Over the past week, I basically disappeared off the map. The reason: I was working on a 2012 MLB mock draft for the Minor Leagues Blog of the FanSided Blogging Network, Seedling to Stars. It’s still well before the draft, but if you have any interest in the draft, I would recommend giving it a look here, if I do say so myself. But let’s get to the point here. As part of the mock draft, I had to evaluate the minor league systems of all 30 major leagues teams, the Rays of course included. Even though I’ve been following the Rays farm system obsessively for a few years now, I decided to take a step back and view the Rays system like any other team. In the process, I got an interesting handle on the state of the Rays system.
The Rays current big league team is one of the best in baseball. The minor league system we always have the perception of being elite. What’s really going on? One of the biggest factors for a team’s minor league system is what the team is lacking at the major league level. Let’s start by running through the Rays major league team and see where the holes are that the system needs to fill.
Carlos Pena played well for the Rays from 2007 to 2010, and although he’ll turn 34 in May, he still looks to be a productive first baseman for at least the next couple of years. He should play a big role in the short-term for the Rays.
Ben Zobrist is currently in his prime as he will turn 31 in May, and the Rays have him signed for the next two years with two options after that. Zobrist has been a very productive hitter two of the past three seasons, and he’s very much a part of the Rays’ future, although there’s always the option he’ll change positions.
Evan Longoria isn’t just on the Rays- he IS the Rays. Longo is signed for the next two seasons followed by three more costly options, and there’s no doubt he’ll spend the next five seasons with the Rays. He’s an undisputed superstar and the best player the Rays have ever had in their history.
The Rays are entering spring training with Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac interlocked in battle for their starting shortstop job. Over the past two seasons, Rodriguez has proved himself to be around an average big league player, posting a .692 OPS compared to the .713 league mark. He has shown some good defense, particularly at second base, but he struggled at shortstop in 2011. Reid Brignac, meanwhile, he the upside to be the rare shortstop who can hit 20 home runs and 30 doubles, but he completely faltered in his first big league opportunity in 2011, posting just a .448 OPS. However, the upside hasn’t evaporated from Brignac, and as I’ve talked about previously, a lot of his 2011 struggled stemmed from bad luck. Brignac also grades as a tick above-average defensively. Brignac appears to be a much better overall option at shortstop than Rodriguez, but disclaimers aside his 2011 was still a huge reason for concern. Brignac has a chance to be the Rays starting shortstop for the next couple of years, but that’s nowhere near a certainty.
Desmond Jennings made his big league debut in 2011 and was very impressive, prompting complaints over why the Rays didn’t call him up sooner. He did struggle in September, but a 2-homer game in the playoffs made people forget about that. He has a promising combination of power and speed, and he will man an outfield spot for the Rays for years to come.
B.J. Upton has always had sky-high upside but he’s failed to live up to expectations. Nevertheless, he’s been a productive big leaguer over the past five years, posting a .771 OPS compared to the .740 league average with speed and flashes of power including a 23-homer 2011. Upton’s time in Tampa Bay is finally coming to an end as his contract expires following the 2012 season. The Rays have resisted trading him, but that’s more because they’re contending and want an established centerfielder than anything. B.J. Upton is a nice major league player, but his future after 2012 will not come with the Rays.
Matthew Joyce finally broke out when given an opportunity in 2011, earning an All-Star berth as he posted a .825 OPS with 32 doubles, 19 homers, 75 RBI, and 13 stolen bases in 14 attempts. There was to the season that meets the eye, though. Joyce slowed down to a .771 OPS and 7 home runs in the second half after a .864 OPS and 12 home runs in the first. Joyce’s numbers were ballooned ridiculous May where he hit .441 with a 1.229 OPS, 7 home runs, and 21 RBI. Joyce was very streaky, also posting a .529 OPS in June and .653 OPS in July before rebounding the rest of the season. But streakiness isn’t such a major problem as long as at the end of the season, the numbers are there. The big problem was that he posted just a .657 OPS with 3 home runs versus lefties compared to a .866 OPS with 16 home runs versus righties. He hit just 1 home run versus a lefty starter all season. Joyce posted nice numbers in 2011, but his struggles versus lefties make his future with the team much more uncertain. However, with Upton departing, it’s hard to imagine Joyce not being a regular for the Rays for at least the next couple of years.
Luke Scott turns 34 in June and although he posted a .845 OPS with an average of 25 homers per season from 2008 to 2010 before an injury-riddled 2011, his age and injury history preclude him from being anything more than a current solution for the Rays. The Rays will be satisfied if Scott just stays mostly healthy in 2012 and hits 20 home runs with a solid OBP, and then, unless they have no other choice, they’ll decline his 2013 team option.
James Shields has been a workhorse for years now and in 2011, he pitched like a true ace. After 2012, the Rays have options on Shields for two more years.
David Price regressed in terms of ERA in 2011, but he improved his strikeout to walk ratio and is primed for a big 2012 and beyond with the ability to be the ace-type pitcher he showed flashes of being in 2010. He’s eligible for arbitration for the first of three times in 2013.
Jeremy Hellickson won the AL Rookie of the Year in 2011, and even though there are reasons to expect regression, as I discussed here, Hellickson has the ability to improve his strikeout, walk, and groundball rates enough to negate such a regression. He’s more of a 2nd or 3rd starter than anything, but he has the ability to be dependable starting pitcher for the Rays over at least the next 5 years.
Wade Davis struggled in 2011, but he’s a better pitcher than he was this past season as I talked about here and profiles as a 3rd or 4th starter in the major leagues.The Rays have him signed for 3 more years with 3 team options after that.
Jeff Niemann has showed flashes of greatness as a major league starter, but is about an average pitcher overall and injury problems put him a rung down the latter. He doesn’t have the type of upside that Davis has (see here), but when healthy he’s a dependable big league 4th starter but unique in his ability to pitch like a number two or ace for several-start stretches like he did from late June to mid August in 2011.
Alex Cobb‘s 2011 major league success after he was brought up because of Niemann’s injury was pretty fluky as I mentioned here, but he still can be a good big league 5th starter and profiles well in middle relief with the Rays, important because he might need two injuries to receive a rotation spot for any significant period of time.
Matt Moore still qualifies as a prospect, so we’ll discuss him below.
The Rays got surprising breakout seasons from Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta in 2011 in their mid-30’s and we’ll see how they hold up long-term. Fernando Rodney fits a similar profile, and although several years younger, so could J.P. Howell as a pitcher looking to rebound from a execrable 2011. The Rays younger relievers Brandon Gomes, Jake McGee, Burke Badenhop, and Josh Leuke all have potential, although none of them profiles well as a closer. If the Rays’ veteran relievers can sustain their 2011 success and the younger relievers can show some improvement, the Rays bullpen could be surprisingly effective in 2012. Although considering the volatility of relievers in general, especially as they get up there in age, the Rays bullpen is a wild card for 2012, let alone 2013 and beyond.
Overall on their major league team, the Rays are strong at starting pitcher, third base, wherever Ben Zobrist plays (let’s say second base), and the outfield spot where Desmond Jennings plays. They’re in solid standing for the near future at first base with Carlos Pena and in right field with Matt Joyce. Centerfield is questionable beyond 2012 with Upton’s departure impending, while the bullpen and shortstop positons are both question marks but with considerable upside if all goes well. Catcher is a complete black hole on the major league level. We can use this knowledge to weigh different parts of the farm system. Catcher, shortstop, and the outfield (because Jennings could play center or left) are positions of increased importance in the Rays system right now. Let’s go position by position through the Rays system, mentioning any notable prospects at each level.
Triple-A: Stephen Vogt would have a good bat for a catcher if he could play there consistency, but he’s more of a utility type with the ability to be a team’s third catcher. He doesn’t qualify.
High-A: Lucas Bailey hasn’t put everything together yet as a pro, but he has nice tools in his power and arm strength and has the upside of an above-average major league starter with 20-25 homer power. Right now he’s the Rays catcher of the future, but that title is by no means any sort of guarantee.
Short Season-A: Justin O’Conner mirrors Bailey, but with more upside and more risk. He was a complete disaster in his first full pro season in 2011, striking out far more than he should.
Short Season-A: Jake DePew doesn’t have the bat of Bailey and O’Conner, but he’s as good if not better defensively and could hit enough to be a passable starting catcher. He does fit well as a defense-first backup.
High-A: Phil Wunderlich isn’t an exciting prospect has the tools to be at least an average big league first baseman with good power along with solid hitting and defense. He needs work on his plate discipline, but if he can fix that issue, it will improve his entire game and make him above-average.
Low-A: Jeff Malm is a high-risk, high-reward type who shows flashes of greatness but then has gone into extreme slumps. He could be a big league All-Star or completely flame out.
Advanced Rookie: John Alexander is very raw but at 6’5″, 200, has big-time power with projection. He’s an unknown quantity but a player to watch as he starts his first full pro season.
Double-A: Tyler Bortnick is fast with great instincts on the basepaths, and despite little power, he’s a solid overall hitter. He’s solid defensively at second base and could handle the other infield positions in a pinch. Bortnick profiles best in utility role where he could make a decent impact with his speed, but he could handle a starting second base job if needed. He’s has the type of all-out mentality that the Rays love, and his versatility and speed are positive aspects as well.
Low-A: Ryan Brett is another speedster, but he has more power than Bortnick, although mostly gap to gap, but he has a nice line drive swing that should enable him to hit for a good average. He also has excellent plate discipline, walking more than he struck out at Advanced Rookie ball in 2011. Defensively, Brett has plus tools but needs refinement. Brett is a while away from the big leagues, but he has the ability to be a good major league first baseman for the Rays someday.
High-A: Derek Dietrich has great power, very uncommon in the Rays system, and although he needs to cut down on strikeouts, he’s a pretty good pure hitter. Dietrich’s sub-par speed will force him off shortstop in 2012, but he has a good arm and could handle third base. He has the ability to be a good major league third baseman thanks to his power, but with Evan Longoria in front of him, that make not happen in St. Petersburg.
Advanced Rookie: The player who received the second highest bonus among Rays draftees in 2011, Tyler Goeddel has Gold Glove potential defensively at third base and made show-stopping plays as an amateur. He’s big and lanky now at 6’4″, 175, but he has shown a great line drive swing that could make him a .300 hitter eventually, and he should add power as he fills out his frame. Goeddel has a long way to go, but he’s a potential All-Star third baseman.
Triple-A: Former number one overall pick Tim Beckham finally broke out in 2011. He was supposed to be a legitimate 5-tool threat, but he has only shown flashes of all his tools, and although he has a strong arm, he has never gotten comfortable defensively at shortstop. Beckham is assuredly a major league player, but especially on a contending team like the Rays, he may profile better in a utility role.
Double-A: Hak-Ju Lee has the potential to be the best shortstop in the Rays’ short history. The 21 year old a legitimate four-tool prospect with power still possibly to come. Lee has a quick, compact stroke that he uses to send line drives to the gaps, and that swing will help him hit for a high average in the big leagues, possibly as high as .320 or .330. Lee also has excellent speed, which helps him on the basepaths, where he still needs work at reading pitchers but is 40 stolen base threat going forward, and that speed also gives him incredible defensive range at shortstop. Lee’s range, smooth actions, and great arm make him a superlative defensive shortstop and an almost surefire Gold Glover. Lee is 6’2″, 170, so there’s definitely projection there for him, and while he will almost assuredly not blossom into a legitimate power threat, he could a candidate to hit 25 doubles, 10 triples, and 8-10 homers taking into account his speed. The Rays have high hopes for Lee and he is clearly the Rays shortstop of the future.
Low-A: Jake Hager has average or better tools across the board, including above-average power for a shortstop and a strong arm. He should be able to stay at shortstop. All of Hager’s tools play up because of great passion and leadership on the field. Based on pure tools, he has the ability to be a tick above-average shortstop, but his intangibles make him significantly better.
Advanced Rookie: Brandon Martin is an excellent defensive shortstop who isn’t quite as consistent as he needs to be yet, but he already makes eye-catching plays. Martin has a nice line drive swing that could help him hit for a good average, and he does have some power projection, but his defense is what makes him an interesting prospect.
High-A: Cody Rogers came out of nowhere to break out at Low-A Bowling Green in 2011, showing a nice combination of power and speed, He strikes out too much for his own good and he wasn’t good enough defensively to handle centerfield, but he’s worth watching in 2012 to see if he can continue to play well at higher levels of the minors.
Low-A: Josh Sale has great bat speed and an outstanding ability to make contact, but he struggled mightily in 2011 because he had a ton of trouble making hard contact. He should have considerably above-average power, but he has to make more quality contact. Defensively, Sale is limited to left field, although he does have a good arm. Sale is a high-upside, high risk player at this point, and we’ll have to see what happens with him.
High-A: Mikie Mahtook made his pro debut in the Arizona Fall League in 2011 and will start at High-A as he looks to zoom through the minors. Mahtook is a polished player who has above-average hitting ability along with good speed and defense. His other tools, his power and arm strength, are average. He gets very pumped up on the field and always hustles. Mahtook profiles as an above-average centerfielder if not an All-Star, and he could be in the big leagues by the end of 2012.
Low-A: Kes Carter has at least solid tools across the board, featuring good bat speed although he needs work on making contact, average power, slightly above-average speed, good defensive instincts, and a very strong arm, especially if he can stay in centerfield. His problems have been problems against lefties as a left-handed hitter and injuries. If he can stay healthy and learn to hit lefties, he has the ability to be a slightly above-average major league centerfield.
Rookie: Granden Goetzman is very raw, but has drawn Jason Werth comparisons with his combination of above-average raw power and good speed. He has shown good bat speed and a strong arm, making him a candidate to move to right field like Werth has if necessary. Goetzman has quite a bit of upside, but the question is whether he can get there.
Triple-A: On almost any other team, Brandon Guyer would be a starting outfielder and a good one. Guyer has shown nice bat speed that he uses to hit rockets to the gaps, and he projects to hit in the .280’s or .290’s. Guyer has slightly above-average power overall for a right fielder as he’s a threat to hit 20 homers, 35 doubles, and a few triples, but what really distinguishes him is his speed and defense. Guyer is a 30 stolen base threat thanks to plus speed, and he uses that speed along with a rocket arm to play exemplary defensive in right field, making him a potential Gold Glover. Guyer is a late bloomer, but his great all-around game makes him a possible All-Star. Guyer had an outstanding season at Triple-A in 2011, but he could start 2012 back there with the Rays lacking an outfield opening.
Low-A: Drew Vettleson showed an excellent line drive stroke in 2011 and like Guyer, is a good all-around player. He projects to hit for a .300 or higher average, although his power is just around average for a right fielder. Vettleson has good speed with nice instincts on the basepaths, making him a 30 stolen base threat, and his speed also serves him well in right field, although is arm strength is just a tick better than average, slightly sub-par for a right fielder. Vettleson wore down at the end of his first pro season in 2011, and he needs to improve his stamina. Vettleson needs work, but he has the upside of an above-average right fielder and a possible All-Star thanks to his great ability to hit for average.
Triple-A/Majors: Matt Moore is the best pitching prospect in baseball thanks to two plus-plus pitches: an outstanding mid-90’s fastball with sharp movement into right-handed hitters and a plus-plus breaking ball with sharp late downward break, and he also throws a changeup with great sink that has improved significantly over the past couple of years and could profile as a plus pitch itself. Even when you know Moore’s pitches are coming, they’re still very difficult to hit and he shouldn’t have a problem striking out a batter per inning if not more even as a rookie. Moore has dealt with bouts of wildness in the past but he has gotten that under control. We can’t expect Moore to come up to the major and instantly be an ace (see here), but he has enormous potential and could reach that level before long.
Triple-A: Chris Archer, like Moore, has shown two plus-plus pitches in his fastball and slider, but his changeup has never really come on and he has almost unremittingly struggles with control. If Archer can somehow deal with his control, he has ace-type stuff, but he’s more likely to end up as a late-inning reliever. He does have the stuff to close and his control would become less of an issue.
Triple-A: Alex Torres led the Triple-A International League in strikeouts in 2011 thanks to a nice fastball-changeup-curve combination, but he is hampered by poor command and control. If he can deal with those problems, he could be a good third starter in the big leagues, but that won’t happen in St. Petersburg. Torres threw in long relief in September of 2011 for the Rays, and middle relief could be his primary role during his time with the Rays.
Double-A: Alex Colome has three pitches that have flashed plus in a mid-90’s sinker, a curveball, and a changeup, and he adds in a slider as well. He needs to get more consistent sharp movement on his pitches and deal with control problems, but he has 3rd starter upside.
High-A: Enny Romero is the next left-hander with electric stuff to pass through the Rays system. Romero touches 97 MPH with his fastball with solid movement but still has projection, and he could have two more plus pitches in his curveball and changeup, but he has to make those pitches consistently have the sharp movement that they have flashed, and control them better. Romero might have ace upside, but he’s quite a while away from living up to that.
Low-A: Felipe Rivero is another projectable lefty at 6’0″, 151, and he tosses in the mid-90’s right now with his fastball with a plus curveball and an improving changeup. He needs work on his command as he was very homer prone in 2011, but his control is very polished for a 20 year old. He’ll be worth watching in his first season in full-season ball.
Advanced Rookie: Taylor Guerrieri, the Rays first pick in their prolific 2011 draft, has dynamic stuff, especially for a high school product. He throw in the mid-90’s with his potential plus-plus fastball with nice sink, and his sharp 11-to-5 curveball will become another plus pitch if not more. He has a changeup that has shown promise, and he also has a cutter, an extreme rarity for a prep pitcher. Guerrieri needs a lot of work on his command and control, but he has ace upside with his ridiculous pure stuff.
Double-A: Matt Bush, who was the number one overall pick in 2004 by the Padres as a shortstop, has reformed himself as a reliever in the Rays organization and could be in the big leagues by the end of 2012. Bush hits 97 MPH with his fastball and also tosses a nice curveball, and his big problem right now is command and control. If he tighten those up a bit he could be a good major league reliever.
High-A: Lenny Linsky will be a high-riser through the minors with a sharp low to mid-90’s sinker along with a plus slider from the same arm slot, creating deception. He’ll almost assuredly finish the season at Triple-A if not the big leagues.
Low-A: Parker Markel could very well be the biggest wild card in the Rays system. His fastball ranges from 92-95 and touches 97 with outstanding movement, in fact so good that it has sometimes hindered his control of the pitch. His changeup plays perfectly off his fastball thanks to basically the same arm action. He also has flashed plus with a slider and curveball. However, Markel is confronted with a series of problems. He has had a lot of difficulty repeating his delivery, worsening his control even more, and he has tended to lose velocity in the later portion of games. Markel has ace upside if he can smooth everything out, but more likely he profiles as a late-inning reliever. The Rays will keep him as a starter for now and he’s definitely worth keeping an eye on.
To recap the organization, the Rays have quality players across the board, but it’s interesting noting the levels. Let’s divide the minors into Triple-A and Double-A, High-A and Low-A, and then Short Season leagues. I’ll give the prospects at each positon a quick letter grade for how good the current players at each level are going forward so I’m not typing this all out again.
Majors: Catcher: D, First Base: B+, Second Base: A, Third Base: A+, Shortstop: C+, Left Field: A, Centerfield: B-, Right Field: B, Starting Pitcher: A+, Relief Pitcher: B
Triple-A and Double-A: Catcher: N/A, First Base: N/A, Second Base: C+, Third Base: N/A, Shortstop: A+, Left Field: N/A, Centerfield: N/A, Right Field: A-, Starting Pitcher: A+ (B+ when you take out Moore), Relief Pitcher: C+
High-A and Low-A: Catcher: B, First Base: A-, Second Base: A-, Third Base: A, Shortstop: B, Left Field: B-, Centerfield: A-, Right Field: A, Starting Pitcher: A-, Relief Pitcher: A+
Short Season Leagues: Catcher: B-, First Base: B, Second Base: N/A, Third Base: A+, Shortstop: B, Left Field: N/A, Centerfield: B-, Right Field: N/A, Starting Pitcher: B+, Relief Pitcher: N/A
Glancing at the letters we see a bunch of different things. Catcher is a position where the Rays have a big organizational need. First base is a position where the Rays have no player to replace Carlos Pena for the next couple of years. Ben Zobrist better hold down second base for the next several years. The Rays are absolutely loaded at third all over the place and the minor league system is loaded at short. The Rays don’t have tremendous outfield depth, especially in the upper minors. But I think the most interesting thing here may be the pitching. The Rays pitching depth gets worse as you go farther down the minors, and they’re especially thin in Short Season ball with Taylor Guerrieri being the only significant prospect. Considering most of their Triple-A and Double-A pitching prospects will be out of the organization or entrenched in relief by the time the Rays current rotation begins to waver. The good news as that some of those upper-level starters will help fill the Rays bullpen need when Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, et all collapse or leave town, but the Rays do potentially have a need for more lower-minors starters. Romero, Rivero, and Guerrieri are all good prospects, but the chances are that one will like up to the hype (my bet’s on Guerrieri), one will make it do the big leagues but fall short of his ability (I’ll say Romero), and the last will completely flame out.
Looking at the Rays organization, the position they have to address immediately is catcher, while first base and starting pitcher are concerns down the line. The Rays still have a very good farm system, but when you weigh it based on the present and future needs of the major league team, there are some clear holes. The Rays started addressing some of that with their 12 picks before the third round in the 2011 Draft, and expect them to continue drafting and trading for for low minors upside in 2012 and coming years. The Rays have some excellent prospects, but in the scheme of things, the system is not among the best in baseball and the Rays have to look to get it back up to par. The good news is that the Rays’ major league team is as good as it has ever been. But their minor league system has some clear flaws right now, and those will need to be addressed. The Rays are looking to sustain the success they’re experiencing right now even as impact players leave as free agents. They’ll look to retool their minor league system in coming years and do just that.