Who are our favorite prospects? The answer is pretty simple: the ones that are about to come up to the major leagues and be our teams’ saviors. There is no disputing that the Wil Myers-esque prospects with a tantalizing combination of talent and big league near-readiness are the best type of prospect. However, there is something to be said about an organization known for being among the best in baseball having top prospects in the lower minors as well. Knowing that you have players poised to be your team’s next generation of top prospects and eventually the cornerstones of the major league teams’ success is a great feeling. In the Gulf Coast League, Nick Ciuffo, Jose Mujica, and Jose Castillo have emerged as players to watch, and while the big leagues will be a long time away, it’s always nice to have something to get excited about.
In their list of the top 20 prospects in the GCL, Baseball America ranked catcher Nick Ciuffo 12th, right-hander Jose Mujica 16th, and lefty Jose Castillo 19th. That comes one year after the Rays didn’t have a single ranked prospect in the GCL and three years since the Rays last had as many as three prospects mentioned. Clearly the Rays are doing something right. The craziest thing, though, is how high Ciuffo and Castillo ranked even after tough debuts.
Ciuffo, the Rays’ first round pick in the 2012 MLB Draft, did not hit too well in the GCL, managing just a .258/.296/.308 line in 169 plate appearances with 6 doubles and 25 RBI. Ciuffo’s plate discipline was way off as he struck out 40 times against 9 walks, and he showed no power whatsoever. Why was he ranked so highly? As it turns out, offensive stats at Rookie ball are far from the entire equation. GCL managers loved Ciuffo’s defense, praising him for improved receiving and great agility behind the plate to go along with a strong arm and quick release. Ciuffo threw out 38% of attempted basestealers compared to the league average of 31%. And at the plate, Ciuffo may have struggled, but he still shows outstanding bat speed as a left-handed hitter with the potential for average power as time goes on. Ciuffo has work to do on both sides of the ball, but his defensive reviews have been far better than say Justin O’Conner‘s or Lucas Bailey‘s and we have to think his bat will come along.
Mujica, a top international signee last year, was the lone Rays prospect in the GCL to combine his potential with the numbers to back it up. Mujica went 3-2 with a 3.09 ERA in 5 starts and 7 relief appearances, striking out 20 while walking just 3 in 32 innings pitched. Mujica, already 6’2″, 200 at 17 years old, threw his fastball as high as 94 MPH, staying in the 88-92 MPH range consistently, and he may have a chance to throw harder since he could still grow another inch or to and has yet to fill out. Mujica threw mostly a straight four-seamer but mixed on some two-seamer’s as well, and while his command has an exceedingly long way to go, it was great to see him lighting up the strike zone as much as he did, even if it was the upper regions too often. Mujica also shows a lot of promise with his changeup, which he does a great job selling for such a young player and which already features good late sink. Everyone knows how much of a focus the changeup is in the Rays organization, and with enough refinement, Mujica’s could be the next Rays right-hander with a plus changeup, following in the footsteps of James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, and Alex Cobb. Mujica also made major strides with a breaking ball. Mujica’s development is just beginning, but there are all the makings of a top pitching prospect here if the Rays can help him harness his talents. Signing 16 year old out of Venezuela can be a risky busines, but in Mujica, it looks everything like the Rays have found a keeper.
The other Jose, Castillo, follows more of a conventional path for a talented pitcher in the GCL. Castillo’s ERA was a disastrous 5.87 in 3 starts, 9 relief appearances, and 30.2 innings pitched, but his strikeout to walk ratio was a strong 25-8. The noticeable disparity came because the Rays had Castillo focus on the part of his game as a pitcher that remains the most raw: his secondary pitches. Castillo a 6’4″, 200 lefty, throws a fastball consistently in the low-90′s and touches as high as 90 MPH. However his breaking ball is “slurvy” in the words of Baseball America and his changeup is “firm.” Given that the Rays are a fastball-curveball organization, a slurvy breaking ball for Castillo means he’s throwing it too hard and letting it flatten out too often. His changeup also has issues in terms of its speed differential with his fastball, and he’s still learning how to improve his arm speed and get more movement on it. The issues with both secondary pitches have a common thread: Castillo is still entirely a ”thrower”, not even beginning to become the pitcher he needs to be quite yet. In this Rays organization, though, if you give them a pitcher with a 95 MPH fastball and ask them to the rest, the chances are better than most. Give Castillo some time to prove to us just how good he can be.
In Ciuffo, Mujica, and Castillo, the Rays have their potential catcher of the future, a possible top-of-the-rotation starter, and an additional high-upside arm. What actually will happen to Ciuffo, Mujica, and Castillo is very much up in the air. However, sometimes we just need to take a step back and realize that no matter what these threee players turn into, the fact that these types of players continue to come up the ranks in the Rays system is all we need to know that the Rays’ future will be just fine. The Rays have three of the twenty most highly-touted players in the Gulf Coast League, and every system in baseball wishes they were in the same position.