You can feel it- the future is coming. The prospects that used to be lottery tickets down in the low minors made it Double-A and suddenly their big league futures start approaching with alacrity. Upside begins to become reality as you realize that they’re just a couple years and a couple adjustments away from taking their show on the road in the major leagues. For players like Hak-Ju Lee, the Rays know their potential is evident, and after a strong season at Double-A, similar performance in the major leagues could not be far away. Today we’ll continue our look at just what type of players Rays fans can look forward to seeing from the players who spent 2012 with the Double-A Montgomery Biscuits.
Michael Sheridan, who turned 25 in August, was a 5th round pick by the Rays out of William and Mary back in 2008 as an athletic 6’2″, 205 first baseman with a smooth lefty swing. The fact that 2012 was his best minor league season was not a good thing as he really was not that impressive. Sheridan managed just a .246/.301/.379 line in 129 games and 511 plate appearances for the Biscuits with 24 doubles, 10 homers, 58 RBI, 3 of 7 stolen bases, and a 69-38 strikeout to walk ratio. Sheridan’s bat speed is fine and he makes a ton of contact, but his issue has always been making quality contact and bringing out his solid power on a consistent basis. Sheridan’s understands the strike zone, managing a 13.3% O-Swing% (swings on pitches outside the strike zone) that was exactly league average according to Minor League Central, but overaggressiveness within the zone has been Sheridan’s downfall, not just limiting his walks but preventing him from barreling the ball nearly as much as he should. Only big-time power hitters can continuously hit for power without waiting for the right pitch to drive- Sheridan is far from a big-time power hitter and needs to make a significant change to his approach to have a big league future. Another major issue for Sheridan is struggles against left-handed pitching as he managed just a .192/.228/.291 line with 29 strikeouts against 6 walks in 2012, proving especially vulnerable to lefty breaking balls. Even as a great defensive first baseman, Sheridan’s career is going nowhere unless he makes major adjustments to improve his patience and hit for more power. Sheridan repeated High-A in 2011 and he will likely do the same thing at Double-A in 2012.
The two players who manned second base for the Biscuits in 2012 have both been traded: Tyler Bortnick and Derek Dietrich. I gave final thoughts on Bortnick and Dietrich as members of the Rays organization here and here.
At first glance, Greg Sexton has everything in common with Michael Sheridan. Like Sheridan, he’s 6’2″, 205 and was drafted out of William and Mary (10th round, 2007). And although he can play first base while Sheridan can’t and is a righty as opposed to a lefty, he’s a very similar type of hitter, making a lot of contact but hitting for little power. In 2012, Sexton had a halfway-decent season as he dealt with injuries, managing a .235/.327/.377 line with 20 doubles, 5 homers, 30 RBI, and a 39-34 strikeout to walk ratio in 79 games and 286 plate appearances. Those numbers can be taken with a grain of salt as Sexton turns 28 next month, meaning he’s two and a half years older than Sheridan. However, even in an injury-riddled year, his .704 OPS was higher than Sheridan (no, that’s not a knock on Sheridan) and you can call me crazy, but I think there’s reason to be intrigued. Sexton’s .142 isolated power was far from impressive, but it was the highest mark of his career by a wide margin- his career ISO is just .104 and his previous career-high was .120 back in 2008. And that high ISO was despite the fact that Sexton didn’t strike out at all, just 13.5% of his plate appearances, with a major reason for his newfound power being that he walked at an outstanding rate of 12.1%. Essentially Sexton played like Sheridan but with more power and better plate discipline. And by the way, Sexton’s walk rate was significantly better than his 8.1% career mark (.009 probability it occurred by chance alone). But there’s more.
Sexton’s platoon split on the season was pretty bizarre. Against same-side pitchers, he was outstanding, managing a .267/.357/.452 line (notice the .185 ISO) with 15 doubles, 4 homers, 24 RBI, and a 25-20 strikeout to walk ratio in 170 plate appearances. Against lefties, who as a right-handed hitter he’s supposed to mash, Sexton could only put up a .175/.279/.227 line with just 5 doubles, no homers, and 4 RBI in 111 PA’s. However, his strikeout to walk ratio was actually a great 13-14, indicating his approach against them was fine, and if he can start hitting for more power against lefties, suddenly he’s a pretty good all-around hitter, and as a decent defensive third baseman with an excellent arm, a future in the big leagues would be in order. All of this analysis is dependent upon the assumption that Sexton’s increased patience in 2012 was a real breakthrough and not simply a product of being a veteran player spending his second straight season at Double-A. That assumption could very well be flawed and in all probability, Sexton will dip back into mediocrity next season. But if Sexton has really turned a corner, he could still have a promising future ahead. Maybe Sexton’s 2012 stats are just a big aberration and I’m getting worked up over absolutely nothing. But there’s also a chance that Sexton is really a late bloomer and will come through when the Rays give him an opportunity to continue to prove himself next season. Sexton may start 2013 back at Montgomery, but if he’s really taken a step forward, a promotion to Triple-A Durham will be in the wings and the question will be whether he’ll keep hitting once he gets there.
What do you think about when someone says the words “polarizing prospect?” Every prospect-watcher would tell you something else, but my first reaction would probably be a toolsy position player with trouble making contact or a pitcher who has electric stuff but struggles with control. The Rays, like every organization in baseball, have a plethora of players who fit that profile. But the title of most polarizing prospect in the Rays system may have to go to Hak-Ju Lee. Lee, who turned 22 in November, was acquired by the Rays in the Matt Garza trade and has always stood out for unbelievable, Gold Glove caliber defense at shortstop. Go to a game that Lee plays in and there’s a very good chance you’ll see him make a play that just about every other shortstop in baseball couldn’t make- and make it look it easy. (When I saw him in spring training, he went to his left on a ball deep in the hole and then gloved it, spun, and fired a perfect throw like it was nothing.) But regarding Lee’s offense, no one is sure exactly what to expect.
In 2012, Lee was unimpressive, managing just a .261/.336/.360 line with 15 doubles, 10 triples, 4 homers, 37 RBI, 37 of 46 stolen bases, and a 102-51 strikeout to walk ratio in 116 games and 534 plate appearances. Yes, we know he’s incredibly fast, as you can see from his triples and stolen bases, and he’s also a good bunter. But he hits for very little power and strikes out way too often for a hitter with so little power. Lee is a player with the type of 6’2″, 170 frame that might prompt suggestions of power projection if you were talking about another player, but Lee moves naturally with such a lean, athletic frame and expecting him to fill out more than a few pounds and develop solid power would be misguided. Lee features good bat speed as a lefty batter, but he’s primarily a tap hitter and a bad one at that given the fact that he struck out 19.1% of his plate appearances. Lee has solid pitch recognition skills and understands the strike zone, but he has worked hard to improve his patience never to see results. Why? Because he had trouble discerning which pitches to hit within the strike zone and ended up swinging and making weak contact in in the form of groundballs or missing his pitches to hit and instead fouling them off and getting himself behind in the count, leading to a lot of his strikeouts. To get on base more and make better contact, Lee has to understand when to swing hard and when to work the count and find the perfect balance of passivity and aggressiveness. Instead of just taking pitches to work the count, Lee has to change his focus to using his patience as a method of finding pitches he can put a good swing on. As a hitter who’s never going to be feared and will likely hit at the bottom of a major league lineup his entire career, Lee has to squeeze every ounce of offense he can out of himself in order to profile as a starting shortstop.
Other than the philosophy at the plate that he will have to change, Lee also needs to find a way to hit left-handed pitching. Lee was about as good as you could expect him to be against righties in 2012, managing a .278/.360/.405 line with 25 of his 29 extra-base hits and a 62-38 strikeout to walk ratio, but against lefties he could only put up a .225/.284/.272 line with 40 strikeouts against 13 walks. Lee had a little trouble against offspeed pitches from same-side pitchers, but his principle issue was this same issue of trying too hard to work the count, forcing himself to bat from behind to often and reducing his opportunities to walk and make good contact. If Lee can do a better job using his patience to find pitches to drive, his issues versus lefties should be mostly mitigated as well. No one expects Lee to ever become that great of a hitter, but he has the ability to become a player who can hit for a decent average, draw his fair share 0f walks, and even smack a few balls to the gaps on his way to being an average or slightly below-average offensive shortstop, all anyone is asking him to be given his defense. Lee is the Rays’ undisputed Rays shortstop of the future at this point- but for him to realize his potential, he has to adjust his approach at the plate to take advantage of the talent he has and become the player the Rays know he has the ability to be. Lee will play 2013 at Triple-A Durham working as Tim Beckham‘s double play partner. If he can make strides at the plate, he’ll be in the big leagues in September.
Here’s where we’ll end this segment of our analysis of the Biscuits after wrapping up the prospects we’ll cover on the Biscuits infield. It’s clear that Hak-Ju Lee has the ability to be quite a player for the Rays within a few years and the key with him is going to be to make those last few offense adjustments so he’ll be able to hold his own offensively in the major leagues, while Sexton and Sheridan have sleeper potential and could two more players who could see time with the Rays over the next few years. Nothing is guaranteed for any Double-A, but the Rays are confident that Lee will be able to take the next step at the plate and headline of group of impact position player prospects from this 2012 Biscuits team.
For more of our analysis on the Biscuits and the rest of the Rays’ minor league system, check out our Minor League Affiliates Analysis page here at RCG.