There’s something to be said about reaching Double-A. The players who make it there have survived A-ball and are suddenly facing off against players with the ability to make the major leagues by the end of the year. For all those players, there’s still work to be done, but with a 2012 season at Double-A under their belt, we’re really looking at talented players with the ability to make an impact with the Rays next year if a few adjustments are made. Time to continue our analysis of the 2012 Biscuits and see exactly what type of reinforcements are scheduled to arrive in Tampa Bay before we know it.
Back in 2009, two Rays outfield prospects participated in the MLB Futures Game. One you know very well: Desmond Jennings. The other one spent 2012 repeating Double-A, Kyeong Kang. Kang, who will turn 25 in a few days, essentially repeated his 2011 production for the Biscuits in 2012, managing a .243/.349/.441 line with 18 doubles, 14 home runs, a number that led the Biscuits and ranked 11th in the pitcher-friendly Southern League, 53 RBI, 4 of 6 stolen bases, and a pretty alarming 135-51 strikeout to walk ratio in 104 games and 404 plate appearances. Overall, Kang’s numbers in his return to Double-A, specifically his strikeout to walk ratio slipping from 83-53 to 153-51, have to be deemed a disappointment, but one thing specifically stood for Kang: increased patience. He struck out more and actually walked a little bit less, but according to Minor League Central, his pitches per plate appearance jumped from 3.93 to 4.24, the most in the entire Southern League minimum 250 plate appearances. And while Kang didn’t see that pay off in terms of walks, it helped him big-time in terms of quality of contact and specifically power as he improved from 11 homers and 29 extra-base hits in 2011 to 14 homers and 36 extra-base hits even in a down 2012. But really looking at the overall numbers is the wrong strategy here because Kang, a lefty batter, had an enormous platoon split. In 2011, Kang had a .888 OPS against right-handed pitching and a not terrible .692 mark against lefties. In 2012, though, he mashed righties to a .290/.406/.545 line (.951 OPS) with all 14 of his homers, all but 3 of his extra-base hits, and an 88-46 strikeout to walk ratio in 304 plate appearances. Against lefties, he didn’t play, making just 96 plate appearances, and that was because he was a total disaster managing just a .111/.167/.164 line. If we look only at the numbers against right-handed pitching, it looks like Kang made major strides, adding quite a bit more power while improving his patience. And if that’s really the case, Kang might be worth watching next season.
Kang is not a very imposing presence at the plate at 6’2″, 200, but he shows good bat speed and has made progress at finding better pitches to hit and adding lift to his swing to hit for more power. His increased patience in 2012 did not fix his pitch recognition issues- he still has to do a better job laying off breaking pitches down in the zone- but it certainly provides hope that he’ll be able to put everything together at least as a platoon player against right-handed pitching in the major leagues someday. Kang isn’t a completely lost cause against lefties although that probably won’t happen at this point, but Kang deserves a chance to go to Triple-A and see if he can become that platoon player. Kang’s struggles in 2012 may have also had a lot to do with DHing a lot more than he had in the past with the Biscuits featuring a bevy of excellent fielding outfielders, and he’s actually OK out there, featuring fringy arm strength but good range, and he can play a fine left field while managing a halfway-decent right field as well. Kang’s realistic upside is probably a platoon player who sees time in the corner outfield spots and first base against right-handed pitching and delivers a solid average and OBP along with 10-15 home runs in a part-time role. That would be far from the most exciting player you’ve ever seen, but the Rays have embraced players who can play that type of role before- with Gabe Gross immediately coming to mind- and we’ll have to see if Kang could fit in with the Rays in the same type of role at some point over the next couple of years.
No one would have guessed back then, but there’s a real chance that Ty Morrison end up as the best player from the Rays’ 2008 draft class. Morrison, 22, is coming off of a breakout season of sorts as he moved up from High-A to Double-A early on in the season, managing a .272/.341/.372 line with 25 doubles, 10 triples, 3 homers, 49 RBI, 31 of 41 stolen bases, and a 117-44 strikeout to walk ratio. Morrison struck out a little bit too much and didn’t walk quite enough for a player without much power, but he was able to compensate with great speed and great defense in centerfield. He also was a lefty hitter with basically no platoon split, managing a .272/.341/.373 line against right-handed pitching and a .272/.335/.361 line against lefties. Morrison is interesting as a four-tool player with the final tool, power, still something that might come around a little bit. A lean, athletic 6’2″, 170, Morrison stands out most for his plus speed, but also attracting attention is a quick, compact line drive swing. Morrison has always been a little overaggressive at the plate, but his pitch recognition is fine, although he could use some work against lefty breaking pitches, and he made strides being more patient in 2012, setting a career-high with 44 walks and improving his strikeout to walk ratio astronomically, from 133-43 in 2010 and 67-11 in an injury shortened 2011 to 117-44 in 2012. In terms of Morrison’s power, he’ll never be a big home run guy at all, but if he could add another 10-15 pounds of muscle to his thin frame, that would certainly help him at the plate. What he will always do well is stretching singles to doubles and doubles to triples with his speed. On the opposite edge of the spectrum, Morrison is also a great bunter and does a great job beating out groundballs for singles as well. Defensively, Morrison puts his speed to good use, showing outstanding range, and shows a slightly below-average but very accurate arm. Morrison still has work to do to give him a chance to profile as an outfield starter, specifically continuing to work on his patience and adding some power, but Morrison has a chance to be profile as a centerfield regular, maybe hitting in the bottom third in an American League lineup but showing decent ability at the plate and adding a lot of value with his speed and defense. Morrison will head to Triple-A in 2012 and has a chance to see time in the major leagues by September.
We’ll finish off this installment of our Biscuits series with our third lefty-hitting outfielder, Brett Nommensen. Nommensen, who turned 26 in October, suffered through a lost season in 2012, out until May with some injury and not arriving in Montgomery until June. But when he was healthy he actually played OK, managing a .255/.360/.376 line with 10 doubles, 3 homers, 25 RBI, 2 stolen bases, and a nice 33-25 strikeout to walk ratio. Nommensen was old for the level in 2012, but that doesn’t mean that a future for him in the major leagues is out of the question. 5’11” and 190 pounds, Nommensen is a player who doesn’t stand out in any of the five tools. His swing is compact but he won’t hit for a high batting average, his power is insignificant, his speed is average (although he stole 70 bases combined from 2009 to 2011 and just never got on track reading pitchers in 2012), his range in the outfield is fine, and his arm is average. Nommensen does excel, though, in patience. He’s a scrappy hitter who doesn’t strike out at all and does an excellent job fouling pitches off and working counts. That’s basically all he does, and as a player with solid outfield range but certainly not enough to play centerfield on a regular basis, he’s a fourth outfielder at best. But the ability to come into a game and deliver a professional at-bat while also showing solid speed and defense is nothing to scoff at completely, and although he may start 2013 back at Montgomery, if he can hit solidly at Triple-A he may get that opportunity someday.
Today we saw three outfielders who could see time in Tampa Bay over the next two to three years and one in Morrison with a real chance to start. Morrison is a noteworthy player with the type of topflight speed and defense that the Rays can’t get enough of, but even Kang and Nommesnen have value because they have abilities that translate to the major leagues, and considering they have made it Double-A and should see time at Triple-A next year, their talents aren’t just their potential but things they are not too far away from doing in the major leagues. It should be interesting to see where these three outfielders end up over the next few years. We’ll continue next time with the Biscuits’ starting rotation.
For more of our analysis of the Rays prospects at each level of their system, check out our Minor League Affiliates Analysis page here at RCG.