Robert Stephenson And The Rays 2020 Draft Class

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Robert Stephenson Gets Rays Out Of Jam In 9th As Rays Take 2 of 3 from Diamondback
(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
robert stephenson rays defeat angels
(AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

Tampa, FL – Robert Stephenson turned his successful albeit brief tenure with the Tampa Bay Rays into a lucrative 3-year $33-million dollar deal with the Los Angeles Angels.  

The Rays acquired Stephenson on June 2nd to bolster a bullpen that had been stung by injuries and poor performance.  The cost to acquire Stephenson was minor league infielder Alika Williams. At the time of the deal, Stephenson was struggling in the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen appearing in 18 games while posting an 0-3 mark with a 5.14 ERA (8ER/14IP).  He struck out his fair share of batters (17) but walked an equally unimpressive (8). 

Alika Williams was the starting shortstop for the Rays Double-A affiliate Montgomery Biscuits at the time of the trade. In 42 games there he was hitting .237/.314/.417 spanning 175 plate appearances  After the trade he was assigned to the Pirates Triple-A affiliate Louisville Bats and he impressed batting .305/.384/.531 mark in 148 plate appearances. His stout defense and impressive bat led to the Pirates calling him up to the big leagues making his debut on July 25th as a defensive replacement against the San Diego Padres.  He recorded his first big league hit when he singled off Aaron Nola of the Philadelphia Phillies on July 29th. He finished the year batting just .198 (20×101).

Williams was selected by Tampa Bay as the 37th pick of the first round of the 2020 draft out of Arizona State University.  The 2020 Draft was limited to just five rounds due to the pandemic and the Rays had a total of six picks.  

The six draft picks selected by the Rays in 2020 included four pitchers – Nick Bitsko, Ian Seymour, Hunter Barnhart, and Jeff Hakanson as well as two infielders Alika Williams and Tanner Murray

Williams is the only one of the six draftees to remain healthy since the draft, appearing in 211 games prior to the trade to Pittsburgh and logging 938 plate appearances. The remaining members of the draft class have all struggled with injuries with each one missing more than half or all of at least one season.

Tampa Bay selected  right handed pitcher Nick Bitsko with the 24th overall pick out of Central Buck High School East in Doylestown Pennsylvania. In November of 2020 it was announced that he was experiencing pain in his right shoulder that would require surgery to relieve the discomfort.  The surgery was for a torn labrum that forced him to miss all of the 2021 campaign. It wasn’t until 2022 that he finally made his professional debut but that only accounted for 26 innings split between the Complex League and the Rays Class A affiliate Charleston River Dogs.  Unfortunately, an unspecified injury cost him all of the 2023 season. 

As noted, Tampa Bay used their competitive balance pick to select Alika Williams with the 37th pick and he was subsequently traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Robert Stephenson. 

With their second round pick Tampa Bay selected right handed pitcher Ian Seymour from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.  In Spring Training of 2021 he suffered a left flexor tendon strain pushing his professional debut to July 1st. He pitched well the remainder of the 2021 season logging 55.1-innings logging innings with the Charleston River Dogs (35.1-IP),  the Rays High-A affiliate Bowling Green Hot Rods (10IP), and with the Rays Triple-A affiliate Durham Bulls (10IP). He pitched to  a 4-0 record and a 1.95 ERA while striking out 87 batters and walking 19.  

Both Seymour and the Rays had hoped that the 2022 season would be a launching pad, instead his season ended after five dreadful starts with the Montgomery Biscuits (0-2, 8.10 ERA). He needed to head to the surgeon to get the dreaded Tommy Johns surgery to repair the ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow.  He returned to the mound in August of 2023 and worked 42 combined innings between the Complex League (6.2IP), the River dogs (22IP), the Bowling Green Hot Rods (8.2IP), and the Montgomery Biscuits (4.2IP).

The Rays selected right handed pitcher Hunter Barnhart from St. Joseph High School in Santa Maria California in the third round. He required Tommy John surgery to repair the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow forcing him to miss the entire 2021 season. He also missed all but a lone outing in the Complex League in late September 2022. In 2023, he was shut down during spring training and only returned to the Complex League in September working in three games and logging just 3.0 innings of work. 

Tampa Bay used their fourth round pick to select infielder Tanner Murray from University Cal Davis. His professional debut was delayed for an unspecified injury until late July of 2021.  He only appeared in 39 games but was impressive batting .329/.400/.555 spanning 175 plate appearances between the Complex League, Charleston, and Bowling Green. He battled injuries in 2022 which limited him to just 66 games with the Hot Rods where he hit .276/.322/.412.  To make up for lost time Murray was assigned to the Arizona Fall League where he appeared in seven games and hit .278 (5×18). He appeared in 60 games in 2023 spending time in the Complex League (4 games), Bowling Green (3 games), Montgomery (47), and Durham (6 games) with a combined batting line of .281/.356/.475.

With their final selection of the draft Tampa Bay selected right handed pitcher Jeff Hakanson from the University of Central Florida. Due to an unspecified injury Hakanson only pitched in four games (6.1IP) at the Complex from August 30 through September 17.  An unknown injury caused him to miss the 2022 season in its entirety. He returned to the mound in 2023 and split the season between the Charleston River Dogs (16G) and the Bowling Green Hot Rods (14G). Overall, he worked in 30 games, all in relief, and logged 49.2-innings posting a 2-2 mark with a 4.17 ERA while striking out 74 and walking 19. 

It’s always prudent to wait a number of years to judge a draft class and try to determine if it’s deemed a success or failure.  The timing becomes even more difficult to make a determination when its a truncated five round draft and players didn’t play a full season of high school or college due to the pandemic.  In the case of the Rays, the development of the draft class has been stymied by injuries which compounds the evaluation.

Injuries are par for the course for any team, but the 2020 Rays draft class has been cursed by the baseball gods more than a couple of times.

Nick Bitsko has undergone shoulder surgery and missed the 2023 season due to an unspecified injury.  He has worked a total of 26-innings and has walked more batters (27) and allowed hits (22) than he’s struck out (20). 

Ian Seymour has had an elbow flexor strain and undergone Tommy John surgery limiting him to just 114 innings. He has been productive when healthy, pitching to a 5-2 mark with a 2.68 ERA in 114 innings while striking out 156 and walking 47. 

Hunter Barnhart had an elbow strain in 2021 that eventually required Tommy John surgery. He has made just four appearances logging four innings 

Tanner Murray has been limited to a total of 165 games encompassing 39  games in 2021, 66 games in 2022, and 60 games in 2023.

Jeff Hakanson has appeared in just 34 games. He missed almost all of 2021 (4 games), did miss all of 2022, before appearing in 30 games in 2023. 

Tampa Bay has been able to extract four months of Robert Stephenson from the Alika Williams trade, but what does the future hold for the rest of the group?

Ian Seymour and Jeff Hakanson will both pitch next year at age 25 and Tanner Murray will play at 24. All three may open the season at Montgomery; however, Hakanson could start in Bowling Green while Murray may open in Durham. Each player has an opportunity to put the past injuries in the rear view mirror and create a new narrative around who they are as professional baseball players. If healthy the trio should all be tested at some point during the season in the upper levels of the minors. 

Nick Bitsko and Hunter Barnhart were both drafted out of high school and will each pitch next season  at age 22.  Both players have a long way to go to build up their arms and work on their arsenals.  The most impressive sign for either pitcher would be if they arrive at spring training healthy and can open the season on the Charleston River Dogs roster.

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