Connor Joe has had his share of ups and down during his nine years in professional baseball.
The infielder/outfielder has been traded, selected in the Rule 5 Draft, and designated for assignment. He has also come full circle, returning to the Pittsburgh Pirates last Sunday in a trade with the Colorado Rockies for minor-league right-hander Nick Garcia.
The Pirates selected Joe in the supplemental first round of the 2014 amateur draft. Three years later, former general manager Neal Huntington traded Joe to the Atlanta Braves after he had reached the Double-A level.
However, that is nothing in comparison to 2020. The pandemic shut down baseball for four months and Joe missed the entire season after being diagnosed with testicular cancer.
Joe is free of cancer and now an established major league player at 30 after spending his first full season in the big leagues this year. Joe believes having a baseball player mentality helped him beat the dreaded disease.
During a videoconference with reporters on Wednesday night, Joe talked about his battle.
“It’s more so just being an athlete and having to … I guess you set goals as an athlete, right?” Joe said. “Then, you figure out ways to achieve those goals. When I was diagnosed with cancer in 2020, my goal was to be cancer free. I interviewed doctors and set goals and roadmaps. So, I think more so than anything, that’s the mentality of an athlete, having to grind through something, whether it’s learning in the minor leagues, grinding through the minor leagues.
“All this stuff hardened me and prepared me for that battle that I fought. I think the day-to-day, where showing up to the ballpark, you’re not necessarily going to feel your best. You get banged up a lot in a 162-game season. So, understanding that, knowing that chemotherapy wasn’t always going to be easy, everything I’ve learned in baseball set me up for success in my battle with cancer.”
Joe also learned a lot about himself as a player in 2022 when he logged 111 games for the Rockies. He made 43 starts in left field, 25 as the designated hitter, 17 at first base, and 16 in right field.
After getting off to a fast start, Connor Joe wound up hitting .238/.338/.359 with seven home runs. Joe had a .287/.370/.441 slash line through his first 36 games, then slumped to .211/.321/.314 in his final 75 games.
However, Joe is convinced he is in store for better things in 2023. Part of that attitude stems from the aftermath of winning the cancer battle.
“I think having the game taken away from me put everything in perspective,” joe said. “I saw the game in a different view, I think. I started playing the game with more joy, enjoying the little things of a baseball season that people in the clubhouse could really complain about or find mundane. I think it really was a perspective shift.”
Joe’s perspective isn’t the only thing that has changed in the five years since the Pittsburgh Pirates traded him. Much turnover has taken place in the organization and Connor Joe now knows just a handful of people.
Nevertheless, he is excited about the opportunity to rejoin the Pirates.
“It’s definitely a full circle-type moment, right?” Joe said. “When I got drafted in 2014, my dream of big-league baseball was always at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. In 2017, I learned the business side of baseball. I got traded to the Braves and that really threw me for a loop. You get to learn the business side of baseball really quickly.
“So, now to come back after being with different organizations and having to experience the big leagues, I’m really excited. I’m excited to play in Pittsburgh. I’m excited to show up to PNC every day.”
The Pirates are happy to have the right-handed-hitting Joe. He figures to play most of the time when the Pirates face left-handed pitchers, possibly spelling Ji-Man Choi at first base or starting in one of the outfield corners.
“From the beginning of the offseason, on the position player side, one of our goals was to improve our on-base ability,” GM Ben Cherington said. “To do that, typically that’s gonna take more than one player and you’ve got to find ways to get guys into the lineup who have that (ability). Connor’s ability to play both first and the outfield and be a really good matchup against left-handed pitching in particular gives us on-base ability and gives (manager Derek Shelton) some options.
“He’s got a reputation as a gamer, someone who plays the game the right way and plays hard. We’re looking forward to welcoming him back.”