Prior to last season, Tampa Bay Rays prospect followers were quite surprised to hear that first baseman Cameron Seitzer was going to jump from Low-A Bowling Green straight to Double-A Montgomery. They call High-A to Double-A the toughest jump in professional baseball before Triple-A to the majors–how could a player who was not so highly regarded possibly fare well? Instead, Seitzer delivered an excellent season, increasing his standing in the organization in a major way in the process. Seitzer hit to a .268/.380/.360 line in 579 plate appearances, drilling 25 doubles and 6 homers while driving in 61. Seitzer still has to work on harnessing his power more in games, and that is a major reason why he is back with the Biscuits to begin 2014. However, he proved that his patience and pitch recognition truly are excellent tools as he held his own against advanced pitching, and his odds are exponentially higher of making the major leagues now. As it turns out, though, Seitzer was only the test balloon. This season, the Rays have been even more aggressive promoting players from Low-A to Double-A, and it will be fascinating to see what transpires.
Among position players with a minimum of 140 plate appearances on the 2013 Montgomery Biscuits, Cameron Seitzer was only the player to skip High-A, and in fact the only player who made less than 145 plate appearances at the level. Then on the pitching side, Jake Floethe, Austin Hubbard, and Andrew Bellatti all came up as injury replacements after starting the year in Charlotte, but no other pitcher had tossed less than 70 innings at levels above Low-A. The Biscuits were almost entirely composed of either players coming up from Charlotte or returnees from the previous season. This year, however, is an entirely different story. Two different position players, Luke Maile and Joey Rickard, have followed in the path of Seitzer and went straight from Low-A to Double-A. The difference was even more dramatic, though with the pitchers: Grayson Garvin, Dylan Floro, Jared Mortensen, and Matt Ramsey all advanced to Montgomery with less than 70 innings at High-A, with the latter three each tallying less than 30. The Rays are known for using a conservative approach to develop their players–why are they suddenly promoting these players so aggressively through the minor leagues?
What is worth noting about every player the Rays decided to jump past Charlotte is that they are all players who entered the professional ranks after attending college. (Bellatti is the only exception.) The common thread with all of them is that they were getting up there in age and had yet to prove themselves against more advanced competition. In addition, Garvin is the only player among this year’s “jumpers” who was drafted before the 8th round. We are not talking about the Rays’ top prospects here. But if these aren’t extraordinary talents by any measure, why are the Rays doing this?
Given that we are dealing with relatively advanced players who were not so highly regarded, the Rays are challenging them to put themselves on the map as prospects. All six of the players who came to Montgomery after little or no time in Charlotte has something that makes him stand out. Maile is a catcher who can really hit. Rickard shows excellent speed and centerfield defense to go along with a solid bat. The ex-first rounder Garvin rebounded from Tommy John Surgery by looking great in the Arizona Fall League. Floro dominated the lower minors and shows excellent sink on his fastball. Mortensen caught eyes in Independent ball with a mid-90′s fastball. Finally Ramsey, another Tommy John survivor, flashes a mid-90′s fastball and a sharp curveball. Will all six of these players pan out? Absolutely not, but they deserve to chance to show what they could do at a level where their performance truly matters. The Rays have realized that bringing along college players slowly helps no one. By being more aggressive, they give the players who exceed expectations a chance to make the major leagues more quickly while also weeding out the players who will not be factors in the big leagues moving forward.
For a time, the Tampa Bay Rays’ front office had strategies that they used in almost every case. They drafted almost exclusively high school players in the first round, only agreed to extensions when they were with top prospects and team-friendly terms, and always traded away top starting pitchers before free agency. As the years have gone by, however, the Rays have realized that their strategies needed tweaking. The general principles remain the same, but now the Rays select more college players, sign veterans to long-terms deals, and will hold onto to a player like David Price if they believe it is right move. Another change they have made is pushing interesting college prospects like Dylan Floro and Luke Maile more quickly up the ranks. Will it work out the way they hope? We’ll have to ask that question again in a few years. But at the end of the day, it is nice to see the Rays continuing to innovate as they hope to extend their remarkable run since 2008 until the foreseeable future.