Making it to the Major Leagues from the ranks of the independent leagues is a tough road to hoe. From 2013 through last offseason, just 208 total players, 120 pitchers and 88 position players, were selected by major league clubs. Making it out of an indy league uniform and into a Marlins’ affiliated uniform is an even rarer feat. Just three of those 208 had their contracts purchased by the Fish. So when the Marlins do invite an indy league player to the majors, as they did with Dalton Wheat in October, they obviously see something special.
Wheat, a native of Augusta, Kansas, got his collegiate baseball career started at a small area community college. Over the course of two seasons as a Butler Grizzly, Wheat hit .341/.421/.497 with 71 RBI and 74 steals before moving on to the state university level. The jump in level didn’t phase Wheat at all. Over the next two years in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association with the Emporia State University Hornets, he hit .367/.452/.578 with 78 RBI and 32 steals. However, despite a .353/.435/.531, 149 RBI, 105 SB collegiate career, Wheat went undrafted in the 2015 MLB Draft. For many players his age, going undrafted after four years of college is usually a kiss of death for promising baseball careers. Wheat’s career itself nearly fell victim to it as well as he was admittedly disappointed and in the beginning stages of pondering life after baseball. Then one day his phone rang.
“It wasn’t the easiest pill to swallow,” Wheat divulged. “I thought I was going to have to find a job and finish up school. But after I got a call from the T-Bones, I was just grateful for another opportunity to play. That’s all I wanted was a way to get my foot in the door so I can continue playing baseball.”
In a single season for the Kansas City T-Bones, Wheat did more than get his foot in the door; he kicked it down. It took Wheat just 67 games to become unaffiliated baseball’s top prospect by way of a .335/.414/.403 slash line. Finally, after a long road and some adversity which he handled like a pro, this coming season, Wheat will be a major leaguer. When asked what he will do in order to succeed in affiliated ball, Wheat points towards doing the same thing as he always has and what allowed him to enjoy a fantastic college career and a coming out season in the indy leagues.
“I was very excited when I got the news that I was able to move to the next level,” Wheat said. “I’m not really sure what to expect, but I’m going to treat the game like I’ve always treated it. I’m going to work hard play as hard as I can so the transition should be smooth if I just worry about controlling what I can control.”
Sticking to what has served him well holds a lot of weight with Wheat. It is for that same reason that he has continued a tradition that he began in his years in community college and a tradition that has since become his own personal trademark, even at this young stage of his baseball career. When hitting, Wheat doesn’t wear Nike, UnderArmour or adidas on his hands. Instead, he literally wears the American outdoors as he sports the same gloves that he uses when he goes hunting in his leisure time away from baseball. According to Wheat, it is something that he began doing in a time of need and something that hasn’t failed him since so he never stopped and doesn’t plan on doing so in the majors.
“I started wearing them my freshman year at Butler because I let my buddy borrow my actual batting gloves at the time and we ended up being in different hitting groups the next day,” Wheat said. “I had a big blister on my hand, so I didn’t want to make it a lot worse by hitting without gloves, so I just grabbed a pair of work gloves I had in my truck to hit with and I liked the way they made me feel like I didn’t have to over grip the bat so I’ve been using them ever since. I plan on continuing to wear them unless I’m told otherwise. They have worked well for me this far, so why try to fix something that ain’t broke?”
Having spent most of his life in the small town midwest, in coming to south Florida or New Orleans, Wheat will be in for a new experience and challenge in adjusting to big city life and in travelling the minor league and potentially major league circuits, life on the road as a big leaguer. It will also mean it is the furthest away from his family he has ever been. It will be a new and untraveled road for him but if anyone is up to the task, Dalton is. And though they will be further away, his family, as they always have been, will be in his corner.
“They are really supportive and really excited,” Wheat said of his loved ones’ response to the news that he will be taking his baseball career east. “They are a little sad that I’ll be going away. But they are mainly happy for me that I got this opportunity.”
Wheat himself is undoubtedly a bit sad to be waving goodbye to his home for an extended period for the first time in his life but, looking for the positive in the situation as he always has, he also sees it as an advantage in the way that he will be able to focus completely on baseball without being as connected to his life at home.
“I think it actually might help me stay focused because I wouldn’t have the normal distractions I would at home,” Wheat said of his relocation. “I think I am going to be pretty busy with ball so I don’t think I’ll have much time to think of anything else.”
In Wheat, the Marlins get a guy that remained a complete hitter all through college, through the let down of going unrecognized in the draft, and, after nearly setting up a life away from baseball, a full season in the independent leagues that saw him becoming its most prized asset. He comes to the Marlins with whom he will be able to devote more of his attention to with very few hitches in his overall game. With a great attitude and work ethic, Wheat, still just 22, should begin his big league career in high A Jupiter but could and likely will fly through the lower minors. Scouts place his ceiling at fourth outfielder status but should he build a bit of outfield arm strength and maintain the same great plate vision and solid straight-through stride and swing at the plate and plus speed on the bases while he adjusts to a new level of opposing pitching and defense, he could become starting outfielder material. While Wheat’s signing by the Marlins who always try to get creative with their offseason moves, wasn’t covered much aside from a few short paragraphs around the internet, in a few year’s time, it could prove to be one of their best under the radar offseason moves in recent memory.
Considering he has fantastic ability and an attitude to match, keep the name Dalton Wheat at the back of your mind and don’t be surprised if it rises to the forefront of the Marlins’ top prospect list very quickly.