Over at RaysProspects, Doug Milhoan has been doing an excellent job providing analysis of the top pitchers in the Tampa Bay system. The site recently ran a fan vote for the top pitching prospects in the organization. The results are in for the Top 10.
Here is the list, according to the fans, and some brief info on each pitcher.
David Price: This decision was obviously a no-brainer. Following a sterling postseason performance, Price is a household name. Before his call-up, the 22-year-old lefty was brilliant in the minors. He began the season in the Florida State League, where he went 4-0 and posted a 1.82 ERA, 9.61 K/9, 1.82 BB/9, 5.29 K/BB and 1.01 WHIP in six starts for the Vero Beach Devil Rays. Price then made the jump to the Southern League, where the success continued. He remained perfect, going 7-0 with a 1.89 ERA and 55 strikeouts in 57.0 innings pitched. While his peripherals declined a bit against more advanced hitters around his age (8.68 K/9, 2.53 BB/9) he was dominant at times, and there was speculation that he would bypass Triple-A altogether.
Price ultimately did get a promotion to Durham, which was in the middle of its own postseason race. He made four starts for the Bulls, and finally suffered his first professional loss in September. While he had some struggles with command (4.50 BB/9, 1.72 WHIP) he did not make enough starts in the International League to read too much into it.
Price then made five appearances in a fine September call-up (1.93 ERA, 12 Ks in 14.0 innings pitched). The USA Today Minor League Player of the Year provided another weapon out of the bullpen for Tampa Bay down the stretch. In that role, he showed off his mid-90s heater and excellent slider as he helped the Rays reach the World Series with a pivotal appearance in Game 7 of the ALCS. He is expected to win a job in the Rays' starting rotation in spring training and is a favorite for A.L. Rookie of the Year.
Wade Davis; Davis is also one of the top pitching prospects in the minors. He returned to Montgomery to begin the year with high expectations. He ran into some struggles early, though, as he posted a career low K/9, 6.77, and 4.59 tRA* in 107.2 innings pitched. Scouts were also concerned at various points during the spring, as he struggled with command and it appeared as if his stuff was not as sharp. He still was dominant at times and ended up with a 3.85 ERA in 19 starts before a late-summer promotion to Durham.
Davis rebounded with an excellent performance in the International League. Tough to hit (.207 opponents' batting average), he again showed the ability to miss bats by striking out 55 in 53.0 innings pitched. While he had command issues (4.08 K/9), he made some impressive starts. Overall, he posted a 2.72 ERA and 4.54 tRA* in nine appearances. The right-hander has one of the best curves in the minors and a fastball that sits in the 93-94 MPH range. Look for him to return to anchor the Bulls' starting rotation to begin 2009, barring an injury or trade. However, it would not be surprising for him to emerge with the Rays at some point if he improves from a consistency standpoint.
Jeremy Hellickson: The organization has been patient with Hellickson since they selected him out of an Iowa high school back in 2005. And he has done nothing but perform. The right-hander continued his success during a dominant debut in the Florida State League this spring. He won seven games for an offensively challenged Vero Beach club, posting a 2.00 ERA, 9.74 K/9, 0.59 BB/9 and ridiculous 16.60 K/W (83-to-5) ratio in 76.2 innings pitched.
Hellickson struggled upon a promotion to Double-A, though, as he allowed 15 homers and registered a .292 opponents' average in 13 starts for Montgomery. His peripherals remained strong, as he produced rates of 9.44 K/9, 1.79 BB/9 and a 5.27 K/B ratio in 75.1 innings pitched. In 27 starts combined between the two levels, he went 11-5 with a 2.96 ERA and 162 Ks against only 20 walks. While he does not have a prototypical top starters' body, standing 6-foot-1, his stuff comes close to matching the performance, and he is a legitimate major league pitching prospect.
Jeff Niemann: Niemann is probably never going to turn into the dominant Big League starter that scouts envisioned he would during his days as a College World Series hero at Rice University. The 6-foot-9 right-hander, however, still projects to add some value at the back-end of a big league rotation or out of the bullpen in the near future. Out of options, he is likely to do so with the Rays in '09.
Niemann made his long-awaited Major League debut in April when Scott Kazmir was on the disabled list with an elbow injury. He made five appearances, including two starts, for the Rays before being sent back down to Durham. He stayed healthy enough to make 24 starts, going 9-5 with a 3.59 ERA and 4.44 tRA* to help lead the Bulls to the postseason. Injuries dimmed his star a bit, sure, but he was still one of the more effective starters on the circuit. Nearly shipped out at the trade deadline in July, he registered an 8.66 K/9, 3.38 BB/9 and 2.56 K/BB ratio in 133.0 innings pitched.
Jake McGee: This time last winter, there was a debate over who was the better prospect, Wade Davis or McGee. The left-hander out of the pair was even ranked as a Top 10 prospect by several publications thanks to his overpowering fastball. It is hard to label 2008 as anything but a disappointment, however.
McGee made 15 starts in Double-A before tearing his ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow. He then underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery, performed by famed doctor James Andrews, and is now likely to miss the first few months of '09. Equally concerning, he struggled before getting hurt; his 7.53 K/9 was the lowest of his professional career and he posted a 4.73 tRA*. McGee was recently added to the Rays' 40-man roster, as he undoubtedly would have been picked up in the Rule V draft even in the aftermath of the elbow injury. He is likely to return as a reliever, though. In fact, he is a long-term closing candidate for Tampa Bay, according to manager Joe Maddon.
James Houser: Houser, a local product of Sarasota High School, had a nice season. His 50-game suspension for testing positive for a PED was cut short prior to Opening Day, and he then remained healthy enough to make 20 starts for Montgomery. Considering his injury-riddled past, this was an accomplishment on its own. The 24-year-old lefty is getting up there in years and is not as highly regarded as he once was. He somehow managed to factor in only six decisions (3-3) yet posted a 2.86 ERA and 4.77 tRA* in 94.1 innings pitched. Houser struck out 76 against 40 walks while registering a 7.25 K/9 and 3.82 BB/9. While he was pretty effective, it was surprising to see him ranked this high on the list.
Mitch Talbot: Talbot was more effective than Niemann for the Bulls, having posted a much lower, 3.89, tRA*. He also made his debut with the Rays, like his teammate, though he allowed 12 earned runs in 9.2 innings pitched. He was a key piece in the Durham pitching staff, though, as he picked up 13 wins and registered a 3.86 ERA and rates of 7.88 K/9, 1.96 BB/9, 4.03 K/BB and a 1.24 WHIP in 161.0 innings pitched.
Talbot, who came to Tampa Bay in the Aubrey Huff trade back in 2006, is another solid, cheap bullpen candidate headed into spring training. His stuff is a bit fringy, but he has plus command and knows how to pitch.
Nick Barnese: Barnese was ranked by Baseball America as the eighth-best prospect in the New York Penn League following the season. He also cracked BA's Top 10 Tampa Bay list, coming in at number seven. While he has yet to pitch a full professional season, it seems that he is worthy of the hype. Barnese has a low-90s fastball with a lot of sink, which enables him to induce a ton of ground balls. As far as performance goes, he has been solid. The ace of the Hudson Valley staff, he posted rates of 11.45 K/9 and 3.27 BB/9 and allowed only 52 hits in 66.0 innings pitched. Overall, he went 5-3 with a 2.45 ERA. He will get his first crack at full-season ball in '09 and could jump up the list quickly if the success continues.
Matthew Moore: Moore is a 19-year-old southpaw with a mid-90s fastball. With that kind of ability, it is not surprising that scouts are so enthralled by him. Although he repeated Rookie Ball again in '08, he cracked the BA Top 10 for the organization. It is foolish to read too much into any Appalachian League statistics, but his performance seemed to match the stuff for Princeton. He posted a 1.66 ERA in 12 starts, with rates of 12.75 K/9, 3.15 BB/9, a .164 opponents' batting average and a 0.90 WHIP. He simply overmatched recent draftees with his fastball, striking out 77 in 54.1 innings pitched.
Remember the name, because Moore has tremendous upside.
Heath Rollins. Rollins, a former two-way star at Winthrop University, is often overlooked with an apparent surplus of pitching in the organization. He did catch some attention with his record-setting performance for Columbus in 2007, going 17-4 with a 2.54 ERA and a 3.92 K/B ratio in 159.1 innings pitched. Along with Hellickson, he formed half of the most dangerous 1-2 pitching combination in the South Atlantic League while leading the Catfish to a championship. Many scouts dismissed the performance, though, given his age and underwhelming stuff.
Rollins was able to build off that performance and carried his success over to the Florida State League. It is easy to get fooled by his 5-11 record, which does not tell the whole story. He was pitching for a Vero Beach team that ranked near the bottom of the circuit in nearly every offensive category, from runs per game to batting average and OPS. The record masks his impressive performance, as he posted a 3.30 ERA, 3.83 tRA* and .235 opponents' batting average and solid rates of 7.59 K/9 and 1.78 BB/9 in 136.1 innings pitched. He was then promoted to Double-A, where he posted a 2.88 ERA in four starts. Look for him to return to Montgomery to begin 2009.