Mudcats Ray proving size doesnt matter in first full professional season

After coming off the first injury of his life, Corey Ray is showing out in Zebulon with a combination of power and speed

Madeline Gray—North State Journal
The Mudcat's Corey Ray (2) jokes with his teammates in the dugout during the game against the Down East Wood Ducks at the Five County Stadium on Thursday

In September 2016, Corey Ray was informed he would undergo surgery for a torn lateral meniscus in his left knee stemming from a slide into third base in an instructional league game. After just 60 professional games in the Brewers system, Ray saw his 2016 season end prematurely.Ray, the fifth overall pick in the 2016 MLB Draft, was terrified to learn the news. Unlike most athletes who are all too familiar with minor surgeries, the 22-year-old outfielder had never undergone any sort of surgery in his life. He had never even suffered a baseball-related injury.Wait, never?”Yeah, never,” Ray said with a laugh. “I guess I’ve just been really lucky. I was really freaked out because surgery kind of scares me a little bit.”One thing Ray did know was that knee injuries aren’t anything to mess with — especially for an outfielder who relies on his speed in every aspect of the game.”When you mess up the knee, it could be a torn ACL, MCL or worse,” Ray said. “So it was bad, but it could’ve been much worse. I was blessed that, that late in the season, I was able to have surgery, go through rehab and get back on the field this quickly. That’s the way I’ve looked at it the whole way.”Following his short stint with Milwaukee in Spring Training, Ray went through Extended Spring Training to fully heal before heading to Zebulon. He made his first start with the Carolina Mudcats on April 16 with a 2-for-5 outing with a stolen base and a run.His first hit of the season? A triple. Kind of fitting for a player who suffered the first injury of his life sliding into third base. “All I was worried about was just finding the barrel,” Ray said. “I knew my knee was fine, so the actual sprinting wasn’t a big deal for me. But man, getting a good piece of wood on the ball was huge for my confidence. Ending up at third was just icing on the cake.”Born in Chicago, Ray came up through the inner city before attending Simeon Career Academy. While there was plenty of professional baseball with the White Sox and Cubs both close to home, there weren’t many players outside of Cliff Floyd and Rickey Henderson — who retired in 2003 — to idolize from the city.When Ray was drafted fifth overall by the Brewers in 2016, he became the first top-five pick from Chicago since Jeff Jackson in 1989. Jackson, who also attended Simeon, never made it to the big leagues after hitting just .234 in 666 minor league games over nine seasons.While Ray knows the history of Chicago players, he wants to be an ambassador.”I don’t feel like I have to carry the banner for Chicago players, but I want to,” Ray said. “I want to bring heed to the talent in Chicago, especially in the inner city. Give those guys an opportunity to know someone’s there for them and have a great role model.”It doesn’t matter where you come from. It doesn’t matter what you’re up against. If you work hard enough and you’re driven enough, you can get anywhere you need to be.”His talent on the field is undeniable with his combination of speed, awareness and athletic ability. But Michael Lananna of Baseball America said what makes Corey Ray special isn’t entirely based on his on-the-field attributes.”There are a lot of things that make Corey special,” Lananna explained, “but what I keep going back to isn’t even on the field. It’s just the kind of person he is and the makeup he has. You talk to him and you can tell he has star potential. He’s polished. He’s a hard worker. He’s determined.”He’s someone who can impact the game in a lot of ways, but it’s who he is that makes him special.”As a young player, Ray himself idolized multiple players in the big leagues. After rattling off a list of myriad players from Scott Podsednik to Jacoby Ellsbury, Ray recounted one of his first baseball memories of Ichiro Suzuki from his days with the Seattle Mariners.”I remember having seats in right field at right field at U.S. Cellular Field and seeing Ichiro get a hit, steal a base then throw a guy out the next inning,” Ray recounted. “I was like, ‘You know what, that’s the player I want to be.’ That’s who I wanted to be in the big leagues.”.@FutureIs_Bright came through with the clutch walk off double in today's 5-4 win against the Keys. #MudcatsFUN #Brewers— Carolina Mudcats (@CarolinaMudcats) May 8, 2017
Ray had figured out who he wanted to be, but several coaches tried to tweak his approach. Rather than swinging for the fences, several coaches and instructors tried to turn Ray into a slap hitter to utilize his speed on the basepaths.That didn’t sit well with Ray, who knew he could hit for power with even the best sluggers. Mudcats manager Joey Ayrault is happy he didn’t listen to that advice.”He’s got an unreal combination of power and speed, why would you ever want to change that?” Ayrault said with a laugh. “When you see the guy’s got it, I’m not sure why you’d ever question it. He’s got the full package to hit for average and power. I just tell him to square it up like anyone else, don’t change anything.”But at 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, Ray doesn’t have the frame of a typical home run hitter. So how does he make up for the perceived lack of height and body weight? With forearms that look like he’s smuggling grapefruits and bat speed compared to Trea Turner of the Washington Nationals.”Corey doesn’t have the prototypical size for a power hitter, but he has insane bat speed,” Lananna said. “That’s really where he generates all of his power. The comparison a lot of people make is Curtis Granderson, but I’m not sure he has that much power. … I can also see the Trea Turner comparison too, which works perfectly for baseball. It’s not a knock to be that size, there’s just a lot more to prove.”He’s someone who can surprise you, though. He’s much more than just a speedy outfielder.”With six stolen bases already this season, two doubles and a triple, Ray is still waiting to hit his first home run in his first full season of minor league baseball. But after a walkoff RBI double on Sunday adding to multiple clutch hits already this season, Ray is proving to be a star for the Mudcats early on.”On the field, I don’t think size matters,” Ray said with a smile. “I knew from a young age I could hit. I’ve worked my entire life to prove it and I think I’ve convinced people at every level. … Speed is a big part of my game, but it’s not the only part. Hitting for power is never not going to be a part of my game.”