When the Milwaukee Brewers selected Corey Ray with the 5th overall pick in the 2016 MLB Draft, the choice was almost universally praised. At the time he was ranked by Baseball Prospectus as the #2 prospect in the draft class, drawing praise from scouts for his quick left-handed bat, consistent hard contact to all fields, and plus speed both in the outfield and on the base paths. After inking for a franchise-record signing bonus in excess of $4 million, he began his career with an aggressive assignment to Class Advanced-A.
Fast forward a year and a half, and it’s safe to say that the early returns on the Louisville product have been less than encouraging. Ray batted .247/.308/.385 with 5 home runs and 9 steals (in 14 attempts) in 57 games with Brevard County in 2016; the Florida State League can be tough for hitters, but Ray’s offensive production still translated to a below-average .252 TAv. He returned to Advanced-A ball again this season, though with a new affiliate and in a new league with the Carolina Mudcats. The unfamiliar surroundings did not foster a better performance, as Ray could muster only a .238/.311/.367 slash line in 112 games with the Mudcats, clubbing 7 home runs while swiping 24 bases (and getting nabbed 10 other times). He lead the circuit in whiffs, punching out 156 times, or a whopping 31 percent of his plate appearances. The Carolina League can also be a harsh hitting environment, but once again Ray checked in with a below-average TAv of .254.
Now, we can’t glean all the pertinent information about a player’s development from the stat line, of course. Unfortunately, scouts have also began to sour on the future outlook for the player that when the season began, was universally considered to be a top-50 prospect in baseball.
ESPN Insider Keith Law, who was one of Ray’s biggest advocates when he was drafted, ranked the 23 year old as “the prospect who lost the most ground” in a post shortly after the minor league season ended. Law noted that Ray’s swing has gotten longer since his collegiate days and that he’s struggled to hit professional quality pitching. Ray fell out of the midseason top 50 prospect rankings according to Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America. Perhaps most damning was BP scout John Eshleman’s assessment of Corey from this “Monday Morning Ten Pack” in late August:
“Corey Ray is a premium athlete, and he has many skills baseball teams value highly. Unfortunately, at present, hitting does not appear to be among them…Ray is getting FV 45 grades, providing big-league value as a fourth outfielder who can play all three outfield spots and run. Yes, there is some raw power in there, but his current problems at the plate preclude him from tapping into it…his “handsy” swing also leads to lots of roll-over grounders to the right side and soft-to-medium contact to the left…As the quality of arms he faces improves, Ray will need to engage his legs and backside to create leverage and make hard contact, in addition to shortening his swing. It is still only Ray’s first-full season, so he has time. His eye is good and there’s some barrel control, so if he figures something out with his swing, his upside remains substantial. However, a fourth outfielder outcome is more likely at present.”
Yikes. While a good fourth outfielder is certainly a useful player on a major league roster, the Brewers certainly have to be hoping for more out of the player that they used their highest pick in a over a decade on (Ryan Braun going #5 overall in 2005 was the last pick as high as Ray’s spot).
Undeterred by his poor performance during the summer, Milwaukee sent Ray as one of their representatives to the Arizona Fall League. Hoping to salvage something positive out of an otherwise supremely disappointing season, Ray has thus far looked quite overmatched in the prospect showcase circuit. It’s obviously a small sample size, but Ray has managed only one hit and zero walks in his first 25 at-bats for an .040 average, and he’s already piled up 6 whiffs. Law recently published a roundup of notes from the AFL, and on Ray he wrote “he’s not making any hard contact so far — even when he got a green light on 3-0 on Thursday night and got a fastball, all he could do was tap it to second base. Ray used to hit with a short stride and toe-tap, but that’s gone now, and I think it’s at least one reason for the absence of any power in his swing.”
It’s easy to be disappointed in Corey Ray’s development – or lack thereof – so far since joining the professional ranks. To add insult to injury, the player selected one pick later, lefty AJ Puk by the Athletics, posted sub-2.00 DRA in 125 innings between Advanced-A and Class-AA this season while leading the minor leagues in strikeout rate. Ray was billed as a highly talented and advanced outfielder from an elite collegiate program, the type of player who should be able to rise relatively quickly through the minor leagues. He’s swiftly fallen to become more of a project player: one who could have high upside, but needs to work out a lot of issues with his offensive game first. Given that he’s already 23 years old and was near the median age for his league this year, that’s not a promising sign.
It’s worth keeping in mind that Ray did suffer what must’ve been quite a serious meniscus tear last fall during instructional league; the recovery and rehab wound up lasting through spring training and he got a late start to the 2017 regular season. He’s looked perhaps better than expected defensively in center field, too, grading out at +12.7 FRAA this season. Plus, the money that the club saved when Ray signed for under-slot last summer helped them bring several other later round signings into the fold with over-slot bonuses.
Still, given the way he’s started his career, it’s not difficult to envision a scenario where Corey Ray fails to become an impactful player at the MLB level, if he’s even able to make it there. Most prospect development is nonlinear, but at this point it feels like we’ll be crossing our fingers for Ray to become a late bloomer. Ray Montgomery is a considered to be a highly respected baseball mind around the league, but so far his two 1st-round draft picks during his time as scouting director in 2015-16 (Trent Clark and Corey Ray) have not panned out.