In 2017, Corey Ray was named a mid-season All-Star for the Carolina Mudcats. He was selected to participate in the 2017 SiriusXM All-Star Futures game alongside fellow baby Brewers Lewis Brinson and Mauricio Dubon. During batting practice, Ray turned heads by walloping eight balls over the outfield fence, which was the highest total among the 30 super-prospects who took swings before the game. After the regular minor league season ended, the Brewers sent Ray to the Arizona Fall League, a highly-competitive finishing school for some of the best prospects in the game. Ray was subsequently named a 2017 Fall Star, and he played in a showcase game last weekend alongside a host of minor league luminaries.
On the surface, these are good outcomes. These are the outcomes that fans expected when the Brewers drafted Ray fifth overall in 2016—the club’s highest selection since Ryan Braun in 2005. On the surface, everything is fine.
Peel off the top layer, though, and all is not well. In 2017, Corey Ray batted .238 in his second tour of the class Advanced A Carolina League, on a well above average .346 BABIP. Ray struck out in 31 percent of his plate appearances, and ran a distinctly underwhelming .254 TAv. He slugged .367, which would have put him somewhere between Alcides Escobar and Dee Gordon had he produced that number in the major leagues. He is still three long, hard steps from the major leagues. These is not the outcomes that fans expected when the Brewers drafted Ray fifth overall in 2016.
So which is the real Corey Ray? The one who coasts along to flattering accolades on the strength of his draft pedigree, athleticism, and sweet, left-handed swing? Or the one who hasn’t figured out how to hit professional pitching after over 750 plate appearances?
Ultimately, Ray will have to answer those questions in 2018. He’ll be one of the most hawkishly-monitored prospects throughout the game. In order to assert himself in a strong Brewers system that’s packed to the gills with toolsy outfielders, he needs to produce. In the meantime, we can look to his Fall League performance for hints at what the future may hold. Across 15 games and 55 ABs with the Salt River Rafters, Ray exhibited all the traits that led the Brewers to call his name in 2016—and some familiar red flags, too.
Ray started his time as a Rafter with a bang, knocking a double off Cardinals September call-up (and number 39 mid-season prospect) Sandy Alcantara in his very first at bat. In his next 25 plate appearances, Ray was hitless, failed to draw a walk, and struck out six times, leading to a woeful .038 batting average.
Over his next eight games, Ray hit .367 across 30 at bats with five walks against nine strikeouts. He cracked a two-run homer and added a pair of doubles and three stolen bases. In the Fall Stars game last Saturday, Ray batted second and hustled out an infield single in the first inning off Mitch Keller. He proceeded to steal second, and then third, base. In his next three at bats he struck out swinging twice and drew a walk.
In all, Ray’s performance in the AFL has intrigued, frustrated, and inspired. His potential is clear; his limitations equally so. Since his draft day, he’s answered questions about his glove, blossoming into a comfortably above-average defensive outfielder (note his 12.7 FRAA in 2017). But his prototypical “advanced college bat” has struggled with making contact and tapping into his plus raw power. While his future could still be plenty bright, it could also be that of a glove-first fourth outfielder. (For giggles, check out Ray’s comparable players, including Austin Jackson, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, and Brett Phillips.)
Next year will be a big one for Ray. Center field remains an area of interest for the major league club; a strong performance could send the first-round pick rocketing up the depth chart. But if Ray can’t find consistency with his bat, he’ll find himself buried behind other outfield options. For now, he’s riding a hot streak in the AFL with eight games to play. Time will tell if it’s the beginning of an awakening or a glimpse into what could have been.