Pitchers and catchers will report to Tampa Bay Rays spring training in just eight days now and it will be a fun time. Every member of the 40-man roster will be there in addition to several players given minor league contracts with the chance to compete for roles, and it will be exciting to see how the Rays roster turns out. But aside from those two groups of players, there is a third group that may be the most interesting: the prospects who the Rays decided to invite to big league camp. Most of the top prospects in the system are either on the 40-man roster already or too young to match up against big leaguers in spring training, so the prospects who are non-roster invitees are the sleepers of the system, the players who may not be so highly regarded but who have done something to catch the Rays’ eye. Let’s take a look at these players and see what made them stand out.
Matt Andriese, RHP: Acquired in the Alex Torres-Logan Forsythe trade, Andriese cracked Triple-A in just his second full professional season and could make the major leagues before the end of his third. The 24 year old right-hander had a strong season between Double-A and Triple-A in the San Diego Padres system in 2013, going 11-7 with a 3.27 ERA, a 7.0 K/9, a 1.9 BB/9, and a 55.0% groundball rate in 134.2 innings pitched. He did see his ERA balloon to 4.45 in 58.2 IP at Triple-A, but the Rays are confident that his second chance at the level will end quite differently. Andriese stands out for an excellent low-90′s sinker and a trio of solid secondary offerings, and he could help the Rays as either a starter or reliever by the end of the year. Andriese was arguably the most talented player the Rays received in the trade, and they are excited to see what he can do in his first year with the system.
Curt Casali, C: The Rays also received Casali in a trade, but it was a much more minor one. The Detroit Tigers selected Kyle Lobstein from the Rays in the 2012 Rule 5 Draft, and when it was clear that Lobstein would not make their team, they decided to send Casali to the Rays to retain Lobstein’s rights. Lobstein had a strong season in the Tigers organization, but the Rays have no complaints after how well Casali did. Casali, 25, hit to a .316/.404/.488 line with 17 doubles, 10 homers, and 53 RBI in 329 plate appearances, showing a strong 49-39 strikeout to walk ratio. His defense was not nearly as good (25% CS%, 8 passed balls), but he does have a good defensive reputation, and hitting that much as a catcher makes him stand out. Casali was never considered a potential starting catcher before, but the Rays will give him a chance to prove that his big season at the plate was not a fluke.
Mikie Mahtook, OF: The Rays’ second first round selection in the 2011 MLB Draft, Mahtook has largely been a disappointment but nevertheless spent his second full pro season at Double-A. Mahtook’s numbers were decent across the board but no better as he managed a .254/.322/.386 line with 30 doubles, 8 triples, 7 homers, 68 RBI, and 25 stolen bases in 33 tries in 568 plate appearances. At this point, Mahtook appears to be stuck as a fourth outfielder who has decent power and speed but lacks the defensive chops to play centerfield regularly. Nevertheless, if Mahtook can have a solid 2014 season, he could be compete for big league time in that type of role as soon as next season.
Luke Maile, C: The only player below Double-A we will talk about, Maile impressed the Rays with a strong 2013 at Low-A Bowling Green. Maile, who turns 23 today, hit to a .283/.351/.402 line with 25 doubles, 4 homers, 49 RBI, 8 stolen bases, and a 54-41 strikeout to walk ratio in 407 plate appearances. Defensively, Maile is not known for impressing and he did DH 30 times, but he appeared to make some strides behind the plate, throwing out 51% of attempted basestealers and allowing just two passed balls. The Rays are always looking for catching prospects that can hit, and Maile appears to qualify. It says a lot that they’re giving him a chance.
Steve Geltz, RHP: Going from a Low-A player to one who already has 2 big league games under his belt, Geltz was acquiring from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for Dane De La Rosa and will hope to give the Rays some value after De La Rosa had a strong season for the Angels this year. Geltz, 26, had a strong season at Triple-A Durham this year, managing a 2.82 ERA, a 10.7 K/9, a 3.2 BB/9, and a 1.1 HR/9 in 41 appearances and 67 innings pitched. That homer rate tells you everything you need to know. Geltz sits 92-94 MPH with his fastball, which is nice velocity but not enough to make up for his command issues. He has a good slider and a usable changeup, but he has to get his fastball more consistently down in the zone before the Rays will consider him a real option. He is a Quad-A reliever right now, but he could have promise if he can get his command sorted out.
Merrill Kelly, RHP: Let’s start with the disclaimer on Merrill Kelly’s talent: the Rays did not add him to the 40-man roster following the season and he was not selected in the Rule 5 Draft. That being said, Kelly broke out in 2013, and it will be interesting to see where he goes from here. Kelly, a 25 year old right-hander, was mediocre in 73.2 innings at Double-A to begin the year, but he took off after injuries and promotions brought him to Triple-A, going 8-4 with a 3.19 ERA, a 7.4 K/9, a 3.6 BB/9, and a 0.4 HR/9 in 14 starts and 84.2 innings pitched. Between that performance and his solid stuff, Kelly has a chance to work himself into big league time, although likely in relief. As a starting pitcher, Kelly throws a fastball in the 88-90 MPH range with good stuff, a very good changeup, and a slurvy breaking ball. He held righty batters to just a .602 OPS this season, and a righty specialist role could in his future.
Adam Liberatore, LHP: Liberatore, 26, has always put up flashy ERAs since the Rays selected him in the 21st round of the 2010 MLB Draft, but he never got the strikeouts to go along with it, managing just a 7.1 K/9 and a 3.4 BB/9. That changed in a big way in 2013. Liberatore’s 3.47 ERA in his 44 appearances (all but one at Triple-A Durham) was actually the worst of his career, but his 10.4 K/9, 3.6 BB/9, and 0.4 HR/9 got people’s attention. Lefties couldn’t do anything against him, managing just a .162/.244/.230 line with 35 strikeouts against 8 walks, and he held righties to a respectable .257/.329/.322 line as well. Liberatore’s upside is a middle reliever, but he has a chance to get there in short order. Liberatore throws a fastball in the 90-92 MPH range, a very good slider, and a decent changeup as well, and all of his pitches play up thanks to a deceptive delivery. If he keeps pitching well, Liberatore will have to get a chance at some point as a lefty specialist.
Braulio Lara, LHP: Lara, 25, is a lefty who touches 100 MPH with his fastball. That’s the reason why the Rays are giving him a chance–but it also happens to be the only thing going for him right now. Lara struggles to command his fastball and his secondary pitches are sub-par. He flashes dominance, but he hasn’t shown any consistency since arriving in full-season ball. This might be Lara’s last chance to get himself together.
Cole Figueroa, INF: Figueroa, 26, has his strengths. He makes a lot of contact, has excellent plate discipline, and is a strong defender at second and third base. But his skill-set may not be enough for him to earn consistent big league time. It is tough to be a utility player who has little power, just decent speed, and is not comfortable at shortstop and that is exactly where Figueroa is. But the Rays love his attitude and all the little things he does and they have nothing to lose bringing him to spring training for the second year in a row. At some point, he will get a chance to show what he can do at the big league level.
Among the Rays prospects covered here, Andriese is head and shoulders above the crowd as the most talented player. But behind him, we see catchers and relievers with a chance to contribute in the big leagues and several others looking to prove themselves. We are talking about role players here, but every team needs their fair share of role players in order to succeed. One or two Rays prospects who were invited to spring training will make the major leagues this year, and don’t say the Rays didn’t give you fair warning. The Rays see something in each of these players, and sooner or later, most of them will get their opportunity.