Rays in the Australian Baseball League — Who to Keep an Eye On
At this point, most of your baseball attention is on the ALCS and NLCS, as it should be, but league play does begin on the other side of the world for several Rays prospects.
On Thursday (Friday in Australia), winter baseball in the Australian Baseball League begins, and this has been a successful way to help Rays minor league players grow. Kevin Kiermaier was probably the most notable example of a Rays player who took off after playing in Australia. In addition to Kiermaier, Justin O’Conner and Patrick Leonard, who both played last year in Double-A Montgomery, are among those who’ve improved after spending a year playing Down Under.
The 60-game schedule offers baseball comparable to an Advanced-A level (or closer to Double-A in some cases). The schedule generally includes games Thursday-Sunday, and practices or days off early in the week. It’s not as strenuous as a minor league season, but allows players to grow on the field with more experience, and learn a new culture while growing off the field too. The Rays always send a coach to represent them too. Michael Johns, the Rays manager in Charlotte, will be in Australia for the second time. He went after the 2011 season with Kevin Kiermaier, then helping out the Canberra Calvary. Here are the Rays farm hands who are going to be with Johns and the Brisbane Bandits this year:
Nick Ciuffo: The Rays 2013 first-round pick doesn’t turn 21 until spring training. Last year was his first season of full-season ball, and he he hit .258 with a homer and 32 RBI in 94 games. While Ciuffo struck out only 55 times, he also drew just seven walks in 370 plate appearances, and the time in Australia will help him improve his offensive approach, and allow him to continue to improve defensively. Ciuffo threw out an impressive 45 percent of would-be basestealers, but also had 11 errors behind the plate.
Bralin Jackson: The 21-year-old outfielder was drafted by the Rays in the fifth round in 2012 out of high school in Missouri. Jackson had a solid first season in full-season ball, batting .274 with 3 HR and 41 RBI for the Hot Rods. Jackson can continue to improve on the bases. While he did steal 14 bases last year, Jackson also was caught 16 times.
Riley Unroe: The Rays second round pick out of high school in Arizona in 2013, Unroe doesn’t turn 21 until August. He was with the Charlotte Stone Crabs for the playoffs, but spent the regular season with Bowling Green, where he hit .255 with 4 HR and 35 RBI while stealing 13 bases. Unroe played primarily at second base for the Hot Rods, and committed 11 errors, a good total for that level.
Justin Williams: acquired in the Jeremy Hellickson trade, Williams finished with Charlotte after beginning in Bowling Green. A 20-year-old (turns 21 in late-August) with tremendous raw power, Williams hit .277 between the two levels, with seven homers and 48 RBI. Williams hit all seven of his homers with the Hot Rods, and the time in Australia will be valuable experience for the Louisiana native.
In addition Maxx Tissenbaum will also play for the Bandits. Tissenbaum saw time at catcher, DH and third base for the Charlotte Stone Crabs. Acquired in the trade that also gave the Rays Brad Boxberger and Logan Forsythe, Tissenbaum was given the chance to return to Brisbane after a successful winter there a season ago.