I’m really not sure exactly what is about being a Rays fan. The Rays have this distinct, all-out hustle way that they play the game of baseball and for some bizarre reason that makes you appreciate every baseball player who hustles and plays great defense. “Super” Sam Fuld becomes a deity. Jose Molina gets signed to become your starting catcher (and yes, he does hustle because he drilled a would-have-been game winning RBI triple in the 11th inning of a game against the Rays before the Rays came back to win on a Robinson Chirinos walk-off single). Your best prospect, Delmon Young, gets traded after his rookie season because he doesn’t hustle. For some reason, we just can’t let go of Rocco Baldeli. And the list goes on. In that vain, let’s talk about two “hustlers” who you may or may not see sitting on the Rays bench in the near future, Robby Price and Matt Johnson.
Before even talking about the stats, Robby Price gets a leg up as a Rays prospect because: 1) his last name is Price, 2) he’s a little guy, measuring up at 5’10”, 188, and 3) he’s an underdog, having been a 13th round pick as a senior sign in the 2010 MLB Draft. And then there’s the stats. Price played almost every game in 2011 for the Low-A Bowling Green Hot Rods, 127 out of 140, and he played at four different positions, mostly third base but also second base and a game each in both corner outfield spots. (Sign me up already!) In the batter’s box, Price walked 86 times compared to just 63 strikeouts. Those 86 walks were most in the Midwest League and his .427 OBP led the league among players with more than 350 PA’s. He also ranked second in the Midwest League with 20 hit-by-pitches, showing he’s not afraid to take one for the team. Getting on base so much, Price was able to take advantage of his speed, which profiles as average but plays up because of his great baserunning instincts and hustle, and steal 16 bases in 23 tries. Price also helped out the time by laying down 5 sac bunts. And by the way, he also showed some solid hitting, posting a .283 batting average with 24 doubles, 5 triples, 6 homers, and 44 RBI. Price has very little power (his .124 ISO was just a tick above the .120 league average), but otherwise he’s a good all-around player who can play multiple positions. Bad news is that he turns 24 in April and just completed a season at Low-A, where the average age is around 21 and a half. But even though his hitting is suspect, he does a whole bunch of little things right and he could project as the next Elliot Johnson (as in utilityman who can play a bunch of positions and make a few starts on the big league team and be completely overmatched by major league pitching). I wouldn’t be surprised if the Rays are a little bit aggressive with Price and move him up to Double-A Montgomery to see if he really is worth keeping an eye on even for an emergency utility role.
Matt Johnson is even more of a longshot, having been drafted in the 23rd round of the 2011 MLB Draft as a senior sign out of Division II Arkansas Tech University, whose name is misleading since it’s actually in Texas. Johnson is athletic, coming in at 6’1″, 195, and he absolutely throttled D2 pitching, hitting a D2-leading .454 in 2011. But Johnson, who turned 23 back in September, is very raw, and the Rays actually sent him to their lowest level minor league team in the US, the Rookie-level GCL Rays, to begin his pro career. Johnson saw time at all three outfield positions for the G-Rays, spending most of his time in right field, and he posted a solid .985 fielding percentage with 3 outfield assists, showing that he has a strong arm. He showed a good eye, walking in 13.9% of his plate appearances compared to the 8.8% league average, the 14th best mark in the Gulf Coast League minimum 100 PA’s. Johnson’s good eye helped him take advantage of his great speed as he stole 13 bases, tied for 14th in the GCL, while being caught just once. There was one minor problem though: Johnson couldn’t really hit. His batting average in the GCL was less than half what it was at Arkansas Tech, coming in at .223, despite the fact that he was a 22 year old playing in a league where the average age was just over 20. He did hit 1 double and 2 homers and drive in 10 runs, but his .223 OBP and .288 SLG are not what you want to see- although his OBP was above the league average at .331. Hopefully Johnson isn’t quite as bad of a hitter as he seemed in the GCL and he’s really closer to two-thirds as good as he was at Arkansas Tech (which would be a .300 batting average) rather than half as good. Johnson has defensive versatility, he’s fast with a good eye and he even has a little pop as indicated by his 2 homers, but a lack of hitting ability is something he’ll have to deal with. Johnson is another athlete in the Carl Crawford-Desmond Jennings mold except for the fact that he’s four years older than either of them were when they were drafted. (In fact, when Crawford was the age that Johnson is now, he was already an All-Star for the Devil Rays.) Hopefully Johnson will be able to learn how to hit a lot better so he can take advantage of his other abilities. Minus the hitting factor (minor caveat, right?), Johnson seems like a good 4th outfielder type because of his versatility, speed, and plate discipline. If you’re a pedantic prospect watcher, Johnson is worth a look this coming season.