ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays didn’t look at what Nate Lowe didn’t do for them, but rather what they couldn’t do for him, which was give him a chance to play regularly in the majors.
With that situation unlikely to change in 2021, with Ji-Man Choi the clear choice as their lefty-hitting first baseman, the Rays decided instead to trade Lowe.
He is headed to Texas, where he was immediately anointed the starter, and the Rays got back three young but quite promising minor-league hitting prospects, led by catcher/outfielder Heriberto Hernandez.
The Rangers had been interested for awhile in Lowe, a 25-year-old who showed some power in his limited opportunities but was still working on his defense and versatility.
“Our assessment of his abilities, his readiness to be a major-league contributor, that’s been pretty constant for a little while here,” Rays general manager Erik Neander said. “But the opportunity given our personnel in total, things were a little jammed up here. This was an area where we had some surplus.
“... He’s been on that up-and-down ride the last couple of years (on options) and really hasn’t had a great shot to establish himself with any regularity. And just looking ahead to our team next year, managing our 40-man roster, it was very possible that was going to continue to 2021.”
In getting Hernandez, infielder Osleivis Basabe and outfielder Alexander Ovalles in exchange for Lowe, minor-league first baseman Jake Guenther and a minor-league player to be named, the Rays added three 20-year-olds who have played only at the low end of the minors. But Neander said they “think they have a chance to impact our club down the line.”
Hernandez and Basabe were ranked among the Rangers’ top 25 prospects by Baseball America and others, with Hernandez as high as No. 3 (and 112th in the game) by fangraphs.com.
Hernandez has posted impressive numbers in two pro seasons in entry-level leagues, hitting .320 with 23 homers, 98 RBIs and a 1.085 OPS in 113 games. His powerful bat has been ahead of his glove, as he has been used at catcher, first base and rightfield.
“We like all three, but he was likely the primary piece and someone that we think has a lot of development ahead of him but has a chance to be a special bat,” Neander said.
Basabe (bah-SAH-bay), signed for a $550,000 bonus out of Venezuela, has spent most of his pro career at the Dominican Summer and Arizona Rookie league levels, hitting .334 with an .825 OPS.
Ovalles (oh-VYE-ace), acquired by the Rangers from the Cubs in the July 2018 Cole Hamels trade, has hit .299 with an .832 OPS over two seasons, with 49 games at short-season Class A Spokane.
Trading for young prospects is always tricky. Even more so when they didn’t play at all in 2020 due to the pandemic canceling the minor-league season.
“There’s a lot of unknowns,” Neander said. “These are three players … that we had strong assessments on 12 months ago. You’re taking a little bit of a leap with respect to just this lost year, what they’ve been up to, what they’ve been doing and just where they will slot in, how ready they’ll be for 2021.”
Having scout J.D. Elliby see the players at the Rangers instructional league camp, in addition to research done by their pro scouting and analytics staff, made the Rays feel better, though the deal reflected the risk.
“That was something that we absolutely factored into this,” Neander said, “and some discount was applied because of that uncertainty.”
That could factor into the minor-leaguer to be named to complete the deal. Guenther, 23, spent 2019 at rookie-level Princeton after being a seventh-round pick in 2019 out of Texas Christian.
Lowe said he figured the Rays would make a deal to thin their number of left-handed hitters but didn’t know if he would be the one going. He is excited to get the chance to play.
“Tampa’s obviously a place I’m forever going to be grateful for, the guys there are fantastic, the staff was good to me,” he said. “The system allowed them to stack up a lot of similar players, and unfortunately I was the odd man out. So I’m pretty pumped for this new opportunity and hopefully I get the chance to make myself an everyday player.”
The Rays plan for Choi to be their first baseman against right-handed starters, with Mike Brosseau and Yandy Diaz options to play against left-handers. Neander said they will consider giving a look to Yoshi Tsutsugo, who played leftfield and third base last year, as another lefty-swinging option for depth.