Why Rays optioned Caminero to Minors

March 12th, 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.

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- It wasn’t really a shock that the Rays optioned top prospect to Minor League camp on Monday afternoon.

If anything, it was more of a surprise when they summoned him straight from Double-A Montgomery, with all of 223 Minor League games to his name, to join them down the stretch last September. That decision spoke to the 20-year-old’s undeniable talent, but so did the move they made Monday.

“Junior's potential is evident, and he's had a good camp. We leave Port Charlotte in 12 days, and we've got to get our accomplished Major League infielders the at-bats they need to be ready,” president of baseball operations Erik Neander said. “Junior also needs regular work to be prepared for his season, which we're excited to see.”

The Rays don’t necessarily have a spot for Caminero right now. He’s best suited for third base, and Isaac Paredes is coming off a 31-homer, 98-RBI, 4.2-WAR season. They could shuffle someone to second base, but Brandon Lowe is as healthy as he’s been since his 39-homer, 99-RBI, 4.5-WAR campaign in 2021, and Amed Rosario is likely to spell him against left-handed pitchers.

They’ve got American League batting champion Yandy Díaz returning at first base. Caminero has played 48 games at shortstop between the Majors and Minors, but that’s not likely to be his long-term home. They already have plenty of candidates for DH at-bats, starting with Harold Ramírez.

The Rays can’t afford to rush Caminero, the No. 4 prospect in baseball according to MLB Pipeline. They also can’t afford to disrupt his development by sticking him in a part-time role when he should be playing every day. He could be a star in a Tampa Bay uniform for years to come, and the need for such a player feels even more significant given the uncertainty surrounding Wander Franco.

There’s also this: Caminero hasn’t played a game at Triple-A, where he’s now set to begin this season.

The Rays made the unusual (for them) decision to promote him from Double-A last season because they were dealing with several injuries and absences, and he went 8-for-34 with a homer and seven RBIs in seven games. But he’s logged only 144 games in the Minors above the Rookie-level complex leagues. There is still work to be done, especially on the defensive side.

Granted, he’s crushed the competition everywhere he’s gone. Last year was his age-19 season, and he slashed .324/.384/.591 with 31 homers and 94 RBIs in 117 Minor League games. He hits the ball as hard and as far as anyone, and anyone who saw it is still in awe of his incredible pregame batting practice display in Toronto late last season.

And he was confident at the start of camp he wouldn’t need much more time, saying he’d go wherever the team sent him, then noting, with a smile, “But if I go to Triple-A, I’m not gonna spend a lot of time there.”

Caminero’s potential star power was also evident during the Rays’ weekend trip to his hometown of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. The top draft pick by Escogido, one of the clubs that plays at Estadio Quisqueya Juan Marichal, Caminero was constantly surrounded by friends, family, special guests and members of the local media during the Dominican Republic Series.

He was singled out by none other than Hall of Famer David Ortiz, the Dominican baseball legend. Caminero said he’d previously crossed paths with Ortiz, and they reconnected before the Red Sox icon threw out a ceremonial first pitch Saturday night.

What Big Papi told Caminero says an equal amount about both of them.

“He gave me a hug and he just told me, 'You got it. You got it. Just keep on playing that way. If I'm talking to you, that means that you're somebody,’” Caminero said through interpreter Manny Navarro.

Caminero will probably be somebody sooner rather than later. It just won’t be on Opening Day.

The Rays also optioned right-hander Yoniel Curet (No. 18 prospect), a recent 40-man addition who is unlikely to see the Majors this season, as well as corner infielder Austin Shenton (No. 8) and shortstop/outfielder Greg Jones (No. 24). The Rays also reassigned shortstop Carson Williams, their No. 2 prospect, to Minor League camp. Williams is likely to begin the season in Double-A, but he has impressed the staff with his excellent defense and beyond-his-years maturity.

The following players were also reassigned: right-hander Enmanuel Mejia, lefty Antonio Jimenez, catcher Logan Driscoll, infielder Tanner Murray and outfielders Ruben Cardenas, Niko Hulsizer, Kameron Misner (No. 26) and Tristan Peters.

The Rays have 58 players remaining on their Spring Training roster, including two pitchers on the 60-day injured list.