Prospects don’t stay prospects forever. After seven years in the organization that drafted or signed them, they become free agents and have to figure out where their career is going. Some will return to the organization where they’ve grown up as baseball players and as people- others will move on. Some will turn their careers around quickly and be in the major leagues next season- others will bounce from organization to organization for years, waiting for a shot to live their dream of playing the big leagues. What will happen with this year’s Rays minor league free agents? Let’s break down each individual player, who they are, where they’re careers are heading, and whether a return to the Rays organization next season is likely.
C Craig Albernaz- Albernaz, who turned 30 on October 30th, was never really a prospect for the Rays after signing as an undrafted free agent in 2006 but was able to make it up to Triple-A as an excellent defensive catcher who excels at working with pitchers. In 2012 in 24 games, all but one at Triple-A Durham, Albernaz posted just a .152/.243/.197 line with 3 doubles and 3 RBI in 76 plate appearances, but he threw out 32% of attempted basestealers, allowed just 1 passed ball, and even pitched in 6 games, allowing 7 runs on 12 hits in 7 innings, striking out 2 while walking 1. He once pitched in two games in a row and then caught the next day. Albernaz has tremendous character and it would not be surprising if he were to play a roving backup catcher role working with pitchers and also his fellow catchers. It would be shocking if Albernaz signed with another organization this offseason.
RHP Chris Andujar- Andujar, who turned 25 in August, was a non-drafted free agent signee by the Rays back in 2006 and had his best professional season in 2009 at Low-A Bowling Green, going 10-4 with a 2.70 ERA, a 5.9 K/9, a 3.2 BB/9, and a 0.5 HR/9 in 17 starts, 14 relief appearances, and 120 innings pitched, and saw his career stall at High-A Charlotte. After an uneven season at Charlotte in 2010, Andujar suffered an arm injury of some kind that sidelined him from May 2011 until June 2012 and he was nothing special after coming back to Charlotte when he got healthy. Andujar, who is 6’2″ and 180 pounds, throws a sinker around 90 MPH that forces a good amount of groundballs but never got his secondary pitches up to par. Andujar was never a big upside player who would necessarily get a second chance and this could signal the end of his professional baseball career. He did much better than expected after signing as a non-drafted free agent, and now he’ll have to figure out what he’s going to do next season.
C Nevin Ashley- Ashley, who turned 28 in August, was the Rays’ 6th round pick back in 2006 and is a good defensive catcher whose offense has never come together since he posted a .280/.354/.431 line with 12 home runs and (shockingly) 20 stolen bases in 119 games. Ashley missed most of 2012 after breaking his hand and got into 35 non-rehab games, all at Triple-A Durham, posting a .245/.357/.455 line with 6 doubles, 5 homers, and 13 RBI in 130 plate appearances. Defensively, he struggled more than usual, managing just a 15% caught stealing rate with 4 passed balls. The Rays thought enough of Ashley toh have him on the 40-man roster, but they have enough backup catcher types at this point and he will sign with another organization for 2013 hoping to get a look as a big league backup at some point.
RHP Bryan Augenstein- Augenstein, 26, was signed by the Rays as a minor league free agent before 2012 and is a former big leaguer for the Diamondbacks and Cardinals, appearing in a total of 12 games. In 23 appearances for the Triple-A Durham Bulls in 2012 Augenstein went 2-1 with a 3.59 ERA, an 8.4 K/9, a 2.5 BB/9, and a 0.4 HR/9 in 42.2 innings pitched. Augenstein made just one appearance up until late May because of some injury before going down for the season in July. His last appearance of the season raised his ERA from 2.81 to 3.59- he was pitching well until he got hurt. Augenstein throws in just the high-80′s with his sinker to go along with a solid slider and a halfway-decent changeup. He has tremendous control and solid command of his pitches, although his secondary pitches have never had great movement. Augenstein was once a solid starting pitching prospect for the Diamondbacks but will likely never be more than a middle reliever at this point. But being a solid reliever with some big league experience, he will get offers this offseason, and with the Rays going through some turnover in their bullpen as J.P. Howell and Kyle Farnsworth are free agents, they could re-sign Augenstein for bullpen depth.
RHP Jay Buente- Buente, who turned 29 in September, was picked up off waivers by the Rays in May of 2011 and has 10 big league appearances to his credit, 9 with the Marlins and one with the Rays. Buente missed all of 2012 recovering from shoulder surgery. Buente throws a fastball in the 90-92 MPH that he struggles to control, a very good splitter, and a show-me curveball. Buente could be another option for bullpen depth, but recovery from shoulder surgery is never a guarantee and the Rays have likely run out of patience. Buente will end likely end up with another organization or in Independent Ball for 2013 as he hopes to get healthy and get a more extended big league look.
RHP Matt Buschmann- Buschmann, 28, was acquired from the Nationals for cash considerations back in April and his claim to fame is that he was David Price’s roommate at Vanderbilt. Buschmann also has some ability as a pitcher and he had a nice season spent primarily at Double-A Montgomery, going 7-8 with a 3.89 ERA, a 7.1 K/9, a 3.1 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9 in 22 starts, 2 relief appearances, and 141 IP at Double-A. He also made 2 starts at Triple-A Durham. Buschmann features a solid high-80′s sinker that helped him put up a 48.7% groundball rate this year but his best pitch is a low-80′s slider with nice downward break. Buschmann also throws a halfway-decent changeup. Considering his age, no one is going to wait on Buschmann as a starter in this point, but he has the stuff to be a big league middle reliever who can force some groundballs and miss bats with his slider, and the Rays could re-sign him for that role. His connection to Price certainly doesn’t hurt his chances to stay in the organization, and it would be cool if Buschmann reunited with his ex-roommate Price in Tampa Bay next season.
OF Brad Coon- Coon, who will turn 30 in December, was signed as a minor league free agent by the Rays before the 2012 season and had a rough year at Double-A Montgomery, posting a .227/.340/.299 line with 8 doubles, 3 triples, 2 homers, 30 RBI, 13 of 18 stolen bases, and 58 strikeouts versus 46 walks in 90 games and 330 plate appearances. Coon is a scrappy player, featuring great plate discipline, speed, and defense in centerfield, but he didn’t hit at all in 2012 and although the Rays like a lot about Coon, he doesn’t have any real value to them right now. Some other team will likely give Coon a shot in the minor leagues next year.
OF Jesus Feliciano- Feliciano, 33, is a former big leaguer for the New York Mets and an excellent, maybe even Gold Glove-caliber defensive player, but he has never hit enough to receive a big league opportunity other than 54 games with the Mets in 2010 when he was already 31 years old. In 2012, Feliciano signed a minor league deal with the Rays, returning to the team after a stint as a Rays prospect from 2003 to 2004 when the D-Rays picked him up after the team that drafted him, the Dodgers, released him. In 125 games and 467 plate appearances at Triple-A Durham, Feliciano posted a .270/.312/.326 line with 19 doubles, 1 triple, 1 homer, 46 RBI, 8 of 11 stolen bases, and 43 strikeouts against 25 walks. Feliciano has some speed, but he’s a singles hitter with no plate discipline and that gets him into trouble. His defense is outstanding- he made a couple amazing plays when I saw him in spring training and didn’t make an error for Durham to go along with 10 outfield assists- but unfortunately his bat isn’t up to par. Feliciano will likely get signed as a spare outfielder for another organization next season.
1B Ryan Garko- Garko, 31, is a former big leaguer who played primarily with the Cleveland Indians, having his career year in 2007 when he posted a .289/.353/.483 line with 29 doubles, 21 homers, 61 RBI in 138 games before hitting .314 in 9 playoff games. Garko hasn’t appeared in the big leagues since 2010, spending 2011 in Korea before playing at Double-A for the Rays in 2012, managing a .297/.386/.441 line with 9 doubles, 8 homers, 40 RBI, and 50 strikeouts versus 28 walks in 61 games and 267 plate appearances, missing time with injuries. Garko can still swing the bat a little bit and reestablished a bit of his value, but that the Rays never even brought him up to Triple-A tells you how much they think of him. Garko will sign in another organization and try to get back to the big leagues.
UTIL Omar Luna- Luna, who turns 26 in December, was signed by the Rays out of the Dominican Republic back in 2006 and was an organizational player his entire career before generating some excitement with a breakout 2012. Playing for the Double-A Montgomery Biscuits, Luna posted a .315/.369/.389 line with 20 doubles, 3 triples, 3 homers, 57 RBI, 19 of 28 stolen bases, and 42 strikeouts against 38 walks in 122 games and 515 plate appearances. How did Luna, a .243/.276/.305 hitter entering 2012, suddenly put it all together? The answer is simple: his patience and pitch recogntion. Entering 2012, Luna had just a 3.5% walk rate against a 13.7% strikeout rate. In 2012, he improved to a 7.1% walk rate while cutting his strikeout rate to 8.2%. He went from a 46-10 strikeout to walk ratio in 2011 to 42-38 in 2012. Luna worked hard to improve his pitch recognition skills and be less aggressive at the plate, and it led to more walks, less strikeouts, and harder contact. Luna is a singles hitter, hitting a few line drives by primarily just putting the ball in play and using his great speed to beat plays out. But if Luna’s pitch recognition skills have really turned a corner, that should be enough for Luna to profile in a utility role given his versatility. Luna is a primary second baseman and shortstop but has experience at every position on the diamond except for first base, centerfield, and catcher- yes, he pitched, actually appearing in 4 games between 2010 and 2011. Luna has more than 100 career professional games at second, short, and third and actually got into 43 games in the corner outfield spots in 2012. He features good range, solid hands, and great arm strength, allowing him to profile well just about everywhere defensively. Luna still has to prove himself at Triple-A, but suddenly he has a chance to carve out a nice career for himself as a utility player in the big leagues. The Rays place a premium on versatility, and after they watched Luna’s offensive breakthrough firsthand, it’s hard to see them let him get away.
RHP Lance Pendleton- Pendleton, who turned 29 in September, is another pitcher with some big league experience, making 15 big league appearances between the Yankees and Astros in 2011. Pendleton did not have a good year at Triple-A Durham in 2012, going 8-7 with a 4.81 ERA, a 7.3 K/9, a 3.8 BB/9, and a 1.0 HR/9 in 23 starts, 3 relief appearances, and 129 innings pitched. Pendleton has entirely unimpressive stuff, throwing a straight high-80′s fastball and a trio of fringy secondary pitches, a cutter, a curveball, and a changeup. Pendleton doesn’t seem like a player the Rays would have interesting in keeping, and he’ll head to another organization or Independent Ball in 2012.
RHP Ryan Reid- Reid, 27, was the Rays’ 6th round draft pick back in 2006 and steadily worked his way up through the Rays system, going 6-3 with a 3.52 ERA, a 9.0 K/9, a 3.2 BB/9, and a 0.9 HR/9 in 43 relief appearances, 3 starts, and 79.1 innings pitched. I saw Reid back in spring training and he showed a mildly impressive arsenal, throwing a fastball from 88-92 MPH with good late life, a nice low-80′s changeup, and a little mid-80′s slider/cutter. He forced a great 58.0% groundball rate this season, and although he’ll never overpower hitters, he has the ability to get both lefties and righties out and provide some length. Reid is comfortable with the Rays organization and he could come back and finally make it to the big leagues after seven seasons in the minor leagues in 2012. One thing to note is that Reid was closing out games for the Aguilas del Zulia in the Venezuelan Winter League (where he was a teammate of Alexander Torres) and pitching well, posting a 2.70 ERA, a 5-1 strikeout to walk ratio, and 4 saves, but he hasn’t appeared in a game since October 30th and may be hurt.
2B Will Rhymes- Rhymes, 29, was signed by the Rays as a minor league free agent in January in 2012 and split time between Triple-A and the big leagues, posting a .256/.326/.390 line in 194 plate appearances at Durham and a .228/.299/.285 line in 137 PA’s with the Rays. Rhymes features nice plate discipline and makes a lot of contact, but he completely lacks power and doesn’t have much speed, limiting what he can do and making him a Quad-A type player. He can play both second base and third base, but his inability to play shortstop brings down his value in a utility role. The Rays got a good look at what Rhymes can do and the fact that they didn’t call him up in September is indicative of what they thought of him more than anything else. Look for Rhymes to sign with another organization this offseason.
RHP Matt Torra- Torra, 28, was signed by the Rays as a free agent in July of 2011 and is a former supplemental first round pick by the Arizona Diamondbacks back in 2005 but has not been the same since shoulder surgery that same year. In 2012, Torra went 12-7 for the Durham Bulls but with just a 4.8 K/9, a 1.6 BB/9, and a 1.5 HR/9 in 23 starts, 3 relief appearances, and 147 innings pitched. Torra, 6’3″ and 225 pounds, once touched 95 MPH with his fastball to go along with a nice curveball, but he struggles to hit 90 MPH now to go along with a curveball and a changeup that are just fringy, and although he has great control, as a player who doesn’t miss any bats and doesn’t force any groundballs (just a 34.7% groundball rate in 2012), he’s in trouble. Torra is another one of these players who will head to another organization or Independent Ball, and it’s a shame what has happened to him.
OF Isaias Velasquez- Velasquez, 24, was acquired from the Cleveland Indians for reliever Juan Salas back in 2009 and has seen a once-promising career begin to waste away from injuries. In 2010, Velasquez had a solid season at High-A Charlotte, posting a .289/.356/.357 line with 17 doubles, 4 triples, 2 homers, 36 RBI, 41 of 54 stolen bases, and 68 strikeouts against 45 walks in 127 games and 514 plate appearances, also nailing down 15 outfield assists and starring in this hilarious video. But the past two seasons, Velasquez has appeared in just 84 games, including out 15 in 2012, because of a series in injuries, including one that stemmed getting hit near his left eye with a flyball in a scene that was scary for everyone involved. When healthy, Velasquez has great speed to go along with nice plate discipline, and he has a compact swing that leads to a lot of groundballs that he has the chance to beat out. Defensively in centerfield, he has good range and a strong arm. Velasquez still has some nice ability and he remains relatively young, and he hopes to stay healthy and get back on the path on the big leagues. After what has happened the past couple of years, a change of scenery may be best for Velasquez, and after the ability he showed when healthy, there will be teams interested in him on a minpr league deal.
1B/OF Henry Wrigley- Wrigley, who turned 26 in August, was the Rays’ 14th round draft pick back in 2005 and is coming off a big season in 2012 as he finally made Triple-A, posting a .282/.331/.489 with 37 doubles, 20 homers, 79 RBI, and 103 strikeouts versus 36 walks in 126 games, 94 of which came at Triple-A Durham, and 517 total plate appearances. Wrigley has always stood out because of nice power and solid bat speed with good lift in his swing, but the serious concern that has always been present with him is his lack of plate discipline and problems with breaking pitches. It is awfully hard to hit for power in the big leagues without good plate discipline, and major league pitchers will exploit his pitch recognition issues when he gets there. If Wrigley doesn’t make major progress on his plate discipline, he is unlikely to survive as a starting first baseman in the major leagues moving forward. But at the same time, the Rays have nothing going on at first base on their major league team right now with Carlos Pena, Jeff Keppinger, and Luke Scott currently free agents, and Wrigley definitely appears to be a candidate for major league at-bats aft first base and in the corner outfield spots for the Rays in 2013 as their team is constructed now. It would be a major surprise if the Rays don’t re-sign Henry Wrigley, and he could very well end up on the Rays’ 40-man roster if he does indeed re-sign.
Minor league free agents aren’t the most high-profile crowd, and in this group we saw quite a few players whose promise is an afterthought. But we also saw a couple of players with the ability to make an impact for a major league team as soon as next season in Wrigley and Luna, and several relievers with a chance to earn a spot in a big league bullpen next year. The Rays have decisions to make on several players, and depending on the way the rest of their offseason plays out, we could see some of these players in Tampa Bay next season playing crucial roles. Between the Rays’ own minor league free agents and the multitude of others throughout baseball, there will plenty of under-the-radar signings and re-signings, and you never know which ones will turn into something special.