REGGIE HAYES: Norwell alum Josh VanMeter ready to use veteran versatility with Cincinnati Reds minor leagues

Josh VanMeter awaits a pitch during the 2017 season with Class AA Pensacola in the Cincinnati Reds organization. (Courtesy photo)

Josh VanMeter enters his sixth season of minor league baseball, but it’s kind of hard to call him a grizzled veteran. He turns 23 years old next month.

Call him versatile, for sure. Call him wiser, by a mile, than he was when he started this journey. Call him realistic.

Most of all, call him driven.

“I tell people it’s not a quick process to get to the big leagues. It’s not,” VanMeter said. “Unless you’re a phenom, a Mike Trout or Manny Machado or Bryce Harper, it takes time. It’s the hardest game in the world, if you ask me. It’s not going to happen at the snap of a finger. Hopefully, my time’s coming.”

VanMeter was drafted by the San Diego Padres as a Norwell High School senior in 2013, spent four seasons in the Padres organization (including two stints with the Fort Wayne TinCaps) before being traded to the Cincinnati Reds after the 2016 season. He played on the Reds’ Class AA team in Pensacola last season.

He was not invited to be part of the Reds’ Major League training camp, which was a disappointment, but he will report March 5 with the full minor-league contingent in Goodyear, Ariz.

Whether VanMeter returns to Class AA Pensacola or earns a spot at Class AAA Louisville will be determined during camp.

“Once you get to Double A and Triple A, it’s not a huge difference,” he said. “In Double A, it’s more raw ability. In Triple A, it’s more refined. Guys can get called up from Double A or Triple A. Once you get to the upper levels of the minor leagues, you’re just waiting on an opportunity. You’re really playing every day, giving your best, and waiting for something to happen.”

Sometimes, as VanMeter found out last season, being willing to step outside your comfort zone can be a benefit.

VanMeter was a shortstop and pitcher in high school when he led Norwell to the 2013 Class 3A state title, but the Padres drafted him with plans to utilize him as a middle infielder. Early in his career, he spent the majority of his time at second base with occasional games at shortstop.

Last season, his horizons expanded.

“During the season last year, my manager came up to me out of the blue and said, ‘What do you think about playing left field?’ ” VanMeter said. “I said, ‘I can do it. I’m athletic enough. I can do it.’ He goes, ‘Alright, you’re going to start there tomorrow.’ ”

VanMeter can’t remember ever playing in the outfield. He assumes he did when he was 8 or 9, perhaps, and then it was probably center field.

“I ended up playing 40 or 50 games in the outfield,” he said. “We had a couple guys come up at the All-Star break, big (infield) prospects. Being able to play in the outfield helped me stay in the lineup.”

VanMeter was also called upon to play second, third, shortstop and, on one occasion, first base.

The first base foray was even more abrupt. The regular first basemen suffered an injury during batting practice.

“This was an hour and 20 minutes before the game,” VanMeter said. “The manager said, ‘How do you feel about playing first base?’ I said, ‘I could do it.’ He goes, ‘Alright, you’re starting there tonight.’ ”

VanMeter didn’t have a first base glove, so he borrowed the regular first baseman’s glove, which he said was huge for his hands. Most of the game was uneventful, but he did have to come up with one scoop on a deep backhanded play and throw by the second baseman.

“I picked it, and the whole dugout is going nuts,” VanMeter said. “It was hilarious.”

VanMeter’s demonstration of his versatility could help make him a more valuable prospect in the long run. He hit .255 with five home runs and 54 RBIs and 15 stolen bases in 132 games for the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, who were co-champions of the Southern League.

His age remains in his favor, since he is the same age as most players who finished college last season. His first season was a short rookie-league stint, and he missed most of 2015 with a leg injury.

“It’s such a cliché, but all I can do is go out there and lay my heart on the field and whatever happens, happens,” VanMeter said. “I was never guaranteed a Major League opportunity when I got into this. Really, I’m just going out there and showing I can compete.”

VanMeter has no doubts he has enough skill and knowledge of the game to reach the highest level.

“I know I can play in the big leagues,” he said. “I’ve competed against so many guys there now, and had success against them. A lot of great players in the minor leagues haven’t gotten their opportunity. One, you have to be a little lucky and two, you have to go out there and keep competing. That’s the name of the game – getting better every day.”

VanMeter has spent the offseason participating in regular individual workouts, but he also took his mind off baseball by coaching the Norwell seventh-grade boys basketball team. VanMeter was a tremendous basketball player at Norwell, and led the Knights to a Class 3A state runner-up finish in 2012.

He coached this year’s seventh graders to a 17-0 record and a conference championship.

“I enjoy it,” he said. “It got my mind off things with baseball and I could go help these kids do what they can to be better athletes. I love basketball. And I got to shoot after practice for 20 minutes. Eight months out of the year, it’s baseball, baseball, baseball.”

Non-stop baseball is about to begin again. Still young in baseball terms, VanMeter is ready to use his “veteran” and versatile skills to keep pushing for his biggest break.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.

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