By Adam Hoge-
GLENDALE, Ariz. (CBS) When Jared Mitchell was a junior in high school, he realized he had a future making money while playing a sport he loved.
He just didn’t know which sport.
Mitchell was a two-sport star at Westgate High School in New Iberia, La., playing both football and baseball at a high level. On the baseball field, he was named the Louisiana High School Gatorade Player of the Year after batting .506 as a senior. On the football field, he was widely regarded as the best wide receiver recruit in the state.
To put it simply, Mitchell had options. Good options.
After completing his senior year of high school, Mitchell was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the 10th round of the 2006 draft. He could either sign with the Twins or go to LSU, where he had the opportunity to play both football and baseball under scholarship.
“(Signing) was a possibility,” Mitchell said Sunday. “But I just sat down with my parents and I think the experience of going to college and doing that whole thing, it just outweighed a lot more than just getting straight into pro ball. That’s still the best decision I’ve made.”
Instead, Mitchell headed to Baton Rouge, La. and straight onto Les Miles’ depth chart, playing in eight football games as a true freshman. But his role on the baseball team the following spring was even larger, as he started 55 games in center field. By his junior year at LSU, it was becoming obvious that Mitchell had a brighter future in baseball. In 2009, he batted .327 and stole 36 bases as the Tigers won the College World Series, earning him CWS Most Outstanding Player honors.
Once again, Mitchell had options.
Just before the College World Series started, Mitchell was drafted by the Chicago White Sox with the 23rd overall pick. He could either return to LSU for his senior year or make the jump into professional baseball with a first-round contract.
It was finally time for the BCS National Championship and College World Series winner to pick between baseball and football. He chose baseball.
“When it came down to having to make a decision in college, I was thinking: whatever I have the better opportunity in right now is what I’m going to do,” Mitchell said. “It would suck to drop either one of them, but either way I’m still doing something I love.”
It didn’t take long for hype to follow Mitchell into the White Sox farm system. After playing just 34 games with Class A Kannapolis in 2009, he entered 2010 with Baseball America declaring him the No. 1 prospect, fastest baserunner, best athlete and best defensive outfielder in the White Sox’s system.
Then came the setback. A big setback.
Playing in a spring training game at Camelback Ranch, Mitchell collided into the outfield wall while attempting a running catch and tore a tendon in his left ankle. The injury essentially set him back two years.
“Given his football background, he was a guy who was raw and was probably the last guy who needed to miss a year due to injury because it was so important to get him out on the field,” White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said.
After missing the entire 2010 season, Mitchell returned during the Arizona Fall League and then latched on with Class-A Winston Salem in 2011. But he wasn’t the same player. He only batted .222 in 129 games and while he managed eight triples and 14 stolen bases, he wasn’t 100 percent.
“I’m a big believer that if something is meant to be, it will be, given that you give yourself the right opportunities to make something happen,” Mitchell said. “It doesn’t really bother me that the injury happened. It’s just a minor setback in what I’m trying to do and there’s going to be setbacks in everything that you do.”
The outfielder said he didn’t feel 100 percent healthy until right before the 2012 season, but once he did, it showed. Mitchell hit .341 in the month of April at Double-A Birmingham last season, signaling to the White Sox that the organization could still count on him for the future. Of course, playing higher up in the system, Mitchell had plenty to learn and once the league started to make adjustments, his numbers fell. He only hit .214 the rest of the season and he struck out 179 times on the year, although that didn’t stop the White Sox from promoting him to Triple-A.
Hahn pointed to a mechanical issue with Mitchell’s setup and balance out of college that could only get better with repetition. Now in his fourth spring training, the outfielder appears to have turned a corner with that repetition, as he is turning heads with a hot bat, blazing speed and stellar outfield play. Through nine games played, Mitchell is batting .450 with two triples, one home run, one double and four RBI. Perhaps more importantly, he only has four strike outs.
Naturally, talk has heated up around Camelback about whether or not Mitchell can make the major league team coming out of camp, but Hahn confirmed that he’ll be headed to Charlotte — at least to start the season.
“The key for him will be when he gets to Charlotte to keep doing what he’s doing here,” Hahn said. “And if he’s able to put together a solid first half, it’s conceivable he could help us in the second half of this year and certainly he’s on track to help us in 2014.”
At the very least, that timetable is a pleasant surprise considering Mitchell himself didn’t really have U.S. Cellular Field on his mind when Spring Training started in February.
“Honestly, that was not really my focus,” he said. “I understand there are still things I have to do and I still need to prove. I’m fine doing that wherever need be and going and helping whoever I’m playing with at the time. That’s really all it’s about for me.”
With the starting outfield spots set and Dwayne Wise on a major league contract, it makes sense to allow Mitchell more time to see Triple-A pitching before starting the clock on him.
At the very least, Mitchell appears set for a September call-up and could find his way to Chicago even faster if the injuries hit the big league club. At this point, there’s little doubt the White Sox consider him the next prospect destined for a permanent spot in their outfield.
“My objective every day isn’t going into the day trying to make the roster, because that isn’t my decision,” Mitchell said. “I’m going to go out there every day and do the best that I can do and hopefully I turn enough heads and do enough right things to be put in consideration. That’s all you can ask for.”
So far, Mitchell has done exactly that.
Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, Blackhawks, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.