Once 'an extremely high-risk pick,' this prospect is turning heads

January 23rd, 2024

This story was excerpted from Adam Berry’s Rays Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

ST. PETERSBURG -- When the Rays used the 29th overall pick in the 2022 MLB Draft to select Xavier Isaac, a high school first baseman ranked outside MLB Pipeline’s top-100 Draft prospects, the reactions were split.

On MLB Network, former general manager Dan O’Dowd called the decision “an extremely high-risk pick” even as he noted Isaac’s tremendous power potential. Selecting an 18-year-old slugger with little track record and no positional versatility in the first round was, indeed, a bold choice.

A year and a half later, it’s looking like a smart one.

Leading up to the release of baseball’s Top 100 Prospects on Friday, MLB Pipeline recently examined the game’s top 10 first base prospects -- and Isaac is atop the list. Coincidentally, he’s one spot ahead of Kyle Manzardo, the highly regarded prospect that the Rays dealt to Cleveland for starter Aaron Civale ahead of last year’s Trade Deadline.

It should come as no surprise that Isaac is expected to take a big leap up prospect boards after ranking No. 94 overall in last year’s midseason re-rank, according to MLB Pipeline. He’s still generally regarded as the club’s fourth-best prospect behind infielders Junior Caminero (No. 1), Carson Williams (No. 2) and Curtis Mead (No. 3), but the gap has shrunk.

It’s been a remarkable ascent for Isaac, especially considering the initial reaction to his first-round selection. He was underappreciated on the scouting circuit; a foot injury cost him part of his junior season and kept him from participating in showcase events. Still, the Rays liked what they saw from the start.

Heading into last year’s Draft, amateur scouting director Chuck Ricci credited area scout Landon Lassiter and regional crosschecker Brian Hickman for “immediately” identifying Isaac “as somebody that we really needed to pay a lot of attention to.” They did, and they came to appreciate his bat speed as well as his all-fields approach.

Initially, Isaac’s determination stood out as much as any of his physical traits. Speaking at Tropicana Field after signing with the Rays in July 2022, Isaac promised to work hard and “show everybody why I’m a first-rounder.” He did.

Isaac performed at a high level as a 19-year-old last year, batting .285/.395/.521 with 19 homers and 12 stolen bases in 102 games between Single-A Charleston and High-A Bowling Green. He started slowly, with a .196 average and just one extra-base hit in April, but still displayed a mature approach at the plate.

It all came together in the end, as he finished the season by hitting .353/.447/.637 beginning on Aug. 1, slugging six homers in a nine-game stint with Bowling Green. Isaac tapped into his unquestionable raw power while still hitting for average and consistently getting on base, with 20 walks and 31 strikeouts over his final 150 plate appearances.

“It was fun. It’s a long season, but I love baseball so much, I can play it every day. I loved it,” Isaac said late last September. “People thought I just had power. I’m more hit and power. It’s been working. I don’t like striking out.”

When Isaac arrived at The Trop last year to accept his organizational award as Charleston’s team MVP, his physical transformation was stunning. He looked stronger, leaner and more agile, even at the end of his first full professional season. As promised, he’d worked hard for the results he put up last year.

While living with fellow Rays prospect Brock Jones (Rays No. 13) in Miami last winter, Isaac said he trained every day with their agency, the Boras Corporation, to become leaner and more agile while adding strength. He lifted weights and ran and adjusted his diet, even learning to cook a bit himself.

That conditioning translated into improved endurance, borderline plus-plus power and surprising athleticism in the field and on the bases -- the makings of an all-around player, not just a one-dimensional slugger.

“That was what our amateur scouts were banging the table about, is that this is not just a slugger. This is a guy that has an advanced approach for a high school kid, and it’s going to translate really quickly,” said former farm director Jeff McLerran, now the Rays’ senior director of baseball development, last season. “We know that it wasn’t on the [amateur] showcase circuit a ton, but they had real conviction in it. That guy showed up.”

Isaac still has a long way to go, and there will be a lot of pressure on his bat as he continues to move through the Rays’ system. But he is clearly establishing himself as one of the top prospects in Tampa Bay’s organization, the best first base prospect in the Minors and every bit the first-rounder he and the Rays always believed he was.