Deal includes 40-man roster spot
ARLINGTON, Texas—For most minor league baseball players, the loss of the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic was a worst case scenario as they lost a year trying to work their way up to the Major Leagues.
Joe Gatto, a Hammonton native and former second-round draft choice of the Los Angeles Angels disagreed, calling the 2020 season “the best year of my career, hands down.”
Last week, Gatto, 25, signed a Major League contract with the Texas Rangers after having become a minor league free agent following the 2020 season.
“It  was a strange year, I didn’t get to go to the alternate site, so I just had time to work out on my own,” Gatto said.
With a little encouragement from a former teammate in the Angels’ organization, Simon Mathews, Gatto began working out at Push Performance in Tempe, Arizona, which he says transformed him as a pitcher.
“Those guys have been unbelievable. I’ve tried different programs, different styles of training, using weighted balls to build velocity. They transformed me. I started with them in April and, was able to build up my arm speed and saw my velocity start at 90-93 miles per hour then, 94, then 95.1, 96, 97.1, 98.4, it kept climbing,” Gatto said.
In addition to the increased velocity, Gatto said he also saw improvement in his curveball, which he calls his best pitch, in addition to a much better slider.
“They really dissected my curveball so I could make it more useful, and added in a slider that I can use as a third pitch now,” Gatto said.
The improvements in Arizona drew the attention of several Major League teams, many of which competed to sign Gatto once the season ended.
“There was a really big market for me, which was kind of surprising, honestly,” Gatto said.
After playing seven years as a professional in the Angels’ organization, Gatto was unsure what to expect as a free agent.
“Realistically, I was a former second round pick, former prospect who never got above Double A. So, I wasn’t sure who would be interested,” he said.
Offers came in from several teams, including the Cincinnati Reds, Seattle Mariners, New York Mets and New York Yankees.
“The Reds came out hot with a really good offer, and I thought that might be my best fit. We had the most communication with them. Most of the offers were above what my agent and I felt my market value was, so that made us feel pretty good,” Gatto said.
The one team whose initial inquiries did not impress the Gatto camp was the Rangers, whose offer Gatto called “not as good.”
Gatto was ready to sign with Cincinnati when the Rangers began going all in on bringing the hard-throwing righty to Texas.
“The Reds were in the lead, with the Mets and Yankees, but Texas came on strong near the end. They turned it up. I talked to their general manger and manager. They went all out and really turned the tables, made a strong case. My agent mentioned a [40-man] roster spot, sent them some video and they went for it. I never thought free agency would be that tough. All the back and forth, the fighting between team and how aggressive they were [to sign me],” Gatto said.
The chance to be on a Major League roster swayed Gatto to take the Texas offer.
“Being on the 40-man wasn’t a deal-breaker, it was more of a separator to me. It was never about the money for me. It was more of a 50/50 thing. I don’t want to waste my time. It feels good to have that security, to know that this team doesn’t just want me so they can add an arm in the organization. To put me on the 40-man roster means they’re making a commitment to me,” Gatto said.
The Rangers also seemed excited about adding Gatto.
Ross Fenstermaker, the Rangers’ director of pro scouting, spoke about Gatto when the team announced his signing on December 2.
“We’ve followed Joe since he was an amateur. We are really intrigued by the adjustments he made in 2019, going from a starter to a reliever, and are excited to add him to the mix. We feel confident in the things he started to address,” Fenstermaker said.
Fenstermaker said Gatto was one of the Rangers’ main focuses among Minor League free agents. Other clubs felt the same way, and that’s why Gatto was able to secure a Major League contract.
“He started the process of Minor League free agency as one of our top-end targets. [It] ultimately led to pretty steep competition, and we felt we could separate ourselves from the pack by offering the roster spots,” Fenstermaker said.
One benefit to all the negotiations was the things he learned taking to Major League executives.
“I was really able to take a lot away from it. All the general managers and pitching coaches I was able to talk to. I was able to make some really good relationships and pick a lot of brains that most minor leaguers don’t get to talk to,” Gatto said.
Gatto began his professional career as a starter, but spent his last season with the Angels in a bullpen role. That’s where Texas plans to use him.
“Over the course of the last two years, I molded into that pen role. I couldn’t use my weapons the way I wanted to as a starter. The two-pitch struggle, the move to the bullpen allowed me to do what I do best, mix in my splitter as a third pitch,” he said.
The shift resulted in the most consistent year of Gatto’s career, and he is eager to continue in that role with the Rangers.
“I enjoy the bullpen. It’s different. As a starter, you’re locked in to a certain routine, every fifth day you pitch, it’s a different mentality. And as a starter, when you don’t pitch well, you have five days to think about it. As a reliever, you have a bad outing, you just have to forget it because you might pitch again the next day,” Gatto said.
Beyond his role, Gatto is excited to begin a new chapter in his career.
“I spent seven years with the Angels, and I’ll always be grateful to them for giving me an unbelievable opportunity right out of high school. I didn’t go as far as I wanted with them. Part of that was them and part was on me, I didn’t perform at a high enough level. Now I have a fresh start and I feel really good about where I am. I’m throwing better than I ever have,” Gatto said.
Gatto will attend Major League camp with the Rangers and have a chance to earn a spot in the team’s bullpen.
While encouraged by the chance to pitch in the Majors, Gatto knows he still has a long way to go.
“I told my mom the other day, that in 2014, when I was in the instructional league, a lot of guys from my draft class, maybe 40 or so, were in a meeting. They asked us how many thought we’d make it to the big leagues? We all raised our hands. They told us that three of us would make it. Now it’s six years later, and just one of those guys is in the big leagues. You have to be honest with yourself, it’s a long shot,” Gatto said.