When will Junior's 'Wow' make Rays say 'now'?

May 24th, 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 -- Top prospect has the kind of bat speed and raw power that can make you say “Wow.” Watching him bash balls off the upper-deck facade in Toronto late last season, or seeing some of the home runs he’s sent into orbit in the Minor Leagues, the more appropriate response might be, “How?”

Now, it seems the most-asked question about Caminero is: “When?” As in, when will the Rays promote MLB Pipeline’s No. 3 prospect to help boost an inconsistent lineup in desperate need of more power?

The answer: Not yet.

“Just continuing to better organize at-bats and to increase his proficiency in the field. He’s 20 years old. Couldn’t be more excited about him,” president of baseball operations Erik Neander said. “Just want to make sure that these things are in order, to a reasonable degree, before you consider putting him into the Major League mix. It’s no secret that young players in their first taste will often find it far more challenging than you think it will be.”

The Rays have seen that play out internally. Isaac Paredes didn’t stick in the Majors until his third season, with a new team. Josh Lowe struggled in his 2022 introduction to the big leagues. Jonathan Aranda and Curtis Mead have crushed Triple-A pitching, but they’ve yet to translate that into Major League success.

There are also notable recent examples elsewhere, this year seemingly more than most. Top overall prospect Jackson Holliday arrived with an absurd amount of hype, only to go 2-for-34 while striking out in half his plate appearances for the Orioles before being sent back down. It’s been a similar struggle for top-ranked prospects like Jackson Chourio, Wyatt Langford, Colt Keith, former Rays prospect Kyle Manzardo and others.

There’s an inevitable adjustment period for just about any prospect, no matter how highly touted they are. At some point, Caminero will have to experience that himself. But when the Rays call up a prospect of his caliber, they typically want to put him in position to play a lot and quickly find success without feeling the pressure of having to carry the lineup.

“For us, it’s just making sure with a 20- and, later this year, going on 21-year-old, that we put him in the best possible position for success and to weather any early struggles as he acclimates,” Neander said. “That’s our goal, but he’s on his way to being a really special Major League player.”

Granted, it’s hard not to dream big now, considering his pure talent at the plate and the numbers he’s produced in the Minors. Especially while the Rays are slugging .359 as a team (25th in MLB) while also ranking among the league’s worst in home runs (42) and doubles (69) during their uneven start to the season.

Caminero is batting .279/.343/.500 with seven homers and 22 RBIs for Triple-A Durham, though his line has taken a hit recently due to a 1-for-20 stretch with 10 strikeouts. Beyond the surface-level numbers, he’s striking out in 23.9% of his plate appearances with a 29.1% whiff rate and an 8.2% walk rate. He’s posted a 53.3% hard-hit rate, according to Statcast, with an average exit velocity of 92.9 mph.

Neander praised Caminero’s work ethic and attitude as a teammate, saying both are “everything that you’d want to see.” He noted there’s been encouraging progress in Caminero’s swing decisions and contact, which they hope to see more of. And, of course, he still hits the ball extremely hard.

“The impact is as good as it’s ever been,” he said, “so that’s no surprise.”

Another question about Caminero: Where does he fit?

He debuted late last season out of necessity, with the Rays hoping he could step into their injury-depleted lineup and just help against left-handed pitchers. But now, the Rays don’t want to sacrifice valuable developmental time (and everyday starts) just to stick him in a part-time/DH-type role.

Caminero’s best defensive position is third base, which is currently occupied by Paredes, Tampa Bay’s top hitter by far. Caminero hasn’t played any shortstop this season, but he has moved to second base a few times since Mead was optioned to Durham as a way to increase his versatility.

“Being 20 years old, we do believe it’s important that, if he’s coming up, ideally it’s with a commitment that it’s going to be a while and with a commitment that it’s going to be mostly regular playing time,” Neander said. “Having some maneuverability on the field just gives you, potentially, a few more options.”