ST. PETERSBURG — If you were searching for the best baseball prospect in the land, you might pause at this paragraph:
Led all of Triple-A in home runs last season with 33. Has hit .329 with a .614 slugging percentage in 75 plate appearances at major-league spring training camps across three seasons. And, by the way, has started games at all four infield positions at Triple-A, but spends most of his time at shortstop.
That’s nuts, right? Surely, Tristan Gray is near the top of every prospects list in baseball.
Except he’s not. Baseball America does not even list him among the top 30 prospects in the Rays organization. He was not added to Tampa Bay’s 40-man roster in the offseason, and the 29 other teams ignored him in the Rule 5 draft.
So what gives? How has stardom failed to stop at his locker?
The answers come in waves. They begin with perceived defensive weaknesses, followed by too many prospects ahead of him, combined with plate discipline issues, topped off by too many birthdays. It’s as if Gray is chasing a bull’s-eye that keeps getting yanked out of his reach.
“We love Tristan Gray,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “He has really played well for us in Durham. He has always come up here and played well in spring training. He can play all over the field.
“He’s fun to watch play. He’s so consistent. He can hit a ball as far as anybody on our roster. It’s just getting reps and seeing more consistent big-league stuff for him. But he’s going to play in the big leagues. I don’t know when, but he certainly deserves an opportunity.”
For his part, Gray has learned to stop worrying about what hasn’t happened and focus on what’s to come. Acquired from Pittsburgh in the spring of 2018 in the Corey Dickerson deal, Gray has never been a guy scouts fall in love with.
Drafted in the 13th round out of Rice University, Gray was kind of skinny and kind of awkward on defense early in his pro career. He solved the first problem by bulking up one offseason, and he worked hard enough on his fielding to become a solid shortstop with the ability to move to first, second or third.
“The Rays have been super honest with me, and that’s all I can really ask for,” Gray said. “They really like what I’m doing and say I’m this close to making it. They tell me I’m in a great spot and just don’t get caught up in all of the stuff around, and keep doing what I’m doing.
“All I can do is focus on what they’re telling me to focus on, which I’ve done before. They told me I needed to be better on defense and so I worked really hard and worked with them to get better at that. Now they’re telling me I’ve got to work on getting more walks. For some guys, that comes a little faster. For me, it’s just taking a little bit longer but I feeling I’m getting there.”
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Gray has never hit for a high average, which is fine when you have home run power, but his strikeout-to-walk ratio is way too extreme. Since getting to Triple-A in 2021, Gray has struck out 240 times with only 53 walks. That led to an unsightly on-base percentage of .282 last season.
“I get too excited,” Gray said. “Especially if I get to a 3-2 count, I’m expecting them to pitch to me but they really don’t have to because they know I’m going to swing. So that’s what we’ve talked about, that’s what I’m working on, just taking my walks when they’re there.”
Gray turns 27 in another week, which means the clock is starting to tick a little louder. He might have an outside chance of making the opening day roster with Taylor Walls currently sidelined with an oblique pull but the Rays also have Vidal Brujan and non-roster invitees Daniel Robertson and Charlie Culberson as potential utility infielders. There’s always the possibility of a trade, but Gray said he’s no longer obsessing over things he can’t control.
“Honestly, with the players they have here now, it’s hard to break this team,” Gray said. “That doesn’t discourage me by any means. I look at it more like I’m here to show them I can do this at this level. If I go to Durham, my focus will be on showing there, as well. Hopefully, I make it undeniable to them that, hey, he’s doing so well we have to give him a chance.”
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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