Trade sends Demeritte back to familiar territory

Travis Demeritte has always known a number of players in the Atlanta Braves’ minor-league system. He grew up playing with them, he faced them in South Atlantic League the past two years and he has mutual friends with them.

Now, he’s playing with them.

The Texas Rangers traded the 21-year-old second baseman, who had been playing for the Advanced-A High Desert Mavericks in California, to Atlanta for major-league pitchers Lucas Harrell and Dario Alvarez. Demeritte was then assigned by the Braves to the Carolina Mudcats.

For Demeritte, the trade represents a fresh start. He has a chance to put an 80-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs behind him and he welcomes a move to a young, rebuilding Braves organization.

“There are a lot of new factors that have been thrown at me, so I’m trying not to put too much pressure on myself to do well and succeed,” Demeritte said. “I was kinda shocked and in disbelief almost that I’d been traded, but I’m glad to be here with the Braves. I’m glad they sent me back home.”

Learning from a mistake

Demeritte was born in New York but grew up about in the Atlanta suburb of Winder, Ga. The Rangers took him in the first round, 30th overall, of the 2013 MLB draft out of Winder-Barrow High.

After spending his 2013 summer in rookie league, Demeritte was a mainstay on the Rangers’ Single-A affiliate in Hickory for a year and a half, batting .211 with a league-leading 25 home runs in 2014.

Defensively, Demeritte also made strides. Drafted as a shortstop, he quickly shifted to second base. He grew more comfortable with his new position during his time in Hickory.

Demeritte played 48 more games in Hickory in 2015 before he tested positive for Furosemide, a masking agent of performance-enhancing drugs. He was suspended for 80 games.

He said the “mistake” and the punishment that ensued helped him refocus on the integrity of his career, however, and he spent his suspension and the winter offseason playing in the Dominican Republic and Australia.

“I look it as a blessing in disguise,” he said. “I’m bummed that it actually happened, but at the same time I’m kinda glad that it did happen. It woke me up and rechanneled my focus back to baseball.”

Demeritte’s offseason efforts paid off. In 88 games with High Desert, he hit at a career-best .272 and led the California League with 25 home runs. He averaged more than one extra-base hit for every two games.

The impressive bounce-back campaign earned Demeritte a starting position on the U.S. team in the MLB Futures Game in July. He was one of only eight players from below the Double-A level to be named to either the U.S. or World team.

“Being able to play with a bunch of guys that are considered the best in this game and being talked about amongst those guys was a big accomplishment for me and a testament to the work that I’ve put into this game,” he said. “I wish I could go back and do it again.”

Instant familiarity

Within weeks, though, Demeritte would no longer be part of the Rangers’ farm system.

As he arrived at the field for the final game of a three-game series against the Stockton Ports on July 27 – he had already hit home runs in each of the first two games — High Desert manager Howard Johnson pulled Demeritte into a meeting with the coaching staff and told him he’d been traded.

“I was kinda shocked,” Demeritte said. “I don’t think that anybody knew we’d been talking to the Braves, although us as players really don’t know much.”

It soon became public, however, that Braves general manager John Coppolella had, in fact, had his eyes on Demeritte for a while and was thrilled with his ability to acquire the rising prospect from the Rangers.

“Each day as we talked through (trade proposals) it seemed like he hit a home run each game. I thought, ‘We are never going to get this guy,’” Coppolella told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “To be able to get back someone who we think becomes one of our best hitting prospects, that’s very satisfying.”

After being assigned to the Mudcats, Demeritte soon discovered that fitting in with his new teammates in Zebulon wouldn’t be difficult.

Demeritte had played against many members of the Mudcats’ current roster in 2014 and 2015 when he was in Hickory. Mudcats pitcher Michael O’Neal had gone to college at Auburn with many of Demeritte’s former teammates from Winder-Barrow.

And Mudcats left fielder Braxton Davidson is close friends with Josh Morgan, a teammate of Demeritte’s earlier this season with High Desert.

In the time since the trade, Davidson and Demeritte have become friends. The pair of former first-round picks and power hitters have been batting third and fourth in the Mudcats’ order. Davidson drove Demeritte, who was temporarily living in a hotel during his first few days, to and from Five County Stadium on game days.

“It’s the game of baseball,” Demeritte said. “Anywhere you go, it’s going to be the same story. I’m just trying to fit in as much as possible and not be the sore thumb here.”

Rejuvenated potential with Braves

As Demeritte was noticing his common connections around the Mudcats, hitting coach Carlos Mendez was gaining an appreciation for Demeritte’s raw hitting power just as quickly.

“The first night, the sound of the ball coming of his bat was very loud,” Mendez said . “That’s something you always want to hear as a hitting coach.”

The 21-year-old has had a bit of a slow start with his new team. Through his first seven games with the Mudcats, he was 5-for-26 (.192) at the plate with no homers and 14 strikeouts. The Carolina League is statistically less hitter-friendly than the California League, too, although Demeritte said he wasn’t concerned about that fact.

His career outlook has reached a new apex nonetheless. Ranked 13th by in the Rangers’ 2015 prospect rankings and 20th in 2016, he’s now risen to ninth in the Braves’ rankings. Moving forward, he should see plenty of opportunities to move up even further in the young, rebuilding organization. As of Thursday, Atlanta had the worst record in MLB while Texas had the third-best.

“It’s a fresh start in general (for me),” Demeritte said. “I know we have some great players in this organization and they’re very young at that.”

Mendez grinned as well when asked about Demeritte’s potential with his new farm system.

“He hits and he puts the ball in the stands,” Mendez said. “I think the Braves can find a place for him anywhere.”