After far too long, we’re finally getting to the end of our analysis on the Rays prospects who spent 2012 with the Princeton Rays. We’ll finish with 6 pitchers who pitched exclusively in relief for the P-Rays this season- although some of them possess upside higher than you would generally expect.
Daniel Bream, a projectable 6’6″, 185 right-hander who turned 24 in August, was the Rays’ 33rd round pick in 2011 and pitched decently as he moved up to Princeton this season, going 1-1 with a 3.60 ERA, a 7.5 K/9, a 4.6 BB/9, and a 0.5 HR/9 in 17 relief appearances and 35 IP. Bream’s peripherals were not great, but with further polish, he has a chance to be a solid middle reliever someday. This season, lefties were much worse than righties against Bream, managing just a .616 OPS compared to .734, but the difference in strikeout to walk ratio is staggering going the other way, as Bream managed just a 3-7 K-BB verus lefties compared to 22-9 versus right-handers. Bream throws a low-90′s fastball with run away from right-handed batters and good life up in the zone but he struggles to control and command it and his secondary pitches aren’t there at this point. He might add velocity in the future if he fills out. He also throws a curveball and a changeup. Bream is going to need to make significant improvement and fast because of his age if he’s going to reach his potential, but he shows flashes with his fastball and that gives him a chance.
23 year old 6’3″, 200 righty Zach Butler was selected in the 34th round of the 2011 draft, one round after Bream. But after a great season at Princeton, he could be a candidate to get on the fast-track to the major leagues. Butler went 3-0 with a 2.20 ERA, an 8.5 K/9, a 3.3 BB/9, a 0.3 HR/9, and 7 saves in 22 appearances and 32.2 IP. Butler’s stuff can hardly be described as electric, but he shows nice polish with room to grow. He throws his fastball right around 90 MPH but controls it well although he leaves it up in the zone too often. His best pitch is his sharp 11-to-5 curveball that racked up quite a few swings and misses versus Rookie ball hitters, especially right-handed batters. He also throws a decent changeup, although it’s more of a groundball offering than a strikeout pitch. With progress on his fastball command and changeup, Butler has a chance to be a solid big league middle reliever and before very long. The Rays had enough faith in Butler to move him up to High-A Charlotte for an emergency 2-batter appearance. Butler is ready for full-season ball in 2012 and if he continues to pitch well, he has a chance to be in the big leagues in two or three years.
We finally get to a 2012 pick in 20th rounder Randy Davis, a 6’3″, 230 right-hander who is about to turn 23. His stats were decent this season as he went 4-0 with a 2.63 ERA, a 7.6 K/9, a 4.6 BB/9, and a 0.0 HR/9 in 19 appearances and 27.1 IP. But the stats don’t tell nearly the whole story here. Davis throws in the high-90′s with his fastball, touching triple-digits, and also throws a serviceable slider. His fastball is straight and he can’t control or command either pitch well, but the raw ability is there for Davis to be a dominant late inning reliever someday. We’ll have to see if that ever materializes, but Davis is worth a look as he tries to make that happen.
Another player about to turn 23 is fellow right-hander Pedro Silvestre, who is 6’2″ and 185 pounds and was signed out of the Dominican Republican. Silvestre was solid this season, going 1-0 with a 3.27 ERA, an 8.2 K/9, a 1.6 BB/9, and a 1.2 HR/9 in 12 appearances and 22 IP. Silvestre is a little interesting as he throws a low-90′s fastball with good late life and a solid slider, both of which he throws for strikes. But he gets into trouble with command as he leaves both of his pitches up in the zone far too often, leading to too much hard contact. Silvestre has potential, and it’s interesting that he has good control at this point, but like so many of these Rookie ball pitchers, he needs to work hard to find some command before he can go anywhere.
The highest draft pick we’ll deal with here is Chris Kirsch, 20, who was the Rays’ 14th round pick in this year’s draft. Kirsch, a 6’2″, 185 right-hander, got into only 10 games for Princeton and had his share of struggles, going 2-2 with an 8.10 ERA, an 8.1 K/9, a 4.9 BB/9, and a 1.1 HR/9 in 16.2 IP. Kirsch’s debut was rocky, but the sample size was so small and the Rays believe he has a chance to be a good pitcher someday, and although he relieved in his pro debut, he has the ability to be a starter moving forward. Kirsch throws a low-90′s fastball that touches 94 MPH with good late bite as the headliner for his 4-pitch arsenal. He also throws a curveball, slider, and changeup, with the curveball, which features sharp 1-to-7 action, the best of the bunch thus far. Kirsch’s major issue right now is command and control. Kirsch actually posted a nice 51.1% groundball rate in Princeton thanks to his fastball’s late bite, but too often he had no idea where his fastball was going and he got hit hard. His other pitches, especially the curveball, show flashes, but he can throw any of them consistently for strikes at this point. Kirsch has significant upside and even has the type of 4-pitch arsenal you want to see from a starter, but he’s still raw in terms of command and control and the Rays will take it slow with him. Kirsch has the stuff to be well worth the wait if everything pans out.
And we close out this series with the Princeton Rays’ breakout star, right-handed reliever Nick Sawyer. Sawyer, who turned 21 in September, is an unimposing figure at 5’11″, 175 and was the Rays’ final pick in the 2012 MLB Draft way down in Round 40. But looks can be deceiving. Sawyer overpowered opposing hitters all season and they could never figure him out. Sawyer, moved up from the Rays’ lowest-level American affiliate in the GCL Rays up to Princeton before finishing the year in full-season ball at Low-A Bowling Green, and he was dominant the whole way through, going 4-1 with a 0.28 ERA, a ridiculous 16.6 K/9, a 3.9 BB/9, and a 0.0 HR/9 in 20 appearances, 15 of which came with the P-Rays, and 32 IP. Hitters could not make contact against Sawyer, striking out in an unbelievable 50% of their plate appearances against him. And they had no better luck on the rare occasions when they did put the ball into play. According to Minor League Central, Sawyer’s groundball rate was a great 51.2%, but even more impressive may be his line drive rate, which came in a 7.0%, less than half the average of the leagues he played in. How did Sawyer do it? Better yet, how did a pitcher with the ability to deliver an electrifying performance like this be selected in the final round of the draft after 1231 other players? The answer is that something clicked suddenly for Sawyer. As soon as the Rays drafted Sawyer, we knew he was an upside pick. Sawyer features a low-90′s fastball with sharp late bite to go along with a tight 11-to-5 curveball, and he threw both of them from a violent crossfire delivery that adds a ton of deception. The question with him was going to be command and control, which stemmed from the fact that he could not consistently deliver the ball out of the same arm slot because of his nature of his throwing motion. Well, Sawyer did not exactly become a control artist in his pro debut, walking 3.9 batters per 9 innings. But he was able to find a more consistent arm slot and stay around the zone, and hitters didn’t have a chance. With his pitches’ late movement, Sawyer was certainly a candidate to force a ton of swings-and-misses if he could sell his pitches as strikes. Sawyer’s 43.7% swinging strikeout rate was more than 10% higher than the closest pitcher in the Appalachian League minimum 20 innings pitched. But the difference with Sawyer was that he found a way to locate his fastball for strikes, getting ahead in the count and forcing hitters to protect the plate and swing at his pitches that disappeared out of the zone thanks to their sharp movement. Sawyer still has a lot of work to do before he can think about continuing to dominate like this at higher levels. He needs to continue to improve his control and command, especially of his breaking ball. Its movement is dynamic but more advanced hitters will not flail at it as much as Rookie ball hitters did. But Sawyer made a breakthrough in his pro debut, and he has the upside of a dominant closer in the major leagues someday. Sawyer should start 2012 back at Low-A Bowling Green, and if he can continue to dominate hitters while improving the location of his pitches, the big leagues will not be far away.
That will wrap up our discussion of the 2012 Princeton Rays. The Rays have to be excited about the amount of talent that passed through Princeton this season. There is a ton of ability, the majority of it raw, but with continued development, several of the players on this Princeton team have a chance to be key big league contributors for the Rays and a few of them could even be stars. It could be a while before we see dividends from this team in the majors. No matter how well anyone performed, Rookie ball is miles and miles away from the big leagues. But the Rays are optimistic about the possibilities and confident that in a few years, some of these players could be the cornerstones of the next generation of the Tampa Bay Rays.
For the earlier five parts of this series, please check out our Minor League Affiliates Analysis page.