Feature Photo: Corey Ray, CF, Brewers
At a point in the year where most minor league baseball players are knee-deep in their training preparation for the upcoming season, Milwaukee Brewers center fielder Corey Ray is celebrating the simple fact that he’s walking on his own.
While slowing down isn’t something the South-Side Chicago native is used to, nor particularly fond of, all it took was one day in the Milwaukee Brewers’ Instructional League to force a shift in the routine of one of the most highly touted members of the 2016 MLB Draft class.
“I think I’ll remember every detail for the rest of my life, probably,” Ray said.
He already had a stolen base on the day, but the enthusiastic 22-year-old couldn’t resist the opportunity for another.
“I’m jumping around the field, and everyone’s like, ‘Why do you steal every time you get on base? It’s an instruct game. You kind of want to take it easy. I know you’re tired. Your legs are tired.’
“The thing about me is, once I’m on the baseball field, I don’t know how to take it easy,” Ray said.
Sliding into third, Ray felt something in his left knee, and it only took a moment to realize something was wrong.
“I got up and I tried to walk it off, and then I realized I can’t walk anymore. So, I drop down and I’m trying to move my leg and I couldn’t straighten it,” Ray said. “The coaches tried to help me off the field, and I just couldn’t move.”
It wasn’t a position Ray was used to being in, but for the eternally optimistic Brewers prospect, even he knew this wasn’t just going to go away.
“I was just so upset because I knew that something was wrong,” Ray remembered. “I couldn’t straighten my knee. I’m thinking that I just jammed it like, “Oh, it’s just a jam, I’ll be fine tomorrow. Give me a heat pack and some ice and send me home.”
It turned out to be a torn meniscus that would sideline Ray for the remainder of the instructional league and force him into surgery in October. Following the procedure, the routine shifted from development as a player to simply returning to the field.
“When you’re injured, you get discouraged, and because I was on crutches for so long, I think it was easier to be negative and to not be as optimistic,” Ray said. “One thing that I told myself was that everything happens for a reason. I wanted to use this time to really kind of relax and take in this past year and everything that happened and try to grow mentally.”
Paving a way for himself through hard work has been a characteristic engrained in the son of Corey Sr. and Kathy Ray since his days as a standout at Simeon Career Academy in Chicago. Growing up as one of three children and living roughly 10 minutes from U.S. Cellular Field, home of the White Sox, Ray started in a basketball community, but a lack of height, and a desire to be his own person pointed him in a different direction.
“I didn’t grow until I got to high school. I think that had some bearing on my decision,” Ray said. “I think the fact that everyone I knew played basketball and football, and I didn’t want to be like everyone else. So I played baseball, and the feeling that I got on the baseball field was not matched by any other sport.”
That feeling helped develop the outfielder into a four-year letter winner, earning him the title of Chicago’s Most Outstanding Male Athlete as a high school senior in 2013. The Seattle Mariners made a move for the 18-year-old as their 33rd-round selection in the 2013 MLB Draft, but Corey Sr. had a different plan in mind for his son, steering him toward a scholarship opportunity with the University of Louisville Cardinals.
“Well the reality of it is, I was only 18 and I was still living in my dad’s house, so whatever my dad said went at that point in time,” Ray laughed. “It was a goal of mine to play professional baseball, and the opportunity to start the road to becoming a major leaguer was very enticing to me, especially as a kid from Chicago who had never seen $200 in his life.”
Under Louisville head coach Dan O’Donnell, Ray began to discover that although he was no longer the celebrated high school standout, the Cardinals’ coaching staff had every intention to bring out the natural feel for the game that was already there.
“They made me earn everything that I got, there was no entitlement. I get on campus and I’m not the strongest, so they want me to be the strongest. I’m not the best base runner, so you’ve got to be the best base runner, you’ve got to be the best defender, you’ve got to be the best hitter. They drilled work ethic and doing whatever it is that you have to do to get the job done.”
That work ethic and famous routine of Ray drove the high school All-American to three seasons of hitting .310-plus, with a combined 26 home runs and 133 RBIs, while dropping his strikeout rate from 29.9 percent as a freshman to 15.3 percent during his junior year.
After a dynamite sophomore campaign with the Cardinals – slashing .325/.389/.543 with 15 doubles, 11 home runs and a .932 OPS – Ray was once again on scouts’ radar, and when the 2016 draft rolled around, the Brewers selected the now 22-year-old as their top pick (and fifth overall selection), making Ray the first Chicago native to be selected in the draft top 10 since outfielder Jeff Jackson, who was selected with the fourth overall pick by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1989.
Hero Sports draft analyst Chris Crawford studied the progress of Ray during his time in Louisville, and stands optimistic about the development he has witnessed.
“I think he’s grown immensely from high school. He was very raw,” said Crawford. “He’s gone from toolsy prep to a well-rounded prospect in three years, and that’s impressive.”
Following his selection, Ray received assignment to the High A Brevard County Manatees in the Florida State League and, similar to his introduction to the collegiate scene, Ray returned to a routine that would solidify him as a force to be respected at the minor league level. This routine, however didn’t establish itself overnight. Over his first five games with the Manatees, Ray was just 2-for-21 at the plate.
“It was tough, and when you’re going bad, you want to change everything up,” Ray said. “You call everybody who knows anything about hitting when you’re slumping, you try to pick up things from them; things that will help you get out of this rough area.”
One particular source of knowledge at the plate came through time spent in the weight room with another Chicago local by the name of Curtis Granderson (RF, Mets). As with Ray, Granderson, a 13-year major league veteran and three-time All-Star knows a thing or two about work ethic.
“I think just being around Curtis, you learn. Just the way that he does things, the way he goes about things, the way he speaks, you can learn,” Ray said. “I’ve never seen Curtis Granderson sweat,” he added with a laugh. “He’s always walking around trying to figure out what’s next.”
Similar to his adaptation starting out in Louisville, Ray showed once again that he’s aware of his natural feel for the game and constantly working to discover a way to utilize it.
Throughout that process, Ray credits the patience of Manatees coach Ned Yost IV.
“I can be demanding sometimes,” Ray said. “I’ll be the guy that still wants to stay in the cages and hit, and I want tee work, or ‘What are you seeing?’ or ‘Can we watch videos?’ One thing that Ned never did, he never told me no. Whether it was, ‘Can I have flip toss from this angle? Can you speed it up? Can you throw it here? Could you look at my at bats? He was always there for me, and always available, and I think that really made the transition easier.”
Following the subpar five-game introduction, Ray settled in with a nine-game hitting streak, including six multi-hit games during that streak. Over 57 games in the Florida State League, Ray slashed .247/.307/.385 with 13 doubles, five home runs, 17 RBIs, along with a 21.5 strikeout percentage and .129 ISO.
Like Crawford, other scouts find very little of major concern in the speed of development and overall makeup of Ray. One scout drew comparison to Jacoby Ellsbury (CF, Yankees), calling him a top-of-the-lineup table setter, and highlighting his approval of Ray’s ability to see the ball well with developing strike zone discipline.
Ray is full of expectancy for the upcoming season. With his crutches out of the picture, he has made it clear that his focus has shifted away from his injury to starting the year healthy, entering his first full season of pro ball. In addition to preparing for his first spring training with the Brewers organization, Ray has also acknowledged that the choices of his father to guide him toward a college degree might have made some sense after all.
“I have two semesters to go and I have a degree, and I’m living out my dream — I’m playing professional baseball,” Ray said, laughing at the memories. “That was not an easy summer. Me and my dad got into it a lot, but now I thank him every time I see him.”