This Rays prospect is on the fast track

May 16th, 2023

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 -- Before a Grapefruit League game against the Braves this spring, Rays prospect Junior Caminero said he didn’t think he was “too far” from or “too close” to the big leagues. But he would approach this season, he added, with a highly motivated mindset.

“The mentality that I need to have is that I need to be up here [in the Majors] next year,” Caminero said in March through interpreter Manny Navarro.

That seemed like an unrealistic goal at the time for a 19-year-old with 106 Minor League games to his name and an assignment to start the season with High-A Bowling Green. It probably still is, but it also seems unfair to put anything past the fast-rising prospect.

Caminero has torn up the South Atlantic League, hitting .367/.420/.706 with eight homers and 27 RBIs in his first 27 games. He leads Tampa Bay’s system in batting average, slugging percentage, RBIs, OPS (1.126), hits (40) and total bases (77).

He was named his league’s Player of the Month and the Rays’ Minor League Player of the Month for April.

His incredible start hasn’t gone unnoticed. When MLB Pipeline updated its Top 100 Prospects list, Caminero took the biggest leap, jumping from No. 96 to No. 60. Nobody would be surprised if he keeps climbing up the rankings and the organization.

“He shows up every day ready to work. He's got a great attitude, and it really shows that he's committed to be in the big leagues by next year,” Bowling Green manager Rafael Valenzuela said. “I don't put anything past him if he keeps doing what he's doing.”

It’s already been a remarkable rise for Caminero, who was acquired from Cleveland for right-hander Tobias Myers in November 2021. It was a low-profile trade at the time, but the Rays believed they had acquired a potentially special player due to the right-handed-hitting infielder’s ability to make contact and his elite bat speed.

Those traits are helping him reach another level this year.

“There's an innate talent and ability there that he possesses that people dream about,” Bowling Green hitting coach Paul Rozzelle said. “He’s very cerebral in terms of his work and his thoughts and what he wants to do and how he goes about it. … For 19 years old, the way he thinks through his swing and his plans, it's very next level.”

Rozzelle pointed to the adjustments Caminero made over the winter as an example. He’s always hit the ball hard -- combine his balls in play from one game last week, and you’ll get 326 mph worth of exit velocity -- but a flat bat path prevented him from driving some low pitches in the air. He’s made that tweak this season, Rozzelle said, and now he’s lifting pitches down in the zone and continuing to crush anything at the top of the zone.

“He can hit for power, he can hit for average, and he hits the ball very, very hard,” Valenzuela said. “I think his adjustments at the plate, pitch by pitch, are very impressive for being such a young player. … Sometimes I forget that he's 19 because of the stuff that he does on the field.”

But Caminero is still 19, not yet a finished product. He’s occasionally held his own at shortstop but is projected to stick at third base, where he’s committed six errors in 21 games this season. Offensively, his next step is understanding the difference between the pitches he can hit and the ones at which he should be swinging.

“We're like, 'Dude, you're a scary hitter now. When you start commanding the zone and making the guy throw it over the plate, you're going to be a terrifying hitter,’” Rozzelle said. “He knows it, and we're working on it.”

To reinforce the point, the Rays have shown Caminero the adjustments  made to his pitch selection and the success he’s had as a result.

Yes, the same Franco who debuted as a 20-year-old. And yes, the same Franco who occasionally exchanges messages with Caminero. Their main topic of conversation, Caminero said during Spring Training, “is him waiting for me up in the big leagues.”

Don’t put anything past him, right?

“He knows right now he's in some rare company with what he's able to do, but he doesn't get overwhelmed with it,” Rozzelle said. “It actually puts him in a spot where he gets more driven, more focused, more dedicated to what he wants to do, because I think he's starting to see those goals are closer to reality than further away.”