Austin Meadows was the breakout big bat for the 2019 Tampa Bay Rays, hitting .291/.364/.558 and putting up a 143 wRC+ while leading the team with 33 homers.
Expectations for his role as a pillar of the offense were high, but then 2020 threw a wrench into plans. During intake testing at the beginning of Spring Training 2.0 Meadows tested positive for COVID-19. This delayed his preparation for the season by a few weeks and he ultimately wasn’t activated on the MLB roster until the second week of the season.
Meadows looked sluggish and just not quite up to speed, hitting .205/.296/.371 with a 87 wRC+ and just 4 homers in 152 plate appearances. His strikeout rate was up over 10% and his ISO was down just over .100.
The good news is when he made contact he did continue to hit the ball hard. His 90.3 mph exit velocity was in line with his 2019 number (90.4 mph) and was tied among regulars for the Rays with Randy Arozarena.
Meadows’ regular season ended two weeks early after he suffered an oblique strain. He missed the opening round of the playoff against the Toronto Blue Jays, but was able to join the roster for the American League Division Series against the New York Yankees.
In his 53 playoff plate appearances he hit .137/.170/.255 and put up a 13 wRC+. He didn’t perform well but did have one big hit. In game five of the ALDS he hit a solo homer off Gerrit Cole to tie the game 1-1 giving Mike Brosseau the opportunity to hit the game winner off Aroldis Chapman.
Last year was a difficult season for everybody. Baseball is a game of repetition, and Meadows’ delayed start and late season injury meant he never really got going. In 2021 I expect him to be more the hitter we got to know in 2019 than the hitter we ended up seeing last season.
The projections are all over the place as you would expect with a hitter with fewer than 1,000 MLB plate appearances and two wildly different results for the previous seasons. ZiPS and Steamer both believe some bounce back but expect something in the 105-110 wRC+ range with 20-25 homers. The Bat and The Bat X (taking into account Baseball Savant Statcast data) are much more bullish; they expect a 120-128 wRC+ with 25-30 homer pace.
Meadows should be given every opportunity to get most plate appearances as a corner outfielder or designated hitter. He and Randy Arozarena should be in the lineup pretty much every day.
Coming to camp looking like a good “Best Shape of His Life” candidate (he says he is 10-15 pounds lighter), Meadows will hopefully get off to a strong start this season.