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The Tampa Bay Rays Casey Gillaspie hopes to put first half struggles behind him

Casey Gillaspie entered 2017 high atop the Tampa Bay Rays and MiLB prospect board. A rough first half leaves a bit to be desired.

MLB: Spring Training-Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

When the season began, some felt it was time for Casey Gillaspie to take over first base for the Tampa Bay Rays. An offensive onslaught by Logan Morrison and a down season at Durham have changed that perception just a bit.

Gillaspie has baseball in his blood. His father Mark played a year of minor league ball and his brother Conor is currently with the San Francisco Giants. It was no surprise that Casey was a first round selection out of Wichita State in 2014.

The now-24-year-old first baseman had a nice debut in Double-A Montgomery last year. The switch-hitter slashed .270/.387/.454 with 11 home runs and 21 doubles. He struck out a bit too much, but what big-hitting first baseman doesn’t these days? Despite a 22.1 percent strikeout rate, he countered it with an incredible 16.2 percent walk rate in 357 at bats.

He handled his Triple-A promotion very well, albeit only 47 games to close out ’16. He slashed .307/.389/.520 with 22 extra base hits and a .909 OPS. John Sickles liked him enough to make him the Rays fifth-best prospect entering the 2017 season. Here’s what he had to say:

Age 23, first round pick in 2014 from Wichita State; hit .284/.388/.479 between Double-A and Triple-A, 18 homers, 80 walks, 117 strikeouts in 472 at-bats; wRC+150; not as athletic as Bauer, two years older and strikes out more often but has more present power along with a good eye and high walk rate; limited to first base but switch-hitting power and patience are valuable assets; should be a productive slugger. ETA late 2017.

Unfortunately, Gillaspie has struggled this season. His strikeout rate is still a bit high, but not alarming (20.8 percent) but his penchant for walks is down to a 9.8 percent rate. He’s hit just eight home runs to go with 13 doubles on the season and is posting a .669 OPS.

I was luckily enough to encounter Gillaspie on one of his best nights of the season. He went 3-for-5 on a night that Lucas Sims was dealing in Gwinnett. He hit his first double of the season (it was May 3 mind you) and blasted his third home run of the season. It would be the deciding home run, giving the Bulls the 5-4 lead.

You can see that Gillaspie’s swing is not perfect. Historically speaking, most of his home runs have come from the left-hand side, as he blasted 14 of his 18 home runs last year as a lefty hitter. This year the splits are more even, with five coming as a lefty and three coming righty. His swing is consistent, but doesn’t explode with quickness through the zone. He has a little wiggle as he awaits the pitch, and more of a leg slide than kick. He seems to get by with pure power when he unloads on a pitch he likes.

That’s where the biggest drop off seems to be in comparing some of his Triple-A 2016 to 2017 batted ball numbers. His ground ball percentages are nearly identical, 41 percent in 2016 compared to 43 percent in 2017. While his fly ball rates are similar (31.4 to 34.2 percent) his home runs per fly ball are way down by six percent.

It's hard to pinpoint where Gillaspie went wrong this season. Perhaps the pressure of being a top prospect and highly-anticipate big league debut led him to press early on in 2016. We’ve seen that cause a downward spiral plenty of times in a highly-touted prospects’ “make-or-break” season. His plate patience was almost invisible, not working counts and drawing the walks in which he had become known. He fell out of Baseball America’s Top 100 in their midseason update, and it will be curious to see what John thinks of him in the coming weeks.

Gillaspie was recently one of the International League Players of the Week, ending June in much more Gillaspie-like fashion. While it isn’t fair to say he is back just yet, July’s small sample size has been some of his better numbers all season.

Hopefully he is turning the corner, but with LoMo’s hot play, he may just have to wait until 2018 for that big league debut.