Who Will Win the Tampa Bay Rays’ First Batting Title?
By Robbie Knopf
This season, Jose Altuve of the Houston Astros won the American League batting title, a development more important to the Tampa Bay Rays than you would think. Altuve became the first Astro to pace to league in batting average, leaving just three teams without a single player who has done so: the Milwaukee Brewers, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and, you guessed it, the Tampa Bay Rays. With that in mind, who will be first Rays player to take home a batting title? Let’s go through the possible candidates.
Evan Longoria: Whenever we think “Tampa Bay Rays” and “hitting,” the first name that comes to mind is Longoria’s. But while we can expect his power and on-base numbers to get back up to par next season, a batting title seems quite unlikely.
James Loney: Loney has hit .290 the last two years for the Rays. Is there any chance that he can raise his average even? It is improbable that he will, but a sustained hot streak could give him a chance. He may be the most likely player on the Rays’ current roster.
Wil Myers: He did hit .293 as a rookie, but before we worry about whether he could win a batting title, let’s see him get back on track at the plate.
That’s it for the major leaguers (Ben Zobrist is an honorable mention), but more hope lies in the minor leagues.
Kean Wong: Wong needs to work on hitting the ball with authority, but his hit tool may be the best in the system. He followed up a .328 average in the Gulf Coast League in 2013 with a .306 mark while jumping all the way to Low-A in 2014. If Wong develops as expected, he could be a realistic candidate someday.
Ryan Brett: Brett is more likely than Wong simply because he is much closer to the major leagues. He combines a quick swing with the speed to leg out infield hits, although it would be nice to see him be more patient at the plate. The Rays’ dream is that Brett becomes a table-setter in their lineup capable of hitting .300 consistently, and maybe even .330 one year to lead the league.
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Johnny Field: The system’s breakout star this season, Field hit an even .300. He has plenty more to prove as he goes up the minor league ranks, but there is always the chance that he will only get better from here.
Mikie Mahtook: He had a huge season at Triple-A, but his plate discipline and hitting against right-handed pitching need work for him to be an outfield starter, let alone a batting title contender.
Josh Sale: If you had asked this question in 2010…
Willy Adames: He is coming off a big season at Low-A at just 18 years old, so the sky in the limit for him. He does strike out quite a bit, though, and it may be more likely that he develops above-average power for a shortstop than turns into a .300+ hitter.
Patrick Leonard: Leonard’s plate approach took huge strides this season as he raised his average 59 points to .284. That may be where he tops out moving forward, but we can dream of a power-average combination that makes him into a star.
Andrew Toles: He’s coming off a lost season, but if develops plate discipline, then the rest of baseball will need to watch out. He hit .328 at Low-A in 2013, and his upside is a player capable of doing that at higher levels.
Adrian Rondon: He hasn’t even played a professional game yet, but his Hanley Ramirez comps might make him the only player in the system with a multi-batting title ceiling. That being said, he is all upside right now and no results whatsoever. Anything could happen for him in the next few years.
Overall, it seems like the most likely players to win the first Tampa Bay Rays batting title are Ryan Brett and Kean Wong. Ironically enough, they are both second baseman like Altuve, with Brett being only four inches taller than him at 5’9″. Players like Toles, Adames, and Rondon have the ability to enter the race if their respective developments continue as hoped. It may take a while, but the good news is that there are some batting title candidates in the Rays system, and eventually someone will have a breakout year and take home the crown.