After he produced a .318 average with more than 450 at-bats and stole 28 bases for the High-A Charlotte Stone Crabs, shortstop Hak-Ju Lee was promoted to Double-A, where he hit .190 for the Montgomery Biscuits.
Where Lee, who is the best position player prospect in the Tampa Bay Rays organization according to Baseball America, ended his 2011 campaign is where he will begin 2012. But Biscuits manager Billy Gardner sees a silver-lining in the Korean-born player's late season struggles.
"He might've been a little worn down physically and there is an adjustment and learning curve that you go through once you go from High-A to Double-A," said Gardner, who will be at the helm for his sixth season with the ballclub. "The opportunity to get him up here last year and get him the opportunity to see how this level works is going to be a big help for him going into this year with the bat."
Lee will find himself atop the batting order when the Biscuits open their season Thursday night on the road against the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, an affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. Gardner said the highly-touted prospect hit well in the spring and he is excited about what Lee can do with the bat, on the base paths and in the field for the Biscuits this season.
"The glove is major league ready right now — he can defend at the major league level," the manager said. "It's just a matter of developing the bat to those standards."
The other half of the Biscuit's double play combination is second baseman Tyler Bortnick, who referred to the 21-year-old Lee simply as "the man." Bortnick is believed to have raised his own stock last season by some scouts after he batted .306 in 588 plate appearances last season for Charlotte. He also stole 43 bases, drove in 70 runs and scored 96 times.
"You want to make sure that you're playing your tail off all nine [innings] every game," Bortnick said. "I'm very happy with what I did last year."
Gardner described his new second baseman as a "blue-collar type guy."
"Nobody is going to outwork him and nobody is going to out-hustle him," Gardner said.
While the Biscuits hope they are set with the middle of their infield, the team's outfield will be comprised by the likes of 2011 Biscuits Kyeong Kang and Isaias Velasquez, along with Emeel Salem. Salem returns to the team after missing the entire 2011 season because of an injury to his right knee. Salem hit .263 with 23 stolen bases in 2010 for Montgomery and was then called up to Triple-A Durham.
The manager is glad to have Salem back healthy with team and believes he is 100 percent and is running as well as he has ever seen.
"I really rehabbed hard for a year straight," Salem said. "I have some personal goals that are number-driven but a broad goal is to play within my role. My job is to get on base, steal bases and play good defense. That's what I want to do this year."
Craig Albernaz will catch for the Biscuits for the sixth season. He will share the duties with Mark Thomas, who is considered by those in the organization as the best defensive catcher in the Rays system. It will be Thomas' first season with the Biscuits. In 2011 he hit 13 home runs, drove in 64 runs and batted .237 for Charlotte.
While Gardner has yet to confirm a batting order, the pitching rotation has been established. Shane Dyer received the opening day nod because of his seniority with the team. Dyer made all of his starts last year with the Biscuits and Gardner said he is very durable. The starting pitcher went 7-11 with 4.47 ERA in 2011.
Although he will not start opening day, Alex Colome, a hard-throwing right-hander, raised the eyebrows of scouts and his peers this spring.
"I've seen a lot of pitchers over the years and I'm telling you, he's the real deal," Salem said. "I can't imagine he would be with us for too long."
|Alex Colome pitched primarily for the Single-A Charlotte Stone Crabs in 2011 where he struck out 95 batters in 105.2 innings and posted an ERA of 3.66.|
In five minor league seasons, Colome has registered 445 strikeouts in 437 innings. With the Biscuits in 2011 he was 3-4 and carried a 4.15 ERA. Gardner, who is no stranger to managing highly-touted young arms, – having had Rays pitchers David Price, Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore on his staff at different points – liked what he saw from Colome in his brief stint with the ballclub last year.
The manager said the key for Colome is to stay healthy and continue to get innings, develop his secondary pitches and learn how to pitch. In other words; setting hitters up and throwing breaking balls for strikes.
"For guys who come to this level, that's the one thing they need to do better," Gardner said. "When he's going to use his fastball, he needs to get it to where he wants to get it and that means being more consistent and hitting his spots with it and pitch down in the zone with it."
Gardner, yet again, has the task of developing a young pitcher while still trying to win games.
"You really keep an eye on their workload – you don't want to tax them or ask them to do more than what they're capable of," he said. "It's tantalizing when you have a guy with that type of high-end stuff to want to give them a little taste of pitching deeper into games but you also want to make sure you don't overuse them to the point where they're not going to be making all of their starts and you run the risk of injury."
Joining Dyer and Colome in the rotation will be Kyle Lobstein, Jake Thompson and Joe Cruz. Cruz was 13-6 and had a 2.85 ERA with Charlotte in 2010, but suffered from an injury-riddled 2011 season where his ERA rose to 8.43 in 47 innings with the Biscuits.
"I think what happened last year is behind him," said Gardner of Cruz. "The ball is coming out a lot better, he's more aggressive and his secondary pitches are a lot sharper. I think he's on the right track at this point."
In the bullpen, right-hander Scott Shuman will bring his 15 K/9 from last season with Charlotte and his 10.3 BB/9 that accompanies it.
"The strike zone contracts as you move up so you have to be able to throw strikes. You're not going to get as many chases out of the strike zone," Gardner said. "He's a big arm guy and the one thing that we are really stressing with him is throwing strikes and pitching to contact."
Both the manager and players are optimistic about the mix of veteran leadership and young talent on the team.
"I've never been in the playoffs before, but I think this team is very capable of doing it," Bortnick said. "If the whole team succeeds that means you succeed as well."
Will Sammon is the Montgomery Biscuits beat writer for Rays Digest. You can follow him on Twitter at @WillSammon.
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