After breakout season, Auer leads Rays in AFL

October 21st, 2022

Only five Minor Leaguers finished with at least 15 homers and 45 stolen bases in 2022, and only three of them were playing in their age-21 seasons or younger. Two of them are Top 15 overall prospects in Anthony Volpe (No. 5) and Elly De La Cruz (No. 14). The third is Rays No. 12 prospect Mason Auer, who finished with 15 blasts and 48 thefts in 115 games between Single-A Charleston and High-A Bowling Green in his first full season.

So what does he consider his best tools?

“I think my defensive skills are my best skills right now,” said the 2022 Arizona Fall League participant. “I feel like that I have a pretty good arm in the outfield, and I can cover a lot of ground out there.”

Oh, so not the power or basestealing, then.

The thing is Auer isn’t wrong (not that we’d doubt his self-assessment of his game). The 21-year-old earns plus-plus grades for his throwing ability and used to touch the mid-90s during his days on the mound. He notched nine outfield assists between his two Minor League levels over the summer -- six in center and three in right. The Rays feel comfortable playing him from any spot on the grass, and that’s continued in the AFL, where he’s made six of his nine starts in the middle of the park for Mesa.

But as good as Auer is in the field, it was his offense that fueled his 2022 breakout.

The 2021 fifth-rounder hit .290/.372/.487 with 48 total extra-base hits in his 115 games this summer. His 12 triples tied for the Minor League lead in the category, combining his plus speed with his ability to elevate balls into the gaps. He was rather consistent too, having never posted an OPS below .750 in any month during the regular season, even after his promotion to High-A in late June.

Auer credits his move from Missouri State to San Jacinto (Texas) Junior College, where he hit 373/.524/.622 in 65 games, with his smooth transition to pro ball.

“I got to play every day, got a ton of reps and just continued to get better,” he said. “As well, we had a bunch of good coaching staff over there. I thought it was a great decision for me to go there.”

The Rays talked Auer out of his commitment to Oregon for his junior year with a near-slot $312,500 signing bonus, and more than a year later, they’re already confident enough in the tooled-up outfielder to send him to the prospect finishing school in the Arizona Fall League, where he’s lived up to his own scouting report. His 98.8 mph seed on Oct. 5 is the third-hardest Statcast has measured in the AFL so far and would rank tied for fourth among the Rays' fastest outfield throws in 2022, trailing only three Brett Phillips lasers.

Rays hitters in the Fall League

Blake Hunt, C: Formerly a member of the Rays’ Top 30 prospect list, Hunt dropped out this season after hitting just .245/.315/.363 with five homers in 81 games at Double-A Montgomery. His plus arm and solid defensive skills behind the plate remain his best assets, but he faces another uphill climb to crack Tampa Bay’s 40-man roster in his second year of Rule 5 eligibility.

Tanner Murray, INF: The 2020 fourth-rounder out of UC Davis thrives on making a healthy amount of contact, as he showed with a .276 average and 18.5 percent K rate in 66 games at High-A Bowling Green this season. He missed two months of the campaign after being hit by a pitch on June 30, making the AFL an opportunity to make up some of those lost at-bats. Formerly a shortstop, he’s been more focused on second and third in 2022.

Ronny Simon, INF: Having signed with the Cubs in July 2018, Simon is now in his third organization after a trade from Chicago to Arizona for Andrew Chafin in November 2020 and Arizona to Tampa Bay for Jordan Luplow one year later. The 22-year-old Dominican native hit .260/.303/.479 with 22 homers and 34 steals in 109 games between High-A and Double-A this season, but a low walk rate made him just barely an above-average hitter with a 104 wRC+. He’s played short, second and third so far in the AFL.

Rays pitchers in the Fall League

Sandy Gaston, RHP (No. 21): A tale as old as time. Gaston throws hard, often sitting in the upper-90s, but has faced serious control concerns the higher he’s climbed in the Tampa Bay system. The 20-year-old right-hander owned a 4.61 ERA with 77 strikeouts and 56 walks in 54 2/3 innings at Single-A Charleston this season. He moved from a starting role to a relief one this season -- a transition the Rays insist was done to get him on the mound more often in a single week to iron out the strike-throwing worries. He’s walked 10 in 3 2/3 innings to start the AFL, so any dreams of future starting roles seem far off at this point.

Alex Ayala Jr., LHP: The Rays selected the Panama native in the ninth round out of Florida Southwestern Junior College last year, on the strength of the command of his low-90s fastball, and signed him for just below slot at $147,600. The southpaw posted a 3.63 ERA and 1.16 WHIP with 68 strikeouts in 57 innings between the Florida Complex League and Single-A.

Antonio Menendez, RHP: The 2021 14th-rounder, who underwent Tommy John surgery at Wake Forest, has already caught some Fall League attention with his use of three different arm slots (submarine, sidearm, over-the-top) for Mesa, and he credits his former travel coach Billy Wagner for helping him use all three. They were certainly effective in his first full season as he finished with a 1.70 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 48 strikeouts in 37 innings across the FCL, Single-A and High-A.

Evan Reifert, RHP: Reifert has been the rare AFL pitching success story so far this year. Entering Thursday, he’s retired all 19 batters he’s faced with the Solar Sox, striking out 12 of them, over four relief appearances. The 23-year-old right-hander’s best pitch is his high-spin, mid-80s slider that sweeps well across the zone, but he’ll show some velo too with a 94-95 mph fastball. Like many relievers, he’ll need to keep throwing strikes, but so far so good in Arizona.