Advertisement
  1. Sports
  2. /
  3. Rays

Rays OF Austin Meadows can hit, but improving defense key to meeting five-tool tag

Team hopes allowing the 23-year-old to establish himself defensively in rightfield will pay dividends.
Rays outfielder Austin Meadows is all grins in the dugout during Monday's game against the Marlins in Port Charlotte. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)
Published Feb. 25

PORT CHARLOTTE — The stage is set this spring for Austin Meadows to graduate from heralded prospect to full-time big-leaguer.

The path for Meadows, the 23-year-old former first-rounder acquired from the Pirates as part of the Chris Archer trade at last year’s trade deadline, to make the Rays’ opening day roster has been cleared. He even received a late-season callup to help acclimate him to his new surroundings.

And while you don’t have to watch Meadows too closely to see why he’s been so highly regarded, it’s clear he can hit, he has rare speed and the ability to play all over the outfield.

“That kid is unbelievable,” said Rays right-hander Tyler Glasnow, who came over from Pittsburgh with Meadows. “I know he’s going to contribute a lot to this team this year and I’m just pulling for him.”

The left-handed hitting Meadows holds the inside track to play rightfield on most days, with free-agent signing Avisail Garcia also seeing time there against left-handed pitching.

“It’s a good feeling to have walking into the clubhouse and knowing you are going to have the opportunity to be an everyday player for a big-league ball club,” Meadows said.

RELATED: Join our Rays Fever Facebook group for conversation, polls, story links and more

Meadows appears to have shaken a history of hamstring and oblique injuries that have slowed his progress. His 128 games played last season — including 59 at the major-league level between Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh — marked his most in a season since 2015.

He is also no stranger to spring competition. This is his fourth year seeing Grapefruit League at-bats, and he has been a spring training wonder at the plate. He’s already off to a hot start offensively this spring as the Rays experiment with him in the leadoff spot.

But in order to break through in the Rays outfield, you have to be sound defensively, and showing the club he can hold his own in rightfield will determine how ready for a regular role Meadows is.

“We know he can hit,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “We put a premium on defense and with Austin, it’s been made very clear to him that he has all the factors to be a good defensive player. We’ve got to see him go out there and do it.”

Over the past two years, the Rays have had the best defensive outfield in terms of defensive runs saved, according to FanGraphs. Their 105 defensive runs saved over the 2017 and 2018 seasons topped the majors by 21 runs over the No. 2 team.

While the Rays value defensive flexibility, they believe putting Meadows in rightfield and allowing him to exclusively work there will help his defensive acumen. He’s played all over the outfield, but most of his time in the minors was in centerfield.

“Maybe it will help Austin a little bit — I think he’s played everywhere in the outfield the last couple years — if he’s just in rightfield where he can focus on one spot,” Cash said.

The Rays had 36 defensive runs saved from the rightfield position last season, and the players who mostly accounted for that are now gone. Mallex Smith (42 starts in right) was traded to the Mariners, and Carlos Gomez (88 starts) is a free agent who remains unsigned.

By comparison, Meadows posted minus-9 defensive runs saved in 39 big-league outfield starts with the Rays and Pirates last season. That included a minus-4 mark in 15 starts in right. That number is mostly attributed to converting batting balls into outs compared to average fielders at those positions.

Meadows clearly has the speed to be a plus outfielder, but needs better jumps to take advantage of his speed, Cash said.

“I think the biggest key for me is (making) those first two or three steps hard, whether its’ a ball behind you or a ball that’s decently far away,” Meadows said. “I think it’s a matter of just putting your head down and going to get it and having the confidence that you’re going to be able to go get that ball instead of being hesitant and kind of starting off slow and then trying to speed up.”

Cash said Meadows playing more next to an elite defender like Kiermaier should help him gain more confidence and anticipation.

“He’s a really good runner from home to first,” Cash said of Meadows. “I know he’s aware of it and he’s going to work on it. We’re working on his first step breaks, running to the ball, not looking at the ball, basically get a read on it. You look at K.K., K.K. turns and he goes and then he finds the ball again. That’s just different comfort for different outfielders.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. The Nationals' Victor Robles reacts as he crosses home after hitting a home run during the sixth inning of a Game 3 rout of the Cardinals in the NL Championship Series. JEFF ROBERSON  |  AP
    Washington rolls to an 8-1 rout, is one game from World Series.
  2. The Rays posted this  message of appreciation on their Twitter account. RAYS BASEBALL  |  Twitter
    An ad in the Tampa Bay Times from the team and Twitter messages from players cap the season that included playoffs for the first time since 2013.
  3. Tampa Bay Rays leftfielder Tommy Pham (29) takes a moment in the dugout after the Rays' 6-2 loss to the Houston Astros in Game 1 of the American League Division Series. DIRK SHADD  |  Times
    Contract terms for every player currently on Tampa Bay’s roster.
  4. The Yankees' Gleyber Torres hits a home run off Astros starting pitcher Zack Greinke during the sixth inning in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series on Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019. SUE OGROCKI  |  AP
    The 22-year-old homers and has five RBIs, the youngest AL player to drive in that many in a postseason game in major-league history.
  5. Tampa Bay Rays centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier (39), right, and shortstop Willy Adames (1) celebrate the Rays 10-3 win over the Houston Astros in Game 3 of the American League Division Series at Tropicana Field. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Times
    Rays Tales: Underdogs really do almost “shock the world,” and Kevin Cash deserves serious American League manager of the year consideration.
  6. Nationals starter Anibal Sanchez pitches during the eighth inning of Game 1 of the NL Championship Series against the Cardinals on Friday, Oct. 11, 2019. MARK HUMPHREY  |  AP
    Starter Anibal Sanchez has a no-hitter through 7 2/3 innings before giving up a clean single to center.
  7. Rays catcher Travis d'Arnaud and starting pitcher Tyler Glasnow walk back to the dugout after the Astros score four runs in the first inning of Game 5 of the American League Division Series on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. DIRK SHADD  |  Times
    Manager Kevin Cash says that wasn’t the main problem for the four-run first inning in Game 5 of the ALDS. It was the Astros’ hitters.
  8. The Tampa Bay Rays grounds crew works to remove the ALDS playoff logo along the first base line on the field at Tropicana Field on Friday. DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    That’s what the team stresses as it faces an offseason with roster flexibility.
  9. Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash, on left, along with Erik Neander, center, senior vice president of baseball operations and general manager, and Chaim Bloom, senior vice president of baseball operations, address the media during a news conference at Tropicana Field on Friday. DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    John Romano: And while they’re at it, find a consistent closer and a bat with some pop.
  10. Houston Astros players celebrate their 6-1 win over the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 5 of the American League Division Series Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019 in Houston. DIRK SHADD  |  Times
    Preparing for Rays steady steam of relievers was a significant challenge for Houston’s hitters.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement