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Minors  | General  | 2/24/2012

Top Prospects: Tampa Bay Rays

David Rawnsley     
Photo: Marvin Gentry

General Manager: Andrew Friedman
Minor League Director: Mitch Lukevics
Scouting Director: R.J. Harrison

AAA: Durham Bulls (International League) 80-62
AA: Montgomery Biscuits (Southern League) 64-75
Hi A: Charlotte Stone Crabs (Florida State League) 64-75
Low A: Bowling Green Hot Rods (South Atlantic League) 77-63
Rookie Adv.: Hudson Valley Renegades (New York-Penn League) 37-39
Rookie: Princeton Rays (Appalachian League) 30-38
Rookie: GCL Rays (Gulf Coast League) 24-36
Dominican: DSL Rays (Dominican Summer League) 35-35
Venezuelan: VSL Rays (Venezuelan Summer League) 38-33

System Overview

Tampa Bay continues to be the true feel good story of Major League Baseball. With some of the lowest revenues in the game, an antiquated stadium tied into a long-term lease and a big league payroll approximately 30-35 percent of the rival Yankees, the Rays have won an average of 92 games a season for the last four years, and have been to the playoffs three of those seasons.

Last year’s improbable September run to the playoffs, in what was realistically supposed to be a rebuilding year, just adds to the mystique around the franchise.

Of course, when Tampa Bay looks at rebuilding, they approach it in a different way than most professional sports teams would. For Tampa Bay, it’s a matter of rebuilding and adjusting the payroll structure to fit the realities of the franchise. When they can’t afford to pay Carl Crawford or Matt Garza, they trade them or let them go. Most teams are rebuilding around their talent base.

But because the Rays have so much talent in their minor league system, much of it just sitting on the doorstep refining their skills and waiting for an opportunity, they aren’t lowering the talent level on the field when they have to let a player go due to cost management issues.

When Garza become too expensive, and the Rays knowing they had multiple potential replacements for his spot in the rotation, they traded him to the deep pocket Cubs for five players, including two of that organization’s best prospects, SS Hak-Ju Lee and RHP Chris Archer. Garza went 10-10 with a 3.32 ERA in 198 innings in Chicago, and the Rays replaced him with American League Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson, who went 13-10, with 2.95 ERA in 189 innings. No drop off there.

When Crawford, perhaps the best player in franchise history, became too expensive, they replaced him with prospect Desmond Jennings. Jennings was injured much of the season but was one of the keys to Tampa Bay’s September run, and finished with 10 home runs and 20 stolen bases in only 63 games (.803 OPS). Crawford hit 11 home runs and stole 18 bases (.694 OPS) in an entire season in Boston, the worst of his career, while earning $19.5 million.

The most impressive thing is that there is absolutely no reason this cycle should stop or even have a major bump in the foreseeable future, especially with manager Joe Maddon and GM Andrew Friedman still in charge.

Take, for example, starting pitching. Tampa Bay’s projected starting rotation for 2012 consists of 26-year old two-time All-Star David Price, 30-year old All-Star James Shields, 25-year old Hellickson, 23-year old phenom LHP Matt Moore and either 26-year old Wade Davis (23-20 the past two seasons) or 29-year old Jeff Niemann (36-21 the past three season). That list doesn’t include 24-year old Alex Cobb, who went 3-2, 3.42 in nine starts last year in Tampa after completely dominating AAA.

All seven of those pitchers were drafted by the Rays and developed in their system, and all seven also are capable of starting for the vast majority of the teams in Major League Baseball. But two of them won’t start for Tampa Bay, and should it become necessary or desirable to trade any of the seven, the line will continue to move forward from below, with pitchers like LHP Alex Torres, RHP Chris Archer and RHP Alex Colome all sitting in AA or AAA ready to advance.

2011 Draft

Tampa Bay had an unprecedented 11 picks among the first 89 selections in the 2011 draft, a scenario that will never be repeated under the new draft rules with fewer opportunities to acquire extra picks. They received two extra picks for losing Crawford, and also gained a pair of picks for reliever Grant Balfour. They also received compensation picks for “losing” free agents LHP Randy Choate, OF Brad Hawpe, RHP Rafael Soriano, RHP Chad Qualls and RHP Joaquin Benoit. The manipulation of the free agency rules by the Rays front office was sheer genius and infused an already talent rich minor league system with a huge influx of new prospects to develop.

There was speculation throughout the scouting community during the spring on how the low budget Rays would approach the draft financially, given the extra money that they inevitably would have to spend to sign the extra picks. In the end they played it pretty straight, paying slot money for a majority of the picks, saving a few dollars on some pre-draft deals in the compensation round, spending a little extra on some mid-round picks and really only going over slot for one pick, California high school 3B Tyler Goeddel ($1.5M with the 41
st overall pick).

Although the Rays have gained the reputation, and with good reason, of aiming for and developing high ceiling talent, they have always been a scouting organization that weighs out all the factors and will go with a college talent just as quickly as a raw high school athlete.

That’s how they can draft Mikie Mahtook from LSU and Kes Carter from Western Kentucky during those first 11 picks while still picking raw but athletic high school outfielders James Harris, Brandon Goetzman and Johnny Eierman in top round slots (all five of those picks have centerfield tools, by the way, another Rays preference). They may have reached a bit for Washington high school left hander Blake Snell in the compensation round, but followed that pick seven picks later with savvy Vanderbilt southpaw Grayson Garvin. Junior college closer Jeff Ames has limited pitching skills but a huge mid-to-upper 90s fastball, while Hawaii closer Lenny Linsky is a polished Southern California native who should move quickly through the system.

All of this points to balance in the Rays' decision making process.

The Rays also had three extra picks in the 2010 draft. This continued largesse, plus their success in trading for prospects and farming the Latin American market has left them in the enviable position of being three to four deep in their minor league system. They have Tim Beckham and Hak-Ju Lee at the AAA and AA levels at shortstop, but they still have the opportunity to develop Jake Hager and Brandon Martin with the 32
nd and 38th picks in the 2011 draft. They have Evan Longoria potentially signed through 2016 with his option years, but there was no reason for them not to pick Goeddel and invest in his future. Tampa Bay has picked five high school outfielders in the top three rounds the past two years. If only two of them develop into big league starters, the Rays are still way ahead of the game.

The prospect field appears to be balanced all the way through the system as well.

Top 10 Prospects

1. LHP Matt Moore
Baseball-reference player profile

Moore is acknowledged as the best pitching prospect in baseball and is good enough that he will most likely push an established Major League starting pitcher such as Wade Davis or Jeff Niemann to the bullpen or the trade market this spring. He has David Price’s fastball velocity and command, but has shown both a better breaking ball and change up at times. It’s not a matter of having nothing left to prove in the minor leagues, it’s that Moore has already shown he has not only the stuff but the mental and emotional ability to be an immediately successful big league pitcher. Shutting out the Yankees for five innings in your big league debut, then throwing seven shutout innings against the powerful Rangers line up in the American League playoffs will do that.

The difference between a 14-8 rookie season out of Moore (consistent with Jeremy Hellickson’s 2011 performance) and a respectable 12-10 season out of Davis or Niemann could well mean the difference in making the playoffs in the hyper-competitive American League East. Remember, the 2011 season went down to the last pitch. And a 14-8 season could just beginning to scratch the surface on Moore’s potential.

The ever innovative Rays management even took the unprecedented step of locking Moore down on a long-term contract before he has even officially become a full-time member of the team’s pitching staff. The unique contract, which could tie Moore to the Rays through 2019 under optimum conditions, has a matter of risk if Moore were to get seriously hurt, but could also be a huge coup for an organization that has to control costs and project them out many years into the future.

2. SS Hak-Ju LeeBaseball-reference player profile

The Rays acquired Lee, along with fellow top 10 prospect Chris Archer, big league outfielder Sam Fuld, OF prospect Brandon Guyer and C Robinson Chirinos, for RHP Matt Garza and two minor leaguers in a trade that has “steal” written over it should either Lee or Archer fulfill their potential.

While Lee had originally been given a $725,000 bonus to sign out of South Korea by the Cubs and has performed well since coming to the States, he could be much better than either the Cubs or Rays thought when the trade was made. He has all the tools defensively to be an All-Star/Gold Glove level player in the big leagues and Cubs fans would be obsessing on Starlin Castro’s inevitable move off of shortstop in favor of Lee if he was still with the organization. And while Lee is unlikely to ever have double figure home run power, he projects to be a high average hitter who takes walks and has the potential to be an impact base stealer.

An infield with Lee, two-time Gold Glove 3B Evan Longoria and sure handed 2B Ben Zobrist is something the Rays pitching staff could really look forward to.

3. LHP Enny RomeroBaseball-reference player profile

Romero is a loose and whippy armed 6-3/165 product of the Dominican Republic. While most systems seem to have a tall and angular Dominican right hander with Romero’s look and profile, finding left handed pitchers with that type of mid 90s velocity and overall ceiling is much more rare. Although Romero’s hard downer curveball is a potential plus second pitch to go with his fastball, he doesn’t throw enough strikes with either pitch or repeat his delivery consistently enough to be more than a level-by-level prospect at the moment. But if it suddenly clicks for him, Romero has the raw ability to be top of the rotation starter for the Rays. They can afford to be patient with him with that kind of future potential.

4. LHP Alex TorresBaseball-reference player profile

The Rays brought up two prospect left handers to make key appearances during the pennant race last September and both picked up their first Major League win in the process, with the other being Matt Moore, of course. Torres had just finished a 9-7, 3.08 season in which he led the International League in strikeouts with 156, his third straight minor league season with over 150 strikeouts.

The 5-10/175 Torres, a native of Venezuela, packs plenty of power in his smaller frame. He pitches in the low 90s with his fastball and throws two off-speed pitches, a hard curveball and a change up, that are potential plus offerings. He has also proven very durable. Where Torres could be held back is by his control, as he walked 83 hitters in 146 minor league innings in 2011, plus seven more in his eight big league innings. His delivery has both effort and deception, and even after nearly 600 professional innings he still hasn’t mastered the skill of repeating his release point. Torres will likely be given another opportunity to dominate AAA hitters as a starter in 2012 while improving his command, but could end up in a long relief role should that need arise in Tampa.

Ironically, Torres originally came to the Rays in a trade for another undersized left hander with powerful stuff and less than ideal command; former All-Star Scott Kazmir. The Rays also picked up SS Sean Rodriguez in that trade, while Kazmir is currently out of professional baseball.

5. RHP Chris ArcherBaseball-reference player profile

Archer ranked higher on the prospect charts than Hak-Ju Lee at the time of the Cubs trade and has not lost any of his prospect luster in the year since. Lee has just taken a step forward, while Archer blends in more with the depth of power arms in the system.

Like LHP Alex Torres, Archer has plus stuff, including a mid-90s fastball and a slider that could be the best breaking ball in the Tampa Bay system, but struggles with command and consistency. He walked 86 hitters in 147 innings between AA and AAA and was only able to average 5 1/3 innings per start. In addition to his command issues, Archer has not established any off speed pitch he can throw below 85 mph, whether that be a curveball or a reliable change up. That combination has led to speculation that Archer is a closer in waiting for the Rays, who haven’t done much as an organization to develop relievers and are heavily dependent on the fringe market to stock their bullpen.

6. RHP Taylor GuerrieriBaseball-reference player profile

Guerrieri had as good of raw stuff as any high school pitcher in the 2011 draft, but slid to the 24
th overall pick amid concerns about some of his off the field actions that necessitated his transferring high schools prior to his senior year. He’s the type of pick the Rays can afford to make with their wealth of pitching depth; if he ends up as a top of the rotation starter that’s great, if he doesn’t there are other arms in the system that will take his place.

Guerrieri has all three of the basic pitches in place at or near the plus level in quality. He’s already able to hold a 93-95 mph fastball deep into starts, his power curveball is a potential big league strikeout pitch with impressive size and spin, while his change up is surprisingly good considering how rarely he uses the pitch. If he adapts quickly and successfully to professional baseball, Guerrieri could easily top the Rays prospect list next year and become a Shelby Miller (Cardinals) or Jacob Turner (Tigers) type fast-track prospect.

7. RHP Alex ColomeBaseball-reference player profile

A native of the Dominican Republic and a nephew of former Tampa Bay reliever, Jesus Colome, Alex has perhaps the best fastball in the Rays system outside of Matt Moore when you combine its velocity and movement. Colome is capable of sitting at 94-95 for entire outings and will touch 97-98 mph on occasion, often with hard late sinking action at the bottom of the zone. He throws a complete assortment of pitches including a curveball, slider and change up, but none has established itself as a dependable secondary pitch. In fact, Colome struck out only 31 hitters in 52 innings in nine AA starts at the end of the year, a low total for a pitcher with mid 90s velocity and indicative of the fact that hitters at that level weren’t concerned about a swing and miss secondary pitch.

8. OF Drew VettlesonBaseball-reference player profile

Vettleson is an excellent all around athlete who also has very advanced baseball skills and a feel for the game. He received attention in high school for being a switch pitcher with 90 mph velocity with each arm, but that was only a side show that demonstrated his athletic ability and coordination. Vettleson’s best tool was and continues to be his left handed bat. He hasn’t fully matured physically yet, but has hand/eye coordination and quickness to square up solidly on top level velocity pitching and drive it hard to all fields. He hit seven home runs and slugged .462 as a 19-year old in the Appalachian League, and those numbers should continue to grow as he gets stronger.

Running speed is Vettleson’s only average to below average tool, but his baseball instincts are such that he stole 20 bases in 61 games last summer. He profiles as a right fielder at the big league level.

9. 2B Ryan BrettBaseball-reference player profile

Brett’s 5-9/180 size and his second base/centerfield profile as a high school player caused him to be overlooked by some scouts as a future quality college performer instead of a draft prospect, but the Rays picked him in the third round in 2010 anyway. He rewarded the Rays with an excellent first full season, hitting .300-3-24/.841 OPS with 21 steals and more walks than strikeouts.

Brett is a dirtbag type player with a very high energy and aggressive approach to the game. He has two plus tools in his running speed and his switch-hitting ability, and will max out those and the rest of his overall package. He’s the type of player who if you watch him play for consecutive days as a scout you will likely say, “This guy is definitely going to play in the big leagues.”

10. SS Tim BeckhamBaseball-reference player profile

Beckham has received plenty of scrutiny and more than a bit of critical review since being the first overall pick in the 2008 draft. But that started to change in 2011 as the now 21-year old Georgia native had his best season (.271-12-70/.736 OPS) between AA and AAA and re-emerged as a potential big league starter.

It is interesting to note how the other top six players in the 2008 draft have fared and speculate how the Rays might be different at the big league level if they had made a different choice. No. 2 overall pick 3B Pedro Alvarez (Pirates) and No. 4 overall pick LHP Brian Matusz (Orioles) both made impressive big league debuts but suffered through horrid 2011 campaigns. Neither would figure any more into the Rays present big league roster than Beckham. On the other hand, No. 3 pick Eric Hosmer (Royals) and No. 5 pick Buster Posey (Giants) would not only be starters with the Rays but give the franchise even more luster. No. 6 overall pick, C Kyle Skipworth (Marlins) has been a disappointment thus far and has not advanced beyond A ball.

Realistically, Beckham could end up as the third best of the top six picks in the 2008 draft. Given the difficulties of the decision making process, especially in that draft that didn’t have an obvious Stephen Strasburg/Bryce Harper first pick, that’s not that bad.

Others in the Conversation: 2B Tyler Bortnick, SS/3B Derek Dietrich, 3B Tyler Goeddel, OF Brandon Guyer, SS Jake Hager, RHP Lenny Linsky, OF Mikie Mahtook, SS Brandon Martin, RHP Parker Markel, C Justin O’Conner, OF Josh Sale