FORT MYERS, FLA. – Luke Raley was trying to act like a major leaguer, trying to play it cool as Rocco Baldelli introduced the Twins spring training coaches last month. But the 12-year-old fan in him was too thrilled to be contained.
Standing there was none other than Joe Nathan.
“He threw a ball to me when I was a kid!” Raley said, the gee-whiz still strong 10 days later.
That was in Cleveland at what’s now called Progressive Field, not far from where Raley grew up a devoted Indians fan, used to sitting in the stands and rooting against the Twins.
“It’s almost surreal to be here now,” the 24-year-old outfielder said, “knowing that if I make it up to the big leagues, I’m going to be playing the Indians.”
That hadn’t occurred to him until July, when the Dodgers, who had drafted him in the seventh round in 2016, told him to pack his gear and head to Class AA Chattanooga: He had been traded to the Twins as part of the Brian Dozier deal. He had heard rumors that he might be included in a trade for Manny Machado, but when Los Angeles pulled off that deal without him, he thought he was safe.
“It was a huge shock. Took me totally by surprise,” Raley said. “It’s a weird thing to go to a new team for the last month of the season, with guys I’d never met before. You spend all your time getting to know people.”
The Twins have only known him for a few months, but they are impressed. Raley can play all three outfield positions, his .361 on-base percentage in the minors shows he can control the strike zone, and his .467 slugging percentage — well, that’s gotten him some attention.
Raley wasn’t much of a power hitter when he was drafted, but the Dodgers showed him his potential. Using the Rapsodo tracking system, they taught him that a relatively minor adjustment in his swing could produce far more fly balls, and his natural strength would help them carry. His 20 home runs last season is a testament to that work, and perhaps just the start.
“They helped me tap into my power by adjusting my swing and my approach at the plate,” Raley said. “I had heard of launch angle, but I had never worked on it. The Dodgers have a Rapsodo [device] in the cage with you all the time, connected to a TV, so you can see how you did. You get reassurance — OK, that was 27-30 degrees, that’s where you want it. And it helps.”
Raley’s size doesn’t hurt, either. He is 6-3 and a solid 220 pounds, plus deceptively fast.
“He fills out his uniform pretty well,” Baldelli said. “This guy looks like a football player in a baseball uniform. When you watch him run around, I look at the guys in the corners and think, ‘I hope there’s nobody running into him, because they’re going to lose that battle.”
One battle that might be tougher: Elbowing out the competition. The Twins are unusually deep in the outfield. They have four outfielders 27 or younger on the major league roster, plus Marwin Gonzalez. Prospects such as Brent Rooker and LaMonte Wade trying to force their way into that mix, and former first-round pick Alex Kirilloff is at Class AA and rising quickly. Raley can also play first base, but there’s a crowd over there, too.
“I feel like within the next year or so, I might possibly be ready to help the major league team,” Raley said. He tries not to worry about the logjam, hoping it works itself out. “The Dodgers were pretty crammed with outfielders, too,” he said.
Baldelli said he has tried to ease the minds of his many potential outfielders.
“Road blocks are temporary,” said the manager, himself an ex-outfielder. “You may very briefly stall for a second, but when you improve and perform like a major leaguer, you will become a major leaguer.”
Torii Hunter, after all, took three years to make his promotion to the majors permanent, and he became one of Raley’s role models in the process. Hunter’s advice: Worry about your play, not your future.
“I always looked at it like, if you don’t have a long-term deal, you’re playing for 29 other teams. Just ball out. If these guys — [Eddie] Rosario, [Byron] Buxton, [Max] Kepler — stay here and play well, and you’re playing well, too, you’ll look great to someone else,” Hunter said. “You can’t get sad and you can’t get upset. You don’t just play for the Twins, you’re playing for yourself and the other teams, too, because they’re watching.”