Backfield Banter - Rays Instructs (Pimpin vs. Thunder) 9/18/18

The Tampa Bay Rays opened their 2018 Instructional League with a camp day that featured some of their top prospects. Wander Franco, Shane McLanahan, Matthew Liberatore, Shane Baz, and Nick Schnell all took part in various defensive drills before playing an intrasquad scrimmage.

On the backfields at Charlotte Sports Complex, middle infielders worked on defense while the pitchers performed PFPs. One of the more interesting drills was the Eyepatch Drill. Middle infielders Wander Franco, Jelfry Marte, and Osmy Gregorio wore an eye patch and fielded balls toward the side of the body that the eye patch was on. The drill in effect challenges hand-eye coordination and reaction time.

Defensively, Jelfry Marte stood out, flashing smooth, fluid actions laterally, plus hands, and a quick release. He oozes athleticism, which is especially impressive considering he has yet to develop his man muscles. Osmy Gregorio took grounders at SS but profiles as a 3B. He has a tall, lean, athletic frame. His defensive actions were loose. Gregorio throws sidearm, at times rushing throws and struggling with accuracy. Overall though, we like the body and the athleticism.

Wander Franco did all his work at SS. Our gut reaction is he probably ends up at 2B. However, there was nothing overtly apparent in what we saw that makes us think a position change is imminent. We expect the Rays to give him every opportunity to stick at SS.

Pitchers, infielders, and outfielders then took part in defensive game situations for about 20 minutes before batting practice. Of course, Wander Franco was the main attraction. The biggest takeaway was Franco’s build and present strength. He does not have the body of a 17-year-old. He has a small but sturdy frame, thick shoulders and forearms, and a strong lower half. Projecting what his body will end up looking like is difficult; it’s scary to think that he's not only going to get stronger, but he’s actually going to grow into his adult body.

Franco sprayed hard line drives in BP and deposited a couple balls over the fence. The ball jumped off his bat—his hands are special. In BP, his right-handed swing showed much more raw power. He flashed double-plus bat speed from both sides of the plate.

After the morning workouts, the Rays played a 6 inning intrasquad scrimmage. Amusingly, the scoreboard dubbed the game “Team Pimpin vs Team Thunder”. The losing squad had to go on the road for what we assume is their opening game in two days against the Orioles in Sarasota.

Shane Baz started for Team Pimpin and threw 2 innings. His FB touched 95, sitting low 90s. The SL flashed tilt but was inconsistent. Wander Franco played SS for Pimpin and went 0-2 with a BB.

For team Thunder, two guys stood out offensively. Jelfy Marte and Tony Pena combined to go 5-5. Marte, a 17 year-old switch-hitter, showed strong wrists and a good feel for the plate. After looking bad on a Shane Baz heater, he lined a double to the R/CF gap and later took a 96 mph high heater from LHP Francisco Sanchez deep to RF for an opposite field double. He later stole 3rd and home. Needless to say, we both came away from this day very high on Marte.

Tony Pena, a 21 year-old OF, showed a strong feel for the barrel, spraying hard line drives to all fields. This is not a cliche: his contact was literally loud, sounding like an 1860s cannonball fired from his bat. Pena has a thick chest and shoulders. There is no wasted motion in his stance/swing. At present, he is a strong kid that should get stronger. His final hit was a broken bat hard ground ball through the left side of the infield.

Based on what we saw and his 2018 stats in the Appy, we think Pena is an under-the-radar hitter that has the tools to excel in full-season ball in 2019. Going into his age 21 season, he could advance quickly to High A if he continues to barrel everything in sight.

And if you’re wondering, Team Thunder walked it off to win 6-5. While to the lay person, an intrasquad may be deemed meaningless, the players seemed awfully excited about the walk off and the prospect of not having to travel. There was even a Gatorade shower as McLanahan and Liberatore (in the stands charting) fist pumped and high-fived.

Jason Pennini @JasonPennini

Jason Woodell @Jasonatthegame