Let me get this straight: the Rays went with a NAIA player hoping he can regain his stroke. What does that even mean? Well, let’s find out.
Ben Kline is a 6’3″, 200 senior middle infielder out of Embry-Riddle University in Florida, which plays in the NAIA, the NCAA equivalent for smaller colleges where the competition level is not as good. Despite his large frame, Kline moves extremely well and can handle shortstop, the position the Rays drafted him at, or second or third base. And Kline actually started his career at Nebraska, a Division I school. He’s a very interesting pick by the Rays here.
In 2012 for Embry-Riddle, Kline hit .340 with 16 doubles, 3 homers, and 16 of 17 in stolen base attempts. The steals are nice, but the power isn’t there and neither is the pure hitting. The Rays are hoping that Kline can hit like he did in 2011 for Embry-Riddle, when he hit .368 with 22 doubles, 9 homers, 21 of 23 in steals, and had 29 multiple-hit games including 8 in the NAIA National Championship (think College World Series for NAIA).
Kline looks like he should hit for power and the Rays are hoping they can get that from him. Kline has more of a line drive stroke than a power stroke and shows a compact swing with only flashes of lift. He makes a lot of contact but it’s almost too much as his plate discipline is lacking. Figuring out which pitches he can drive could make his power numbers soar. Right now Kline hits too many balls on the ground and has been too dependent on his speed and the mostly not so good NAIA defenses. The Rays hope they can change that because again, Kline definitely looks the part.
Kline’s defense is very interesting. His speed is above-average and he’ll be a 15-20 stolen base threat in pro ball. But what’s special about him is that he moves very well at shortstop, showing great range, and he has a good arm. Kline was actually the first Nebraska true freshman since 2002 to be their starting shortstop. He looks like a third baseman physically and could handle that position to, although with his speed, second base is a legitimate option as well. Kline has been a little erratic at times, but the tools are there for him to potentially be a fine defensive shortstop.
It’s crazy hoping that an NAIA player can get his power stroke back, but listen to how good this player sounds: a shortstop who makes all the plays defensively with great range, hits for 15-homer power, and steals 15 bases. Is that player an All-Star? No. But especially considering the type of shortstops have started long-term for the Rays over the years, that type of player has the potential to be a starting shortstop on this team. Kline is a long way from that. He needs significant improvement to his swing, plate discipline, and even his defense. But if the Rays can help him regain his power, he has a chance.