Coming into the 2018 minor league season, expectations were down for former first-round pick Corey Ray. Ray had just wrapped up his first full season in the minors, spending the year at Class-A Advanced Carolina and scuffling to a .238/.311/.367 batting average (AVG) / on base percentage (OBP) / slugging percentage (SLG) line despite a high Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP). He was playing in a depressed offensive environment, sure, but there aren’t a lot of ways to spin a 31.0 percent strike out rate. The Brewers sent Ray to the Arizona Fall League for extra reps, where he produced an even-worse .231/.302/.321 line, albeit without quite as many strike outs. Not the kind of season the organization wanted from its highest draft pick this side of Ryan Braun.
Troy Stokes Jr. was riding a different wave. A former fourth-round pick, he had never received much prospect attention, but a strong 2017 campaign split between Carolina and Double-A Biloxi started to change that. Really, Stokes was just doing what he always did by showing good speed, decent pop, and a patient eye. Now, he was doing it at AA, and the pop was showing up in games. By year’s end, he was one of just ten minor league players to finish with at least 20 home runs (Stokes hit 20 on the nose) and 20 steals (he swiped 30). People started to stick him on their prospect lists.
Given their different trajectories heading in, it’s funny that Ray and Stokes have arrived at… exactly the same place. Through last Friday (July 6), Ray was batting .244/.342/.453 in 81 games for Biloxi, for an On Base Percentage plus Slugging Percentage (OPS) of .796, an isolated slugging percentage (ISO) of .209, and a True Average (TAv) of .282. Ray had tallied 101 strikeouts, against 44 unintentional walks. Among his 78 hits were 21 doubles, 5 triples, and 12 home runs. He’d stolen 21 bases in 25 attempts.
Stokes, meanwhile, was batting .250/.359/.442 in 83 games for the Shuckers, for an OPS of .800, an ISO of .192, and a TAv of .302. He had tallied 101 strikeouts, against 43 unintentional walks. Among his 77 hits were 18 doubles, four triples, and 11 home runs. He’d stolen 13 bases in 14 attempts.
The carbon-copy batting line makes for a fun quirk, and also serves as a useful checkpoint for prospect evaluation. Ray’s performance feels more personally and emotionally significant after the rocky start to his Brewers career. He’s showing a glimpse of the potential the Brewers saw when they signed him for a franchise-record bonus of $4.125 million. Because of his draft pedigree, it’s tempting to think that he’s only now starting to scratch the surface. He has made adjustments this year; that can portend good things. He’s extremely athletic, with loud tools and a positive attitude; these, too, are good things to have on your side.
Stokes’s performance is just as good as Ray’s 2018 thus far. But Stokes is essentially doing the same thing he did at this level last year, only over a larger sample. He had some helium coming into the season, but instead of continuing to rise, he’s riding along at the same (high) level. He hasn’t been underwhelming by any stretch, but he hasn’t been overwhelming either, and his performance doesn’t have the same redemptive narrative quality that Ray’s does.
So what to make of the pair going forward? Ray has more of everything, basically. More speed. More raw power. More of a chance to play up the middle. Certainly more name recognition.
Ray has more variance, too, and higher expectations, which could be his blessing or his curse. It’s easy look at the top prospect and see the makings of a five-tool outfielder if he can tighten up his approach and hit for a bit more average. It’s also easy to see his swing-and-miss issues spelling trouble against better and better breaking balls.
Stokes is younger, which adds a wrinkle to his evaluation. At present, he’s pull-happy, and his high-loft swing leaves him susceptible to lazy pop flies. He’s striking out more this year than he has before. That may be something he can grow out of, or it may be a warning sign that his hit tool will forever hover in the 40-45 scouting grade range. He’s a competent enough outfielder, but fits best in left, so his path to regular playing time will ride more on his bat than will Ray’s.
We can continue to debate the various merits and red flags of each player, or we could do the more sensible thing and simply sit back and enjoy the ride. Right now, Ray and Stokes are similar prospects doing similar things, having taken very different routes to get there. Who knows where their paths will lead; every prospect develops differently and it’s usually very difficult to identify future major league stars. Either one could become a star or a bust or a quality role-player. They could even continue their ascent locked in step, giving Milwaukee a pair of Mike Cameron-esque options to shuffle into what will continue to be a very crowded outfield mix. Three cheers for organizational depth.