Blake Butera Is Understandably Bullish on the Rays’ Prospect Pipeline

Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Rays farm system has been consistently robust over the past half dozen seasons, and while it is no longer ranked first or second, it remains top notch. Currently populated with the likes of Junior Caminero, Carson Williams, Curtis Mead, and Xavier Isaac, it contains a number of high-ceiling players projected to contribute at the big league level, some as soon as this year. That is especially the case for some of the position players, especially Caminero, who debuted in the big leagues last September and is one of baseball’s best prospects.

Blake Butera is as well versed on Tampa Bay’s pipeline as anyone. Promoted to Senior Director Player Development at the conclusion of the 2023 campaign, he has worked in the system as a minor league coach, manager, and field coordinator since 2017. In each of his prior positions, he’s had a hands-on role with the development of the players he now oversees.

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David Laurila: I asked you about Junior Caminero when we spoke in December 2022. Outside of gaining more experience, what has changed with him since that time?

Blake Butera: “Honestly, not much. If I had to pick one thing, I would say it’s his defense. He’s made a concerted effort to get better at third base, and also shortstop, which gives him the opportunity to play shortstop if needed. Which it could be. He’s still learning the third base position. He hasn’t played a ton there; he played more shortstop when he was younger, and then we put him at third base predominantly last year. He’s really focused on his defense — first-step quickness, reading the hops at third, getting used to the different angles.

“Offensively, it’s more so just being a little bit more patient at the plate and going to get pitches that he can drive versus trying to hit everything. To be honest, he can hit everything, which is why he’s been swinging at a lot of different pitches.”

Laurila: Carson Williams looks like the team’s shortstop of the future, although there are some questions about his ability to make consistent contact. Where does he stand in the respect?

Butera: “He’s improving. That said, contact is tough to improve as players move up, because the pitching is better. But with Carson, I think it’s a little bit of a different case, just because he didn’t grow up around baseball as much as most guys, so he’s still learning approach. He’s still learning how pitchers are going to attack, which pitches to look for, which pitches he hits well, which pitches he doesn’t hit well. It’s exciting that he’s learning that stuff now, because the tools are off the chart. The bat speed, the power, the athleticism… he’s learning how to be Carson Williams, and that’s exciting.”

Laurila: Can you elaborate on him not growing up around baseball as much?

Butera: “He grew up in California and loves to surf. I think there’s some volleyball in his family; his sister plays. So, while he played baseball, I don’t think he really got in too deep with understanding the nuances of the game. Essentially, he was so athletic that he was able to succeed by just being a great athlete.

“It’s funny, because when I had him in Charleston [in 2022 as a manager] he’d come into the office, there would be a baseball game on the TV, and he didn’t know half the players. He’d kind of laugh about it, saying that he didn’t really watch baseball growing up. And now he loves it. That’s all he does: watch baseball, talk baseball, breathe baseball. It’s been fun to watch him grow in that area, because we’re just tapping into the baseball knowledge piece for Carson.”

Laurila: Where is his arm on the [20-80] scouting scale?

Butera: “It’s a really good arm. It’s a 60-65 arm.”

Laurila: I’m surprised you’re not giving a higher number…

Butera: “Yeah. I guess I don’t want to pump his tires too much. I mean, it’s all of that, if not more. He flicks his wrist and the ball is on a line at 90-plus [mph] across the infield.”

Laurila: My understanding is that Curtis Mead is another story, that his arm strength is a little lacking and he could ultimately end up on the right side of the infield…

Butera: “I think he could if that’s what we needed. But his arm is… when you watch Curtis play, you’re going to be surprised; you’re not going to think that it’s the same person. Defensively, he’s come such a long way. And that’s to his credit. It’s easy to tell a player that he needs to get better defensively, and for some of them that’s their crutch. They’ll say, ‘Of course I can be better defensively.’ But Curtis has gone out and actually done it. He looked at himself and said, ‘I want to play in the big leagues for a long time, so I’m going get better defensively.’

“He knew that his arm strength had to get better, so he went out and got an arm program and made his arm stronger. Now he can play third, short, and second. The reason he won’t play any infield position isn’t going to be because of his lack of arm strength.”

Laurila: Sticking with defense, a scout I talked to at the Arizona Fall League likes Dominic Keegan’s bat, but sounded skeptical that he can catch in the big leagues.

Butera: “Interesting. I wonder if he mostly saw Dom Keegan a year ago, and if he’d still think that today. The strides he’s made defensively are incredible. The work he’s put in with Jeff Smith, our catching coordinator… I mean, he’s a pretty good defender in my eyes. I think he could easily catch in the big leagues. Is his bat ahead of his defense? Right now I would say yes, but that margin is getting smaller by the day. His defense is catching up to this offense.”

Laurila: What can you tell me about Xavier Isaac? When I look at his profile, as a lefty-hitting first baseman with plus power, I see a poor man’s Prince Fielder. Is that a reasonable comp?

Butera: “I don’t know about a poor man’s Prince Fielder. He’s really good. He’s really exciting at such a young age. To be able to do what he’s done with the bat, and is going to continue to do with the bat, is very impressive. How athletic he is will surprise people who haven’t seen him play very much. He had double-digit stolen bases last year. He’s a tick-above-average runner down the line, and not [just] for a first baseman. He gets down the line at 4.3 [seconds], so he runs a lot better than people would think. He’s a big guy, but he’s lean and athletic.”

Laurila: What is his power profile?

Butera: “He’s at the top of the scale. It comes easy for him. Watching him here in our early camps, if you’re around the cage… it’s just a different sound. And with the technology, you see the 110s, the 112s [exit velocities]. It’s easy. It’s fun.”

Laurila: Would you put him right below Caminero for best raw power in the system?

Butera: “Those two are neck and neck. And then you have Carson, Curtis, and Keegan right there as well. They can hang in there in the power department.”

Laurila: Brayden Taylor was the team’s top pick in last summer’s draft. What does he bring to the table?

Butera: “He’s really good in the box. Very mature when it comes to awareness and an understanding of how he’s going to be pitched. A good feel for the zone; you don’t see him chase very often. There’s a real plan where he’s not getting fooled very often. Defensively, he played some shortstop in college but finished up playing third base. He has ingredients to play shortstop, and that’s something he’ll get to do a little bit this year. He moves pretty well. The arm is above average. He has some tools we’re excited about.”

Laurila: What about Adrian Santana? I believe he was a supplemental first-rounder last year…

Butera: “He was. Adrian was a high school kid out of Florida, and he’s a great kid. Love that kid. He loves the work. He loves to get after it. Just really good defensively. Great hands. Good arm stroke. Offensively, good bat-to-ball skills. Right now, the biggest thing for him is growing into some strength, which is going to come with age. He’s super young, so he’s obviously not as strong as he wants to be. Just like with any player, that’s something that takes a little bit of time.”

Laurila: With short-season ball a thing of the past, whether he starts the year in the Florida Complex League or in Low-A is a decision that you and the rest of the staff will have to make…

Butera: “Yes. It’s a tough decision. We’ll see how spring training plays out. We’ll see how he’s looking, including how comfortable he’s feeling, and we’ll also see how our rosters are shaping out. So, I don’t think we have an answer to that right now. But, to your point, it is tough with the way the minor leagues are structured now, us not having Princeton and Hudson Valley. We don’t have that stepping stone, so to speak.”

Laurila: Do you feel that short-season ball should still exist?

Butera: “I do. I played there, and coached there, so I’ve seen it firsthand. I thought it was really good for our younger players, especially the high school players. It’s just such a big jump. There are so many talented players out there that short-season was really helpful for them. But I understand that it’s part of MLB’s plan moving forward, so we have to adapt to the current structure.”

Laurila: One more guy we should touch on is Chandler Simpson.

Butera: “I’m so excited about Chandler. Our whole staff is excited about Chandler. I mean, it’s an 80-grade run. He stole almost 100 bases last year and he wants to steal 100 this year. He also wants to do that without getting thrown out one time. Offensively, the bat-to-ball skills are incredible; he doesn’t strike out very much. One thing we’ve told him is to get a little bit stronger, because that is going to increase how hard the ball is coming off his bat. And the way he looks right now, in early February, he’s put on some of that strength. He’s hitting the ball harder than he ever has, and from our testing he’s even faster. I mean, the sky is the limit for him.”





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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O'Kieboomermember
3 months ago

I feel obligated to post because the metrics on y’alls’ Rays posts can’t be very good. But this is a nice post so please keep writing about the Rays. Thanks

Domingo Ayalamember
3 months ago
Reply to  O'Kieboomer

Could you explain to what you’re referring?