For the last five years, the Tampa Bay Rays have run their Winter Development Program, an opportunity for 25 to 30 prospects to receive additional instruction. Included on the roster are plenty of their prospects. This season, for instance, the program will feature Andrew Toles, Nick Ciuffo, Ryan Brett, and Blake Snell. Not every player, though, is as well-known or well-regarded. Everyone attempts to find sleepers in the system, but this is a rare opportunity to see who the Rays themselves believe are worthy of further attention. We may not know them yet, but everything could be different at this time next year.
German Marquez: When the Rays brought Marquez to not just to America but to Advanced Rookie Princeton even after he had managed just a 6.82 ERA in 34.1 innings pitched in the Venezuelan Summer League in 2012, it was a clear sign that they were in love with his potential. Marquez has plenty of work still to do, but he did not disappoint, going 2-5 with a 4.05 ERA, a 38-20 strikeout to walk ratio and a 47.9% groundball rate in 12 starts and 53.1 innings pitched. Those numbers are actually a little bit misleading because he improves to a 2.82 ERA and a 34-15 strikeout to walk ratio in 44.2 IP if you take out his first start and last start. Most important, though, is his stuff. Marquez, who will turn 19 next month, has seen his velocity continuously go up since he signed as a 16 year old back in 2011 and actually reached the mid-90′s during his time in Princeton. His groundball rate at Rookie ball does not say as much as it would at higher levels, but Marquez does a great job throwing his fastball for strikes for such a young pitcher. Marquez also flashes sharp break with his curveball and even mixes in the occasional changeup already. He is a shorter right-hander at 6’1″, 184, but his lack of big-time velocity earlier in his career forced him to work extensively on maximizing what he had and that will serve him well moving forward. We need to see more of Marquez, and if he keeps this up, he could be emerge as a top prospect.
Hunter Wood: A 29th round pick by the Rays in the 2013 MLB Draft, the 20 year old Wood was selected out of Howard College, where he was a teammate of Nick Sawyer (also at the Program).Wood made his professional debut at Princeton in strong fashion, going 3-3 with a 3.80 ERA and a 59-11 strikeout to walk ratio in 6 starts, 10 relief appearances, and 45 innings pitched. After getting mixed results early on, Wood was unhittable in his final 10 games, managing a 2.37 ERA and a 51-8 strikeout to walk ratio in 38 innings pitched. Wood lacks Sawyer’s pure stuff, but there is plenty to be excited about. Wood gets excellent late movement on his fastball in the 88-92 MPH range, using it to force swings-and-misses and weak contact. At 6’1″, 171, there is also a chance that Wood could add some velocity. Wood has to do a better job driving his fastball down in the zone, but he generally throws it for strikes and lets its movement do the rest. Beyond his fastball, Wood throws a curveball that really began to click after he signed, showing sharp break. Wood is also working on adding a changeup. Wood emerged as a sleeper immediately and expect the Rays to give him a chance to start games at Short Season-A Hudson Valley next year. Sometimes a lack of explosive velocity and a great pitcher’s frame can belie plenty of talent.
Jaime Schultz: It looks like we are finding a trend with these small-statured right-handers, although Schultz’s physicality is a step lower at 5’10″, 190. Luckily for Schultz, he has the stuff to make up for it. The Rays’ 14th round pick in the 2013 MLB Draft out of High Point, Schultz flashed brilliance in his pro debut, most notably striking out 8 in a 3-inning relief appearance. On the whole, he was inconsistent but still generated strong results overall, going 1-2 with a 3.05 ERA and a 55-29 strikeout to walk ratio in 10 starts, 7 relief appearances, and 44.1 innings pitched. The reason Schultz fell as far as he did in the draft was not his repertoire. Schultz stays comfortably in the 92-94 MPH range with his fastball, touching as high as 97 MPH at times. When his arm slot is right, it features excellent run and sink. Schulz complements his fastball with two breaking balls, a curveball and a slider. The curveball is the more promising offering thanks to sharp 11-to-5 break when Schultz can get on top of it, but his slider is his best groundball pitch. It will be interesting to see if the Rays decide to scrap his slider in favor of a changeup. Schultz has issues with command and control stemming from an inconsistent release point, and his situation is further clouded by what has been perceived as an indifferent attitude on the mound and a lack of trust in his stuff. But we know that the Rays are not afraid of players who are believed to have character issues, and if those issues were overblown, Schultz’s stuff gives him tantalizing potential. Schultz’s pro debut was a good start, and we’ll have to see where he goes from here.
Granden Goetzman: Goetzman is an organizational sleeper in a different way, from Marquez, Wood, and Schultz. He was a second round selection by the Rays in the 2011 MLB Draft, drawing Jayson Werth comparisons from scouts. Goetzman being here is more about the Rays’ continued faith in him than anything else. Goetzman, 21, impressed enough in spring training this year to earn an opportunity at Low-A Bowling Green, but it turned out to be disastrous as he managed just a .454 OPS in 78 plate appearances before moving down to Short Season-A Hudson Valley when their season began. His results with the Renegades were only marginally better as he hit to a .220/.243/.344 line in 222 plate appearances. The good news, though, was that he did leg out 7 triples and steal 23 bases on the season, and he also finished the season in solid fashion, managing a .286/.293/.429 line in his final 82 plate appearances. Goetzman’s issue so far has been plate discipline, but the Rays still believe that he will come around and he has good upside when he does. Goetzman has a chance to be a cheap five-tool player, showing bat speed, raw power, foot speed, range in the outfield, and a good arm. The Rays believe they are close to a breakthrough with his patience and pitch recognition, and if they can do that, he could take off. Unlike Josh Sale, who we discussed yesterday, Goetzman has said the right things and continues to work hard. Next season, he will head back to Bowling Green, and maybe this time the results will be different.
The Winter Development Program is only the start for these four prospects. Plenty of obstacles lie ahead, and optimism this early in the game is not always indicative of success. But it is always nice to be aware of the next big thing just before it arrives, and at least one of these four could be just that.