Friday, the Rays announced their minor league awards, naming first baseman Nate Lowe as the Player of the Year and lefty Brock Burke as the Pitcher of the Year. The team also honored an MVP for each affiliate, the best baserunner in the organization, the best reliever, the best defensive player, and recognized one player for exemplary community involvement.
Lowe slugged his way to national prominence in 2018, earning a spot in the Futures Game. He led the organization with 27 home runs and was third with a .330 average for Class A-Advanced Charlotte, Double-A Montgomery, and Triple-A Durham. His .985 OPS was a 224-point improvement over his 2017 season.
Burke also started the season with Charlotte before earning a promotion to Montgomery, where he pitched even better. In 55 1⁄3 outstanding innings with the Biscuits, he owned a 1.95 ERA with a 32.1 percent strikeout rate and 6.3 percent walk rate. For the season, he led the organization with 158 strikeouts, and his 3.08 ERA ranked fourth among pitchers with 100-plus innings.
Outfielder Carl Chester was honored as the Erik Walker Community Champion, which “recognizes a Rays minor leaguer who exemplifies teamwork, sportsmanship and community involvement,” according to a release. He was Class-A Bowling Green’s nominee for the honor, and the team will make a $2,500 donation to a charity of his choice. Walker was a Devil Rays minor league who passed away following his first season of professional baseball in 2006.
Second baseman Vidal Brujan was chosen the organization’s best baserunner. His 55 steals led the organization by far and were second in all of minor league baseball. In its release, the team noted he was selected as the Midwest League’s best baserunner in Baseball America’s best tools survey.
The organization’s best reliever was lefty Colin Poche, who dominated for Montgomery and Durham. After being acquired as one of two players to be named later from Arizona in the Steven Souza Jr. trade, he pitched to a 0.98 ERA in 55 innings between the two top affiliates, striking out 42.6 percent of batters and limiting them to a .460 OPS.
Bowling Green shortstop Taylor Walls was selected as the top defensive player. He was also named the best defensive shortstop in the Midwest League in BA’s best tools survey.
The affiliate MVPs were as follows:
Triple-A Durham: Infielder Kean Wong
Double-A Montgomery: Infielder/outfielder Nick Solak
Class A-Advanced Charlotte: Outfielder Jesus Sanchez
Class-A Bowling Green: Catcher Ronaldo Hernandez
Short-season Hudson Valley: Catcher Chris Betts
Rookie-level Princeton: Shortstop Wander Franco
Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Rays: Third baseman Kaleo Johnson
Rookie-level Dominican Summer League Rays 1: Right-handed pitcher Matthew Peguero
Rookie-level Dominican Summer League Rays 2: Infielder Abiezel Ramirez
In his second go-around with the Bulls, Wong had a breakout season. He batted .282 with a .750 OPS. He set new career highs in doubles (23), homers (nine), and slugging percentage (.406). In addition to his usual duties at second and third base, he played in the outfield for the first time as a professional.
Like Wong, Solak played outfield for the first time professionally in 2018. Acquired in the Souza trade, he set new career highs with 19 homers and 21 steals. He led the Southern League with 135 hits and a .384 on-base percentage.
For the fourth straight season, Sanchez was named the top player at an affiliate. For the season, he batted .282 with a .757 OPS. For the Stone Crabs, he batted .301 with a .793 OPS before a late-season promotion to Double A. He competed against Lowe in the Futures Game.
Hernandez was one of the top breakout players of the organization. His 21 home runs ranked second in the Midwest League, and he finished the season with a .284 average and .832 OPS.
Finally healthy, Betts had a career-high 302 plate appearances for Hudson Valley and Bowling Green. With the Renegades, his nine home runs were third in the New York-Penn League, and he batted .248 with a .790 OPS. For the season, his OPS was .753.
Franco has quickly risen to the top of prospect lists with his phenomenal 2018 season. In his first professional season, the 17-year-old dominated the Appalachian League, batting .351 with a .418 on-base percentage and .587 slugging percentage. He reached base in 53 straight games, hit for the cycle, and was among the league leaders in many offensive categories.
Johnson — the team’s 32nd-round pick in June — was one of the GCL’s top sluggers. With the GCL Rays, he batted .311 with a .939 OPS, and his OPS for the season was .904. Between the GCL Rays and Hudson Valley, he hit eight home runs and was hit by 15 pitches.
Peguero struck out 60 batters in 60 1⁄3 innings for the DSL Rays 1 with a 2.69 ERA. He had a 28-inning scoreless streak during the season.
Ramirez was named to the postseason Dominican Summer League All-Star team. In his second professional season, the infielder batted .291 with a .391 on-base percentage and .414 slugging percentage. In 2016, he signed with the organization for $300,000.
The minor league honorees will be recognized prior to Friday’s Rays game against the Blue Jays.