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Examining Jake Cronenworth as a potential two-way player

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The Rays’ third two-way player has actually been in the organization for several years.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays-Media Day Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In the seventh round of the 2015 draft, the Tampa Bay Rays selected Jake Cronenworth out of Michigan. Cronenworth had excelled with the Wolverines, both at the plate and on the mound.

Heading into the draft, Cronenworth was mainly scouted as a pitcher, and he was convinced that any team selecting him would develop him as a pitching prospect. He was pretty shocked, then, when the Tampa Bay Rays called his name and announced him as a second baseman.

Despite his surprise, Cronenworth embraced his role.

He was used to filling wherever his team needed him, which he had done as a Wolverine. Not only was he an uncommon two-way player, he also transitioned from pitching in relief to filling in as a starter following a teammate’s injury.

In his first year as a professional, Cronenworth was assigned to the short-season Hudson Valley Renegades and proceeded to have the best offensive season of any player on the team, hitting .291/.399/.398 with one homer in 234 plate appearances. Although he didn’t have much power, Cronenworth displayed an impressive ability to get on base with a 13.2 BB%.

Cronenworth is currently with the Durham Bulls in Triple A and is having the best offensive season of his career. He is currently hitting .373/.467/.514 with two home runs in 167 plate appearances. His average is fourth among all Triple-A hitters, and he possesses the fourth-highest on-base percentage.

He is also striking out at the lowest rate of his career (10.8 K%), while also maintaining the highest walk rate of his career (13.8%).

However, despite Cronenworth’s successes at the plate, his defense is below average to average at best. This — combined with the Rays’ massive amount of middle infield depth — will be a huge barrier for him to overcome. This past offseason, every team in the league had the opportunity to take Cronenworth in the Rule 5 draft, but he wasn’t selected.

Enter the mound.

After progressing through the minors as an infielder, Cronenworth’s two-way talents have resurfaced.

In the inner DRaysBay circles, we had been taking note of the new interest in two-way talents (Shohei Ohtani, Brendan McKay) and speculating about whether Cronenworth would ever return to the mound.

The Rays showed they were willing to add to the two-way experiment in 2018 when they selected Tanner Dodson as an outfielder and right-handed pitcher. Dodson had an excellent debut season as he registered a 113 wRC+ in 224 plate appearances and had a 1.44 ERA and 2.44 FIP in 25 innings with Hudson Valley. Dodson is currently in High-A with the Charlotte Stone Crabs.

Finally, this past week, the Rays finally allowed Cronenworth to return to the mound, perhaps as a way to open a route to the majors, or perhaps because the team has begun to see this additional positional flexibility as an asset. On May 18, Cronenworth pitched in his first logged game since finishing his NCAA career in the spring of 2015.

Impressively, Cronenworth opened the game and recorded a scoreless frame. He didn’t yield any hits. He did walk two, but also struck out a batter during his inning of work.

Pitching from the extreme first base side of the rubber, Cronenworth’s first pitch as a professional and first pitch in a game in four years resulted in a pop up. It was a fastball that the Bulls’ broadcast clocked at 96 mph. It rode up and in on Drew Maggi, jamming him.

Cronenworth did show some struggles commanding his fastball in his debut. Clocking in the mid 90s, he struggled to hit his catcher’s target a couple of times, resulting in the walk he surrendered to LaMonte Wade. During the plate appearance, Cronenworth also displayed a cutter that registered at 90mph.

Cronenworth faced a test on his third hitter. After four years off the mound, how would he perform with a runner on base?

Wade challenged him immediately and took off for second on the first pitch ... he was thrown out easily.

Cronenworth fell behind Zander Wiel and eventually walked him on six pitches, again struggling with his fastball and cutter command.

Now facing Jake Cave with two down and a runner on first, Cronenworth started with a 94 mph strike. He was finally in full command of an at-bat and took advantage of it.

With the count 0-2, Cronenworth dropped in a beautiful curveball that seemingly took everyone by surprise. Nick Ciuffo failed to catch the pitch, and the umpire watched the ball roll away.

Undaunted, Cronenworth dropped in a second curve, this time getting the called third strike, ending his first pitching performance in four years.

Rays manager Kevin Cash addressed Cronenworth’s recent conversion:

“He pitched in college at the University of Michigan,” Cash said. “He had knocked the cover off the ball this year. It would be a nice weapon if it clicks. He was 94 to 96 [mph] with the fastball. It will be interesting to see how that develops.”

Cronenworth’s path to the majors is still a little murky. He is not even on the 40-man roster at this point. If he is able to turn himself into at least an average reliever to go along with his success at the plate, his opportunity to be in the big leagues may emerge.

Dominik Vega contributed to this article.