Rays No. 9 prospect finding his groove (and power) in Fall League

October 19th, 2023

knows a thing or two about proving himself.

In college, Keegan won a national championship with Vanderbilt in 2019 but didn’t become a full-time player until two years later. When the Yankees drafted him in the 19th round in ‘21, he chose to return to campus instead of signing and bet on himself. That gamble paid off.

Now more than a year into his pro career, Keegan is out to prove something again in the Arizona Fall League, where he powered Peoria’s 7-4 win over Salt River on Wednesday. Keegan cranked his third homer in Arizona and added an RBI double in his latest strong showing on the elite prospect circuit, where Tampa Bay’s ninth-ranked prospect is hitting .400 with a 1.344 OPS through seven games.

"Playing against other talented players, playing with other talented players, and kind of stacking myself up against everybody else out here," Keegan said. "My goal was to come over here, just have fun, play some more baseball ... that's what it's all about, right?"

If the Rays have a catcher of the future, it’s probably Keegan, whom they selected 134th overall in the 2022 Draft out of Vanderbilt. A bat-first player who returned to campus as a fourth-year junior after being taken in the 19th round by New York the previous year, Keegan remained Vandy’s top hitter and then hit well in his brief pro debut and again across two levels this summer.

All told, Keegan amassed a more-than-solid .287/.386/.467 slash line with 13 homers in his first full pro season, finishing up at High-A Bowling Green.

Keegan may end up becoming a fourth-round steal for Tampa Bay if he eventually provides that type of production from behind the plate. But he's still relatively inexperienced defensively, and that's a big part of what this Fall League stint is about for him.

The 23-year-old only caught part-time at Vanderbilt and not regularly until his final season in college. He’s sprinkled in time and first base and as designated hitter as a pro, but mostly functioned as something he never was in college – a full-time backstop. The 80 games he appeared in behind the plate this season represented, by far, the biggest workload of Keegan’s catching career.

"It was a big adjustment," he said. "I knew last year after my short season, they wanted me to be a catcher. And I was really psyched about it, to get back to playing the position I love. But I knew that it was gonna be a lot of work to put in to do that for 140-some games (per year).

"So my trainers back home got together with my trainers with the Rays, and kind of laid the foundation for me to be able to do what I did this year catching. The mobility, the flexibility, and the durability -- just being available is huge. I think my biggest goal out of all of them this year was get through the season with no bumps, no bruises. Get through the season playing every day, being available every day. I think it went really well."

Keegan said "100 times better" behind the plate today than he was a year ago. And that jives with the overall good feeling the Rays had about his progress in 2023. In addition to staying healthy, he quickened his transfer and release to get more on his throws, and threw out of a respectable 30 percent of would-be base stealers in affiliated ball. Keegan also learned a lot about what it takes to handle a professional pitching staff, game planning and management, all of which should help spur his development into an impactful big league catcher.

That education continues in the Fall League.

"I'm learning every day," Keegan said. "Learning from people that I watch on TV, people that I'm playing with every day, people I'm playing against. So I'm always watching, trying to learn more. I think the Rays did a really good job of developing me this year to be to become a better defensive catcher.

"I just love the aspect of having a big part [in] what goes on and having relationships with the pitching staff and getting to know them and working with them. I think that is really cool, and it goes a long way in the clubhouse, the team environment ... just being a leader-type figure."