Even after the recent promotion of several premier young players to the majors, including Scout.com’s top-ranked prospect of 2006, Delmon Young, the Tampa Bay Rays still possess one of the elite farm systems in all of baseball. In one of the game's smallest markets, the Rays are stuck with the daunting challenge of competing directly against some of the game's financial giants in the American League East, Boston and New York. But with a surplus of young talent developing in the minors and the organization's recent success, including another Double-A Championship in 2007, better days appear to be in store for the Rays, perhaps in a new waterfront stadium.
Pitching Rules the Farm
For many years, the Rays' farm system was dominated by its position player prospects. After producing several talented outfielders internally—Carl Crawford, Elijah Dukes (troubles aside), B.J. Upton and Young—over the past few seasons, the organization has shifted its focus to acquiring as many outstanding young arms as possible. This strategy is evident by the Tampa Bay front office's actions in each of the two previous drafts. While infielder Evan Longoria tops this year's prospect list, the rest of the group is dominated by a diverse bunch of talented starting pitchers, six of whom cracked the top ten.
By selecting left-hander David Price out of Vanderbilt University with the first overall selection of last June's draft, the team immediately improved upon its already deep minor league pitching corps. Price, winner of the 2007 Golden Spikes Award given annually to the nation’s top amateur player, led the Commodores to their best season in program history last spring. He went 11- 1 with a 2.63 earned run average and 194 strikeouts, a total which shattered Vanderbilt's single-season record and led the country.
Price has two plus pitches—a fastball in the 90-95 MPH range and above average slider in the 84-86 MPH range—in addition to a developing changeup. The combination of his outstanding stuff and excellent make-up should enable him to rise up the Rays' minor league ladder rapidly. In fact, he could make an impact in the majors by the end of 2008.
Youngsters Wade Davis and Jake McGee are among the minors' top pitching prospects as well.
Davis, a third-round selection in the 2004 draft, enjoyed his finest campaign as a pro in 2007 on his way to earning Rays' Pitcher of the Year honors. The lanky right-hander was instrumental to the Biscuits' run to the Southern League Championship. In 14 Double-A starts, he posted a 3.15 ERA, 81-to-30 K/BB ratio and 1.3 WHIP while averaging 9.11 strikeouts per nine innings. Davis' repertoire features a mid-90s fastball, which occasionally tops out at 98. His arsenal also includes a hard-breaking curve ball in the high-70s. While his secondary offerings could use some work, he is a candidate to reach the majors by 2010, if not sooner.
McGee also has an overpowering fastball, which consistently sits in the mid-90s, improving command and a nice feel for pitching. The 21-year-old southpaw has dominated at times while pitching in the lower levels, but many scouts worry about the lack of diversity in his pitching repertoire. His off speed offerings are strong occasionally, but due to his dominant fastball, he does not have to consistently rely on them to get hitters out. McGee achieved great success during stints with High-A Vero Beach and Montgomery, finishing ’07 with a solid 175-to-62 K/B ratio. As he continues his upward path, the former fifth-rounder will need to develop his secondary pitches to achieve similar success at the higher levels. Like Davis, it is more than likely that McGee will be pitching for the Rays by 2010 if he can stay healthy.
The third leg of the Montgomery trio is Chris Mason, who was dubbed the Most Outstanding Pitcher in Double-A following a brilliant campaign. Mason posted excellent statistics as the anchor of the Biscuits' pitching staff. He went 15-4 with a 2.57 ERA, 136 punchouts and an impressive 1.18 WHIP over 28 starts. The 23-year-old right-hander, also an excellent hitter during his college days at UNC-Greensboro, is a tremendous athlete who understands what it takes to win, but it will be interesting to see if he can do as well against advanced competition in Triple-A.
Jeremy Hellickson and Jeff Niemann are two of the organization's other flagship pitching prospects.
Hellickson played an instrumental role in Single-A Columbus' historic season, winning 13 games to help guide the Catfish to their first South Atlantic League Championship in team history. He overpowered hitters with his mid-90s heater, notching 106 strikeouts in 111.1 innings and posting a 1.09 WHIP.
The Rays’ first-round pick in ‘04, Niemann has been haunted by arm injuries since getting drafted out of Rice University. This past season he managed to stay relatively healthy for the duration, though and put up some impressive numbers in the International League. Niemann was expected to already be a mainstay in the Tampa Bay rotation at this point in his career, and his star has dimmed as a result of the injuries. While he no longer projects to be an ace, though, he has the ability to turn into an effective middle-of-the-rotation big league starter.
Mitch Talbot is a candidate to be called up to the Rays in 2008. Talbot, who came to Tampa Bay in the deal that sent Aubrey Huff to Houston, had an up-and-down season in '07. He finished the year with a 13-9 record and a 4.63 ERA in 163.0 innings pitched. The former second-round pick has a nice, diverse repertoire of pitches, including a low-90s fastball, plus change up, curve ball, cutter, sinker and slider. Presently at the crossroads of his career, next season is crucial for the 24-year-old.
The Tampa Bay farm system is one of the most balanced in all of baseball. While there is not as much position player depth, the Rays have a strong core of hitters who could contribute at the big league level in the immediate future.
Longoria is the consensual top prospect in the Tampa Bay organization, perhaps in all of the minor leagues. The third overall pick in the 2006 draft, he has ascended through the Rays' farm system quickly.
Longoria's tools, especially his plus power potential, are far superior (excluding Reid Brignac) than any other infielder in the organization. With his arrival to the big leagues expected shortly, the Rays have already made plans to move incumbent starting third baseman Akinori Iwamura across the infield. Headed into spring training, Longoria is a leading candidate to bring home American League Rookie of the Year honors.
In Brignac, the Rays have a prospect dubbed as "the shortstop of the future" for the first time since B.J. Upton was moved off the position for good. The organization's Minor League Player of the Year after winning the Cal League M.V.P in 2006, he regressed a bit at the plate in his first shot at Double-A. He has outstanding power potential as a hitter, but his high strikeout totals are concerning. A chronic free swinger, the 22-year-old struck out at an alarming rate (96 times) last season while his OPS dropped off considerably (.861 to .721) as his on-base skills took a major step in the wrong direction.
Brignac make strides in his defense, however, and reduced his error totals by 10 while improving his range. If he continues to improve upon his plate discipline and strike zone awareness, the 2004 second rounder has a chance to compete with incumbent Tampa Bay starter Jason Bartlett for the SS job in spring training of 2009.
Even with an apparent blockage at the big league level, there are several low-level outfield prospects making waves in the Rays' farm system. Speedster Desmond Jennings, Fernando Perez and Ryan Royster each left a lasting impression on the Tampa Bay front office with exceptional seasons a year ago.
Jennings has had a few problems off the field, but they appear to be behind him now. The 21-year-old is the fastest player in the organization and is coming off a fine season in which he batted .315/.401/.465, with an .866 OPS.
Winning the organizational Triple Crown and nearly doing the same in the South Atlantic League has Royster's stock rising. During one stretch in July, he even hit home runs in six consecutive games. The Oregon prep product hit .329/.380/.601 while ranking first in the Sally League in home runs (30) and OPS (.982), second in RBIs (98) and third in batting average. For his efforts, he earned the Rays' Minor League Player of the Year in a breakout performance that seemed to come out of nowhere.
Perez is the top defensive outfielder in the organization, but he also turned in a strong offensive campaign in '07. He posted a .419 OBP in 475 plate appearances at Double-A Montgomery.
Also worth mentioning is the emergence of catcher John Jaso, who turned in a strong offensive performance (.316/.408/.484) in the Southern League. With Dioner Navarro and Shawn Riggans expected to start the season with the Rays, Jaso should take over as the full-time catcher at Durham to start the year.
Keep an eye on relief pitching prospect Eduardo Morlan and outfielder Justin Ruggiano. Morlan, the third player acquired in the Rays’ Blockbuster deal with the Minnesota Twins in December, has the chance to become a mainstay in the Tampa Bay bullpen. Once considered the Twins’ closer of the future, he possesses the stuff to one day fulfill a late-innings role for the Rays, possibly as early as 2009. He primarily relies on his mid-90s fastball.
Ruggiano, coming off a strong performance in the 2007 World Baseball Cup, earned a September call-up with the Rays last year. With the departure of Dukes and Young via trades, he should get a shot to show his stuff at Tropicana Field at some point during the '08 season.
On The Horizon
Heath Rollins had a great run in the South Atlantic League in 2007. He finished the year with a 17-4 record, 2.54 ERA, 106 strikeouts and a 1.07 WHIP. Even with his recent success at the lower levels, though, he is still considered by many as a “fringe prospect.” That being said, he has great command, and the chance to surprise.
Rollins, whose pitching arsenal also features an improving slider, is an intelligent pitcher with promise who relies more on smarts than overwhelming stuff. Although he is currently buried behind a long list of renowned pitching prospects ranked ahead of him in the Tampa Bay organization, he could end up rising up the system under the radar, much like Andy Sonnanstine did the past few years.
Top Prospect: Evan Longoria
Longoria is the clear-cut choice as the Rays' top professional prospect, if not in all of baseball.
"Evan is the best hitting prospect out there, in my eyes. Look for him to hit 20-plus home runs as a rookie, and then consistently for years to come," a veteran scout told RaysDigest.com.
With plenty of expectations placed upon his shoulders entering spring training, Longoria batted .307/.403/.528, with 21 homers, a Montgomery single-season record, and 76 RBIs during 105 Double-A games. He earned league MVP honors, though he was promoted to Triple-A with a month left in the season.
Longoria continued to perform following his promotion to Durham, posting an .889 OPS in 31 games. The 22-year-old helped guide the Bulls deep into the postseason as well by hitting .375, with four doubles, two home runs and six RBIs, as his club reached the INT League finals.
Between stints at both levels, Longoria combined to hit .299/.402/.520, with 26 homers, 95 RBIs and a .921 OPS. He has shown a smooth, compact swing that generates remarkable bat speed. If he can adjust to off-speed pitching and improve upon his timing mechanism as a hitter, the former Long Beach State star could easily hit 30-plus home runs for the Rays during his rookie season and beyond.
Impact Rookie and Sleeper
At the end of last season, the Rays told incumbent starting third baseman Akinori Iwamura to start learning how to play a new position. With top prospect Evan Longoria constantly drawing comparisons to Milwaukee slugger Ryan Braun (but superior defensively) with his tremendous power potential and success, the Rays simply had no other choice. Headed into next season, Longoria is a heavy favorite to win the AL Rookie of the Year. Sleeper: Jeff Niemann has been plagued by the injury bug since being selected by the Rays in the first round in 2004. If can put it all together in spring training and remain healthy, however, the right-hander could crack the back of the Tampa Bay rotation.
Top 20 Prospects
1. Evan Longoria 3B – 22 – AL Rookie of the Year Candidate in 2008. 2. Jake McGee LHP – 21 – Lefty continues to impress as he rises up the ladder.
3. David Price LHP – 21 – Selected with top overall pick after stellar career at Vanderbilt.
4. Wade Davis RHP – 22 – Right-hander posted outstanding statistics during his first stint at Double-A.
5. Reid Brignac SS – 21 – Rays’ shortstop of the future.
6. Jeff Niemann RHP – 24 – Lanky Rice product finally appears to be healthy.
7. Desmond Jennings OF – 21 – Former Alabama WR recruit possesses blazing speed.
8. Jeremy Hellickson RHP – 20 – Dominated the South Atlantic League in ’07.
9. Eduardo Morlan RHP – 21 – Third player acquired in the Delmon Young trade, has a plus fastball that sits in the mid-90s.
10. Ryan Royster OF/DH – 21 – Won organizational Triple Crown during breakout season.
11. Mitch Talbot RHP – 24 – Struggled at times in 2007, needs to have a strong year.
12. Chris Mason RHP – 23 – Great performance in the Southern League.
13. Fernando Perez OF – 24 – Speedy outfielder who plays exceptional defense.
14. John Jaso C/DH – 24 – Recently added to the 40-man roster, can flat-out hit.
15. Will Kline LHP – 23 – Former Ole Miss star was Rays’ second pick in last year’s draft.
16. Justin Ruggiano OF – 25 – Earned a September call-up after hitting .309, with 20 home runs, at Durham.
17. Heath Rollins RHP – 22 – Enjoyed breakout season in ’07, has excellent command.
18. Mike McCormick C – 21 – Strong 2007 showing at Hudson Valley improved his status.
19. Nick Barnese RHP – 19 – Coming off a strong showing in the Appalachian League.
20. Sergio Pedroza OF – 24 – Needs to live up to tremendous potential.
To contact Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.