With their first two picks, the Rays deviated from their strategy in recent drafts. Nick Ciuffo was a high school pick, but one with more polish that the prep catchers the Rays have taken previously. Ryne Stanek is a pitcher with a frontline potential, but he was the first college pitcher selected by the Rays in the first round proper since David Price in 2007. But in the case of Riley Unroe, the Rays went right back to the type of player they can’t enough of selecting: a high-upside up-the-middle-player with a chance to be a star down the line.
When you think about Rays baseball, what characteristics come to mind? You have to think of pitching, defense, speed, and versatility as traits that have defined the Rays the last several years. Unroe is obviously not a pitcher, but defense, speed, and versatility are huge parts of his game, and like the Rays this year, you certainly can’t forget about his bat.
Unroe, a 6’0″, 180 shortstop out of Desert Ridge High School in Arizona, shows versatility both at the plate and in the field as a switch-hitter and a player with experience at both shortstop and centerfield. Unroe is a naturally right-handed, but he has actually showed more promise from the left side, flashing excellent bat speed and the ability to smack line drives to all fields. His swing isn’t quite as electric from the right side, but he has a longer stride and does a better job tapping into some power. Most of the time you want a switch-hitter to have as close as possible to identical swings from both sides and we will have to see whether the Rays decide to emphasize more of the power or the gap-to-gap approach. Given the rest of his game, it seems like the latter is more likely, but he could be a double-digit home threat or more as he matures. Unroe shows top-of-the-line speed and could be a significant stolen base threat. He does need work on his patience and pitch recognition, but he has a chance to be a very good player at the top of the major league lineup. And considering his ability to play a premium position, he could be an even more valuable player.
Defensively at shortstop, Unroe shows excellent range, good hands, and a strong arm, giving him a chance to remain at the position. He doesn’t have the cleanest throwing motion, something that he will need to refine to stay at shortstop, but he has excellent instincts at the position and that might make all the difference. He could very interesting at second base, where his motions would all be very good and his strong arm could allow him make plays up the middle with ease a la Ben Zobrist. Centerfield could also be a very interesting option as his speed allows him to cover plenty of ground and his arm would be above-average for the position. No matter whether he ends up a shortstop, a second baseman, or a centerfielder, he has the ability to hit capably enough to be a regular. It will be interesting, though, whether the Rays decide to commit him to an one position or try to take advantage of his versatility and make the Zobrist comparison run deeper as a super-utility player. Unroe ties together his talents with his passion and leadership on the field that make his overall talents come out even better.
When the Rays draft a toolsier player who will need some development time, often they will have to develop him not just physically but emotionally to become the player they hope him to be. Unroe needs work at the plate, but he will enter pro ball with an excellent mentality and a willingness and even enthusiasm to play multiple positions right from the start. The slot value for Unroe’s pick is a little under $800,000, and it will likely take an above-slot bonus for him to forego his commitment to USC, but the Rays will find the money and get him signed. He’s exactly the type of player they’re looking for both in terms of both his talent and mentality, and it will be exciting to see what he becomes.