By Bryan Levine, SunCoast Sports
PORT CHARLOTTE — Jake Hager sat in Starbucks and read nearly every day during the first few months of the 2015 baseball season.
Hager, who had season-ending knee surgery before opening day that year, needed to mentally prepare for the long journey ahead to recovery.
“It was very hard for me,” Hager said. “Especially when Dr. Andrews said I wasn’t going to play for the whole year, it hit me hard. I did whatever I could to keep my mind right in Port Charlotte.
“I tell myself it’s a minor setback for a major comeback.”
Through books like “The Champion’s Mind” by Jim Afremow and “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho, Hager got in the right state of mind for his lengthy rehab.
The surgery was on his right patella, which according to the 23-year-old, was described to him as “looking like Swiss cheese” prior to the procedure.
“It was the best decision of my life,” Hager said in deciding to have the surgery.
There wasn’t a specific injury which forced him to make that great decision, but just overall wear and tear. He received a cortisone shot which helped him limp through the 2014 season.
Even though he was in pain, he still managed to hit .271 with 35 extra-base hits in Double-A, but by the time he reported to minor league camp in 2015, the first spring game would be his last.
“I was running to second base and I couldn’t stop,” he recalled.
Before his knees started breaking down, Hager was a top-15 prospect in the Rays’ organization. That was back in 2013.
Just two years prior, Hager was a first-round draft pick, selected 32nd overall by Tampa Bay.
“It was one of the best days of my life,” Hager said. “I’ll never forget that moment. Once they called my name, it was emotional.”
Hager, who was selected out of Sierra Vista High School in Las Vegas, elected to skip college, where he would have attended Arizona State University.
“It was an easy decision. I wanted to start my career and chase my dream,” he said.
But once he started developing knee issues, the Rays began acquiring prospects who played Hager’s shortstop position. In the middle of 2014, they traded for their current No. 1 prospect Willy Adames, and they made a trade in January of 2015 for Daniel Robertson.
That forced Hager to learn how to play both second and third base.
“It happens. That’s part of the business,” Hager said. “Growing up being a shortstop, that’s my favorite position and where I’m most comfortable, but I’ll do whatever I can to help the team out. I feel comfortable and confident (at the new positions) now.”
This year is Hager’s first season getting an invite to the big-league camp, and he’s appeared in each of the Rays’ first two games. He went 0 for 4 in those two games.
He’s expected to begin the season in Triple-A Durham.