The organization does not have nearly as much depth on the position player front. In the second post in a two-part series focusing on the top hitting prospects in the Rays' system, here are profiles on six of the most promising Tampa Bay position player prospects.
Fernando Perez, Outfield— Perez showed off his speed to the world in the postseason, making an impact as a pinch-runner. He also provided several key hits, including an opposite field home run at Fenway Park, and played well defensively in the outfield for the Rays in September. When paired with Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton, he was perhaps the best pure athlete in one of the fastest outfield trios in baseball. The 26-year-old switch-hitter does not project to hit for any power, however, and needs to cut down on his strikeouts (156 Ks in 511 Triple-A at-bats).
Perez has shown impressive on-base skills throughout the minors. His 2007 performance in the Southern League really helped him establish himself, though, as he posted a .420 on-base percentage and finished with a personal best .901 OPS in 102 games with the Montgomery Biscuits. He still struck out in more than a fourth of his plate appearances (26.5%), however, and hit for limited power.
Before grabbing all of the headlines centering on his Ivy League degree and speed when he reached the majors in September, Perez had an up-and-down campaign at Triple-A Durham in 2008. He batted .288/.360/.393, with 17 doubles, 11 triples, five home runs, 86 runs scored and 43 steals in 55 chances. His 30.5 K% rate was concerning, though, and his batting average was inflated by a .406 BABIP. Granted, he has been able to post .400-plus BABIP totals in each of the past three seasons by beating out so many infield hits with his tremendous speed.
Perez has an outside chance to win the starting right field job in spring training if the Rays do not address the need externally. With his defense and speed—which will fit in with the Rays' run prevention efforts—he will see significant playing time for Tampa Bay in 2009 even if the club lands another outfielder this offseason. Still, barring an unlikely power spike, he does not project as more than a valuable fourth outfielder on a playoff-caliber team in the majors.
Emeel Salem, Outfield—Salem was selected by the Rays in the sixth round of the 2007 draft. A standout at the University of Alabama, he is a smart hitter with plus speed on the bases. He then reported to the New York Penn League to make his pro debut after signing. The left-handed-hitting outfielder batted .311/.378/.436, with 28 stolen bases and 41 runs scored, in 58 games. He finished with rates of 9.6 BB% and 12.0 K% and an .813 OPS.
Salem got off to a fast start in the South Atlantic League in his first crack at full-season ball this spring, but an injury sent him home early. He was batting .301/.359/.366 and leading the minors with 25 stolen bases when he sustained an elbow injury sliding into second base on May 24. He soon thereafter underwent season-ending surgery, performed by James Andrews near his home in Alabama, which prevented him from representing Columbus at the Sally League All-Star game.
Salem is expected to make a full recovery, but 2009 will be an important year in his development. Although he does not project to hit for any power, his advanced approach and speed make him an interesting follow.
Jason Corder, Outfield—Corder had an incredible high school career at Capistrano Valley High School near Los Angeles. A two-way star who averaged more than 10 home runs per season and shined on the mound, he was a three-time All-CIF conference selection. He went undrafted his senior year, however, despite the excellent performance.
Corder originally signed a letter of intent to play at Cal-Berkeley, where he struggled through two unproductive seasons before transferring to Long Beach State. A change of scenery helped him resurrect his status as a prospect, as he batted .280/.323/.490 and hit seven home runs in 34 games as a junior. He truly emerged as a draft candidate this spring, though, when he led the 49ers with 13 home runs and 45 RBIs. He produced a line of .301/.356/.597 and team-best .953 OPS while playing in one of the most difficult home hitting environments in the country, Blair Field.
The Rays, intrigued by the power potential, took Corder with the first pick of the seventh round in June. After agreeing to a $30,000 signing bonus, he reported to Hudson Valley. The 6-foot-2, 195-pond outfielder batted .306/.342/.456, with five homers and 36 RBIs, in a 50-game debut in the New York Penn League. He posted rates of 4.6 BB% and 18.0 K%, but still made a strong enough impression to earn Mid-Season NYPL All-Star honors. His swing is long and his approach could use some work, but his power potential is for real.
Unfortunately, Corder is a below average runner who does not project to add any value defensively at either corner outfield spot at the higher levels. Although he has outstanding arm strength—he was one of the best high school pitchers in California—he will have to hit, and a lot, to keep rising due to his limited tools.
Ty Morrison, Center Field—Morrison, the Rays' fourth-round pick in 2008 out of an Oregon High School, was one of the best athletes in his draft class. His best tool at this point is his speed (6.5 60-yard dash time), which enables him to cover a lot of ground in center field. He also has playable arm strength, with real potential to turn into an above average defender at the position. As a left-handed hitter from Oregon with a similar skill set, he drew frequent comparisons to Boston Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury when scouts came to see him play. Ellsbury, who was actually drafted by Tampa Bay out of high school before starring at Oregon State, was a more advanced hitter at the same age.
Morrison is an unpolished hitter with a few mechanical flaws in his swing. He even left a bit to be desired with his offensive output against weak competition during his final high school season. He can put on a show in batting practice, where he consistently flashes plus power potential, but has a long swing overall and poor strike zone awareness. At this point, he is another outstanding athlete who has the chance to turn into something special if he can refine his baseball skills and make the necessary adjustments as a hitter. Odds are, though, it will take him quite a while to do so as he adjusts to pro ball.
Morrison landed a $500,000 bonus before reporting to Princeton for a two-week debut, which means that he will be given every chance to fail. It is too small of a sample to read anything into it, but he collected nine hits, all singles, while striking out 12 times in 34 at-bats for the P-Rays. It will be interesting to see how he performs in a full season with the wood in his hands. He is a nice long-term prospect with some solid tools, but how he develops as a hitter will eventually determine his chances of making an impact in the majors.
Justin Ruggiano, Outfield—Ruggiano, 26, may be getting a bit too old to be labeled a "prospect," but still qualifies for our purposes. He has put up excellent numbers in the minors—.904 career minor league OPS in 1,702 at-bats—but is labeled by many scouts as a AAAA player. The left fielder had another strong showing in the minors in '08 as he returned to Durham for a second go-round. He batted .315/.374/.537, with 11 homers, a .911 OPS and 51 RBIs. Although it was a small sample size, he yet again struggled when he joined the Rays. He batted only .197, with six extra-base hits, in 45 games. The former Texas A & M standout failed to make enough of an impression to earn a place on the postseason roster even though Tampa Bay had a need for solid right-handed outfield bat off the bench.
The front office, it seems, is turned off by his high strikeout totals, which have also held him back. In fact, he went down on strikes in 30 percent of his Triple-A plate appearances (77 Ks in 257 at-bats). This was a slight improvement from his 31.3 K% rate in his first stint with Durham in 2007. He posted a solid .222 ISO and flashed some power, but his overall rate numbers were inflated by a .414 BABIP. Interestingly, this was actually down a point from '07, when he put together a line of .302/.378/.502 for the Bulls.
Ruggiano, who came to Tampa Bay along with Dioner Navarro and Jae Seo in a June 2006 trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers, is an average runner who provides only so-so defense on the corners. He has excellent arm strength, though, and was recently featured in the tools section of the Rays' prospect preview at Baseball America for having the "best outfield arm" in the organization. Overall, he is a nice player who does not do anything spectacular. If given the chance to play regularly, he could add some value.
Ryan Royster, Outfield—Royster won the organizational Triple Crown in 2007, when he helped the Columbus Catfish to the Sally League Championship. He batted .329/.376/.601, with 30 home runs and 90 RBIs, in a breakout performance that seemed to come out of nowhere. His stock fell quite a bit this past season, though, as he struggled against more advanced pitching in the Florida State League.
Royster posted a line of .265/.318./.373 while hitting only nine home runs in 426 at-bats for the Vero Beach Devil Rays. The fact that he finished second on the roster in home runs and was named Team MVP says more about the Devil Rays' anemic offense than his own accomplishment, as his slugging percentage was nearly cut in half. He still has power potential, but he will need to rebound in 2009 to remain on the Tampa Bay top prospect list in the future.
To reach Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.