Talented infielders creating 'good problems' at Rays camp

March 20th, 2024

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. – The Rays have drafted themselves into a corner of their own making, and that corner happens to be the first-base one.

Tampa Bay used its first-round pick in 2022 on North Carolina prepster Xavier Isaac and saw him become the top first-base prospect in baseball last season, climbing to High-A and the No. 58 overall prospect in MLB Pipeline’s Top 100. It also used its 2023 third-round selection on LSU star and Division I national champion Tre’ Morgan, arguably the best first-base defender in Minor League Baseball upon his signing last summer.

Given Isaac’s ascent and Morgan’s college pedigree, both would be candidates to open with High-A Bowling Green next month. But the Rays have other priorities in mind.

“It’s about making sure they get the proper amount of at-bats they need to get, making sure they’re getting enough playing time,” said senior director of player development Blake Butera. “When you have really good players, you have to be strategic with how you’re going to space them out.”

Isaac might seem like the more priority placement following his breakout first full season. The left-handed slugger batted .285/.395/.521 with 19 homers in 102 games between Single-A Charleston and Bowling Green last year, showcasing an above-average hit tool and plus-plus power potential along the way. He’s continued to pack a punch this spring, as he showed over the weekend when he went deep twice against the Twins in the inaugural Spring Breakout event.

“We feel really good about where X is right now,” Butera said, speaking days before Isaac’s Breakout slugfest. “No matter what level he goes to, I think he’d do OK offensively. But we’re trying to the right thing for Xavier Isaac right now in terms of the total package, the best thing for him mentally, defensively and offensively.”

The script is perhaps the opposite for Morgan. The former Tiger has silky smooth hands capable of hoovering up anything hit or thrown his way on the dirt, and he shows incredibly quick reactions like those that turned a safety squeeze into an out at home against Wake Forest in the College World Series semifinals.

These are the Rays we’re talking about, so if Tampa Bay really wanted Morgan getting High-A experience, they could lean into their history of developing versatility and try the 21-year-old out in left field, where he has some experience. But the glovework is so good on the dirt, that a return to the outfield isn’t the plans right now.

“Tre’s a really a good first baseman,” Butera said. “We drafted him partially because of how good he is defensively at first base, and we want to make sure he gets to play first base. We’ll see how it shakes out as we go through camp and how we line up our rosters, but it’s a good problem to have trying to balance at-bats for Xavier Isaac and Tre’ Morgan.”

Instead, look to how Tampa Bay handled another former SEC star from the 2022 Draft class. Vanderbilt catcher Dominic Keegan opened his first full season at Single-A, dominated there and was then in Bowling Green after 58 games. Now, he’s the Rays’ No. 6 prospect and looking like a potentially well-rounded backstop. A similar move for Morgan wouldn’t be a sign of passivity on the Rays’ part, they say. Rather, it’d be an indication of just how much they want their two top first-base prospects to play.

“We’re not against doing that,” Butera said of opening college players in Single-A. “At the end of the day when you’re in the Major Leagues, no one’s going to look back at where you started your Low-A or High-A season three, four years ago.”

Breakout candidate: Santiago Suarez

The Rays system usually isn’t lacking for arms, but this particular group leans especially heavy on bats with no pitchers in the top eight spots of MLB Pipeline’s Top 30 ranking. However, that isn’t to say some hurler couldn’t pop in 2024, and a prime candidate to do so is the 19-year-old Suarez.

Acquired in November 2022 from the Marlins, the 6-foot-2 right-hander stood out for his control in his first season in the Tampa Bay organization with a 1.52 ERA, 52 strikeouts and only 11 walks in 59 1/3 innings between the Florida Complex League and Charleston. His 91-94 mph fastball and upper-70s curveball both showed flashes of being above-average pitches, and after another year of physical maturation and guidance with Rays instructors, the Venezuela native could be ready to pop with a longer workload in full-season ball in ’24.

“He’s starting to really develop physically, which is fun to see,” Butera said. “Watching him throw a couple of live BPs so far, you hear the hitters talk about how good his stuff is and how hard it was to face him. They were saying, ‘This guy’s real.’”

Spring standout: Chandler Simpson

Most prospect heads know Simpson as the player who tied friend and fellow Georgia native Victor Scott II for the Minor League lead with 94 steals over 115 games at Single-A and High-A last season. But the center fielder also stood out for his .293 average, 8.7 percent K rate and 3.9 percent swinging-strike rate – the latter two of which each ranked second among 221 Minor Leaguers with at least 500 plate appearances.

What has been a worry is his power, ranked by many evaluators as a bottom-of-the-scale 20 entering pro ball, and Simpson backed up those evaluations with no homers and only a .345 slugging percentage in 2023. That wasn’t going to work the higher he climbed, and the Rays made it a priority for Simpson to seek out more power in his second professional offseason.

They couldn’t be happier with the early results.

“Everything we’ve asked of Chandler, he’s done,” Butera said. “He’s actually done more than even we hoped for. That’s adding some strength, hitting the ball a little bit harder. He came into January camp and started hitting the ball harder than last year already. Actually in our testing, he’s actually gained speed. So he’s faster and stronger. I’m really excited.”

Something to prove: Greg Jones

Tampa Bay has held high hopes for Jones ever since making him a first-round pick out of UNC Wilmington in 2019. His plus-plus speed gives him a weapon that plays all over the diamond, and the switch-hitter has above-average raw power to play with too. Those characteristics helped get him on the 40-man when first became Rule 5-eligible in November 2022, but Jones is heading into his second season on that roster with modest upper-level success.

Jones slashed .173/.264/.358 in 20 games at Double-A Montgomery – a level he repeated after posting just a .710 OPS in ’22 – but was still promoted to Triple-A Durham in early May. Despite the jump in level, his results improved to a .278/.344/.467 line and 101 wRC+ over 51 games. A .440 BABIP – highest among Triple-A hitters with at least 150 plate appearances – certainly helped, but the Rays believe even the carrot of a promotion was all the motivation Jones needed to turn his results around, just when it looked like he could get lost in roster churn.

“A change the scenery helps sometimes,” Butera said. “It's just like a fresh start. He had been in Montgomery for quite some time, and he gets to Durham and there's little extra pep in his step. He was having fun and then unfortunately went down with the [right hamstring] injury. But he's someone that can really impact our Major League team this year. He'll get some time at shortstop, get some time in center field. We’re happy with where Greg is now.”