A lot is being made about the Tampa Bay Rays’ solid core of young talent at the major league level.
It is hard to talk about the Rays without mentioning the current core of cost-effective, team-controlled youngsters who led the franchise to the World Series. Everyone has heard of former first-round picks Evan Longoria and David Price by now, of course.
But here is a brief list, in no particular order, of several of the remaining high-level prospects in the Tampa Bay organization who are not yet household names for non-prospect fanatics.
Wade Davis, RHP—Davis’ stock took a bit of his this year, as he struggled to consistently command his pitches. He remains a high-level prospect, though, thanks to his solid movement on a low-90s fastball and an excellent curve ball. The right-hander has not shown the ability yet to consistently command his other offerings, a developing change-up and cut fastball.
Davis began the season in the Southern League, where he went 9-6 with a 3.85 ERA and 81-to-42 K/W ratio in 19 starts for the Montgomery Biscuits. He was a bit unlucky—with a high BABIP—and allowed nearly a hit per inning, but flashed signs of brilliance. He then earned a promotion to Triple-A in July, joining the Durham Bulls. He put together a nice string of quality outings for the Bulls, going 4-2 with a 2.72 ERA and 55-to-24 K/W ratio in nine outings. The difference, though it was a small sample size, had a lot to do with luck, as his BABIP decreased and he limited opponents to a .205 batting average.
Davis will spend most, if not all, of the 2009 season in a starting role again at Durham. The 6’5 former fourth-round pick, though, could join the Rays at some point if he can continue to improve his consistency.
Jeremy Hellickson, RHP—Hellickson does not have the prototypical body for a big-league pitcher, at 6’1, 185. The 21-year-old right-hander, though, is a legitimate major league prospect. He has an above-average fastball and two solid secondary pitches but what differentiates him is his excellent command.
Hellickson tore up the Florida State League this spring, going 7-1 with a 2.00 ERA and stellar 83-to-5 K/W ratio in 14 starts. Upon his promotion to Double-A Montgomery, though, he ran into some difficulties, allowing 15 home runs in 75.1 innings pitched. While he was prone to giving up the long ball, he rebounded nicely after a few rough appearances to finish his stint with the Biscuits 4-4 with a 3.94 ERA. His command remained exceptional—79-to-13 K/W ratio—but he posted an opponents’ batting average of .292. While he lacks a true out pitch, he still profiles as a solid middle-of-the rotation starter.
Reid Brignac, Shortstop—Brignac has made tremendous strides defensively the past two seasons. Considered the best defensive shortstop in the International League this year, he seems destined to stick at the position in the majors for years to come. While Jason Bartlett is currently manning the position effectively—defensively, that is—and is locked up for a few more years, the 22-year-old Louisiana native has a chance to serve as a stopgap until number one overall pick Tim Beckham, who has a real chance to remain at the position, is ready.
Brignac projects to hit for power at the major league level as well. Since his breakout offensive performance in the California League in 2006, however, he has regressed severely at the plate as he jumped two levels. His on-base skills, in fact, leave a bit to be desired, and he took another step back in his first full season with the Durham Bulls in 2008. He batted only .250/.299/.412, drawing only 25 walks while striking out 93 times. He will need to improve his plate discipline, but, with his above-average defense, he seems ready to latch on with the Rays in the near future.
Some other names to look out for: Nick Barnese, Beckham, John Jaso, Desmond Jennings, Jeff Niemann, Jake McGee
Barnese, who posted a 2.45 ERA and 84-to24 K/W ratio for Hudson Valley in the New York Penn League this summer, induces a ton of groundball outs with a solid, low-90s sinking fastball. He will look to make a major leap in his development next year, as he makes the jump to full-season ball.
Beckham has tremendous tools, and scouts feel that he can remain at shortstop. At 18 years old, though, he has a long way to go in terms of development before reaching the majors. The Georgia prep prospect is still a bit raw, as he did not begin playing baseball competitively until he was 14. While it is foolish to read too much into a prospect’s short-season professional debut, he did not exactly set the Appalachian League on fire—.243/.297/.345, in 177 at-bats. He has tremendous upside, which prompted the Rays to select him with their second consecutive first overall pick over more expensive college options like Pedro Alvarez and Buster Posey, and is an exceptional athlete. Look for Beckham, who earned a late-season promotion to Hudson Valley, to begin ’09 in the South Atlantic League.
Jaso has excellent on-base skills and can really hit, but has yet to show that he can handle his catching responsibilities effectively. The organization, it seems, is not sold on his defense, but he has a career minor league line of.273/.391/.426 and .817 OPS.
Jennings had a season to forget, as injuries prevented him from taking another giant leap forward in his development. The former Alabama quarterback recruit was looking to build upon a breakout 2007 campaign, in which he hit .315/.401/.465 in the Sally League, and established himself as one of the premier outfield prospects in the minors. An athletic, physically gifted athletic specimen, he took a major step forward as baseball player in ’07, swiping 45 bags while improving his plate discipline.
Unfortunately, Jennings began the season in extended spring training and sat out the first two months with back and shoulder injuries. When he was healthy enough, he reported to the Florida State League, hoping to stay on the field without any issues. After only 24 games roaming center field for Vero Beach, however, he re-injured his shoulder, requiring season-ending surgery. He should be ready at the start of spring training and remains a top outfield prospect.
Niemann may get traded this offseason, following a solid, injury-free performance in the International League. His star has dimmed, but he finally made his major league debut in April, posted a .3.59 ERA in 24 starts at Durham and consistently sat in the mid-90s with his fastball in an encouraging year in which he was linked to numerous trade rumors. He tends to get lost in the translation, with the Rays’ apparent surplus of pitching, but several organizations would love to have him in their system. The former Rice star no longer projects as a front-line stud, but he has a chance to turn into a solid number three or four guy in the big leagues. Out of options, he should finally stick in the majors for good next year.
McGee, lost early in the spring after tearing his ulnar collateral ligament, underwent successful Tommy John surgery—another James Andrews patient—and is out until the middle of ’09. Before the injury, the flamethrowing lefty was regarded as one of the premier pitching prospects in one of the majors’ deepest farm systems. According to Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, he may end up as a dominant closer for the Rays.
There are certainly others as well—from Fernando Perez to Heath Rollins—and expect to find a complete top prospect list in the next couple of weeks.
With the Rays’ ability to make cost-effective roster decisions, a solid core of young stars locked up for the long term, and with several of the aforementioned prospects close to reaching the show, it is clear that the Rays are not a one-year wonder. Many were critical when the Rays refused to give up a few of these prospects in deals at the trade deadline, but they made it to the Fall Classic without having to deal away any cheap, team-controlled assets. While the American League East will always provide a tremendous challenge—with the financial superpowers—the Rays seem equipped to make a nice little run.
To reach Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.