PORT CHARLOTTE, Florida -- Back on Feb. 27, Nate Lowe did what nobody expects hitters to do on an 0-2 pitch. The left-handed Rays slugger took an offering from Red Sox right-hander Erasmo Ramirez way out to right-center field at Charlotte Sports Park. It bounced off the roof of an administration building beyond the fence and traveled several more feet. Rays public relations staff tracked down the ball and said it came to a full and complete stop 567 feet away from home plate. According to Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times, Trackman data indicated it careened off the bat with a 108-mph exit velocity and sailed 448 feet through the air before first touching down.
If all anyone knew about Lowe was his 2018 resume, that Ruthian blast from the first baseman may not have come as a shock. But in the context of his whole career, it illustrates how far Lowe's power has come -- and how it's made him the No. 8 prospect in a loaded system and the No. 3 first-base prospect in all of baseball while sitting one step away from the Majors.
"For me, it was all a pretty good sign of there being no limitations on who I could be as a player," Lowe said of his 2018 breakout. "Regardless of whether you're an average Draft pick like me who might have been an afterthought, a big-time prospect or a non-Drafted free agent that makes himself a good player, the ceiling is non-existent, so long as you play well. You can make your own future for a while."
The 23-year-old is coming off a second full season in which he was one of the Minors' most productive hitters while climbing from Class A Advanced Charlotte to Double-A Montgomery to Triple-A Durham. His .985 OPS was fifth-best among full-season Minor Leaguers. His .568 slugging percentage ranked 10th. He hit 27 home runs, five more than anyone else in the Tampa Bay farm system. His .330 average was 10 points higher than his closest full-season competition in the Rays organization (Vidal Brujan), and his 102 RBIs nearly lapped the system's field, beating out second-place Moises Gomez by 20.
If not for wunderkind Wander Franco, there wouldn't have been a more complete offensive performance in the organization in 2018. It came from the 390th overall pick in the 2016 Draft, who entered the season outside the ranks of the top 30 prospects in the Tampa Bay pipeline. Around the beginning of August -- after he'd been a two-time Florida State League Player of the Month and had participated in the Futures Game in the midst of a Double-A stint -- Lowe finally sensed he was hitting another level.
"I felt like it was going really well when I got to Montgomery, but then, that last series in Pensacola, I had a weird feeling that I was finally going to get to go to Durham," he said. "Going to Triple-A to hang with those guys for a month was pretty awesome and it's something that made the year feel a little more special, rather than being just a couple months of a hot streak. That's where I started feeling like I'm going to be an impact Major League player."
Although he missed out on a September callup to The Show, Lowe helped Durham win its second straight Governors' Cup before settling into the offseason. A few months later, he heard his power had earned him his first non-roster invitation to Spring Training.
That's no small thing for a first baseman who totaled five homers with a metal bat in his final year of college.
Having gone undrafted out of high school in Georgia, Lowe attended Mercer University in 2013-14, but picked up only 31 at-bats in 25 games as a freshman, going 3-for-31 (.097) in that span. He transferred to St. Johns River State College in Florida in hopes of getting playing time and finding himself again at the plate, and it worked -- he had a .372/.516/.696 line with 17 homers in 56 games. That resulted in yet another move, this time to Mississippi State for the spring of 2016. But his power went missing despite his overall hit tool remaining steady; Lowe batted .348/.423/.490 with five homers in 63 games in his lone season with the Bulldogs. While other SEC standouts from that year -- like Nick Senzel, Pete Alonso and Jeren Kendall -- eventually became high picks, Lowe dropped all the way to the 13th round as a 6-foot-4 first baseman without the pop for the body frame or the position. Further making him feel like an afterthought was the fact that his younger brother, Joshua, was taken by Tampa Bay in the first round (13th overall) of the same Draft.
In short, from an offensive perspective, Lowe was entering pro ball all over the place.
"I definitely got taught three different approaches," he said. "My freshman year, I didn't really get in there as much as I wanted to, which was key to getting me to transfer to St. Johns River. There, they took the reins off and let me do whatever I wanted at the dish. I was really successful at the JuCo level. Going back to Division I, I was taught that the big fly ball never really takes a bad hop. If you can hit the ball hard enough on the ground and put pressure on two guys -- the infielder and the first baseman -- to make a play and run hard down the line, then they say that's more productive than hitting the ball in the air. I got every single different type of thinking about it in college."
The Rays still saw enough of a ball of clay in Lowe that they hoped to mold him into a prototypical power-hitting first baseman who could make his mark at Tropicana Field some day.
"We're hopeful for power from all of our guys that are capable of it," said Rays assistant director of Minor League operations Jeff McLerran. "Specifically with him, there were enough signs that there was more power in there than he was showing. That's why our guys spent the time to generate more extra-base hits, more power with him -- because they saw flashes of it, whether BP, cage work or sporadic game results."
Offseason MiLB include
In his first full season of 2017, Lowe was a solid hitter but showed merely average power, batting .274/.373/.388 with seven homers between Class A Bowling Green and Class A Advanced Charlotte.
Enter the fly ball revolution and other trends of the modern game. Still relying on his collegiate tendencies, Lowe hit 54.3 percent of his balls on the ground in his first taste of the Minors in 2016. That dropped to 47.7 percent in 2017 and again to 42.5 percent during his breakout campaign last season. Conversely, his fly ball rate climbed from 26.2 to 33.3 to 35.2 over that same span. The 2018 season was also the first in which more than 20 percent of his batted balls were line drives -- 22.3 percent, to be more precise.
While more power might be perceived as the result of added muscle, Lowe's slugging jump had as much to do with an approach change as it did with anything physical.
"My first year, I was feeling things out and not really going after it," he said. "After I got to the offseason, we set up a pretty solid plan as to what I had to do to separate myself from the average player. Hitting the ball in the air, hitting the ball harder was definitely part of the equation to getting the ball out of the yard and driving in more runs. Being able to get that going in the offseason and committing to [the concept that] if I'm not going to hit for average, I'm going to hit for power and then the average will come with it too. It was nice to get away from the whole college approach, because the amateur player struggles with a really hard ground ball, but here guys are good with the glove. Being able to expand my approach but still simplify it led to having a better year, and hopefully, a better career."
But don't sleep on Lowe's physical tools, either.
"One of the things our hitting coaches noticed early on with us is just getting his hands freer," McLerran said. "He has really good hands, but some of the things he was doing at the plate wasn't allowing them to play to their ability. By being freer, he's able to supply a little more bat speed. Bat speed allows him to impact the ball better, get it in the air and drive it for home runs and extra-base hits. A combination with the work he put in in the cage with getting his body in better shape in the offseason has allowed him to have him a little more life that leads to those results."
Aside from the prodigious homer last month, it's been a relatively quiet camp for Lowe in his first taste of the Major League side, as he's gone 3-for-33 (.091) in 13 games. No matter what he did in the Grapefruit League, he's likely heading back to Durham, where he'll sit behind Ji-Man Choi on the Rays first-base depth chart. But there's a positive sign in that small spring sample. All three of those hits went for extra bases, which suggests Lowe's power is here to stay for 2019 and beyond.
"Making the team or not making the team isn't really part of my control," he said. "But as long as I do what I do and get ready for Opening Day, I give myself a chance to get called up whenever the team thinks I'm ready."