Southern notes: Hager back, eager to learn

Rays' No. 25 prospect returns from knee surgeries at new positions

Jake Hager is batting .258 with two homers and 15 RBIs through 37 games this season. (Brian McLeod/MiLB.com)

By Guy Curtright / Special to MiLB.com | May 31, 2016 10:00 AM

Jake Hager had a solid season statistically for Montgomery in 2014, but numbers don't put the Tampa Bay infield prospect's year in proper perspective.

"What he did with a couple of broken knees for most of the season was pretty special," Biscuits manager Brady Williams said.

After having to take a year off in 2015, Hager is healthy again and trying to make up for a season lost to surgery that finally couldn't be avoided.

"You talk about a kid with a lot of high character," Williams said. "He went through a lot. To get where he's got to now says a lot about him. It's fun to watch the way he's come back."

Hager had a 5-for-5 game against Jacksonville and finished April hitting .339 despite the year-long layoff. The No. 32 overall pick in the 2011 Draft wasn't able to keep up that pace during May but continued to make valuable contributions at the plate while handling third base and second base in addition to his normal shortstop.

Montgomery teammate Willy Adames, acquired in the David Price deadline trade during the 2014 season, is now Tampa Bay's shortstop of the future, but the Rays' crave versatility in their players and Hager has quickly adapted.

"I'd never played anything but shortstop before and that's where I took balls all during Spring Training," Hager said. "But I'm comfortable now at third and second. Third was a little harder at the beginning. Second felt more natural, except for learning the pivot on double plays."

Williams has been impressed with how Hager has adapted.

"It's going to help him in his career learning those other positions," the manager said.

Hager fell from No. 13 on the Rays' prospect list in 2014 to No. 25 this year, but the right-handed hitter didn't turn 23 until March 4 and has plenty of time to make up for his lost year. The former Nevada Gatorade Player of the Year finally gave into surgery on his knees at the end of Spring Training a year ago when he came to the realization that he just couldn't make it through another season. Another cleanup procedure was done on the patella tendon of his left knee, and extensive surgery was performed on his right patella tendon.

"I was very tough mentally," Hager said of his lost season. "Some days it hit me really hard."

Hager, who hit .271 with 27 doubles in 2014, rehabbed every morning at the Rays' complex in Port Charlotte, Florida, and then faced the rest of the day without baseball or teammates.

"I'd sometimes go to see the Stone Crabs play in the Florida State League just to make sure I didn't forget the game," he said.

Hager said he now has a fuller grasp of the game and a heightened pleasure in being on the diamond.

Plus, his knees feel great.

"It's amazing," Hager said. "No problems at all."

Hager was hitting .286 through May 20 before a slump dropped his average to .258 going into Memorial Day, but he has had to deal with much worse. There is nothing like a year without baseball to put things in perspective.

"The goal for him this year is to get through the season healthy," Williams said.

In brief

A first for Diaz: Jackson's Edwin Diaz, who is being converted from a starter to a reliever by Seattle, got his first save May 26 as he continued his impressive work out of the bullpen. The Mariners' No. 2 prospect struck out three and didn't allow a baserunner over 1 1/3 innings to finish off Jackson's 8-5 victory at Montgomery. Diaz, 22, had 14 strikeouts to one walk over 8 2/3 innings in his first eight relief appearances, giving up three hits and an unearned run. The third-round pick in the 2012 Draft out of Caguas Military Academy in Puerto Rico made six starts before moving to the bullpen.

Delmonico promoted: Nicky Delmonico had established himself as a candidate for the Southern League's Triple Crown before being moved up from Birmingham to Triple-A Charlotte by the Chicago White Sox on May 24. The third baseman led the league in batting average (.338) and home runs (10) at the time of the promotion and was second in RBIs (31). Delmonico, 23, went deep twice in his final game for Birmingham on May 23, giving him five homers in his final six Double-A games.

Stephens on roll: Pensacola right-hander Jackson Stephens followed up his five innings in a combined no-hitter at Jacksonville on May 20 with seven scoreless frames against Birmingham on May 25. He gave up five hits, walked none and struck out nine against the Barons while improving to 4-3 and lowering his ERA to 3.22. Stephens, 22, was 3-1 with a 1.86 ERA in five May starts, walking just four in 29 innings. The 18th-round pick by Cincinnati in the 2012 Draft had 46 strikeouts to 11 walks in nine starts overall.

Newcomb inconsistent: Control has been a problem for Sean Newcomb this season, but the 22-year-old Mississippi left-hander walked just one over five innings in a 3-1 victory against Jacksonville on May 27. Atlanta's No. 2 prospect had walked six in 3 2/3 innings during his previous start and has 30 walks to go with his 51 strikeouts in 51 innings while posting a 2-2 record and 3.71 ERA. Newcomb, the No. 15 overall pick by the Los Angeles Angels in the 2014 Draft, was acquired by Atlanta in the Andrelton Simmons trade and is ranked No. 17 in MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects.

Guy Curtright is a contributor to MiLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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