Mikie Mahtook working to move up

Mikie Mahtook is closing in on graduation from LSU as he tries to stay on schedule for an early graduation to the major leagues.

The former Tigers All-America outfielder is taking 15 credit hours during the fall semester and working out with former and current LSU players in preparation for spring training. After this fall, Mahtook essentially will be one semester — 12 hours and an internship — away from getting his degree in sports administration, a workload he said he’ll “piece together whenever I can.”

In the meantime, Mahtook is preparing to continue to navigate through the Tampa Bay Rays’ farm system. The 31st player taken in the 2011 draft, Mahtook began last season for High Class A Charlotte and earned a midseason promotion to Class AA Montgomery.

In 92 games with Charlotte, Mahtook, a starter in the Florida State League All-Star Game, batted .290 with five home runs, 37 RBI and 19 stolen bases in 25 attempts. In 39 games with Montgomery, he batted .248 with four homers and 25 RBI, stealing four bases in seven attempts.

“I started off real hot when I got to Montgomery,” Mahtook said before a workout last week. “I played really well about the first 20 games. That was probably my best baseball of the year and then, with about 18 games left, I kind of saw the finish line. People say it’s a long season, and I really hadn’t had a slump through the whole year.

“I was able to do a lot of damage control, and the last 18 games I guess my mind wandered off a little bit with the season winding down. I guess it started to get to me and, when my mind went a little bit away, my numbers started going down a little bit.”

Being able to adjust is what has made Mahtook successful.

“Throughout college and before, Mikie was the hitter that pitchers had to adjust to because he is such a talented player,” Rays minor league operations assistant Jeff McLerran said. “In pro baseball, you can’t always get by on hitting talent alone. Mikie worked hard with our hitting coaches in the cages and in film study to make changes to his approach whenever he sensed pitchers were starting to get an advantage.”

Mahtook didn’t play in more than 96 games during his career at LSU, so some fatigue set in, especially while traveling by bus all summer. He said that was more taxing mentally than physically.

“If you convince yourself that you’re fine, then you’re going to be OK,” he said. “It’s kind of a mind game and, if your mind goes one way, your body’s going to follow. That’s kind of what happened.”

McLerran said Mahtook’s work ethic and training regimen give him “a head start” in handling the longer season. He added that he expects Mahtook to start next season at Montgomery; Mahtook said he hopes to reach Class AAA Durham before long. But that will be determined by Mahtook’s play and the Rays’ evaluation of him.

“I’m just going to go into spring training and try and play as best I can and see what happens,” he said. “Obviously I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s not up to me. If it were up to me, I’d like to be in the big leagues tomorrow.”

Mahtook will have to be more patient than that, but he appears on the fast track. MLB.com ranks him the Rays’ No. 4 prospect and No. 93 overall. The evaluation cites his intensity, which it partly attributes to his football career playing quarterback at St. Thomas More High School in Lafayette.

McLerran said Mahtook’s versatility — he played 90 games in right field and 38 in center last season along with a few days as the designated hitter — makes him “such a valuable prospect.” Mahtook said his preference would be center field, but “I’m not going to be picky.”

The Rays had Mahtook batting third, fourth or fifth, an indication that they expect him to be a run producer. Mahtook said he got positive reviews from Rays brass after Montgomery lost to Huntsville in four games in the first round of the Southern League playoffs.

“They said they were happy with the way I played,” he said. “Personally, I think I could have played better, and I think they think I could have, too. But being my first year, they liked the way I played. They said they liked my swing and kind of liked how I was going about things. They didn’t really give me anything to work on; they just told me to fine-tune my game.”

That’s something Mahtook would have been doing without any prodding.

“The way I am, I’m always working on something,” he said. “I’m trying to tweak this or tweak that and just trying to get my game better.”

Mahtook, who turned 23 on Friday, hopes his graduation from the minor leagues isn’t much farther off than his graduation from LSU.

“Obviously everyone wants to get (to the major leagues) as fast as they can,” he said. “So that’s my goal — to get to the big leagues as fast as I can. The only thing I can control is how I play and how hard I work and how I perform, so that’s what I’m focusing on. I can’t really focus on when I’m going to move up or when I’m going to get to the big leagues. That’s management’s job, and I trust that when they think that I’m ready, they’ll move me up.

“I think they’d like to move me up quickly, but it’s all up to how I play, so I’m focusing on that, and hopefully it works out sooner rather than later.”