In the excitement of Wednesday’s Drew Smyly trade, it is easy to miss a sneaky good second acquisition. The Rays claimed Jason Coats, a 26 year old corner outfielder, off waivers from the Chicago White Sox, who needed to clear room for former Pirates’ outfield prospect Willy Garcia.
He figures to function mostly as outfield depth but could wind up with a larger role if the Rays elect to not add another right handed bat.
The Dallas native played his college ball at Texas Christian University. As a sophomore, Coats’ stellar play propelled the Horned Frogs to their first ever College World Series berth. After that record-setting sophomore year performance, however, he took a step backward as a junior hitting 5 fewer home runs while losing more than 30 points from his batting average.
He was selected in the 12th round of the 2011 MLB Draft by the Baltimore Orioles, but he turned down a six figure signing bonus to return to TCU with hopes of improving his stock. While he performed admirably in his return, he failed to flash enough potential to shoot up the draft board, especially after a torn ACL cut his season short. He was chosen by Chicago in the 29th round.
As a result of the knee injury Coats was unable to make his minor league debut until 2013, but he performed reasonably well at his first couple of stops in the minors, hitting 12-15 homers a season with a modicum of speed and quality on-base skills. He only played 31 games for AA Birmingham before making his way to Charlotte, where he excelled. In 332 plate appearances his second season at AAA, he slashed .330/.394/.519 with an insane 165 wRC+.
That performance earned him a big league call up in early June, where his debut was marred by a head on collision with JB Shuck. Coats valiantly held onto the ball, but was removed from the game.
He spent the rest of the season back and forth between Charlotte and Chicago, but never seemed to put a good run together in the majors. Over just 58 PAs he hit a paltry .200 with a K% creeping above 20 % . He did, however, continue to produce at the AAA level (his 2016 slash line in Charlotte: .330/.394/.519).
While Coats is probably never going to be an everyday regular for a contending team, he still possesses the tools to be an effective role player in the major leagues. Future Sox, a Chicago-based organization that regularly scouts Chicago prospects, elaborated on those tools entering this offseason:
In terms of tools, Coats is primarily a line drive hitter with a good combo of contact and power. He doesn't walk much, but he does work counts and has a good enough feel for hitting to hit for high average. He's got quiet hands in the box, but accelerates the head out quickly and shows surprising bat speed…His power is somewhat of an open question, but in full time play if his hit tool works, he should be a 50-grade power hitter. All told, this is a player without a standout tool, but also without the glaring weaknesses we are accustomed to seeing in Sox outfield prospects
It’s a glowing review that offers some encouragement, and there’s more: he destroys left handed pitchers. In a limited 27 MLB plate appearances against them, Coats put up a 181 wRC+, but it’s more than a fluky start to his pro career.
Over the past two seasons in the minors, Coats slashed .310/.347/.484 and .359/.431/.563 against southpaws in 2015 and 2016 respectively. Those numbers aren’t too dissimilar from those posted by the Rays former lefty masher, Brandon Guyer, who also didn’t join an MLB team on a regular basis until his mid to late 20’s.
Coats’ defense doesn’t profile to be as good as Guyers’, so you wouldn’t want him pushed into full time duty. Since the Rays have quality outfield depth both in the majors (after signing Colby Rasmus) and in the minors (by acquiring Mallex Smith), that shouldn’t be a major issue.
I wouldn’t expect great things all around from Coats, but in the absence of another right handed bat signing, Coats could contribute this season as a pinch hitter/platoon guy given Rasmus and Dickerson’s career struggles against lefties.