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What worked in college wasn’t going to work in professional baseball. Jake Fraley says he learned that lesson quickly after he was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2016.
Now the No. 8 prospect in the Seattle Mariners organization after an offseason trade with the Rays, Fraley was a career .328 hitter with speed and power at LSU, a coveted five-tool player who started for three seasons in the outfield.
And, while that production was intriguing enough for Tampa Bay to scoop him up in the second round following his junior season, his bat didn’t make the jump well. He went 15-for-89 in his first 26 games of short-season ball, before his batting average finally crept above .200 on the first day of August.
“The hitter I am now is night-and-day different from what I was in college,” Fraley said. “When I went to (Short-A Hudson Valley) those first two months after signing, I struggled. It was horrible. I quickly realized what I was doing in college, I got away (with) just because of pure athleticism.
“Even being in a conference like the SEC, being the best in college baseball, you’re not facing the competition you do in pro ball. It’s a whole ‘nother level up. I quickly realized I needed to make a change.”
Fraley, now 24 years old, met Lorenzo Garmendia of Gradum Baseball, a swing coach he still works with daily, that offseason in Miami. The two spent the winter months working out every day, twice a day, with short breaks in between.
“He was able to get every single at-bat of mine through college, and then that short little time of pro ball that I had at the time,” Fraley said. “He broke down everything that I had done to that point — basically why I sucked, and what I needed to change.
“I was very honest with myself … making those changes and understanding it needed to be a complete overhaul. … I had a goal, I knew what I wanted to do, and we set out and we did it. Now you guys are seeing the result of all of that hard work.”
With Garmendia’s help, Fraley rejiggered his entire approach. His hands were too loose trying to be quick to the baseball. He focused instead on moving his body into the zone sooner, so he could drive the ball in the air.
“It’s just understanding your body, and how it needs to work from the ground up in order to get yourself as efficiently as possible to the baseball, which will result in driving the baseball in the air more,” Fraley said.
The results are tough to dispute. Apart from a 2017 season during which Fraley spent an extended period on the injured list with a knee injury, he’s excelled offensively at every level he’s played at.
He slashed at .347/.415/.547 with High-A Charlotte last season before he was acquired by the Mariners in a five-player deal in November. Mallex Smith was the centerpiece for Seattle in the trade that also sent former catcher Mike Zunino to Tampa Bay, but Fraley has proven to be much more than a minor-league add-on.
In 37 at-bats with the big-league club during spring training, before he was ultimately sent to begin the season with Double-A Arkansas, Fraley hit .270/.325/.514.
“I saw him play in college, back in the day when I was running around the country looking at players for the draft,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said this spring. “I saw him at LSU, I think it was his sophomore year, and he’s a much different player now than he was then.
“Back then I would say he was a speed player, kind of slapped the ball around the field. He’s not trying to slap the ball anywhere (now) — other than over the fence. He has a much different approach at the plate with the swing changes he’s made. He’s gotten a lot stronger, and it plays pretty well for him.”
Fraley’s improved bat has helped him climb through Seattle’s minor-league system at an impressive pace. He spent less than three months in Arkansas before he was promoted to Triple-A Tacoma in June.
He was hampered by a quad injury earlier this month, but his numbers have held steady. In 38 games with the Rainiers, he’s batting .276/.333/.553 with 12 doubles, three triples, eight home runs, 33 RBIs and six stolen bases.
Fraley says Garmendia’s continued teachings have helped him maintain consistency through different rungs of the minors. Garmendia visits Fraley at each stop, but even when he’s not physically there, the two are still reviewing film and corresponding regularly.
“It takes a lot of pressure off me mentally to be able to relax and just focus on enjoying being out there,” Fraley said. “If things go wrong, which they do — I’ve had multiple times this year where I’ve gone in little bad stretches, which is inevitable, it’s baseball — having him makes those (stretches) shorter, and I think that’s the biggest key.”
In six games back with the Rainiers since returning from the IL, Fraley is 9-for-26 with two doubles, two homers and four RBIs. His continued production, paired with Seattle’s continued outfield woes, suggest he’s due for a promotion any day.
He was removed from the Rainiers lineup Monday evening, and had a bag in hand as he left Cheney Stadium well before game time. Early indications were that he had been called up to meet the Mariners in Tampa Bay, though nothing has been confirmed.
“I think he brings a lot of things,” Rainiers manager Daren Brown said. “There are certain guys who can beat you in a lot of different ways every night. He can steal a base. He’s shown an ability to hit for average. He’s shown power.
“Defensively (he has) the ability to play all three outfield spots and play them all very well. He’s got a grit about him. He likes to play. He plays hard. I just think he’s a really solid, all-around baseball player. ... He had a really big first half in Double-A, and coming here really didn’t slow down a whole lot.”