The underdog stories–who doesn’t like them? Every team in baseball wants to be the one who gave the struggling player one more chance and watched him experience an improbable breakout. Minor league contracts are the quest for just that. Low-risk, high-reward contracts to ex-major leaguers a little down on their luck are one thing. The contracts to the career minor leaguers, though, are a whole other ballgame. You sign them as minor league depth dreaming that just maybe one of them will be the one that comes out of nowhere to change your team’s fate. When the Rays signed ex-Ranger Mark Lowe to a minor league deal, they saw a pitcher with a real chance to impact their bullpen. However, it’s the players the Rays signed who have yet to taste the vector of the big leagues who each have the chance to really become a story to remember.
The one new face is right-hander Sam Runion. Runion, who just turned 25, was the Kansas City Royals’ second round pick back in 2007 as a 6’4″ right-hander who touched 94 MPH with his fastball and showed potential with his slider and changeup as well. But Runion just could never get on track as a starting pitcher. He managed just a 5.82 ERA in 51 Rookie ball innings in his pro debut, but his 51-17 strikeout to walk ratio and 0.7 HR/9 seemed to indicate that better things were to come. Instead, Runion managed just a 41 strikeouts in 89 innings (4.1 K/9) to go along with a 4.45 ERA in 2008, and that was only the start of his struggles as his ERA was 6.60 in 2009 and 6.45 even as he moved to relief. 2011 saw injuries hold him to just 9 innings, and suddenly he had gone from promising second rounder to a 22 year old with a 5.71 professional ERA who hadn’t pitched an inning above Low-A. But in 2012, Runion finally started to break out.
The good thing about a second round pedigree is that your team has to give you some chances. The sixth time was the charm for Runion in 2012 as he managed a 2.34 ERA, a 50-16 strikeout to walk ratio and a 53.8% groundball rate in 65.1 innings pitched between High-A and Double-A. The nin 2013, he slipped but still had a solid season, putting up a 4.17 ERA, a 45-15 strikeout to walk ratio, and a 50.0% groundball rate in 38 appearances primarily at Double-A and 58.1 innings pitched. Runion hasn’t missed a ton of bats the last two years, striking out 6.9 batters per 9 innings both years, but he also walked only 2.2 per 9 in both seasons and did a good job keeping the ball on the ground. These days, Runion throws a fastball in the low-90’s with sink and a little run, and he pairs it with a solid 11-to-5 curveball and a halfway-decent changeup. He has experienced strong results against right-handed batters the last two years, holding them to a .261/.316/.338 line with a 60-11 strikeout to walk ratio, and he deserves a chance to see if he can keep that up at higher levels. His upside certainly isn’t what it used to be, but he is a 25 year old ready for Triple-A who could still have a career in a big league bullpen ahead of him. The Rays will give him a chance to show what he can do, and the reward could be a cheap, controllable middle releiver.
Now we’ll head to the five minor league free agents the Rays’ re-signed.
Victor Mateo- Victor Mateo was never too notable as a prospect. After middling results in Rookie ball his first four seasons in the organization, Mateo managed a 3.98 ERA and a 102-37 strikeout to walk ratio in 128.2 innings pitched at Low-A in 2011 but slipped to just a 72-43 strikeout to walk ratio in 117 High-A innings in 2012. He was an organizational player, nothing more, and his ability to be even that was pulled into question when he managed just a 6.39 ERA and a 34-30 strikeout to walk ratio in 62 innings to begin 2013. Then, out of nowhere, something clicked. Mateo finished the season with a 2.23 ERA and a 60-25 strikeout to walk ratio in his final 93 innings pitched, topping it off with a no-hitter on August 24th. Mateo, 24, showed enough improvement in that second half that the Rays had to bring him back. Mateo throws in the 89-91 MPH range with his fastball with good movement, and his command of the pitch came together to spur his success. He also throws a pretty good changeup, and he finished off his arsenal with a decent curveball. Mateo has a chance to crack Triple-A Durham’s rotation with a strong spring training (the Rays invited him to big league camp), and while his best chance to make the big leagues will be in relief, it will be interesting to see if his breakthrough is real.
Mike Colla- A 14th round pick by the Pirates back in 2005, Colla managed a 3.91 ERA in five seasons in the organization yet was released in spring training of 2013. But after a strong performance for independent Bridgeport, Colla caught on with the Rays and pitched well in 14 starts, going 6-2 with a 3.70 ERA, and a 49-19 strikeout to walk ratio in 75.1 innings pitched. Colla, who will turn 27 next month, attacks hitters with a four-seamer, a two-seamer, a changeup, and a slider, and he can be very effective when he keeps his pitches down. His fastballs usually stay in the 88-91 MPH range, but he throws them for strikes and gets good life on them down in the zone. His changeup and slider are both decent pitches, with his changeup generating most of his few swings-and-misses and his slider forcing some groundballs. Colla’s biggest issue is that his command occasionally goes, making him homer prone. Colla has made 120 of his 176 professional appearances out of the bullpen, and he could be interesting in that role as a sinkerballing middle reliever. Colla should head to Triple-A for the first time in 2014 as either a starter or reliever. One thing to note, though, is that the Rays did not regard him highly enough to give him an invite to big league spring training.
Albert Suarez- The last six years, Suarez has only pitched every even year, with the odds year getting cut short by a series of injuries. 2013 saw Suarez make just two starts all season as arm injuries struck again. But the Rays still see enough promise that they are not ready to give up yet. At this best, Suarez touched 95 MPH with sink on his fastball, flashed plus with his curveball, and had a changeup that kept progressing. These days, his fastball dips into the high-80’s at times and his secondary pitches never developed as hoped. Nevertheless, the Rays will give him one more chance. Suarez will likely head into the bullpen at Double-A Montgomery and the Rays hope he can stay healthy and see his fastball and curveball play up. This will be his last chance in the organization, and he has to find a way to come through.
Mayo Acosta: In 2012, Acosta had a big season, managing a .261/.341/.484 line in 214 plate appearances and throwing out 45% of attempted basestealers. 2013, though, saw him fall back down to earth, hitting to a .197/.259/.321 line in 262 PA’s at Double-A. Acosta has been a solid organizational backup for the Rays the last few years, and he is a little interesting thanks to good arm strength and the occasional flash of power. Acosta, 26, will likely stay in the same role in 2014 as he hopes to rebound from his tough season.
Eduar Quinonez- One pitch turned out to be enough to get Quinonez another look. Quinonez, 24, is coming off a rough season at Low-A Bowling Green, managing just a 6.47 ERA and a 43-28 strikeout to walk ratio in 57 innings pitched, and that was especially alarming given that he was two years older than most of his competition. Quinonez’s fastball hits just the high-80’s and he needs to work on commanding it better. But the Rays really like his curveball, a tight 11-to-5 breaker that is a put-away pitch against both righties and lefties. The Rays will keep working with Quinonez to make his fastball serviceable and see how far his curveball can take him.