When we think of fall baseball, there’s only one thing that crosses our minds: the postseason. That certainly makes sense–it’s baseball on the biggest stage with a championship on the line. But the playoffs isn’t the only baseball going on in the fall. There is also the Arizona Fall League, and while the teams that win and lose are essentially meaningless, the players involved could end up helping their team win in the other type of fall baseball the following year if their development goes as planned. While the Rays play in the postseason (we hope), eight Rays prospects will take the field in the Arizona Fall League. And among those eight are some of the most talented players in the organization and several players with a chance to make an impact before we know it. Let’s go player by player and break down the Rays’ AFL representatives.
Mike Montgomery, LHP (Durham)- The expectations have shifted drastically for Mike Montgomery is recent seasons. Once hailed as the next ace of the Kansas City Royals, Montgomery entered his first season in the Rays organization in 2013 just trying to come up with a baby step in the right direction. At the very least, Montgomery has done just that. His 4.60 ERA is not so impressive, but it has been miles better than his 5.69 ERA in 300.1 innings between 2011 and 2012 (including a stint in Double-A). Montgomery’s control has been iffy at times as he has managed a 6.8 K/9 and a 4.2 BB/9, but he has done a better job keeping his pitches down, resulting in a 0.7 HR/9 and a 46.3% groundball rate. Montgomery is 24 now and we’re almost surely past the point where he can be a topflight major league starter. But with enough progress in the AFL, Montgomery making starts for the Rays next season is certainly in play.
Montgomery throws a fastball in the low-90′s that he is finally starting to command, but his best pitch is his changeup, which he sells with great arm action and outstanding late downward movement. The Rays had Montgomery start throwing his changeup more left-on-left and a little less against right-handed batters as he hopes to develop his other pitches to match it. The issue with Montgomery has always been his breaking balls. He never really took to a curveball so he has messed around with a slider and a cutter hoping to find that dependable pitch. The Rays have decided to stick with the cutter in the mid-80′s and see if Montgomery can harness that to finally give him a second out-pitch behind his cutter. Montgomery’s lack of that consistent breaking ball at this point limits his potential, but he still could be a number three starter in the major leagues if he improves his cutter just enough to put it in the back of hitters’ minds. His upside isn’t what it used to be, but a number three starter is nothing to scoff at–especially for a player that was the throw-in as part of the James Shields trade.
Richie Shaffer, 3B (Charlotte)- The Rays drafted Shaffer in the first round of the 2012 draft as an advanced college hitter who they hoped could move quickly through the minor leagues. Shaffer’s career thus far has not exactly gone according to plan. This season, Shaffer has hit to just a .254/.309/.404 line with 33 doubles, 11 homers, 71 RBI and 6 stolen bases (without getting caught) in 506 plate appearances. Shaffer has struck out 105 times, not an exorbitant amount (20.6 % of his plate appearances), and we knew he was going to strike out, but what has really been surprising was that he has walked just 34 times (6.8%). Shaffer was known for his plate discipline at Clemson, but it seems know that maybe his walks were more a product of patience than pitch recognition and that doesn’t work even at High-A. Luckily, though, Shaffer has adjusted since the start of June, managing a much more reasonable 61-26 mark in 309 PA’s. Shaffer’s power hasn’t really come out yet either, but the Rays have to hope that once he gets his pitch recognition under control, it will come out in earnest as well. In the Arizona Fall League, Shaffer, still just 22, will keep working on his pitch recogntion and harnessing his power in games, and if he can break through on that, he could be primed for a huge 2013. Shaffer may also get some time in the corner outfield spots as the Rays try to prepare him for his future position in the major leagues. Shaffer made strides in the second half of his first full season, and the Rays hope he can turn the corner for good in the Arizona Fall League.
Ryan Brett, 2B (Mongomery)- As we keep talking about, Ryan Brett has had himself one of the craziest seasons anyone has ever seen in 2013. The 21 year old Brett was suspended at the end of last season for methamphetamine after taking a pill to try to break out of a slump, but that was only the start of his troubles as he proceeded to have kidney and sports hernia surgeries before the 2013 season even started. Since taking the field in mid-May however, Brett has put together better than anyone could have dreamed. In 324 plate appearances between High-A and Double-A, Brett has a .303/.358/.458 line with 17 doubles, 4 triples, 7 homers, 38 RBI, and 25 stolen bases in 32 attempts. He has struck out 39 times while walking 22 times. Three main issues with him game have held Brett back over the years: pitch recognition, a lack of power, and poor defense at second base. This season, though, he has started to be more selective at the plate, and that has also allowed him to find more pitches to drive and hit for solid power. He remains a tad overaggressive at the plate, something Double-A pitchers have exploited in his brief time at the level, but with more work, Brett could end up being an interesting table-setter in a big league lineup and at least 1o t0 15 homer power. On the defensive side, meanwhile, Brett has already improved tremendously, working on his footwork and actions to become an average defender with a chance to be more. Brett is principally in the Arizona Fall League just to get at-bats after the suspension and injuries, but he will continue focusing on his patience, power, and defense with the hope that he won’t stay in Double-A long when he returns there next season.
Grayson Garvin, LHP (Charlotte)- Grayson Garvin is exactly the type of pitcher the Arizona Fall League is meant fall. Garvin, 23, was one of the Rays’ supplemental picks in 2011 and underwent Tommy John Surgery in the middle of last season, limiting him to just 24.1 innings this season. In the Arizona Fall League, Garvin will make up some of the balance. Garvin, a 6’6″ lefty coming out of Vanderbilt (like one David Price) features a low-90′s fastball with sink (although his command hasn’t come back yet after Tommy John), a plus changeup that he throws to batters off both sides, and a slurvy breaking ball that he still hopes to refine. Garvin just needs some innings, and while progress on regaining his command and improving his slider would be optimal, all the Rays really want is for him to stay healthy and pitch his way to Double-A for next season. Garvin has the upside of a number three starter and maybe even a number two if his slider develops dramatically. In the AFL, it will be time for him to start proving that his potential is attainable.
Curt Casali, C (Montgomery)- No one in the Rays organization has managed nearly as good of a season as Curt Casali. Casali, a 24 year old acquired from the Tigers at the end of spring training, has hit to a .311/.391/.481 line in 307 plate appearances between High-A and Double-A including a crazy .381/.463/.600 line in 123 Double-A PA’s. He has hit 14 doubles and 10 homers, driven in 52, and managed a 46-34 strikeout to walk ratio. Casali has truly had an unbelievable season. But where does he go from here? The Arizona Fall League will be a major deciding factor as the Rays try to figure that out. Casali has achieved his success in a pretty small sample, especially at Double-A (just 123 PA’s), and he clearly is not this good. Casali is interesting as a catcher with good patience and a little pop. He hits lefties extremely well, something that could be enough for him to land him a spot in the Rays’ catching mix as some point within the next two years, while not being totally helpless against righties either. But as just a decent all-around hitter, his defense is going to be very important, and he still has more work to do. Casali doesn’t have a great arm and is not the most athletic receiver (although he does frame the ball well), and he has to get up to par defensively if the Rays are ever going to consider him a real starting option. Casali has started to become a real big league option for the Rays after his big season. Now let’s see if he take the necessary steps in the Arizona Fall League to keep that the case.
Todd Glaesmann, OF (Montgomery)- Todd Glaesmann may very well have the best combination of raw tools in the entire Rays system. In 2012, he finally started showing it, managing a .285/.336/.493 line with 25 doubles, 7 triples, 21 homers, 93 RBI, and 8 stolen bases in 540 plate appearances on his way to the Rays’ Minor League Player of the Year award. But this season, it’s his flaws that have stood out more than his strengths as he has slipped to a .239/.290/.376 line with 25 doubles, 11 homers, 52 RBI, and 6 stolen bases in 507 plate appearances. Glaesmann’s issue becomes pretty obvious once we include the big stats we left out: his strikeouts and walks. This year, Glaesmann has just a 108-26 strikeout to walk ratio, and even in his breakout 2012, he struck out 124 times against just 30 walks. Glaesmann has never had great pitch recognition, and an aggressive approach at the plate only makes things worse. But the Rays are hoping that something can click as they send him to the Arizona Fall League. Glaesmann, 22, features all five tools, showing tremendous bat speed, above-average power, solid speed even as he has filled out to 6’4″, 220, good fielding in right field, and an extremely strong arm. If he can find enough plate discipline, he will use that package of abilties to be a starting corner outfielder in the big leagues and maybe even a star. If not, there is still enough talent for Glaesmann to possibly carve out a career as a 4th outfielder. Glaesmann has always seen the ball better against lefties, and he is strong enough in the outfield to play centerfield on an occasional basis. Glaesmann was an upside play from the start, and it has not exactly worked out yet except for that 2012 season. But Glaesmann still has a strong chance of being a big league contributor, and the Rays hope that the AFL can be where he starts at least the minor breakthrough he needs to be a backup.
Merrill Kelly, RHP (Durham)- If you had said before this year that Merrill Kelly would have a good enough season that the Rays would send him to the Arizona Fall League, people would look at you like you were crazy. Kelly was coming off a mediocre season even after moving from starting to relieving, and all the indications were that he was going nowhere. But following Kelly’s huge breakout season, a spot on the AFL roster has been given to him and a spot on the Rays’ roster at some point next season is not out of the question. Kelly, 24, has delivering a strong season between Double-A and Triple-A, going 13-10 with a 3.61 ERA, a 6.3 K/9, a 3.7 BB/9, and a 0.4 HR/9 in 26 starts, a relief appearances, and 152 innings pitched. His strikeout rate has jumped to 7.6 per 9 in 78.1 Triple-A innings. Kelly, a slim 6’1″, 170 right-hander, throws his fastball primarily in the 88-90 MPH range with good late life and he is starting to get a better feel for commanding it. The pitch that gives him a chance at a big league future, though, is his changeup, which he sells with great action and also gets good fade on it when he’s going well. Kelly’s breaking ball is slurvy and still needs plenty of work. Kelly is unlikely to be a starter at the next level, but with a deceptive delivery, fastball velocity that will play up, and his great changeup, he could be a great right-on-right middle reliever who isn’t blown away by lefty hitters either. Especially with a strong Arizona Fall League, Kelly could make his way into the Rays’ bullpen by the end of 2014.
Matt Ramsey, RHP (Charlotte)- Injured players can be very valuable commodities in the draft. If you can find one who showed promise before he got hurt and a good chance of coming back strong, you have a chance to turn a later-round pick into an absolute steal. Matt Ramsey, the Rays’ 19th round pick in 2011, is off to a great start as he tries to do just that. After undergoing Tommy John Surgery after he was drafted, Ramsey was able to make only a handful of appearances even in 2012. But in his full-season debut for the Low-A Bowling Green Hot Rods this year, Ramsey managed a 2.42 ERA, a 12.5 K/9, a 3.5 BB/9, and a 0.3 HR/9 in 20 appearances and 26 innings pitched. And while Charlotte has not treated him as well (3.13 ERA but just a 20-14 K-BB in 23 IP), his stuff speaks for itself. Ramsey, a 23 year old 5’11″, 205 right-hander, features electric stuff, throwing a mid-90′s fastball with late life and a sharp 11-to-5 curveball. Now the question is whether he can locate his pitches enough to live up to his potential as a late-inning reliever and maybe even a closer. Ramsey got off to a late start because of his injury, but with type of stuff, he has the ability to get on the fast-track to the major leagues. Ramsey will labor immensely in the Arizona Fall League hoping to get a hold of his stuff, and if he does, he could be in the Rays’ bullpen before we know it.
Every year in the Arizona Fall League, teams send players who never really showed much promise. Maybe they saw something the previous season that they hope to bring out, but the chances are that the player will never make an impact in the major leagues. In these eight players, the Rays have gone starkly against that. They may not have a superstar, but they have eight players all capable of having a place in the Rays’ future and some of whom could be key contributors. The Rays’ playoff run will hopefully be more exciting, but it will be worth watching how these eight prospects do over the course of the fall.