A depth surplus and roster crunch is familiar territory for the Rays, who seemingly make a trade or two at the start of each offseason to reallocate spots to players they want to keep out of the Rule 5 draft. This winter saw former top infield prospect Xavier Edwards shipped alongside reliever JT Chargois to the Marlins for a pair of minor leaguers nowhere close to the majors.
Even with Edwards no longer in the picture, the Rays have plenty of infield talent. That could result in another trade, with a different one-time top minor leaguer also appearing to be on the roster bubble. Vidal Bruján played in 52 MLB games last season and has appeared in the big leagues in each of the past two years. He’s yet to establish himself as an everyday player, though, and it’s questionable whether the Rays are in a great position to give him that opportunity.
Bruján appeared at the back half of Baseball America’s top 100 prospect list each season from 2019-22. A switch-hitter with plus speed, he’s put up a solid .274/.355/.440 line and 70 stolen bases over 166 games at the Triple-A level. Bruján doesn’t have huge power, but he’s an advanced contact hitter and athletic enough to be a quality baserunner. He’s gone down on strikes in just 15.9% of his Triple-A plate appearances while walking at a quality 10.4% clip.
That upper minors production didn’t carry over in his first significant big league action. Over 162 plate appearances last season, he hit .163/.228/.259 with three homers and five steals in 10 attempts. Those numbers aren’t an entirely fair reflection of his performance, as Bruján’s .193 batting average on balls in play will certainly come up over a longer sample. He didn’t hit the ball hard at the MLB level but continued to make contact at an above-average clip.
Headed into his age-25 season, Bruján certainly still has promise. Yet he doesn’t have the clearest path to at-bats in Tampa Bay, at least to open the season. Primarily a middle infielder throughout his minor league tenure, he’s certainly not displacing Brandon Lowe or Wander Franco if those players are healthy. The Rays have given him some outfield work to take advantage of his athleticism. Bruján doesn’t have the kind of power one would expect from a primary corner outfielder. He’s not likely to be the caliber of center fielder Jose Siri or Josh Lowe are given his lack of high level experience at the outfield’s most demanding position.
There’s not a clear path to everyday playing time for Bruján anywhere at the MLB level right now. He still has one remaining option year, however, raising the possibility of him heading back to Triple-A Durham for an additional season.
Trading Bruján would represent a sell-low situation. He’d have value but wouldn’t fetch an astronomical return after a down rookie season. Keeping him in a utility capacity gives manager Kevin Cash a potential pinch-runner or defensive substitute later in games but isn’t likely to afford Bruján the at-bats to play his way into a more consistent role.
The latter course of action is also complicated by the Rays’ surplus of alternative bench possibilities. Assuming the club deploys 13 pitchers and position players alike, they’ll have four reserve spots available. One will go to the backup catcher. Luke Raley is out of options, meaning he’ll have to stay in the majors or be offered to other teams. Taylor Walls didn’t hit last season but is an excellent infielder, one whom the Rays trusted more regularly than Bruján when Franco and Brandon Lowe were injured in 2022. Walls can be optioned, but doing so would subtract likely the top defensive shortstop from the active roster.
It’s the opposite story for Jonathan Aranda, who comes with defensive concerns but mashed at a .318/.394/.521 clip in Durham to earn a brief MLB look. Aranda can be optioned back, though he clearly has nothing left to prove against minor league pitching. His lefty bat would also be a welcome addition to a Rays’ lineup that heavily skews right-handed, so it stands to reason the front office would prefer to have Aranda in the majors. Another top infield prospect, Curtis Mead, is almost certainly going to make his MLB debut in 2023 after hitting .305/.394/.548 over 56 games in Triple-A last season. He was added onto the 40-man roster this offseason and ranks as the game’s #36 prospect at Baseball America.
Juggling this kind of infield talent is nothing new for a front office that tends to prioritize high-contact middle infielders on draft day. It’s the kind of depth most other organizations aren’t able to stockpile, which makes even players towards the back of the Tampa Bay roster intriguing to other clubs. If the Rays feel Bruján is trending in that direction, they could open talks with other teams that have acute needs up the middle. The White Sox, A’s, Tigers, Pirates and Angels are among the speculative candidates for such a trade — particularly since non-competitive teams like Oakland, Detroit and Pittsburgh can afford to live with some early growing pains to take a chance on Bruján’s longer-term upside.
There weren’t any indications over the offseason the Rays were especially anxious to move Bruján. Perhaps an injury in Spring Training paves the way for him to assume a more obvious role in Tampa Bay than exists right now. If everyone’s healthy come Opening Day, though, he’d head into the season as an interesting potential trade chip if the Rays don’t flip him during Spring Training.
Note: An earlier version of this post incorrectly suggested Bruján was out of options. MLBTR has confirmed the Rays were granted a fourth option year, with Bruján having one option season remaining. MLBTR regrets the error.
Image courtesy of USA Today Sports.