The Vero Beach Devil Rays have struggled in the second half, currently sitting with a 12-23 record and in the cellar of the Florida State League East division.
Vero Beach, currently 46-58 overall, finished 34-35 in the first half.
Similar to its parent club, the Devil Rays have been better at home as well, going 28-27 overall at Holman Stadium while struggling (18-31) on the road.
Featuring several key members of the 2007 South Atlantic League Champion Columbus Catfish, Vero Beach was not expected to struggle this much on the offensive end. In fact, the Devil Rays’ inability to score runs has been the major weakness and reason for the poor record.
Vero Beach has been the least productive offensive team on the circuit, ranking last in batting average (.242), runs scored (363), on-base percentage (.310), OPS (.654) and slugging percentage (.344).
Ryan Royster, who nearly won the Sally League Triple Crown in ’07, has been a major disappointment. Royster is currently batting .260/.306/.364 with only seven home runs. He has not made the jump to High Single-A, to put it mildly, seriously diminishing his status as a top prospect in the organization.
The Devil Rays are still waiting for Royster to regain his power stroke from last summer, when he posted a .982 OPS and hit 30 homers to guide Columbus to a title. Even worse, though, his plate discipline, questionable even during his breakout campaign, has been a major cause for concern against advanced pitching, as he has struck out 88 times while drawing only 20 walks in over 300 plate appearances.
The other premier offensive prospect expected to guide the Devil Rays’ offensive attack, Desmond Jennings, missed a huge chunk of the first half, and then sustained a season-ending shoulder injury. Jennings, perhaps the fastest player in a deep Tampa Bay farm system, cracked the organizational Top 10 prospect list after scoring 77 runs with 45 stolen bases and an .866 OPS in 99 games with the Catfish in ’07. The former Alabama quarterback recruit hit .259/.360/.412 before getting injured.
There is not a single member of the roster who is enjoying a breakout season, as outfielder John Matulia is the only regular with a plus-.300 batting average.
Matulia, a 10th-round pick back in 2005, has not flashed any power, though, sitting with a .380 slugging percentage and only one home run.
J.T. Hall has been perhaps the most productive hitter to this point. Hall is leading the team in on-base percentage and OPS, and earned an invitation to the FSL All-Star Game. Although he has hit only five homers during games, he even won the Home Run Derby at the event.
It was truly ironic that a Vero Beach player won the event, as its power drought has lasted all season. The Devil Rays have only hit 56 home runs as a team, fewer than all but four teams in the league.
Even that number is inflated by the performance of Matthew Fields, who ranks fourth in the league with 16 homers. Fields, however, is also fourth in the FSL in strikeouts, has shown disappointing plate discipline (24 walks) and has posted a weak line of .241/.311/.745. Selected by Tampa Bay in the 44th round of the 2004 draft out of Green River Community College in Washington, he is perhaps turning into a Two True Outcome player, because he has taken the bases on balls element out of the equation.
Royster is second on the club with his seven long balls.
Top catching prospect Nevin Ashley has also struggled, as the jump to this level has not been easy. Ashley, a sixth-round pick out of Indiana State back in 2006, put together a nice season—12 homers, 60 RBIs, .785 OPS—as a key force for Columbus a year ago. This season has been a different story, as he is batting .234/.331/.308 without any power in 83 games.
Ashley’s backup, Craig Albernaz, has posted a .403 OPS in 47 at-bats. Albernaz, a minor league roster filler who has an excellent throwing arm and strong receiving skills, is still a nice backstop to have in the system. The Eckerd College product was called up to Montgomery to catch a few innings earlier this week, but has not been a productive hitter in the pros since signing a free agent contract after his solid career in the Sunshine State Conference.
Local fans have still gotten their money’s worth when it comes to watching true professional hitters. Tampa Bay regulars Rocco Baldelli, Dioner Navarro, Carlos Pena and Ben Zobrist have all spent time in Vero Beach while on a rehab assignment, providing a few bright spots at the plate for the fan base.
The offensive struggles have lasted the entire season. Why, then, have the Devil Rays taken such a dive in the second half?
The reason is simple, really.
David Price and Jeremy Hellickson are gone.
Price, the first overall pick in the 2007 draft out of Vanderbilt University, was dominant at the top of the Devil Rays’ starting rotation before getting promoted in June to Double-A Montgomery. The lanky southpaw, perhaps the best overall pitching prospects in the minors, was a perfect 4-0 in six starts. In fact, he looked absolutely dominant at times, overmatching young hitters with his mid-90s fastball and excellent command. He posted a 1.82 ERA, 37-to-7 K/W ratio and .220 opponents’ batting average, allowing only seven earned runs on 28 hits in 34.2 innings pitched.
Vero Beach was only a quick stop on his tour of system, which will most likely end at Tropicana Field come September.
Hellickson was equally as dominant, going 7-1 with a 2.00 ERA in 14 starts with the Devil Rays. Perhaps more impressive, he showed a tremendous ability to miss bats, registering a 83-to-5 K/W ratio while limiting opponents to a .224 batting average in 76.2 innings pitched. Making it look easy with every outing, he was named as the starting pitcher for the East squad in the FSL All-Star game, though he did not pitch due to a blister on his pitching hand.
Ryan Reid was the best reliever for the team before he was promoted as well. Reid, a seventh-round pick in ’06, posted a 0.29 ERA, 45-to-3 K/W ratio and .136 opponents’ batting average in 21 appearances at Vero Beach. He picked up eight saves, allowing only one earned run in 31.0 innings pitched. His departure certainly left a hole in the Devil Rays’ bullpen, but he is also doing well in the Southern League. While he is no longer missing bats like he was—35-to-20 K/W ratio—he has posted a 2.76 ERA for the Biscuits.
Heath Rollins does not have overpowering stuff, yet put together the best statistical campaign in the Sally League in ’07, anchoring the Catfish staff alongside Hellickson. Rollins was elected to the league All-Star team and brought home SAL Pitcher of the Week honors four times, going 17-4 with a 2.54 ERA and 149-to-38 K/W ratio.
While the jump has not been as easy as it was for Hellickson, Rollins has been effective again, earning All-Star honors. His 5-9 record, in fact, is misleading, as his 3.57 ERA is the ninth-lowest total in the league. He also ranks second with a 1.06 WHIP, yet has not received any run support with the tremendous offensive struggles of his teammates.
Yet again, Rollins' case is the perfect example of why wins and losses do not ultimately show a pitcher’s true effectiveness. Take the record out of the picture, because his performance has been impressive again, though—similar to Andy Sonnanstine, currently in the Rays’ rotation—he will have to keep proving himself with his fringe stuff. He relies more on command and pitching savvy, which has worked for him against younger, less advanced hitters. The next jump will be a true test for him.
Outside of the aforementioned trio, Brandon Mann, Ryan Morse and Matthew Walker have received the majority of starts.
Mann, a bit old for the league, was a 27th-round back in 2002 who is still struggling to make a dent in the organization. He also has pitched better than his record (3-9) would suggest, posting a 4.22 ERA and 69-to-27 K/W ratio in 18 starts. The lefty does not fool a lot of hitters, though, and hitters have always seen the ball well against the 24-year-old.
Morse is 2-8 with a 4.22 ERA in 13 starts. In 98.0 innings pitched, he has posted a 60-to-33 K/W ratio and 1.41 WHIP.
Walker was suspended 50 games for violating Major League Baseball's substance abuse policy. Selected by Tampa Bay in the 2004 draft, he was 4-7 with a 4.86 ERA, 48-to-47 K/W ratio and .256 opponents' batting average in 66.2 innings pitched for Vero Beach. The 21-year-old right-hander posted similar numbers at in the FSL in '07 as well, going 4-9 with a 5.55 ERA and a poor 76-to-82 K/W ratio in 95.2 innings pitched in 2007.
Neal Frontz was a key stopper at closer, picking up 19 saves while posting a 1.38 ERA in 52.0 innings pitched before getting the call to the next level last week. His absence will be missed as well, but the transition to Double-A is a big step in his young pitching career.
The club with look to receive a boost from Darin Downs, whom Tampa Bay acquired in a deal with the Chicago Cubs this weekend in exchange for a player to be named later. Downs, 2-2 with a 4.92 ERA between the FSL and Southern League, will add another arm to the Devil Rays’ bullpen.
Overall, Vero Beach is third in the league with a 3.60 team ERA and first with a 1.25 WHIP. With the loss of two of the flagship pitching prospects and the club’s two best relievers, though, those numbers are only going to go up.
Thus, the rest of the summer will not be easy, for sure.
Price is gone. Hellickson is gone. Jennings is hurt.
The Devil Rays will need to adapt somehow to finish strong the rest of the way.
To reach Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.