Jeff Malm will get his first taste of full-season ball in 2012 after leading the New York-Penn League in home runs a year ago (photo credit: Jim Donten)
We've taken a look at the probable lineups for Durham, Montgomery, and Charlotte, and today we wrap up the series with a look at the Bowling Green Hot Rods. Thanks to the added emphasis on drafting hitters the past few years, the Hot Rods are slated to feature a line-up with the most name-brand guys. They have the most question marks at this point because the gap between sending a prospect to Bowling Green or extended spring training is much more significant than Charlotte or Bowling Green.
Catcher - Matt Rice, Justin O'Conner (?)
Wildcard #1, right off the bat. What to do with Justin O'Conner? Drafted in the first round in 2010, he signed quickly for $1.025 million. That means he's gotten in 96 game and nearly 400 plate appearances. The pedigree, bonus, and experience point toward a full-season assignment, but there are massive problems with his swing. In 197 PAs with Princeton last year, O'Conner struck out 78 times. He has good power when he happens to make contact, and has the tools to stick behind the plate, but whether he gets a ticket to Kentucky depends on his hit tool. For the Rays, it's a question of whether facing in-game pitching would help him more than two more months in Port Charlotte. Best guess: he winds up in extended spring, eventually going to Hudson Valley, but who knows? Matt Rice, a 2011 8th-rounder and Academic All-American with Western Kentucky, will be a hometown hero (WKU is located in Bowling Green and the Hilltoppers have played in the Hot Rods stadium). With the Renegades last season, Rice hit .286/.376/.370.
First Base - Jeff Malm
While fellow 2009 bonus babies Todd Glaesmann and Luke Bailey played (poorly) with the Hot Rods last season, Malm was kept in extended spring training before heading to Hudson Valley. He started very strong, including a .314/.435/.608 line in July, but faded badly with .668 and .528 OPSes in August and September. While his season line remained a solid .257/.382/.462, he's been relatively unimpressive in his career outside of that crazy July. He hit just .220/.296/.310 in 2010 for Princeton, so his hot month should be viewed with some skepticism. Facing full-season piching for the first time this year will be a telling test.
Second Base - Ryan BrettThe 2010 third-round pick has done nothing but hit in his career, following up a .303 average in his debut with a .300/.370/.471 mark for the P-Rays last season. He's small -- 5-9/180 -- and won't hit for much more than doubles power, but plays well to his strengths. He excels at making contact and walked more than he struck out (26 BB, 24 K in 61 games). Efficient on the basepaths, he swiped 21 bases and was caught only three times. He's still a work-in-progress defensively, but he has the tools to be at least average defensively at the keystone.
Shortstop - Jake Hager (?), Juniel Querecuto
Hager was the Rays' only 2011 high school pick to play with Princeton last season, so the team clearly feels that he's relatively advanced. His .269/.305/.399 line isn't great in a vacuum, but as an 18-year-old in the Appy it's plenty good, especially combined with his tools. He doesn't have one outstanding tool, but he's a plus athlete and his game is well-rounded enough that he could probably hold his own against Midwest League pitching. Only one Rays high school draftee in recent years has started at Bowling Green the year after being drafted, and that was Tim Beckham. But Hager (and possibly Taylor Guerrieri) could break that trend. Querecuto got a six-figure bonus from the Rays a few years ago, but crashed after a few nice weeks in Hudson Valley, finishing with an OPS below .600.
Third Base - Taylor Motter
Motter is, on paper, a doppelganger for Tyler Bortnick. Both played shortstop for Coastal Carolina, moving off the position with the Rays. Bortnick, taken in the 16th round, now plays 2B; Motter, drafted in the 17th round, played 27 games at 3B and 18 at SS in his debut. They feature similar skillsets: an ability to hit for average (to this point in their careers), a good approach, and efficiency on the bases. Motter hit .314/.425/.479 with 23 steals in 25 attempts in his debut, mainly with Princeton. If Hager does indeed make the jump to Bowling Green, Motter will be entrenched at 3B. If not, he'll likely split time equally on the left side of the diamond as Querecuto doesn't seem to be an everyday player.
Outfield - Drew Vettleson, Kes Carter, Mike Mahtook, Josh Sale
I somehow overlooked Mahtook in my Charlotte preview. As of right now I'd say it's 75/25 Charlotte/Bowling Green, since he's an advanced enough hitter to handle the Florida State League, and held his own against FSL-or-better caliber pitching in Arizona. But the Rays, of course, are notoriously slow with prospects, and Derek Dietrich spent all last season here. Kes Carter, a 2011 supplemental-round pick, got just three games in with Hudson Valley before shin problems shelved him. He'll join Matt Rice as WKU alums playing in their college town. Vettleson, like Malm, was a tale of two players in 2011. Vettleson hit .384/.458/.677 in July but .191/.283/.298 in August. He's a near-lock for Bowling Green, though, something that can't be said for Josh Sale. He hit .210/.289/.346 with Princeton last season, and faces the same questions that O'Conner does. Though Sale's strikeout numbers weren't bad (41 in 60 games), there's no doubt that his swing mechanics need work. Whether that comes in Bowling Green or extended spring training is the big question.
Possible Opening Day Lineup
Playing the optimist here, having the Rays move aggressively on O'Conner, Sale, and Hager (and Mahtook to Charlotte). But I think even subtracting a name or two, Bowling Green's box score will be my first stop each night.