The Rays have long departed from the MLB norm of seeking power from first base. With the exception of the Carlos Peña years, they have opted for players like James Loney and Casey Kotchman. As we’ll indicate below, that trend continues deep into the system, as power remains an elusive asset among Rays 1B prospects.
Over the last decade, the Rays only made a major investment at 1B on two occasions. The first was when they selected Casey Gillaspie in the 1st rd of the 2014 draft (20th overall), and the second was when they dealt Wil Myers to the Padres and received Jake Bauers as part of the return. This contrasts to the noteworthy investments they’ve made at catcher, as we recently wrote.
The only other investment of note at 1B for the Rays was $680,000 spent on Jeff Malm (now with the Dodgers) in 2009 after selecting him in that year’s 5th rd. In 2007, for example, the Rays selected RHP Will Kline instead of selecting Freddie Freeman, who was selected 13 picks later. In 2008, they selected Tim Beckham ahead of Royals 1B Eric Hosmer. In 2011, the Rays had a whopping 10 selections before the Pirates selected Josh Bell in the 2nd rd, and the more affordable Dan Vogelbach was taken 7 picks later by the Cubs.
Clearly 1B has not been a priority for the Rays through the seasons, aside from Gillaspie and Bauers, and that’s part of the reason they’ve had to settle on below-average first basemen (offensively speaking). The other being financial limitations.
Since some of those players started to make it to The Show, the Rays have received bottom third production from their first basemen, placing 21st overall with a subpar 8.2 WAR rating.
When you consider that all of their AL East adversaries are within the top 12 WAR ratings among first basemen over that span, with the Yankees being the lowest at 18 WAR, you realize how much of a disadvantage the Rays have had at the position.
The recent signing of Logan Morrison will continue that trend. After all, when your opponents are getting more than double - or more than 3 times - the production at first base, you’re stuck playing catch up over the rest of the field.
With that in mind, let’s kick this list off with a few less familiar names.
#5: Michael Russell | 24 - LoA | 6’2” 200 lbs
Signed: for $250,000 Note: Drafted as a Short Stop out of North Carolina
2016 MWL Stats: 458 PA | 8 HR | 9.8 BB% | 14 SO% | .157 ISO | .386 wOBA% | 147 wRC+
Russell was drafted as a shortstop and continues to make appearances at that position, so has a bit of a different profile than the usual 1B prospects. He was 5th in the MWL in Stolen Bases, for instance, something you don’t normally see out of a 1B prospect, but at first base is where he spent the majority of his time.
Russell has the athleticism to play all over the field, and currently projects as a utility player overall.
His assets include an ability to get on base, and steadily improving fielding skills. Despite playing more than 10 games at 4 different positions, Russell committed only 14 errors on the season, a slight improvement on 2015 when he spent the entire season at SS and committed 16 errors.
As the Rays director of Minor League operations Mitch Lukevics stated about Russell:
"He played a lot of different positions. He's versatile, he's a good athlete and with being a good athlete and being a gamer and [having] hustle, you see a lot of stolen bases," Lukevics said. "He's a guy who can turn a single into a double, he can go first to home, he has that aggressiveness. He's just a [darn] good player."
His limitations include his lack of power for his normative position, and his being 1.5 years older than the average player in the MWL in 2016, where he functioned as a clubhouse leader and, rightfully so, was the best player on his team.
Should he show promise in 2017, he could move up into the prospect spotlight, since he does barrel the ball well and has the athleticism to project as a major league utility player. During our DRB prospect ranking process, he also came out as the 5th best SS prospect, so he has options that work in his favour going forward. If the bat plays at higher levels, finding a position for him should not be difficult.
#4: Dalton Kelly | 22 - LoA | 6’3” 180 lbs
2016 LoA Stats: 564 PA | 7 HR | 11.2 BB% | 20.2 SO% | .123 ISO | .372 wOBA% | 137 wRC+
Unlike Russell who projects to have a fairly low ceiling when it comes to power projections, Kelly is thought by many to have more potential than what we’ve seen in games thus far. Have a look for yourself here:
While that power stroke is encouraging, so far it’s been elusive in game. Despite having a great OBP, Kelly will need to double his power to be thought of as a potential regular at 1B.
What makes Kelly a more intriguing first base prospect than Russell is the fact that he was slightly younger than the remainder of his competition in 2016, and managed a .800 OPS while striking out about a fifth of the time.
On the defensive side of things, Kelly does have the athleticism to project well as an off-the-bench 1B who can also handle the outfield corners in a pinch. You can see some of that athleticism below.
One of the more intriguing low level acquisitions made of late, Kelly will be worth following this season in Charlotte, where he is likely to share time with Russell, making it easy to compare the two. I suspect that of all the players on this list, he could make the biggest leap up the rankings and challenge for a spot on Montgomery’s roster by season’s end.
#3: Joe McCarthy | 22 - A | 6’3” 225 lbs
2016 LoA Stats: 193 PA | 3 HR | 17.1 BB% | 15.5 SO% | .137 ISO | .398 wOBA% | 155 wRC+
2016 HiA Stats: 237 PA | 5 HR | 11.8 BB% | 16 SO% | .152 ISO | .376 wOBA% | 138 wRC+
Love my Giants no matter what.— Joe McCarthy (@Mojo_JoeJoe31) January 9, 2017
He may not love the Buccaneers yet, but if he makes it to Tampa I’m sure he’ll be persuaded to adopt them as his second favourite team.
McCarthy was drafted as an outfielder and only recently started getting more playing time at 1B, playing playing 60 games at there, compared to 38 in the OF, through 2 levels.
McCarthy is known as a take no prisoners type of player. He barrels the ball well and his .318/.429/.479 line (.907 OPS) vs RHP certainly plays extremely well. And while he only managed a .189 BA vs LHP, he did show patience against southpaws, managing a .308 OBP in the process. McCarthy’s power, however, is only a projection at this point. After all, when you only manage 8 HRs through 430 PA, it’s hard to see you as a power-hitting first baseman.
If something carries McCarthy to the majors it’s going to be his ability to make consistent contact and improve his gap power. The FSL is known to sap power out of young hitter’s bats, so he could show us more power in 2017, reaching the 10 to 15 HR levels. Since he doesn’t have the arm strength to fit anywhere on the field but LF and 1B, he projects more as a bench player than a regular for now.
Next up is Big Case Dawg....
#2: Casey Gillaspie | 24 - AAA | 6’4” 238 lbs
Scouting grades: Hit: 45 | Power: 60 | Run: 20 | Arm: 40 | Field: 50 | Overall: 50
2016 AA Stats: 85 G | 357 PA | 11 HR | 51 R | 16.2 BB% | 22.1 SO% | .387 wOBA% | 145 wRC+
2016 AAA Stats: 47 G | 203 PA | 7 HR | 27 R | 10.8 BB% | 18.7 SO% | .407 wOBA% | 163 wRC+
Finally on this list of 1B prospects we get to a hitter that managed double-digit HRs. If you’re looking for a hitter within the Rays organization that projects to play every day at first base and provide above-average power numbers, Gillaspie is the guy.
After all, when was the last time the Rays had a 1B who was graded at 60 for Power?
Gillaspie missed time with a broken hand in 2015; he then went to the Arizona Fall League and had to learn a lot about himself and the mental side of the game. As he noted after that experience:
“The Fall League kind of knocked me down a little bit, but at the same time, I took it as a learning experience to better myself on the mental side of the game, to keep working hard and focus on the task at hand.”
Did he show us he applied that learning experience in 2016? Definitely.
There’s a reason he was named the Rays’ Minor League Player of the Year. He performed well enough in his first taste of AA to earn a quick promotion to AAA. When you only need to play 85 games in AA to prove to an organization that you’ve learned all you need to learn at the level, you have a lot of people that believe in your abilities.
Evaluators like his ability to hit both RHP and LHP. He managed .299/.390/.501 vs RHP and .239/.379/.410 vs LHP, and showed off power against both in the process. His ISO improved from .184 in AA to .212 in AAA, and he actually lowered his SO% after the promotion. His swing gets knocked some for being a little long, but he’s hit at every level, showing enough bat speed to make it work.
In short, he’s the top 1B the Rays have in my books and the best chance the Rays have at producing an internal candidate at 1B that can compete with others in the AL East. Some observers, however, haven’t been convinced that his bat will play in the MLB.
Gillaspie finished the season in AAA with a bang, hitting a HR in his last AB, going 9 for 18 over his last 4 games, walking once and only striking out twice. It certainly leaves a major impression on the team. As Lukevics stated post-season:
"We jumped him to Triple-A, where he responded very well. We thought he was ready for it mentally -- he was certainly ready for it physically. How do you know if you've made the right move? How they perform. And we're happy about that for him," said Lukevics. "We're happy where the bat is, both right-handed and left-handed."
Looking ahead, the Rays could have a switch-hitting power-hitting first baseman that also plays well defensively and gets on base at an above-average clip.
It would be a shock if Gillaspie doesn’t make an appearance with the Rays in 2017. To be completely honest and candid, I was hoping they wouldn’t sign a 1B named Morrison to ensure that the road ahead was clear for Gillaspie. As it is, the Rays will now have to make a financial decision, not just a baseball decision, when he proves too ready to hold back from the majors any longer.
Next up is someone who’s playing the OF because of Big Dawg’s presence at 1B....
#1: Jake Bauers | 21 - AA | 6’1” 195 lbs
Scouting Grades - Hit: 55 | Power: 50 | Run: 40 | Arm: 50 | Field: 55 | Overall: 55
2016 AA Stats: 581 PA | 14 HR | 12.6 BB% | 15.3 SO% | .370 wOBA% | 132 wRC+
Bauers projects well both in the OF and at 1B, and probably has greater LF potential than many assume. If there’s one area where he may excel more than most Rays prospects it’s in his ability to make contact. He has an extremely low SO rate and has been able to maintain strong and consistent BABIP numbers throughout his pro career.
Repeating the AA level, for a full season this time, Bauers really showed off his keen eye and patience at the plate, walking an impressive 73 times. That was second to only team mate Willy Adames, who only managed 1 more walk, in the entire Southern League. In fact, he was among the league leaders in most categories.
- 2016 SL Stats: 4th in doubles and total bases, 6th in HRs/OBP/SLG, and 7th in Hits
If you were to nitpick, you could point to his .236/.344/.340 line and general lack of power against LHP, but that’s something he projects to be able to improve. Still, the lack of power may be the most concerning, as noted by MLB.com:
The projections of his power range from gap power with an ability to hit 10-15 HRs to improving to max out at 25 HRs. I still believe the raw power could eventually translate into the more optimistic projections, but it remains to be seen. Regardless of the power, most agree he will hit well enough to get his bat in the lineup regularly.
With a surprisingly strong arm, Bauers could very well find himself playing more LF going forward, increasing his opportunities to make it to The Show in the process, especially if Gillaspie succeeds as hoped.
Bauer’s bat should play highly enough to get him an MLB look. How much he develops his power will dictate whether or not he sticks. With maturity beyond his years and the makeup to match, he’ll be one of the more intriguing Rays prospects to monitor in 2017. There’s no doubt the team will feel comfortable enough to challenge him with a callup.
With both Gillaspie and Bauers getting non-roster invites to Spring Training, they’ll be able to show the team what they’ve got to offer this season first-hand. Interestingly, the team lists Bauers as an outfielder, and Gillaspie as a 1B. That very well could be where they end the 2017 season, only on the Rays roster, not in Durham.
Compared to other positions within the system, the 1B depth is a little top heavy, but it still has promise. The Rays would do well to target a few more power hitters in upcoming drafts though, so that they can ensure they get adequate - and competitive - offensive production from 1B.
To finish this one off on the right note, here’s a nice quick powerful swing from Bauers. We hope to see Bauers hitting bombs like this one in TB soon enough.