Triston Casas, Rookie of the Year contender, cementing himself as cleanup hitter

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Triston Casas probably is not going to win Rookie of the Year, which means he’s probably not going to earn the Red Sox an extra draft pick next summer.

The team will have to settle for Casas simply anchoring their lineup for the next decade.

Exactly one year after making his big league debut, Casas on Monday smacked a go-ahead, three-run home run to beat the seemingly unbeatable Rays 7-3 at Tropicana Field. The Red Sox had lost seven of eight games against the Rays this season and had lost 13 in a row at the Trop, but they’d never faced the Rays with this version of Casas in the middle of the lineup. Since the All-Star break, he has the second-highest OPS in the majors, behind only Mookie Betts.

“Numbers-wise, he’s probably one of the top 10 hitters in the league,” Alex Cora said. “And he keeps getting better.”

Casas said he was aware of the personal significance of his big league anniversary — “It’s just the most special day of my life,” he said — but beyond the sentimental attachment, Casas said he likes to reflect on his career in one-year chunks, looking back 12 months at a time to evaluate how far he’s come. He’s always been surprised by those annual leaps, he said.

Until now.

“Last year, I would have imagined that I would be here,” Casas said. “That’s the first year that I feel like I accomplished the goal.”

Over that first year, Casas had an .846 OPS with 27 home runs, and his 128 wRC+ ranked 21st in the big leagues ahead of such notable players as Luis Arraez, Randy Arozarena, Paul Goldschmidt and teammate Rafael Devers. The only first basemen with a higher wRC+ in the past year were Freddie Freeman, Yandy Diaz, Matt Olson, Pete Alonso and — just barely — Christian Walker. All of those except for Walker were All-Stars this season, and Casas might have been, too, if he’d reversed his season starts. His first half was underwhelming — just a .728 OPS at the All-Star break — but he’s surged since the break, with Cora noting his improved ability to drive the ball to left-center, which is where he hit the go-ahead home run on Monday.

“At the end of the day, what he wants is to do damage in the zone,” Cora said. “And if it’s not there, he’ll take his walks. So far, so good. You start looking at numbers, and he’s becoming one of the best hitters in the big leagues without too many people talking about it.”

It’s becoming harder to ignore.

This is the second year of baseball’s Prospect Promotion Incentive, which was added to the new CBA to encourage teams against manipulating the service time of premium prospects. To be eligible, a rookie must rank as a preseason Top-100 prospect according to at least two of, ESPN and Baseball America, and his team must then give him a full year of service time. Casas was one of a small handful of rookies who qualified for PPI this season.

If one of those eligible rookies wins Rookie of the Year, his team will earn an additional draft pick in 2024. (If there had been an international draft, a top-three finish would have earned a pick; as it is, a player has to win Rookie of the Year or finish top-three in MVP or Cy Young.)

“He should be in the conversation, right?” Cora said.

On offensive numbers alone, Casas might be the American League favorite, but Orioles third baseman and shortstop Gunner Henderson has significantly outpaced him on defense and has a sizeable lead in WAR. Guardians starter Tanner Bibee is also in the conversation from the pitching side. Red Sox left fielder Masataka Yoshida was in the mix early in the season, but his offensive numbers have slipped lately, and defensive metrics have never been particularly kind to him (Yoshida also homered on Monday).

So, Casas might have to settle for a second- or third-place finish, but the Red Sox might have their fourth-place hitter for the foreseeable future. Casas moved into the clean-up spot last week, and Cora said he plans to keep Casas there, a sign of his growing importance to the Red Sox offense. It was a perfect spot for him on Monday.

With the Red Sox down by 2 in the sixth inning, Wilyer Abreu doubled and Justin Turner drew a walk to bring Casas to the plate. The Rays brought in Chris Devenski from the bullpen, and Casas said he assumed Devenski was summoned to throw changeups in an effort to induce a double play.

Sure enough, the second pitch was a changeup down in the zone, and Casas smoked it 419 feet just left of straightaway center field for a go-ahead three-run homer.

“That’s been one of my MOs as a hitter is being able to use the whole field,” Casas said. “But now using it with power, I think unlocks a new sense of calmness at the plate, knowing I can go that way with the effort level that I have.”

Brayan Bello beat Tampa Bay for the first time Monday. (Nathan Ray Seebeck / USA Today)

The home run was Casas’s 23rd of the year, already the eighth-most ever by a Red Sox rookie behind Tony Conigliaro’s 24 in 1964. Brayan Bello — not technically a rookie after 11 starts last season — got his first-ever win against the Rays. He allowed three runs in the first inning but settled in to get through the sixth without further damage.

“I think to have a good young core as a team, you need pitching and hitting,” Casas said. “For him to hopefully be at the forefront of our rotation for many years to come is really encouraging. I’m trying to establish myself as a respectable hitter.”

In his first year, Casas has gone a long way toward doing exactly that.

(Top photo of Casas: Julio Aguilar / Getty Images)

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