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Austin Meadows may be the Swing Vote for 2019

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How the 23 year handles his first full-time major league opportunity may determine whether the Rays are 2019 contenders

Toronto Blue Jays v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

After a surprise 90-win season in 2018, and an offseason in which the front office has shown time and time again that the club is in win now mode, expectations are going to be high for the Rays in 2019. Whether the Rays are competing for a playoff spot or struggling to stay at .500 will be determined by a number of factors, but if you’re looking for the player who may most determine whether the Rays reach their ceiling or their floor, you should start with Austin Meadows.

Austin Wade Meadows was drafted with the ninth pick of the 2013 Draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates. An outfielder out of Grayson High School in Loganville, GA, he immediately jumped onto top prospect lists, landing in the top-100 in all three major lists, and in the top 50 in both Baseball America’s and MLB.com’s rankings.

The 6’ 3” lefty matriculated across the Pirates minor league system for the next five years, with his prospect ranking peaking before the 2017 season when he was a consensus top-10 prospect, with the expectation that he would be with the big league side that year. However, 2017 was a bit of a struggle for Meadows, who slashed a career-worst .261/.323/.384 across three different levels and failed to impress enough to get a big league call up. This took a bit of shine off his name, but it didn’t stop him from being a consensus top-45 prospect before the 2018 season.

This past season Meadows did earn a call-up and slashed .292/.327/.468 in 49 games with the Pirates. He held a regular spot in the Pirate lineup for most of the first half until a second half cool down led to another trip down to the minors. He stayed there until the club traded for Chris Archer; Meadows was one of several players going to Tampa Bay.

The Rays started him in Durham, where he played perhaps the best baseball of his career, slashing .344/.396/.771 in 27 games for the Bulls, with nearly as many home runs (10) as strikeouts (13). Once the Triple-A season was done, Meadows got the big league call once again, but with a crowded Rays outfield, he played only 10 games down the stretch, slashing .250/.308/.417 in just 26 plate appearances.

Although Meadows has just 59 games and 191 plate appearances under his belt at the major league level, the Rays are (likely) handing the reins to him full-time to start 2019. When the offseason began, it appeared as though Meadows would be the fourth outfielder in 2019, possibly beginning the season at Triple-A. That all changed when the club flipped Mallex Smith (and Jake Fraley) for Mike Zunino, Guillermo Heredia (and Michael Plassmeyer). Catcher was a position of need for the Rays, and, with Meadows in tow, the Rays felt that they could part with Smith.

The most likely start to 2019 will now see Meadows as the full-time right fielder, with Heredia as the fourth outfielder. That doesn’t give Meadows much leeway. If Meadows struggles, there almost certainly isn’t going to be a demotion this time. It’s his time to prove it, full stop.

With the Rays looking to compete in 2019, they’re not going to have Guillermo Heredia as one of their starting outfielders, unless something goes really wrong (even if when KK misses a few months, sliding Pham to center and calling up someone like Joe McCarthy seems the most likely over giving Heredia full time, but that’s for another article).

So, what can we expect out of a full-time Meadows? Let’s start with the good news. The projection systems also seem to like Meadows considering his limited experience. Steamer pegs Meadows as a near-two-win player, with a 105 wRC+ and a .264/.316/.435 slash line. That’s actually a little lower than his career .287/.325/.461, but that makes sense given that he was running a .336 BABIP to land that slash line last year. If you were to offer Rays fans a year with Meadows playing 140 or so games with a 105 wRC+, I think most of them would take it.

Where the news isn’t as good, is on the defensive side of things. Despite being a young, presumably athletic, outfielder, Meadows was a net negative last season, and he is projected to continue to be a net negative again in 2019. Apparently he can play all three outfield positions, but poorly — he was a negative (by Defensive Runs Saved) at all three spots in 2018. Combined, he was worth -9 runs by DRS and -6.5 runs by UZR in just 359.1 outfield innings last season. His arm was below average, his range was below average, and he didn’t make a single play with an Inside Edge likelihood of less than 60 percent. Most of his prospect profiles say that his bat is his strength, but none peg his defense as this big of an issue, so let’s hope that he is a better outfielder than 2018 would suggest. Or that he just hugs the right field line and lets Kiermaier catch everything else.

The glove may end up being the difference between Meadows being a two-win player or a three-win player, but really it’s just one unknown in a long list of unknowns for Meadows.

Here are some other things to watch:

  • Can he improve his walk rate (5.2 percent at the big league level so far) enough to make him a viable OBP threat?
  • Is the .174 ISO he posted in his rookie season legit? The projection systems seem to think so, but his power has always been inconsistent.
  • Will the young lefty be able to handle the AL East, which is stacked top to bottom with tough southpaws? He actually showed reverse splits last year; hopefully he can continue to have success against lefties.

If a few of those answers break the right way, Meadows could be a key part of a contending Rays team. If all of those answers break the right way, the Rays could well be looking at some very important games in October. Of course, if they break the wrong way, Rays fans will possibly be thinking lovingly of Mallex International Speedway while watching from their couches come postseason time.

There are lots of key questions facing the Rays in 2019, but how Austin Meadows handles the first real full-time role of his career will be among the most important.