How different paths Rays All-Stars took led to a shared experience

Brandon Lowe is home grown. Austin Meadows was acquired in trade. Charlie Morton signed as a free agent. All are repping the Rays in Cleveland.
Rays All-Stars Brandon Lowe, Charlie Morton and Austin Meadows teamed up at the end of the AL All-Star media session. [MARC TOPKIN | Times]
Rays All-Stars Brandon Lowe, Charlie Morton and Austin Meadows teamed up at the end of the AL All-Star media session. [MARC TOPKIN | Times]
Published July 8

CLEVELAND — Rays All-Stars Brandon Lowe, Austin Meadows and Charlie Morton got their All-Star experience started in style in Sunday night, whisked from Tampa on a 12-seat private jet for them, their wives and Morton’s four kids, plus, as an added bonus, Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez, who hitched a ride after broadcasting their game against the Yankees.

“It was nuts,’’ Lowe said. “Probably one of the cooler things I’ve ever been a part of. … It was a small plane, but such a smooth ride. A great experience.’’

Then they checked into the All-Star hotel and were even more overwhelmed checking out the scene.

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“When we got here, seeing all the fans at the hotel, and there were fans everywhere, and my family’s here … it’s pretty amazing,’’ Meadows said. “It’s finally hitting me now. This past month of trying to focus on the season, but now being able to be here with all the talent we have in the room.

“Being able to shake Mike Trout’s hand. Talking to a guy like George Springer. All these guys, it’s pretty surreal being around these guys. So I’m going to take it all in and try to enjoy these next couple days.’’

Given that Morton, at 35, is a decade older than his two Rays mates, and having done the wide-eyed and a bit overwhelmed thing when he made the All-Star team for the first time last year, he is taking a bit of a more pragmatic view this year. “When I was voted on this year, it was pretty humbling,’’ he said.

Morton, though, is getting quite a kick out of watching Lowe and Meadows go through the experience as first-time All-Stars, and first full-season big-leaguers. And enjoying teasing them a bit, noting that only Meadows’ media session table had lighting and microphones to accommodate live streaming and how Lowe was hobbling up the riser due to his bruised right leg.

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“Look at these guys, they’re so excited,’’ Morton said. “I can’t imagine what it’s like to be that age and do so much already. We got on the plane with them (Sunday) and you could tell it’s genuine excitement. It’s a special time. It’s a special place to be right now.’’

Though the Rays stars traveled to Cleveland together, their paths to becoming All-Stars were quite different.

Lowe is homegrown, a third-round pick in 2015 who moved slowly then quickly through the system. Meadows was acquired via a somewhat typical Rays trade, flipping a higher-salaried veteran (Chris Archer) for a passel of young players. And Morton was signed in a rare shopping trip among top shelf free agents, getting a two-year deal with $15 annual salaries that are the highest in franchise history.

“Three really different stories,’’ Meadows said. “And for us all being able to go together, it’s a really special opportunity for us.’’

And a rewarding one for the organization.

“To be as competitive as we strive to be, it requires adding talent through every entry point,’’ GM Erik Neander said. “Some of those pipelines need to be more active than others, but it’s nice to see three different player acquisition methods highlighted amongst our three deserving All-Stars.’’

The homegrown All-Star

Lowe’s pro career was stalled before it even started, as he broke his left leg rounding first in what would be his last college game at Maryland. After being drafted by the Rays 87th overall in 2015 had to wait until the next year to playing.

That 2016 debut season at Bowling Green went just okay, good enough for him to get promoted. When he opened the 2017 season with the advanced Class A Stone Crabs, he was batting ninth.

This season, he was in the Rays’ opening day lineup batting cleanup.

“Crazy how quickly stuff changed,’’ he said Monday. “Pretty nuts.’’

In between? He won the 2017 Florida State League MVP award. Made the unusual ascension through three levels in 2018, from Double-A and Triple-A to get to the majors in August 2018 and hit 28 homers for the season (though starting his big-league career 0-for-19). Signed a six-year deal this spring for a guaranteed $24 million that could be worth up to $49 million over eight.

And this week became just the third position player originally signed by the Rays to be an All-Star for them, joining Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria along with six pitchers who did so.

“Just thankful I got an opportunity,’’ Lowe said. “They stuck with me through some tough times and stuff like that. To be able to go out there and represent the team at the All-Star Game is going to be great.’’

The traded for All-Star

Meadows wasn’t sure what to think initially when he was traded from the Pirates, with pitcher Tyler Glasnow and prospect-to-be-named Shane Baz, to the Rays for Archer last July 31.

His 5 ½ years in the Pirates organization culminated with the incredible high of making the majors in May 2018, but also the frustration of being sent back down two months later. Plus, a string of injuries slowed his progress along the way.

“I was pretty shocked at first,’’ he said. “I was more excited to realize that the Rays wanted me to come over here. And to give up Chris Archer, a great guy. Just to be able to come over here and enjoy it and have fun. It’s been a crazy surreal experience. But I’m blessed to be a Tampa Bay Bay.’’

Meadows was voted an All-Star by the players based on his sizzling numbers the first two months, which he’s battling to get back to after a quite chilly June.

He credits that success to the opportunity the Rays gave him to play regularly and without fear of being sent down, but he deserves props for taking advantage of it. Plus, he’s stayed relatively healthy, serving one injured list stint for a sore thumb.

All of which made being in Cleveland an even bigger deal.

“It’s indescribable for me,’’ Meadows said. “Last year, the ups and downs of being sent down and traded and kind of everything going on, and now to be able to call myself an All-Star, it’s kind of hard to put into words. Just the stuff I went through to be here now, it’s pretty special.’’

The free-agent All-Star

Morton was a rather pedestrian pitcher, battling injuries and inconsistency, for much of his career, spent mostly in Pittsburgh.

But then a change in style, substance and scenery – with no blame assigned and little credit taken - led him to sign with the Astros in 2017, and to great success, posting a 29-10, 3.36 record, winning a World Series and a place deep in the hearts of Astros teammates and fans.

All of which made it hard for him to leave when his two-year $14 million contract expired. Until he found out the Rays were a legitimate place he could go. Plus, they had the benefit of playing 45 minutes from his off-season Bradenton home.

“The day (the Astros) last offer came in, that was a rough day,’’ Morton said Monday. “But then I talked to my agent and we found out what the Rays were offering.’’

Comfortable with what he knew of the Rays, and what he heard from execs, manager Kevin Cash, pitching coach Kyle Snyder and others, he signed on.

And, to this point, it really couldn’t have worked out any better.

Morton is 10-2 with an AL best 2.32 ERA (after pitching Sunday, making inactive here), draws raves for being an even better leader and clubhouse influence than pitcher, and has remained healthy.

“I think it’s a good fit,’ he said. “Me with the guys in the clubhouse, and the relationship I’ve been able to develop with Kyle and the guys in the front office. It’s very transparent. And they’re good people.

“I feel good about being here.’’

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Contact @TBTimes_Rays.

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