Tampa–Everyone has an opinion on what the Rays should have done with Bobby Witt, Jr.
Executives around the league–one in particular–openly questioned and criticized the Rays’ front office for keeping the current top prospect in MLBPro at AAA Durham all season long. This was amplified when Witt turned a corner after May.
Those numbers are punctuated by an August in which Witt hit .365/.450/.635, with six homers, 17 RBI, and a 13/13 K-BB ratio. That led to a 1.086 OPS, and Player of the Month honors in the International League.
It also gave him what will assuredly be a place on the IL MVP ballot, something that, even going into August, was not guaranteed. (He won’t win; that is likely going to Columbus’ Jazz Chisholm.) That created the calls for the Rays to bring him up and use September to acclimate him to the bigs.
That conversation became moot, though, when Witt ruptured his MCL on September 3. The timetable will put him out until the beginning of spring training. It also raises the question as to whether or not he’ll start next year in Tampa…something all but guaranteed before the injury.
The Rays have maintained all season long that this year isn’t about this year. That may be an insult to the players on this year’s team, especially as they find themselves just a half-game back of the final wild card spot, and three games behind Baltimore for the AL East lead. That was something inexplicable just a month ago, when they were 10.5 back in the division.
“Look, no matter what others have said about us…I think we’ve overachieved,” said GM Jack Dawkins. “We’re ridiculously young and inexperienced. This year was not about going all-out to make the playoffs. It has been about development and making sure that the next 8-10 seasons are about being championship contenders.
“Part of that plan means not rushing guys for the sake of perceived improvement. What Bobby did in Durham was exceptional, especially for his age. He’s a young 22. But nobody was calling for him to come up before he did what he did in August. Why would we rush someone to try to achieve a goal we are not trying to achieve?
“Honestly,” Dawkins went on to say, “if we want to talk about rookies, we should be talking about Brady (McConnell) and Nick (Pratto). The Witt conversation is an insult to the two of them, in my opinion.”
He has a point. McConnell came up on May 24th, and started red hot, going .360/.429/.560 in his first seven games. He completely fell off a cliff in June, hitting .122/.187/.207 with 21 K in 82 AB.
However, he seemed to figure some things out in August, hitting .358/.396/.526 in 101 PA. He’s cooled off somewhat in September, but is hitting .311/.373/.422, all while playing lockdown defense at shortstop.
“Brady is a Rays Way player,” said Dawkins of his mindset for winning baseball in Tampa. “While we’re locked into the worst stadium in the entire sports universe, we need to key in on a style that will give us the best advantage as possible when having to play at the worst stadium in the entire sports universe. That is defense and speed. And McConnell is exactly that. He won’t win a batting title, though I am quite pleased with how he is hitting.
But he will win multiple Gold Gloves in his career, and when he is on base, he will make life uncomfortable for the pitcher. He creates situations that are advantageous to us, which is all we ask.”
McConnell has stolen 15 bases in 18 tries this season.
Pratto, meanwhile, is absolutely on the shortlist for AL Rookie of the Year. Coming into Friday’s game against Texas, Pratto is hitting .252/.323/.465 (118 OPS+), with 26 homers and 73 RBI. Heck, he even has four triples. Here are his AL rookie ranks:
Add that he’s also on the shortlist for the Gold Glove at first base, where it is really a toss-up between him and Cleveland’s Miguel Andujar, and you can see why Pratto was the player the Rays were over-the-moon to get with the ninth pick in the Rule V draft (and why they were not at all upset with losing Max Flora, who was picked first overall).
Overall, what the Rays have done this year, when they only have three guys on their team who have played more than 400 MLB games, is nothing short of astounding. It’s a testament to the coaching staff, as well as the vision and, shockingly, patience of Dawkins to not make organizationally-shifting moves to try and make things happen now.
(No, we did not forget Cade Cahill, who has not exactly been what Tampa hoped he would be. We still don’t fault Dawkins for making that move, even if Grayson Rodriguez and Alek Thomas went to Cleveland; while we here at A Team Still Plays There, he didn’t fit the Rays’ defensive mindset.)
Back to the original point of this piece: What happens with Witt next season?
“Come on,” said Dawkins, when asked. “Who am I, The Doctor? Can I go all wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey and know, now, how he will respond to rehab? That’s a ridiculous question for the sake of clickbait, and you know it.
“As with all things…we’ll take the information we have when the information is provided to us, and make as best an informed decision as we can. As an organization, we have the big picture, and won’t deviate from that.
“Also…we have a game tonight. And the kids deserve this moment.
“Right now is all about them.”