The common narrative about the Rays system is that 1) it’s down from past years and 2) this is because they can’t pick good players unless they pick in the top 10. Over the 19 years of the franchise, here’s the 7 productive big leaguers over 9 tries they’ve picked from the top 6 overall slots: David Price, Evan Longoria, Josh Hamilton, Rocco Baldelli, B.J. Upton, Jeff Niemann and Delmon Young.
In 21 first round/sandwich picks outside of the top 6 slots, they’ve produced no big leaguers of consequence and the top current prospects of the group are Justin O’Conner (#2) and Blake Snell (#5) on the list below. There’s obviously something to these critiques, but it’s important to keep in mind that the return from draft picks is exponential: the top few picks are supposed to produce far more value than late first round picks.
Due to all the extra high-round picks and farm-stocking trades, along with an increasingly prominent international program, the Rays system is as deep as almost any other. Because the high bonus players haven’t worked out for Tampa Bay at even a league average rate, the top of the system is much weaker than others and their #1 prospect was acquired in a recent trade, along with #4 and #8. There’s enough young, high-upside talent for this high-end shortage to change by this time next year, but it’s impossible to forecast something like that happening.
It’s also worth noting that 8 of the 31 prospects ranked here were acquired via trade; the Rays system has to be deep given the way the organization approaches roster building. If the system was run like a big market team perennially in the playoffs (think Detroit), where prospects are traded once they have trade value to prop up the big league team, the Rays farm system could pretty easily be the worst in baseball due to their struggles in the draft.
Two things to monitor in the system is the catching depth (which took a hit when Arizona took Oscar Hernandez #1 overall in the Rule 5 Draft last week) and the glut of infielders with prospect value that fit best in Triple-A Durham. Behind Ryan Hanigan and Curt Casali at the big league level, the Rays’ primary catchers starting in Triple-A and moving down the chain should be Luke Maile, Justin O’Conner, Hernandez (who most expect to be returned by Arizona), Nick Ciuffo, David Rodriguez and Rafelin Lorenzo, all of whom are mentioned below as prospects, which is very rare.
In the Durham glut, the Rays have SS, Hak-Ju Lee, SS Jake Hager, SS Tim Beckham, 2B/SS Nick Franklin, 2B Ryan Brett and 3B/1B Richie Shaffer, all with varying levels of prospect value. There’s hope that one or two of these guys could play their way onto the 25-man MLB roster, but the organization is aware that, barring injuries, some players may have to play out of position or at a lower level than expected to make things work.
Here’s the primer for the series and a disclaimer about how we don’t really know anything. See the links above for the ongoing series about how I evaluate, including a five-part on the ever-complicated hit tool.
Most of what you need to know for this list is at the above links, but I should add that the risk ratings are relative to their position, so average (3) risk for a pitcher is riskier than average risk (3) for a hitter, due injury/attrition being more common. I’d also take a 60 Future Value hitter over a 60 FV pitcher for the same reasons. Also, risk encompasses a dozen different things and I mention the important components of it for each player in the report. The upside line for hitters is the realistic best-case scenario (a notch better than the projected tools, or a 75% projection while the projected tools are a 50% projection) and the Future Value encompasses this upside along with the risk rating for one overall rating number.
Below, I’ve included a quick ranking of the growth assets that the Rays have in the majors that aren’t eligible for the list and Dave Cameron shares some general thoughts on the organization. Scroll further down to see Carson Cistulli’s fringe prospect favorite. Up next in the series is whichever list I finish first from a group of the Mets, Padres, Marlins, Braves and Orioles, likely in that order.
Organizational Overview by Dave Cameron
The Rays constant roster churn has bled over to the management side, with Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon heading for larger market pastures over the winter, leading many to speculate that this small market’s run of success is coming to an end. With all due respect to Friedman and Maddon, however, I think that’s probably an overreaction. There’s still a lot of talent in Tampa, both on the field and in the front office, and the roster looks strong enough to make 2014 a blip rather than the beginning of a downward cycle. They might not be as good as the best teams in baseball anymore, but this is still a contender with a strong base of talent. Don’t give up on the Rays too quickly.
50+ FV Prospects
Video Credit to Mauricio Rubio
1. Willy Adames, SS
Current Level/Age: Low-A/19.3, 6’1/180, R/R
Signed: IFA at age 16 on July 2, 2012 out of Dominican Republic by DET for $420,000 bonus
Hit: 20/50+, Raw Power: 45/50, Game Power: 20/45+, Run: 50/50, Field: 50/55, Throw: 60/60
Scouting Report: Adames wasn’t a high profile July 2nd signing and was barely on the scouting radar entering the year in a shallow Detroit system. He emerged in a big way this year at age 18, playing the whole season at Low-A and putting up a .271/.353/.429 line while being the top prospect traded in the David Price deal.
Adames wasn’t on the scouting radar entering the season because there aren’t any huge tools here, but enough to profile up the middle with lots of feel for the game. He has solid average bat speed with advanced bat control, a good approach and a well-balanced swing that also incorporates his power in game situations. There should be more raw power coming with physical maturity and most scouts project it to land around average, which would be about 15 homers annually.
Adames is just an average runner, but his instincts help him make the most of this on the base paths and defensively. He has plenty of arm, good hands, solid range due to good footwork, a good first step and the internal clock to always be in the right place at the right time. Given his speed and size at age 18/19, it’s still possible Adames ends up moving to third base later in his career, but in that case, the power should be enough to profile as an everyday player.
Multiple Rays officials insisted that Adames was even a pleasant surprise after they traded for him, expecting these tools and feel to play, but being surprised at how quickly Adames fit into their system. As an 18-year-old, Spanish-speaking player traded near the end of the season, most would expect him to be the quiet outsider, but Adames’ infectious energy made him a team leader in short order; coaches in Rays instructs noted that it seemed like Adames had been playing in the system for years.
Summation: Adames’ maturity and charisma help scouts (and me) round up on projections when the raw tools don’t quite equal elite prospect. If he was an American and draft-eligible this year as a high school player, it’s likely he wouldn’t have made it to the Rays pick at #20. One Rays official compared him to Yunel Escobar, which doesn’t seem exciting, but Escobar put up 16.6 WAR in his 6 controlled years, so Rays fans should hope Adames is that good.
Upside: .275/.345/.440, 15-18 homers
FV/Risk: 50, Medium (3 on a 1-5 scale)
Projected Path: 2015: High-A, 2015: AA, 2016: AAA/MLB, 2017: MLB
2. Justin O’Conner, C
Current Level/Age: AA/22.7, 6’0/200, R/R
Drafted: 31st overall (1st round) in 2010 out of a Indiana HS by TB for $1.025 million bonus, Agency: Relativity Baseball
Hit: 20/45+, Raw Power: 55/55, Game Power: 20/50, Run: 40/40, Field: 45/50+, Throw: 80/80
Scouting Report: O’Conner was a high-profile, raw, toolsy prep prospect in teh 2010 draft, from an area without much high level baseball. The Rays took him at the end of the first round (multiple clubs had him in the 3rd round or lower) and he was basically a disaster at the plate his first three years, with 2013’s 88 wRC+ at age 21 in Low-A representing progress. Everything changed this year as O’Conner raked through High-A and the Arizona Fall League with a late-season Double-A promotion at age 22.
O’Conner’s background presented a lot of challenges for Rays development: he was an athlete new to catching with some adjustments needed to his swing and approach, he had some injuries early in his career limited his reps and he came from an area where he faced essentially no high end pitching. He’s always had a plus-plus arm that plays up to 80 with an incredibly quick release from multiple angles that’s regularly pops in the 1.7s and 1.8s. O’Conner also has the physical tools to catch everyday, so the bat didn’t need to stand out, merely just be enough to keep him on the field.
O’Conner is still making some progress defensively and our Eric Longenhagen wrote about how he outright dropped many balls in the AFL. Rays officials said that O’Conner has so enthusiastically taken to their framing suggestions/emphasis that he sometimes can focus too much on placing the pitch in the zone and overlook catching it. I compared it to whiffing on a ping pong ball when I try to put so much spin on the ball that I alter my swing too much to make contact; they agreed that was the parallel and laughed at me for whiffing in ping pong.
O’Conner’s problems at the plate in past years were slightly mechanical, but mostly having trouble with off-speed stuff and recognizing spin. Normally, this never gets fixed because it’s often an eye-related issue that manifested itself as early as travel ball when the player was 14. In O’Conner’s case, he didn’t have the extensive reps of many of his peers and this wasn’t the reason he had trouble with off-speed stuff. Rays officials say he didn’t trust his bat speed (understandable given his results) and would get jumpy at the plate, worried about getting beat, and committing to pitches too early. To the naked eye, this looks like he couldn’t recognize the pitch type, but he was making a conscious/mechanical decision that undermined his true ability.
With his success at the plate this year, O’Conner has the confidence to make adjustments offensively and defensively. One Rays official said O’Conner was failing so much before this year that they were worried they were going to lose him to an endless loop of mechanical tinkering and lack of confidence. O’Conner has simplified his swing and really cut down on his strikeouts in the AFL, which could set the stage for another step forward offensively in 2015.
Summation: His at bats are more mature and focused now and there’s a 50 bat in here somewhere. He’ll always be an aggressive, power-oriented guy that strikes out: he just needs to make enough contact to get to his above average power. Some outside the organization think O’Conner might have made the most progress of any prospect in all of baseball in 2014, which obviously makes him one to watch in 2015 to see if he takes another step forward.
Upside: .265/.325/.450, 19-22 homers, above average defense
FV/Risk: 50, High (4 on a 1-5 scale)
Projected Path: 2015: AA/AAA, 2016: AAA/MLB, 2017: MLB
45 FV Prospects
3. Alex Colome, RHP Video: The 6’2/210 righty has been on the Rays prospect list for what seems like 10 years; he turns 26 in a few weeks, is out of options and has a clear shot at the #5 starter job due to Moore’s injury and the Price/Hellickson trades. Colome has always had questions about whether he had the command to start, but he’s slowly made progress and flashed the ability in limited big league chances. He has a four pitch mix: 92-95 fastball that touches 97 mph, an above average changeup, solid average cutter/slider and average curveball that’s regressed a bit over the years from his primary off-speed pitch to a fourth pitch to change eye level. If he doesn’t stick in the rotation before Moore returns (or Karns beats him), there’s a fit as a multi-inning reliever that can fill many roles and potentially be an 8th inning guy.
4. Andrew Velazquez, SS Video: Velazquez and Williams a few spots below were the return earlier this winter for Jeremy Hellickson. Velazquez is small at 5’8/175, but the switch-hitter has surprising pop for his size and advanced feel to hit. He has the tools to stick at short, but isn’t a slam dunk to do so, as he’s still learning the intricacies of the position; second base is the backup option. Velazquez is a plus runner with excellent instincts and, if the bat doesn’t come all the way, would make for a nice utility guy, but he’s still got a decent shot to be an everyday guy of some sort. He was drafted in the 7th round in 2012 out of Fordham Prep High School in the Bronx, which was a great job by D’Backs area scout Todd Donovan, as nearly every team either didn’t have him in as a draftable prospect or not turned in at all.
5. Blake Snell, LHP Video: The 6’4/190 lefty is still going to add more weight and is still developing his feel to pitch but there’s plenty already here: 91-95 fastball that’s hit 97 mph with a slider/cutter and changeup that both flash above average. That’s a solid 3/4 starter type upside with a chance the stuff takes another step forward, all provided the subtle delivery and command adjustments can be made to keep Snell in a rotation long-term. He hasn’t pitched a ton of innings because he goes so deep in counts/innings/game with pitch counts. Snell also throws a slider, cutter and curveball that can run together and vary from outing to outing, while the changeup is his most consistent off-speed pitch by a good margin. Barring injury, there’s an easy big league role to carve out here, with Jake McGee’s current bullpen role a possible alternate path.
6. Adrian Rondon, SS Video: Rondon was arguably the top prospect this past July 2nd and was paid $2.95 million, just a couple hundred thousand below the top bonus in the class. He was already shut down with a verbal deal by January when I was in the Dominican to see the top players in the class, but I did see him for a game in instructs and the linked video shows you why the Rays went over their spending pool to get him. There’s plus bat speed, fluidity, direct path and the advanced feel to hit, that had Rondon fighting off 90+ mph fastballs from pitchers 5-7 years older than him in the game I saw; scouts said that’s a common occurrence and the Rays said seeing that for dozens of at bats is what caused them to buy in.
The thing to monitor with Rondon is his body, which is more filled out than most elite July 2nd shortstops. He could put on a good bit of weight, develop above average power and move to third base, or he could stay around this size, play shortstop and have more fringy to average power. Some young Latin players take time to develop physically after signings and tire easily, getting limited reps, but Rondon has already added muscle, allowing him to play in domestic and Dominican instructs and his arm already improved from 55 to 60 in the process. The hands and actions are there to play shortstop now and he’ll play there until he can’t anymore, either in the GCL or short-season Princeton in 2015.
7. Ryan Brett, 2B Video: Brett is tiny: he’s listed at 5’9/180, but he’s two inches shorter than at least. He’s very well-built for his size, he’s improved defensively to where he can stick at second base now and he’s a plus runner. There isn’t much over the fence power (let’s call it 5-10 homers annually), but Brett’s best tool is his bat: he consistently makes hard contact and has above average bat speed with advanced feel for the bat head. The Rays have consistently had him as a potential everyday player and the industry is slowly coming around to the same conclusion.
8. Justin Williams, RF Video: Williams was a 2nd rounder out of high school in 2013 with 60 raw power from the left side as a carrying tool and he was also among the youngest in his draft class. He has a solid-average arm but doesn’t project as more than a fringy defender, so the bat has to carry him. Williams beat expectations in Low-A this year, as many scouts figured he’d be overmatched in the contact department, but he delivered a .284/.348/.461 line at age 18. Williams needs to make adjustments to get to more of his power in games and scouts are concerned advanced breaking stuff will give him trouble at higher levels. That said, he shows opposite field power in games and he’s always been younger than his competition, so the objective indicators are almost all positive.
9. Casey Gillaspie, 1B Video: Gillaspie is the younger brother of White Sox 3B Conor Gillaspie (both went to Wichita State) and was the Rays 1st round pick at 20th overall last June. Casey is massive at 6’5/240 and is a bit stiff physically, but has enough looseness to his swing to allow his plus raw power to play in games from both sides of the plate. Gillaspie is a 30-35 runner that’s fine defensively but the problem is that his profile doesn’t have much give; if he had 70 power he could get away with being a free swinger, but he has to have a 50 bat and a good approach to have everyday value. Gillaspie was a little slow out of the chute in pro ball, but the contact and plate discipline abilities both showed up in his debut. He could be ready for an aggressive move to High-A in 2015 at age 22 with a strong Spring Training.
10. Taylor Guerrieri, RHP Video: Guerrieri was a 1st round pick as a prep right-hander and the dreaded outcome happened for him, missing much of 2013 and almost all of 2014 with Tommy John surgery. Before that, he was checking all the boxes as a 6’3/195 righty that sat 91-95 mph with life, a 55-60 curveball and surprising feel for changeup and command that both projected for at least average. Guerrieri came back to the mound in August in the GCL and had a setback, which led to him being shut down again. There were more than a few whispers about his makeup out of high school and he may have been a tad too confident at times, but the Rays haven’t had any problems with him. He will return next year at age 22 in High-A on a tight pitch count.
11. Enny Romero, LHP Video: Like Colome, Romero has been on Rays prospect lists for what seems like a decade, but Romero will only be 24 for the 2015 season and still has an option left. Like Colome, the Rays have been trying to turn Romero into a starter for years, but the command never came all the way around. As a 6’3/210 lefty that sits in the mid-90’s with a plus slider and average changeup, the payoff would be nice, but it doesn’t look like it’s coming. Romero’s chance to break into the big leagues may be in relief and, late in the 2014 Triple-A Championship Series, he came in for two relief innings and sat 95-98, hitting 99 mph, suggesting it may be time to let him do that in the big leagues.
12. Brent Honeywell, RHP Video: Honeywell was completely off the 2014 MLB Draft radar: I never heard his name until a week before the draft and high level scouts generally weren’t getting looks at him until late in the spring at his Tennessee junior college. The Rays popped him in the compensation part of the 2nd round, which shocked some people, but I found out after the draft that the Cubs were going to take Honeywell with their next pick. Honeywell’s brash, Southern demeanor came out in the Rays pre-draft workout, with each Rays source telling me another story about how funny their first interaction with him was.
My favorite is Honeywell story came after he pitched well in a bullpen on the mound at the Trop: he asked where the hitters were, so he could carve them up too (there were at least three expletives in Honeywell’s delivery of that message). He was known to scouts as the “screwball guy,” but it turns out he’s more than a trick pitch. The 6’2/180 righty sits 90-94 and hits 95 mph with an average mid-70’s curveball, an above average low 80’s changeup and a plus mid-70’s screwball with similar but even bigger action than his changeup. He now looks like he should’ve gone higher, maybe as high as the late first round, especially if he performed well at an SEC school with this stuff. He’ll go to Low-A next year at age 20.
40 FV Prospects
13. Mikie Mahtook, RF Video: Mahtook was a 1st rounder in 2011 out of LSU that teams were split on, as some saw him as a 4th outfielder that had trumped up draft stock due to his numbers and others saw an everyday right fielder. That’s still somewhat unsettled, but it looks like Mahtook is more of a reserve, as the bat is a little light for everyday duty. He has solid average raw power that plays down a bit in games due to a more line drive approach, but his speed, defense and arm are all also solid average and he played a lot of center field in Triple-A in 2014. After a bounce back year in 2014 where he showed more energy, Mahtook looks like a very good 4th outfielder who could contribute at all three outfield positions in 2015, but likely not in center field for the Rays as Kiermaier and Desmond Jennings are clearly superior defenders.
14. Nate Karns, RHP Video: The Rays traded for Karns from the Nationals last year and have developed him as a starter in Triple-A where, similar to Colome and Romero, he shows flashes of starter traits, but most scouts think he ends up as a reliever due to command inconsistencies. Karns throws a 91-95 sinker that’s hit 97 mph, his curveball is above average and flashes plus in some starts, along with a changeup that’s usually around average but has flashed above average before. Karns is in a AAA/MLB logjam and anyone that jumps forward with an improvement could snag the #5 starter job in the big leagues until Moore comes back. Karns’ likely role is an 8th/9th inning reliever, as he just turned 27 and can’t quite make the necessary adjustments to start.
15. Nick Ciuffo, C Video: Ciuffo was the Rays 1st round pick in 2013 out of South Carolina high school and had a tough 2014 season, due to a sickness that caused him to lose a lot of weight. He impressed defensively this year: Ciuffo was seen as a bat first catcher with above average raw power, an average bat and an average glove, but some scouts now think he may be a bit above average as a receiver, and he still has his 55-60 arm. Now that he’s worked through some physical and mental struggles, the Rays are looking for a big year from Ciuffo in 2015 at Low-A at age 20.
16. Kean Wong, 2B Video: The younger brother of Kolten Wong doesn’t have quite the same tools, but Kean has inherited the most important one, with an advanced feel to hit. He’s a contact hitter from the left side with 45 to fringy raw power and at least a 55 bat thanks to a direct path, excellent eye-hand coordination and an all fields approach. He’s a solid average runner and has a fringy arm with a weird, long release, but he has good hands, solid range and makes all the plays. He’ll head to High-A next year at age 20 and could be a quick-mover. It’s worth noting (or maybe it isn’t) that I can’t stop noticing Wong’s full \name is pronounced “quinoa” with a “g” at the end.
17. German Marquez, RHP Video: Marquez was off to a slow start in Low-A last year and it turns out it’s because the Veezuelan teenager had never pitched in cold weather before. He caught his stride later in the season and jumped onto the prospect radar, with a ticket to High-A next year at age 20 as a potential rotation arm. When I saw the 6’1/185 righty in instructs this fall, Marquez sat 92-95 mph with a 55 curveball and a changeup that flashed average with command that was good for a teenager.
18. Jake Hager, SS Video: Hager was a late 1st round pick in 2011 out of a Nevada high school, but he wasn’t a huge tools guy, more of a grinder with 50-55 tools that knows how to play and could stick at shortstop. He hit some homers in Low-A in 2012, which got in his head and made him pull-happy in High-A in 2013, but he adjusted in Double-A in 2014. He has just enough glove to play shortstop with a solid average arm and good instincts, feel to hit gap-to-gap with below average power that likely ends up as a good utility infielder. Hager has always been young for his level and the offensive bar for shortstops is low, so he could still become a low-end everyday player. He’s in the infield logjam projected for Triple-A Durham, so he may head back to Double-A in 2015 to get regular reps as an everyday shortstop.
19. Hak-Ju Lee, SS Video: Another prospect that’s been on lists seemingly forever, Lee took a step back in 2014 as, after he returned from a torn ACL, he didn’t look the same. He was tentative in every phase of the game and lost some of his speed, which used to be a 65 or 70. He had a calf injury in Spring Training in 2014 which helped to undermine whatever confidence he had built up after the ACL injury and 2014 became essentially a lost year. At his best, Lee was a plus defender at shortstop with outstanding hands and range and a 55 arm with a dynamic gap-to-gap approach as a hitter.
20. Cameron Varga, RHP Video: Varga was the Rays 2nd round pick last June out of an Ohio high school and he’s known most for his power stuff (55-60 fastball and curveball) and his advanced age (he turned 20 in August after the draft). Varga was a legit draft prospect as early as his freshman year in high school (at IMG Academy in Florida) and he looked more like a shortstop than a pitcher at that point. After the move to Ohio, he enrolled in a small Christian school, which set back his development because he was facing hilarious bad competition at age 19 after missing all but one event of showcase season the summer before due to injury.
Varga is 6’2/190, sits 91-94 and hits 96 mph with a power curveball, some feel for a changeup he hasn’t thrown much and some feel for command he hasn’t really needed before. The Rays are wondering if he’s ready to be challenged by Low-A next year at age 20, as he struggled at times after signing when his velocity was down a couple ticks, which is normal for prep pitchers in their longest season.
NOTE: Hernandez was the #1 overall pick in the Rule 5 Draft last week, so he’s Diamondbacks property and not ranked on the list. That said, I have all my notes on him, so I’ll include the report. In addition, the overwhelming majority of scouts (and Rays personnel) don’t think he’ll be able to stick in the big leagues, likely ending up back in the Rays system in High-A at some point during 2015.
Oscar Hernandez, C: Hernandez sometimes gets grouped with Rodriguez as the top Latin catching prospects in the system but Hernandez is the superior prospect. Hernandez has more upside, as he’s a bigger guy (6’0/200) with more arm strength (55 or 60), more raw power (average) and more polished defensive skills (projects as an average defender) than Rodriguez. The bat speed and contact skills are just okay, but this is a low-end everyday tool package that was signed for just $30,000 out of Venezuela in 2009, so it’s hard to complain.
21. Tyler Goeddel, 3B Video: Goeddel was a sandwich pick out of high school as a projectable 6’4 athlete that was young for his class. He’s had trouble keeping on weight and predictable problems staying low at third base, which could necessitate a move to right field at some point. Goeddel is an excellent athlete that will flash above average speed, arm strength and raw power projection with at least average tools across the board. He’s 6’5/180 right now and things haven’t quite clicked offensively yet, but he’s been league average or better at each stop of the minors and has been aged appropriately; long frames take longer to mature, so there could be a breakout looming.
22. Ryne Stanek, RHP Video: Stanek was a third rounder out of high school and a very high profile arm as the ace at Arkansas that had high first round buzz in his draft year, but a hip concern got him taken off a few boards and he slid to the Rays at 29th overall in 2013. He had hip labrum surgery after the draft and came back this season, flashing the stuff that got him noticed as an amateur: fastball at 92-94, hitting 96 mph with an above average to plus slider, usable curveball and the changeup and command to give him a shot to start long-term. There are some that thought Stanek was a long-term reliever before his hip injury, he still hasn’t gotten out of A-Ball yet and he’ll turn 24 next season; he needs to perform and quickly.
23. Grayson Garvin, LHP Video: Garvin was a sandwich pick in 2011 that’s performed well, but had limited innings due to injuries, including Tommy John after being drafted and a lat injury in 2014. He’s a 6’6/225 lefty with good makeup, pitchability and plane and has three average or better pitches, with his fastball and slider both flashing 55 when he’s healthy and going well. He just turned 25, should head to Triple-A next year and with a full healthy season will jump in the deep MLB/AAA starting pitching group for Tampa Bay.
24. Orlando Romero, RHP: The 18-year-old Venezuelan righty is only 6’0/185 and signed for $250,000 on July 11th, 2013. He made his pro debut this year in the VSL and was so good, he earned an unexpected 4.2 inning, late-season stateside trip to the GCL (which is where I first heard about him) and then to instructs. Romero was surprising because his quick arm became an electric arm this season: he sits 92-96 and hits 98 mph with a 78-82 mph curveball that’s above average at times and an inconsistent 83-85 mph changeup that’s fringy at times and shows promise.
He’s still learning to become more of a pitcher than thrower, but he has the starter traits you look for in the early stages and also the broad shoulders to add weight for more durability/velocity. Romero will start in extended spring training and should spend all of 2015 at the short season levels, but he may be on the verge of rocketing up this list.
25. David Rodriguez, C: In contrast to the higher-ranked catcher Hernandez, the squatty 5’11/200 Rodriguez is a hit-over-power type bat, with above average bat speed and 45 to fringy raw power but a gap-to-gap, line drive type approach. He has pedigree (signed for $600,000 out of Venezuela in 2012) and the tools to catch, with an above average arm and early indications he’ll be able to stick behind the plate as a solid receiver. Rodriguez broke his hamate in 2013 and had a slow start in 2014, but got his confidence and bat speed back, performing well in the GCL at age 18 this year.
26. Matt Andriese, RHP Video: Andriese was a 3rd rounder in 2011 and came over from San Diego last year in the Jesse Hahn–Brad Boxberger deal. He has some funk to his delivery, but solid command of a four pitch mix the he uses to generate a lot of ground balls. He throws an above average, new, mid-80’s cutter/slider that helps with lefty bats, an 88-90 fastball with life that hits 93 mph, a solid average changeup and a fourth pitch curveball to change eye levels. Andriese projects as a potential #5 starter and will also jump in the deep line of AAA/MLB starters.
27. C.J. Riefenhauser, LHP Video: Riefenhauser isn’t exciting and was completely unheralded as a 20th rounder out of Florida’s Chipola JC, but sits 90-93 mph with life from the left side. He backs that up with a 55-60 curveball, usable changeup and enough command to go multiple innings if needed. He comes right after hitters and, like Dominguez below, has big league time and is sitting at the AAA/MLB precipice where he could break with the club if he really impresses in Spring Training.
28. Cristian Toribio, 3B: The first Rays official I talked to compared Toribio to Juan Uribe and everyone else I asked agreed with the comp, both for Toribio’s frame but also his tools/skills. He’s 5’11/190 with some strength to his lower half, but he can stick somewhere in the infield long term, and he has solid average bat speed and power that should end up around average. He played mostly shortstop this year at age 19, but also got some reps at third base and should end up there eventually. Toribio is a solid average runner and tried switch-hitting early in his career but is back to just hitting right-handed now.
29. Jose Dominguez, RHP Video: The 6’0/200 Dominican righty was acquired a few months ago from the Dodgers and is easy to like, as he hit 100 mph when I saw him last year, which is the linked video. He sits 95-98 mph with a solid average slider that flashes 55 and enough command for his stuff to work versus AA and AAA hitters, but some adjustments are needed to make it work versus experienced big league bats.
30. Patrick Leonard, 3B Video: Leonard, seen as the fourth of four pieces acquired by Tampa Bay in the James Shields deal (Myers, Odorizzi, Montgomery), had a nice bounce back season in 2014, racking up a 131 wRC+ (league/park adjusted, where 100 is league average) at age 21 in High-A. Leonard has a line drive type path, but is 6’4/225 with average raw power and some chance to play third base, though most scouts have him sliding over to first base eventually. He has an above average arm and good hands but is limited a bit defensively by his size/speed issues. Leonard is a righty hitter that profiles best as a corner utility/platoon fit.
31. Andrew Toles, CF Video: Toles has a checkered past: he was kicked off the team at Tennessee after his freshman year, had lots of makeup whispers around him in his draft year out of Chipola JC (he was a 3rd rounder), then was put on the temporarily inactive by the Rays for two months in the middle of the 2014 season. No one is talking about what the reason was, but the whispers point to problems in his personal life. Toles returned from suspension in August and, while getting back in shape in the GCL, injured his wrist; Rays officials say he looked back to normal physically in instructs. On the field, Toles is electric, with 70 speed, good feel for contact and a true center field fit. He still swings at too many pitches outside the zone, so if he can clean that up and trust his speed to get him on base, he could be an everyday player.
Isaac Gil, RHP
Over his last five starts of the season for Class-A Bowling Green this past year, the right-handed Gil recorded strikeout and walk rates of 22.7% and 5.2%, respectively, in 20.0 innings. That’s not particularly notable, that line, for a 22-year-old former college pitcher playing in the Midwest League. More notable so far as Gil is concerned, however, is that (a) those five starts constituted the second through seventh starts of his entire professional career and also that (b) while Gil did, in fact, play college baseball, he had also never played the sport before college.
A native of the Bronx, Gil was discovered while playing catch with a friend in the Dominican, at which point he was offered (and accepted) a scholarship to Brooklyn’s Advanced Software Analysis College (known as ASA). Selected by Tampa Bay in the 31st round of the 2011 draft, Gil throws a fastball in the high 80s and low 90s. He throws a slider (such as the one featured below) that lacks premium break — although, that’s also probably not shocking in light of how he’s only been pitching for a few years.
The slider in question, from this past August:
Others of Note
For reference, Schultz, Carroll and Unroe were the last cuts from the list, with the power Latin arms group not far behind. Of the pitchers at the upper levels I haven’t mentioned yet, there are two more worth bringing up: RHP Jaime Schultz (5’10/200 with mechanical issues and high walk rates but has big stuff—91-95 mph, 55-60 curveball, flashes 50 changeup—and may move to the bullpen soon) and LHP Mike Montgomery (Video still shows an above average fastball and changeup, but still tinkers with below average slider and curveball; fits as 7th inning guy/spot starter/long man).
There are more arms to monitor at the lower levels, with three primary prospects of note: RHP Damion Carroll (Video 6’3/200 righty has very limited miles on his arm and lots of command issues due to his long arm action, but sits 95-98 and regularly hit 100 mph this year with a curveball and slider that are both 55 pitches at times), RHP Greg Harris (acquired recently from Dodgers, son of former 15-year big leaguer by the same name, sits 90-92 and hits 95 mph as a starter with a clean arm action/delivery and projection, but secondary stuff is fringy), RHP Jacob Faria (another guy with a clean arm/delivery and starter traits, sits 89-91 and hits 93 mph with average stuff and feel to pitch).
On the more projection/lower upside end of things, there are three lower level arms to keep an eye on: RHP Enderson Franco (Video acquired last year from Astros as minor league Rule 5 pick and has impressed, likely fitting in pen due to below average curveball, but with a fastball that sits 92-95, hitting 96 mph and a solid average changeup), RHP Blake Bivens (Video 2014 4th rounder popped up last fall sitting 90-93 mph with a 55-60 curveball, but velocity was a tick lower this spring and he’s maxed out at 6’2/205) and LHP Brock Burke (6’2/170 projection lefty was young for his class and sat 85-88 mph, flashing a 55 curveball last summer, but ticked up to 88-90, touching 93 mph this year with the same hook).
As I mentioned above, the Rays Latin program has been trending up lately and there are two premium young arms to join Romero as short-season level prospects to watch in 2015: RHP Sandy Brito (6’1/170 and sits 92-95, touching 97 mph, but less feel for command and off-speed than Romero) and LHP Jose Alvarado (6’3/215 lefty is another explosive arm after his growth spurt, now sitting 92-96, touching 98 mph with easy plus sink and two plane slurve that flashes bite; looks like reliever but one scout mentioned Zach Britton as a comp).
Behind those two and Romero, there are still three more arms in the Latin program worth keeping an eye on: RHP Jose Mujica (Venezuelan got $1 million on July 2nd, 2012 and doesn’t have much projection at 6’2/200, but has above average sinker/changeup combo with feel; lost 2014 after fracturing left foot during PFP drill), LHP Jose Castillo (Venezuelan got $1.55 million in same class as Mujica, hits 95 mph with more projection and fringy slurve/changeup, but with less feel than Mujica; his 2014 was also lost, due to arm tenderness, but he’s healthy now and threw about 20 solid innings recently in Venezuela’s parallel league) and RHP Deivy Mendez (brother of Rangers RHP Roman Mendez, Deivy jumped from throwing 84-85 when he signed in 2012 to pitching 93-94 and hitting 96 mph in instructs this fall with a usable slider and curveball; there’s some feel for pitching and looseness to his body, but not much projection).
Of the hitters at the upper levels I haven’t mentioned yet, there are six more worth bringing up: SS Tim Beckham (former #1 overall pick has stalled in the upper levels due to middling performance, a 50-game suspension for weed and a torn ACL in 2014; his chance now is as an MLB super utility guy that plays every position, hopefully finally unlocking his above average tools in game situations), 3B Richie Shaffer (Video another stalled former 1st rounder with plus bat speed and raw power has been so bad I wasn’t going to mention him at all until Rays personnel raved about his offensive adjustments in instructs; I’ll give him one more season) and LF Granden Goetzman (6’4/200 athlete has above average power and speed but has limited at bats due to injuries; it could click with a couple 500 at bat seasons).
Finishing that group of six hitters, we have CF Johnny Field (2013 5th rounder is a 5’9/185 grinder with the makeup everyone loves and instincts to makes his average speed work at all three outfield positions; he could develop into a nice 4th outfielder if he keeps hitting), RF Kes Carter (2011 sandwich pick has struggled with injuries and plate discipline but still has solid average speed and power, needs to hit in Double-A this year to hit his 4th outfielder ceiling) and C Luke Maile (will be in Triple-A and projects as a nice catch-and-throw backup that’s above average defensively with a bat that’s just okay).
Of the hitters at the lower levels I haven’t mentioned yet, there are five more worth bringing up: 2B Riley Unroe (son of former big leaguer Tim Unroe, was 2013 2nd rounder that was young for his prep class and wore down late in 2014 but still showed headlining tools: 55-60 speed, fringy power and above average bat speed), CF Tom Milone (dual-sport Connecticut prep product from 2013 draft is a plus runner with fringy power and arm strength that is still pretty raw), SS Michael Russell (2014 5th rounder was banged up and didn’t play after signing but grows on you defensively, will play up the middle and has a nice contact bat), CF Angel Moreno (loose, up-the-middle athlete will flash above average bat speed, arm and speed that Rays are hoping can add some skills, namely plate discipline, to the tools) and C Rafelin Lorenzo (Video rare Dominican catcher that stands out for his defensive work, with a plus arm and enough raw power to punish a mistake).
Kiley McDaniel has worked as an executive and scout, most recently for the Atlanta Braves, also for the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates. He's written for ESPN, Fox Sports and Baseball Prospectus. Follow him on twitter.