2018 breakout prospect Brandon Lowe was one of the many pleasant surprises down on the farm that allowed the Tampa Bay Rays farm system to remain one of the best in the game, despite graduations from the likes of Willy Adames, Jake Bauers, Jose Alvarado, Diego Castillo, Joey Wendle and many other rookies that played big roles on the major league club.
Lowe’s breakout started in 2017 where he lit up the Florida State League (A+) with a .311/.403/.524 line with eight homers over 367 plate appearances. The knock was that Lowe should have been putting up big lines because he’s a major college draftee that was in his age 22 season.
Lowe received a late season promotion to the Montgomery Biscuits (AA) and the results weren’t in good in a small sample. Lowe hit .253/.270/.389 with two homers over 101 plate appearances. He looked far worse than even the line suggests. Lowe was swinging at everything with a lot of swing and miss leading to a 25.7% strikeout rate, but even more worrying was the accompanying 2.0% walk rate.
Overall the 2017 season was part breakout and part disappointment. AA tends to be the level where MLB hitters are separated from the non prospects.
2018 saw Lowe head back to Montgomery to start the season. This time he laid waste to the league much more like he did the Florida State League in 2017. He hit .291/.400/.508 with eight homers in 240 plate appearances.
Lowe was quickly promoted to Durham (AAA) where he just continued to mash. This time the power started to come in bunches as he hit 14 homers in 205 plate appearances on his way to a .304/.380/.613 line.
Daniel Robertson’s thumb injury in late August opened the door for Lowe to get a shot in the majors.
Brandon Lowe got off to a rough start going 0-for-19. This time he didn’t look over matched like he did in his 2017 Montgomery stint. Then the results started to come and he ended with a .233/.324/.450 line with six homeruns in 148 plate appearances.
His 129 at bats left him one at bat shy of exhausting his rookie eligibility, and after not really being in the conversation for top 10 Rays lists a year ago he could be found on most top 100s this winter.
Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniels of FanGraphs were the most aggressive ranking him 46th overall, the top ranked 50 FV prospect.
Is the power real?
Swing and miss is part of Lowe’s game. He’ll strike out a fair amount, but he’ll also draw walks an above average rate. His batting average will likely stay below average, but shouldn’t be a big negative landing somewhere in the .240-.250 range in most seasons.
The unanswered question is power. Most publications have put a 50-55 grade on his power. Just looking at him that would seem optimistic, but then he came out and clobbered 28 homers split between AA/AAA/MLB in 2018. 50-55 power would see him put up 15-22 homers annually. Coming into the 2018 season the lower side seemed likely. The data we have in the majors showed he hits the ball hard and at the right angle to reach whatever power he does have in games.
We have seen one year power surges like Joe Mauer’s 28 homer MVP campaign in 2009 despite never hitting more than 13 in any other professional season. Rays fan remember seeing Brad Miller’s 30 homer season in 2016 despite never hitting more than 11 homers in any other season. If Lowe does solidify himself as a 25-30 homerun hitter then that 50-55 grade should be pushed to 60-65.
Lowe currently has above average speed with 27.5 ft/s sprint times recorded in the majors last season. 27.0 ft/s is average. So over time he should be an around an average runner.
Defense has always been the weakest part of Lowe’s game. It has improved as he’s moved up the ladder, but he’s likely a below average second baseman. Nothing too harmful, but somewhere in the -5 runs per season range should be expected at his natural position.
What to expect in 2019?
Lowe’s role entering the 2019 season was cloudy at best as of a few days ago. The Rays wouldn’t really have any reason to play service time games, but with left handed bats Joey Wendle and Austin Meadows looking to have locked down 2B and RF at least to start the year it was tough to see where Lowe could receive playing time on a regular basis.
With a healthy roster, I don’t think it was out of the question that Lowe could have been sent to Durham to get everyday at bats until under performance or injury gave him another opportunity, but hat expectation changed.
Earlier this week, the Rays signed Lowe to a six year, $24MM extension. Now he’s going to get playing, but the question is where.
This spring Lowe has worked at first base and the outfield. He’s inexperienced at both positions so it’s unknown exactly what he will be there. As a first baseman his small stature would seem to make a suboptimal choice. His average to just-above speed gives him the possibility of being an outfielder if he is good at tracking balls in the air. His arm is his weakest defensive asset, so he’d be limited to left field, but the roster configuration may push him right. His natural position of second base has many options for the Rays. Lowe is likely the weakest defender of the group, but might have the best bat. Wherever the Rays chose to put him they are likely giving up something.
The publicly available projection systems seem to agree that Lowe will be an above average hitter with Steamer being the most optimistic at 111 wRC+, PECOTA coming right behind at 106 DRC+, and ZiPS coming in at 102 wRC+.
The Rays have bet on Lowe, so he’s going to get the opportunity somewhere.