Opening up first base presents a few interesting options for the Rays in 2019. What was once former top 50 overall prospect Jake Bauers’ position to lose is now an open slot on the Rays roster after the Rays recently put all their chips on Yandy Diaz.
They could explore the market for an external option, they could use what they have on the major league roster and rotate guys in and out, or they could dip into Durham. The major league quantities are known: Ji-Man Choi, Yandy Diaz, and possibly Brandon Lowe or Daniel Robertson could all fill in, but none are natural first basemen.
So let’s take a look at those minor league options. Primary among those Durham options are No. 12 prospect Joe McCarthy and No. 15 prospect Nathaniel Lowe (according to the FanGraphs rankings from 2018).
No Red Scare Here
Joe McCarthy was selected by the Rays in the 5th round of the 2015 draft out of the University of Virginia. He has an unusual profile for a first baseman—his athleticism and usability as a corner outfielder make him quite similar to Bauers in that sense. You can read our most recent breakdown of him here.
Injuries have surely slowed his timeline a bit—the 24-year-old was limited to 53 games for Durham in ‘18—but when he’s been healthy, he has raked at every level. He’s never produced to a wRC+ of less than 115, and that was in his first year of pro ball. More recently, McCarthy posted a 151 wRC+ for the Bulls this past year and a 149 wRC+ in ‘17 in Montgomery. If he can stay on the field, he’ll undoubtedly be a useful major leaguer as soon as this year.
McCarthy has shown a great approach at the plate in terms of discipline and took a big step forward in his power output—setting a career high .513 slugging percentage in ‘18 (to compare, Bauers had a .422 slugging before getting the call up last year). Projections are modest for the 2019 season, but it’s easy to see why the Rays elected to have kept him around.
Lowe, on the other hand, has all the hype
When Nate Lowe was drafted in the 13th round of the 2016 draft out of Mississippi State, it was his brother Joshua who was the headliner, going 13th overall, also to the Rays. Nate’s first two years in pro ball were impressive, if unspectacular. Being that his bat was his only tool, it left evaluators a little cold.
His new approach to hitting paid major dividends in ‘18. Lowe played 51 games in both High-A and AA, and another 28 in AAA, and he mashed at all three levels, putting up wRC+’s of 193, 191, and 119, respectively. He combined for 27 home runs and 32 doubles while showing great plate discipline, drawing 68 walks en route to a .416 on-base. His outstanding year got him a selection to the MLB Futures game (seen below taking healthy hacks).
With all this said, the Rays must think at least one of these players is almost ready, and they’re not the only ones—Steamer projects Lowe to a 115 wRC+ next year.
Bloom, Neander and Cash were all clearly on the same page when marketing Bauers, all in agreement that he was the future at first base, that it was his position to lose. This may have, even if unintentionally, made him a more attractive target for teams.
There wasn’t much to suggest the Rays were ready to move on from Bauers, but his struggles at the plate in ‘18, the availability of Yandy Diaz as a trade target, and the readiness of the guys waiting in the wings accelerated the decision. Bauers—who Bloom said was the price they ‘had’ to pay to acquire Diaz—may have instead been the price they wanted to pay.
Whether the Rays grab someone from the trade or free agent markets to fit the first base bill, one of their internal prospects, or a first-base-by committee situation until handing it over to one of the young guys, it will no doubt be interesting to watch it unfold.