Jason Bartlett and Akinori Iwamura held down shortstop and second base, respectively, for the American League Champion Tampa Bay Rays in 2008, solidifying one of the best defensive infields in baseball. Bartlett and Iwamura, who made a flawless transition from third base, formed one of the premier middle infield combos in the game. There is some help on the way, but the pair will remain up the middle in Tampa Bay for the time being.
Overall, Tampa Bay’s system appears to be a bit thin up the middle. There still are some intriguing names, though, including two of the Top 10 prospects in the Rays' system. The group features one future superstar, one very solid prospect, and then a slew of guys, from all ages, who have some intriguing skills but have a ways to go to complete the package. We will look at four standout names; two shortstops and two second basemen.
But this type of inventory is not uncommon. Impact middle infielders are like courtside season tickets holders for the Miami Heat. There’s a limited quantity and some years offer zero availability. Most drafts will only have a couple guys who fit the mold of ‘impact middle infielder’, and some drafts may not have any. Most farm systems don’t have more than a couple quality prospects in this area.
With that said, the Rays have to be awfully excited with the kid who claims the number one spot, shortstop Tim Beckham. Tampa Bay selected Beckham first overall in the 2008 draft out of Griffin High School in Georgia. Beckham didn’t tear up rookie ball in his pro debut last summer like a number one overall pick normally would, but that’s because he was only 18 years old and fresh from the high school ranks. After signing for a cool $6.15 million signing bonus, Beckham split time between Princeton and Hudson Valley, hitting a combined .246/.309/.350 with two home runs and six stolen bases in seven chances.
It’s not about the statistics for Beckham right now. For a kid who won’t turn 19 until January 27, it’s all about projection—and Beckham has a ton of it! At 6’2” 190 lbs., he fits the mold of the modern day shortstop—strong, physical, and athletic. He could add another inch in height and will certainly add at least another 15 pounds as he matures. In time, his body type could resemble that of Derek Jeter.
There are few guys in the minor leagues that have the ceiling of Beckham, who is above average across the board and projects to be a five-tool player with an advanced feel for the game. The strong wrists, superb bat speed, and uncanny knack for squaring up the ball on the barrel are hard to ignore as the ball jumps off of his bat. The power is mostly a projection right now, and scouts believe the biggest flaw with Beckham's swing is his inability to turn on the ball like he should. This shouldn’t be a difficult fix, and once he irons it out, the power will follow.
Beckham’s spikes don’t smoke as he rounds the bases, but his above average speed—6.33 60-yard dash time—coupled with great instincts on the bases make him a plus runner. Beckham can’t split the eye of a hurricane like a Rafael Furcal can, but his arm is plenty strong and he covers more than enough ground to be an elite defender at a premium position for many years. Most scouts, in fact, expect him to remain at the position in the long term.
Given his age and the investment the Rays made in him, there is no rush for Beckham and he will be given every chance to succeed. It’s possible that the Rays start him at Hudson Valley again in 2009, but he could spend most of the season at Class-A Bowling Green with an ETA of mid-to-late 2012.
Next on the list is shortstop Reid Brignac. Brignac was selected by Tampa Bay in the second round of the 2004 draft out of St. Amant High School in Louisiana, the same high school that produced pitcher Ben Sheets. He had a solid 2006 when he won Cal League M.V.P, and then impressed many by hitting 17 home runs in Double-A Montgomery in ’07. For his power potential, he was labeled as the shortstop of the future in Tampa Bay. With the acquisition of Jason Bartlett on the big league club, Tim Beckham with the first overall pick in last year’s draft, and a regression in 2008 for Brignac, that is no longer the case.
Brignac still offers an impressive package of tools to go along with a 6’3”, 180 lb., frame, and looks like the part of a major league shortstop. He has an advance feel for the game and shows the capability of becoming a middle-of-the-order threat. His power is pull-power, but he could hit for power to the opposite field if he ditched the habit of lunging at the ball. Brignac has good bat speed and quick hands, so he needs to trust them more. He has a plus arm at shortstop and has improved his range since being drafted. Voted as the premier defensive shortstop in the International League by the coaches and managers, he has put to bed any talk about switching positions with his improvements defensively.
The problem with Brignac is that he needs to translate those tools into offensive production against high-level pitching, a leap that he hasn’t taken yet. He’ll turn 23 in January, and ’09 will be his fifth full season in professional baseball. In 2008, Brignac hit only .250/.299/.412 with nine home runs in 352 at-bats for the Class Triple-A Durham Bulls. He then saw ten at-bats with the big club when Bartlett was on the disabled list, but went hitless.
It is all right to sacrifice some on-base skills to be an offensive shortstop, but with an OBP of .299, Brignac isn’t seeing the bases more than a late-inning pinch runner. Even more telling, he struck out 93 times while drawing only 25 walks. If he shows an improvement in his plate discipline and can get on base more frequently, Brignac could find his way to Tampa Bay sometime in 2009 as a backup, potentially pushing for serious playing time if he gets off to a real hot start offensively at Durham. But at this rate, an ETA of 2010 is more likely. He is also a potential trading chip, but will likely add a stopgap between Bartlett, as he becomes expensive in arbitration, and Beckham.
Elias Otero is next up, and he is the first of two second basemen to join the rankings. Otero excelled in 2008, hitting .332/.398/.534 for Princeton in the Appalachian League. He showed signs of potentially becoming an offensive-minded second baseman, hitting five home runs in 208 at-bats. At 6’2”, 166 lbs., Otero still has a ton of projection and will be a bigger second baseman as he matures; his body type may end up similar to that of Chase Utley.
Otero was old for the Appalachian League—he played the season as a 20-year-old—and after turning 21 on December 19, it wouldn’t be surprising or unrealistic if the Rays chose to start him at Low-A Bowling Green in ’09. Otero is a switch-hitter with average speed and projects to be a solid average defender, despite the possibility of being a 6’3” second baseman. The athleticism throughout his wiry frame allows him to move freely. Due to his age, projections, and his propensity to get on base, I am higher on Otero than most people. If he continues to produce against higher levels of competition, his name will pop up more frequently throughout scouting circles.
Second baseman Juan Cuello rounds out the list of the top middle infielders, and Cuello is all intrigue at this point. Cuello hails from San Cristobal, Dominican Republic and played in the Rookie Dominican Summer League in 2008 as a 19-year-old. Cuello hit .293/.374/.371 in 232 at-bats for the DSL Rays. His 35/28 strikeout-to-walk ratio is impressive for a kid this young, and Cuello showed good speed, stealing 15 bags in 20 chances.
Cuello is a long ways away from the big leagues, but for a kid who won’t turn 20 until May, he has good instincts and a good feel for the game. Cuello is 5’11”, 170 lbs., and he has room to grow and develop. He won’t be as big as Otero, but he still projects as a physical second baseman, along the lines of a Robinson Cano body type. What is most exciting about Cuello is that he should cover more ground than the field tarp while settling in at the top of the lineup as a dynamic catalyst. Cuello’s ETA is probably somewhere around 2013.
1. Tim Beckham, Shortstop
2. Reid Brignac, Shortstop
3. Elias Otero, Second Base
4. Juan Cuello, Second Base
Teddy Mitrosilis is a sophomore baseball player at Long Beach City College in California. To reach him, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.