'Dream come true': Bruján gets call

Rays' No. 2 prospect has immediate impact with glove, bat in DH opener

July 7th, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG -- When signed with the Rays out of the Dominican Republic seven years ago, he weighed only 145 pounds -- “a lot smaller and a lot skinnier” than he is now, he said, laughing. His bonus was only $15,000, and his mid-October agreement hardly registered compared to the multi-million-dollar deals given out at the start of the international signing period months earlier.

“There's a lot of guys out there that probably signed for more than I did. And so from there on, you've got to put the pressure on yourself to compete and want to do better,” Bruján said Wednesday morning through interpreter Manny Navarro. “You've just got to be strong, and you've got to be able to maintain that mentality.”

That mindset, along with his game-changing speed and switch-hitting ability at the plate, propelled Bruján through the Rays’ system until he finally reached the Majors on Wednesday. And the 23-year-old infielder-outfielder, Tampa Bay’s No. 2 prospect, immediately showed his full range of skills in his first inning in The Show.

Starting at second base in the Rays’ 8-1 win over the Indians in Game 1 of a doubleheader at Tropicana Field, Bruján made a diving stop behind Michael Wacha to retire Amed Rosario. He laced a 107-mph single to right field for his first Major League hit and RBI, quickly swiped second base for his first steal, then scored his first run on Kevin Kiermaier’s two-run double off Cleveland righty J.C. Mejia.

“It's a dream come true,” Bruján said.

Bruján’s joy was evident in his reaction after his first big league hit. A few steps off first base, he turned toward the Rays’ dugout and let loose a big fist pump while his teammates celebrated. 

“It's always fun when you see a young guy come up, get the hit and how it impacted us with the RBI,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said after Game 1. “He was smiling ear-to-ear after KK's double -- and he should be. We were all pumped for him.”

On May 22, the Rays promoted one switch-hitting top prospect, calling up shortstop Taylor Walls from Triple-A Durham. A month later came switch-hitting infielder Wander Franco, the No. 1 prospect in baseball. Now it’s time for Tampa Bay to introduce another dynamic, switch-hitting, homegrown Top 100 prospect in Bruján.

“It’s not the future. We're in the present now with these guys, and they're gonna help us,” Cash said. “All three of them are very talented players, very versatile, highly athletic and do special things.”

All three shined in different ways during Wednesday’s doubleheader sweep. Bruján had a solid debut, then showcased his versatility by playing right field in his second game, a 4-0 Rays win. Franco made a pair of highlight-reel plays at third base in the second game. And Walls played excellent defense while driving in two of the Rays’ four runs in Game 2.

“A lot of good switch-hitting shortstops around the diamond right now for us,” reliever Pete Fairbanks said.

The Rays officially returned Bruján to Triple-A Durham on Wednesday night after adding him to their active roster as the 27th man for the doubleheader, but they fully expect to keep him around and have him play an important role moving forward. They’ll have to make another roster move to officially recall him before Friday’s game, either placing someone on the injured list or optioning another player to Durham.

Outfielder Manuel Margot exited Monday night’s game against Cleveland in the ninth inning and was placed on the 10-day injured list, retroactive to Tuesday, with a Grade 1 left hamstring strain. Margot said Wednesday morning he expects to be sidelined for two to three weeks, although he’s hoping to return earlier if possible.

Losing Margot is a tough blow for the Rays. The outfielder has been one of the Majors’ best defensive players this season, recording 10 Outs Above Average according to Statcast, and he’s hitting .252 with nine homers, nine steals and 44 RBIs, second most on the team. He pulled up favoring his hamstring after legging out an infield single that kick-started the Rays’ walk-off rally in a 9-8 win on Monday.

“Just got to support the team,” Margot said through Navarro. “Not just only when you're playing but even when you're on the bench and off the field, you’ve got to be able to support your team, and that's what I'm here to do.”

Although Bruján has spent most of his career in the infield, he has played more outfield this season in Triple-A Durham. He has played six positions overall this year: second and third base, shortstop and all three outfield spots. The Rays value that sort of defensive versatility, with Cash saying Bruján could play second, shortstop and all three outfield spots. But that’s only part of what makes Bruján such a dynamic prospect.

“He's very athletic. He's probably got as much range as any defensive player that we have,” Cash said. “And with the bat, he's got a knack for finding holes, getting on base, creating some havoc once he's on base.”

Bruján, MLB Pipeline’s No. 36 overall prospect, got off to an excellent start at the plate in Triple-A, batting in front of Franco as Durham’s leadoff man. He slugged seven homers in his first 16 games, showing why Jeff McLerran, the Rays' director of Minor League operations, said he’s “been one of our pound-for-pound strongest players.”

Bruján was named the Rays’ Minor League Hitter of the Month in May, when he hit .315/.408/.584 with 21 RBIs, nine stolen bases and nearly as many walks (14) as strikeouts (17). He struggled for a stretch after that, batting just .158 in 20 games from June 1-26, but he has bounced back since then, going 9-for-24 with three doubles and a triple in his last seven games.

He learned around midnight on Monday that he was headed to the Majors, immediately called his mother and shared an emotional conversation about the seven-year journey that led to him putting on a No. 7 jersey with his name on it Wednesday at Tropicana Field.

“She started crying, and then I started crying,” Bruján said. “It was a great moment.”