The Tampa Bay Rays amazed the baseball world with their improbable run to the World Series in 2008, a meeting they lost to the Philadelphia Phillies. The Rays went from the cellar of the AL East in 2007 to the pinnacle of one of baseball's toughest divisions thanks to a 31-win turnaround, largely in part to an influx of young, homegrown talent. The baseball world became enamored with names such as Evan Longoria, Matt Garza, David Price, and B.J. Upton. It wasn't any secret that Tampa Bay had large quantities of prospects looming in their system for years, waiting to take over on the big league club, but nobody expected it to happen as fast as it did.
The Rays, the small market club that they are, have to be creative in the free agent and trade markets while operating at a highly efficient level when it comes to the amateur draft. Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman knew that the success of the ball club would depend on how well the front office, scouting department, and player development folks collaborated on a solitary objective of producing their own winners, their own tough ballplayers. The Rays aren't going to spend $100 million over the course of the winter and try to become the loot-heavy empires that the Yankees and Red Sox are.
The Rays punked the AL East alpha dogs last season by committing to a winning attitude through a style of play that depended on intensity and confidence. Manager Joe Maddon preaches these principles to the prospects throughout the system and that is why the Rays had so much success from rather unproven big league players. David Price crashed the party late in 2008 and became a playoff prince over night, and Wade Davis, Jeremy Hellickson, and Jake McGee have become popular names throughout the scouting community and have attracted interest from multiple clubs seeking trade avenues.
The Rays farm system is indeed stocked with pitching talent and the majority of it is in the upper minor league levels, making a few arms almost big league ready. As the Rays continue to seek impact arms through the draft, there happens to be more of where that pitching came from lurking in the lower levels, and it starts with Nick Barnese.
Barnese is not yet a household name, but that is due to his age not his ability. Barnese, a right-handed pitcher, was Tampa Bay's third-round draft pick in 2007 out of Simi Valley high school in Simi Valley, California. He was committed to Cal State Fullerton before signing with the Rays in the summer for $366,000.
Barnese, who doesn't turn 20 until January 11 next year, is a polished pitcher considering he came from the high school ranks, and there is no need for the Rays to rush him to the big leagues considering the older talent they have. Organizations like to see their players succeed at every level, especially guys who were high school draftees, as it breeds confidence and helps avoid piling the plate of a youngster too high too quickly. That is what Tampa Bay intends to do with Barnese.
After signing, Barnese made his rookie ball debut with Princeton in the Appalachian League, where he was rated the sixth best prospect on the circuit by Baseball America. He went 2-2 over the summer with Princeton, posting a 3.22 ERA in 36 1/3 innings to go along with an astounding 37-to-4 K/BB ratio.
In his first full season of pro ball, Barnese was sent to Class A Short-Season, where he spent the entire year with the Hudson Valley Renegades. He made an immediate impression as a dominant starting pitcher in the New York Penn League, posting a 5-3 record in thirteen starts with a 2.45 ERA. In 66 innings, he struck out 84 and walked only 24 while allowing a .212 opponents' batting average against. Barnese was selected as a NYPL All-Star, and his stellar season was rewarded in October when he was a Baseball America Short Season All-Star selection.
There is a ton to like about the 6'2", 170-pound Simi Valley native, starting with his repertoire. Barnese commands an above-average fastball that sits in the 91-93 mph range with good life. For a second offering, he goes to his breaking ball, which is more of a slurve than a true 12-6 hammer due to its tilt. He throws it hard with good depth and late, sharp break, allowing him to use it as an out-pitch because it has the capability to miss bats. Barnese also has a change up, but it is currently a distant third pitch compared to his first two pitches. With that said, his feel for pitching is impressive given the fact that he was primarily a one-pitch guy in high school because he didn't need anything other than his fastball to dominate as an amateur. Barnese's ETA should be sometime in 2011, possibly Opening Day if he continues to impress.
What excites the Rays about Barnese the most is his intangibles. He has strong make up and brings an aggressive approach and mentality to pitching. A fearless competitor, Barnese carries an edge and swagger on the mound that may borderline as arrogance and rubs some people the wrong way. His attitude is more of a result of his extreme self confidence and passion, two attributes that are necessary to make it to the big leagues, rather than cockiness. Barnese tends to make hitters uncomfortable due to his willingness to throw inside with his fastball. He makes it a point of his game plan to establish the inside part of the plate. If hitters object, well, that's their problem.
Barnese has drawn comparisons to Matt Garza on the big league club, as both guys share the same intensity and fire. He doesn't have the raw stuff that Garza has, but some of that is because Barnese is not even out of his teen years quite yet. Garza possesses a toxic slider to go along with a mid-90s fastball, and that is why he is potentially a bona fide ace. Barnese's secondary pitches will have to come along for him to be projected as a No. 1, but he has plenty of time to apply the polish. At the least, Barnese has a chance to equal Garza's velocity in the future.
The Rays have made it a point to load their club with tough-minded guys who enjoy the simple nature of competition. That is why they were able to get so much from guys like Andy Sonnastine, Grant Balfour, and J.P. Howell. Sonnastine proved to be a winner thanks to superb competitive nature, and Barnese is essentially Sonnastine with better raw stuff. As part of their "underdog" persona, the Rays feature heads full of mohawks and hearts full of desire. They have painted a picture of the type of ball player they want to wear their uniform much like the Boston Red Sox have done, and we know how that has worked out for that club. Tampa Bay wants confident ball players who know they can succeed and believe they can win. After a quick trip to the barber, drop Barnese off in the clubhouse at The Trop. He'll fit right in.