another full season in Triple-A. Or perhaps Barreto will finally make a long-anticipated dabble in CF at some point.

But then maybe Chad Pinder or even Marcus Semien might need space depending on how other positions shake out, and after that there are more upper-minors prospects like Yairo Munoz and Max Schrock and ... the point is the infield is crowded, and Wendle is barely getting playing time as it is. Perhaps his best shot would come if Lowrie was traded this-coming winter, no veteran stopgap was acquired, and Barreto had a poor spring entering 2018. First he’ll have to survive the offseason without being DFA’d for other 40-man roster needs.

This month’s highlights may turn out to be nothing but a consolation footnote in Wendle’s Oakland career, but like Mengden he’s at least reminded us he exists. Both players finished 2016 looking like potential parts of this rebuilding season, only to see their best chances wither during ill-timed trips to the trainer’s room. Now they’re making up for whatever lost time they can.