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Rays have to balance patience, performance with young hitters

Given unexpected extended opportunities, Vidal Brujan, Josh Lowe, Isaac Paredes and Taylor Walls have had mixed results.
The Rays' Vidal Brujan bats during Saturday's game against the Pirates at Tropicana Field. Thanks to injuries, Brujan and others are getting a chance to prove themselves at the MLB level earlier than expected.
The Rays' Vidal Brujan bats during Saturday's game against the Pirates at Tropicana Field. Thanks to injuries, Brujan and others are getting a chance to prove themselves at the MLB level earlier than expected. [ STEVE NESIUS | AP ]
Published Jun. 28

ST. PETERSBURG — The American League Player of the Week award Isaac Paredes won on Monday would seem to provide pretty good proof that he can handle the adjustment to the major leagues.

For some of the Rays’ other young position players who have been given increased opportunity as a result of the spate of injuries, that remains an ongoing question.

Slotted somewhere between pedigreed prospect and proven big-leaguer, Vidal Brujan, Josh Lowe and Taylor Walls are dealing with the challenge of showing if and how much they can contribute to a contending team on a somewhat regular basis.

It is not, as their batting averages starting with 1s show, an easy assignment.

“We have some young guys that need experience,” Rays hitting coach Chad Mottola said. “Part of experience is taking your lumps sometimes.”

Ji-Man Choi, left, and teammates douse Isaac Paredes with ice during a post-game television interview after Paredes hit a walkoff, two-run single to beat the Pirates on Saturday.
Ji-Man Choi, left, and teammates douse Isaac Paredes with ice during a post-game television interview after Paredes hit a walkoff, two-run single to beat the Pirates on Saturday. [ STEVE NESIUS | AP ]

And, ideally, being better for it.

This is nothing new, having been the case for many years with other players. That includes uber-talented Wander Franco, who after a smashing debut last June 22 hit under .185 (with a sub-.550 OPS) for nearly a full month before getting acclimated for what turned out to be a solid rookie season (.288, .810).

“I think history — be it recent or over a long time — shows the number of players that have developed into really good major-league players took some time to find their footing,” Rays baseball operations president Erik Neander said.

“It’s a pretty extensive list. It’s a humbling exercise to go back and look and to see what some of those journeys look like. They can be turbulent. And you’ve just got to give them the space and the patience and to continue to express confidence in them to help them figure it out.”

Exacerbating the challenge is what some consider an all-time gap in talent between Triple-A and the majors, and thus a corresponding need for increased consistency and mental focus when players come up.

Taylor Walls bats during Saturday's game against the Pirates.
Taylor Walls bats during Saturday's game against the Pirates. [ STEVE NESIUS | AP ]

Some just need the chance to play through it.

Paredes, for example, was similarly struggling until last week, when he broke out with a 10-for-15 tear that included a team record-tying three homers in one game and five over three. The proved, at least in a short burst, he can have an impact.

Brujan has been showing some signs of improvement in his first extended big-league opportunity, going into play Tuesday hitting .186 with 13 RBIs and a .551 OPS over 20 June games after a .137/ 2/.358 performance in 18 in May.

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Walls, who had an opportunity last year, had a 5-for-10 stretch as his run as the everyday shortstop was ending with Franco’s Sunday return from the injured list, increasing his average to .168.

Lowe, who the Rays cleared space for on the opening day roster by trading Austin Meadows to Detroit (and getting back Paredes), struggled enough the first month (.188 average, .601 OPS) that he was sent back to Triple-A Durham on May 1. He was recalled last week and has looked better at the plate in his return, although he still strikes out too often.

“We’re starting to see (Brujan) and some other guys really find a little bit more comfort in their opportunities here and do some things,” manager Kevin Cash said. “If they can avoid kind of maybe looking at the Jumbotron and seeing their stats, that will help them. If they can continue to reset and reset, I think we’re going to see some really good players.”

Aside from Lowe, the Rays didn’t plan for the other younger players (as well as catcher Rene Pinto) to get this much playing time. Then injuries sidelined frontliners such as Franco, second baseman Brandon Lowe, catcher Mike Zunino and, more recently, outfielders Kevin Kiermaier (short term) and Manuel Margot (several months).

Josh Lowe doubles to rightfield off Pirates starter JT Brubaker during the fifth inning Saturday.
Josh Lowe doubles to rightfield off Pirates starter JT Brubaker during the fifth inning Saturday. [ STEVE NESIUS | AP ]

In opting to turn to the younger in-house replacements, the Rays created the need for patience, which can be vexing given they are battling in the rugged AL East for a playoff spot.

“There’s always that balance,” Neander said. “We’re always going to be dependent upon young players stepping up and stepping in the spots to help our major-league team win. That’s never going to change.

“With some of the players we’re missing, there’s that much more opportunity available for those young players now. … You’ve got to give them some space to make the adjustment, stay with them. We have a lot of confidence in them long term for their capabilities at the major-league level, and through their struggles now, they’re going to learn a lot and should be better for it.

“If it’s not over the course of these few weeks, or what we’ve seen, it’s coming. It’ll be there this year and beyond.”

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