Rangers Pay a Steep Price to Add Another 1B/DH in Nate Lowe

Like most baseball fans ranging from prospect-curious to prospect-obsessed, I too have been awaiting Nate Lowe’s first extended big league opportunity. It appears he’ll finally get one, as the Rangers acquired him on Thursday as part of a five- or six-player trade with Tampa Bay that involves Top 100 prospect Heriberto Hernandez.

Lowe broke out in 2018, when he traversed three levels of the minors and hit 27 home runs. He spent the bulk of that season at Double-A, where he walked more than he struck out and slugged .606, which is ridiculous for the Southern League. He followed that up with a .289/.421/.508 line at Triple-A the following year and looked about a good as any hitter taking BP at the 2019 Futures Game. For me, Lowe was right on the back end of the top 100 line, only on the outside looking in because of the offensive bar he’d need to clear as a poor defensive first baseman or as a designated hitter.

Then Lowe began to stall a little bit. He got a taste of the big leagues in 2019, and while his surface-level stats were strong, he struck out nearly 30% of the time, almost double his rate from that Double-A breakout the year before. Those issues became more of a problem during his brief 2020 big league jaunt, in which he struck out close to 37% of the time.

Despite that, some of Lowe’s underlying and Statcast data has been promising. Across 143 balls in play during his big league career, Lowe’s Hard Hit rate is an impressive 45% (league average is 35%), and his Barrel% (12%) is nearly twice the MLB average (6.4%). Despite striking out a ton and not being given consistent playing time, he has still produced like a slightly above-average big league hitter. I still thought enough of Lowe entering the offseason to wonder aloud if the Rays might non-tender Ji-Man Choi to replace him with someone who isn’t quite as deep into their years of team control, and I noted in that piece that perhaps Tampa wanted to take a couple weeks to evaluate Lowe in the Dominican Winter League before making a decision.

I watched every one of Lowe’s LIDOM at-bats with Escogido (a team loaded with guys you know) before he opted out due to COVID-19 concerns, and he did not look very good. It’s possible the time away from seeing live pitching left him rusty for the start of winter ball, but while his hitting hands remain explosive, he has trouble turning on and pulling pitches at all, and his bat path is relatively grooved. While there’s enough evidence to support playing Lowe in favor of Ronald Guzmán (who also hasn’t looked great in LIDOM), I don’t see him as the slam-dunk everyday first baseman I once did. Based on the Rays choosing to tender Choi and trade Lowe, they don’t either.

Lowe also joins a large contingent of poor defenders in Texas. Only two of Lowe, Willie Calhoun, Nick Solak, Sherten Apostel and Sam Huff can occupy the first base and DH spots every day, and the giant and oft-injured Joey Gallo might soon need to be penciled in there, too. And to acquire Lowe (and a PTBNL and minor league first baseman Jake Guenther) the Rangers gave up a trio of prospects, one of whom I love (Hernandez), one I have mixed opinions on (Osleivis Basabe), and one I think is an interesting low-level flier (Alexander Ovalles). I can’t do Hernandez any more justice than was done in his pre-season write-up, so here it is:

Yes, future rule changes would make it more likely that Hernandez could one day catch in a part-time capacity, but he doesn’t have a great arm, either, and he has a chance to race to the big leagues if the Rangers just let him go hit while learning first base or an outfield corner. The on-paper stats, underlying TrackMan data, and my visual evaluation of Hernandez all indicate that this might be a very special hitter whose hit and power combination will clear the high offensive bar at those positions. His little T-Rex arms enable Heriberto to be short to the baseball, but he’s so strong and rotates with such ferocity that he still hits for power. I’ve seen him make mid-at-bat adjustments to quality offspeed stuff, swinging over a particularly good splitter only to recognize the next one, located in the same spot, and rope it into the corner for a double. He covers the whole plate (something that’s gotten better since my first looks in 2018) but is tough to beat on the inner half, and after watching him rake all last summer and fall, I’m all in on him despite not generally favoring corner guys several levels beneath the big leagues.

His acquisition means the Rays will have at least eight top 100 prospects this offseason, and if you’re fluent with the prospect tools on the site, you can easily see where in the system he fits.

Both Basabe and Ovalles are bat-first prospects, too. Basabe is the twitchiest athlete of the bunch, athletically capable of playing all three up-the-middle positions if he becomes more fundamentally sound and consistent. Because the Rays are the Rays, I consider it likely for him to see time at both middle infield spots and in center field going forward. He’s a free-swinger whose approach may be exploited by upper-level pitching, so he’s a relatively risky prospect.

This marks the second time Ovalles, who went from the Cubs to the Rangers in their Cole Hamels swap from a few years back, has been traded. I like a bit more than is typical for your usual first base-only prospect. From his scouting report:

Ovalles is a smaller-framed first base and corner outfield prospect whose build and limited raw power are the sorts normally found in the honorable mention section of this list. But I’ve seen him do some precocious defensive stuff at first base and I think he has a chance to be plus there while also making enough contact to offset his limited raw juice. He’s a long-shot, but I value him more than is typical because of the bat-to-ball and projected defense.

To give you some context, Hernandez (50 FV), who turns 21 next week, is the type of college-aged hitting prospect who I’d have evaluated similar to Orioles 2020 first-rounder Heston Kjerstad, a college bat worthy of a top-ten pick in a draft. The 20-year-old Basabe (40+ FV) is a high-variance, late-second-round sort of prospect, and Ovalles (35+ FV) is the kind of player who’d get a mid-six-figure deal on day three of the draft, though it’s likely not all teams think of him that way.

Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.

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Uncle Spikemember
3 years ago

I’ve never actually seen Heriberto Hernandez, but when I read he has T-Rex arms, I was like, yeah, that makes sense.

3 years ago
Reply to  Uncle Spike

Haha! Can confirm, just googled him.