Jake Hager‘s 2013 season was extremely disappointing and factoring in that he was the 32nd overall pick in 2011 does not make things any better. Hager’s .258 average and .318 on-base percentage were fine, but he hit for no power whatsoever, managing just a .309 slugging percentage as he failed to hit a single home run. That was a sorry state of affairs for a shortstop prospect who stood out in the draft because of his power potential. A season like Hager had is not impossible to overcome, but his prospect stock certainly took a major hit. You might even say that Hager’s ability to reach his potential is now extremely questionable. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Jake Hager has one big thing working in his favor, something that affords him our patience: his age.
As noted by Baseball America, Hager is the third-youngest player in the Double-A Southern League to begin 2014, trailing only Seattle Mariners prospects Victor Sanchez and Ketel Marte. For some perspective, David Price was older than Hager is now when he made his first professional appearance. At an extremely young age, Hager is just two levels away from the major leagues and already quite an advanced prospect. Everything for a shortstop starts with defense, and while Hager may not be quite as flashy as Yunel Escobar or Hak-Ju Lee, he gets the job done and more. Hager has excellent hands and strong range at shortstop, and while his arm is only average, he has an uncanny ability to understand some of the nuances of the position that others take several years to learn. Hager always seems to know exactly how to catch the ball and throw it quickly to turn double plays as efficiently as possible and the perfect place to stand to receive a relay throw from the outfield. The overall result for Hager is a very good if not Gold Glove-caliber defender at shortstop, and players like that are always a luxury to have.
Then we come back to Hager’s hitting. The good news for Hager even in a lost season was how much plate discipline he showed. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was a strong 81-38 and his rough season was not the result of overaggressiveness like so many young shortstops. The question is whether he can learn to hit the ball with more authority, but there is reason to think Hager’s power is coming. Hager shows good bat speed, and combining that with his patience gives him a chance to drive balls from gap to gap. Hager has also shown flashes of power to the pull side, and we know the Rays will start teaching him to take bigger swings when he is ahead in the count. Finally, Hager has work to do in the weight room. He is 6’1″, 170 with room to add a few pounds of muscle that could finally push his power over the top. Sometimes players never fill out as expected (see Reid Brignac), but given Hager’s work ethic, we know it is only a matter of time until he ends up at the best weight for him to succeed. Jake Hager can be a valuable major league shortstop, and if he can start harnessing his power, that could be sooner rather than later.
One bad season is never enough to disregard a prospect, and Hager deserves more leeway than most. He is an extremely young player and also one mature beyond his years, known from the start as a natural leader who would stop at nothing to help his team win. It says a lot that the Rays decided to bring him up to Double-A Montgomery even after he struggled so much at the plate in High-A Charlotte. Jake Hager has something to prove this season, but getting himself right back on track is well within his capacity and the Rays know that better than anyone.