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.
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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.
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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 email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.