Things are happening for the Rays right now as they begin to make their final preparations with the date for pitchers and catchers reporting a little over a month away. According to the Rays’ official site, the Rays have agreed to minor league contracts with catcher Craig Albernaz, outfielder Jason Bourgeois, and right-hander J.D. Martin, all of whom received invites to major league spring training. We discussed Albernaz and Bourgeois more in depth when the signings were initially reported, and Martin is someone we’ll talk about more in depth later today. Martin, who just turned 30, was a former first round pick by the Indians and went 6-9 with a 4.32 ERA in 24 starts with the Washington Nationals in 2009 and 2010.
We know that in spring training, a slew of unproven prospects receive opportunities to catch the eye of the Rays coaching staff, and the Rays are starting to figure out who some of those prospects will be within their organization. The Rays have announced that relievers Marquis Fleming, Kirby Yates, and Adam Liberatore have been invited along with catcher Mark Thomas.
Fleming, 26, started the year in Triple-A for the Rays but struggled and spent most of the year back in Double-A. He’s an interesting relief prospect in that he only throws in the 87-89 MPH range with his fastball, but it features great sink and run away from right-handed batters and he pairs it with a good changeup and solid slider. His pitches feature such remarkable movement that he struggles to control them and he needs more consistency on his secondary pitches, but despite his lack of fastball velocity he still has the potential to be a solid middle reliever in the big leagues.
Yates, who will turn 26 in March, had a good year at Double-A for the Rays, striking out 12.4 batters per 9 innings but also walking. He’s a more conventional relief prospect thanks to a fastball that touches 95 MPH and usually hits the 92-94 MPH range to go along with a sharp slider in the mid-80’s. He’s been working on a changeup that would help him against lefties, but that remains a work in progress. You can never have enough power arms, and if Yates can improve his control and command of all his pitches and develop his changeup into a usable offering, he’s someone we could see in the major leagues at some point next season.
Liberatore, who will turn 26 in May, is a big lefty coming off a big year between Double-A and Triple-A, managing a 2.47 ERA and bizarrely striking out 9 batters per 9 innings at Triple-A compared to just 4.7 at Double-A. Liberatore is the rare the lefty that can bring it a little bit, sitting 90-92 MPH and touching 94 to go along with a good slider and a decent changeup, and he does that out of a deceptive delivery that gives lefty batters fits. LIberatore is another one of these pitchers who needs work on command and control, but a future as a lefty specialist in the major leagues is a possibility.
Finally, Thomas, who will turn 25 in May, might be the Rays’ de facto catcher of the future thanks to excellent defensive skills and some promise at the plate. Thomas has thrown out 41% of attempted basestealers against him in the minor leagues including 46% at Double-A in 2012 thanks to a fluid actions and a strong arm, and he’s potentially the complete package defensively thanks to his talent receiving and blocking balls in the dirt. The biggest question, though, is going to be whether Thomas will ever hit. Thomas slammed 13 home runs in 2011, but he’s severely handicapped at the plate right now by a lack of plate discipline and managed just a .254/.323/.383 line with 5 home runs in 2012. The lack of patience hampers both Thomas’ ability to get on base consistently and to make quality contact as he hasn’t done a good job waiting for pitches to hit. It will be fun for all the Rays’ pitchers to throw to Thomas this spring training and be amazed by his defense, and hopefully the Rays’ coaching staff can help him make the adjustments at the plate that will give him a chance to hit enough to profile as a major league starting catcher, although that is going to be an uphill battle.
ESPN’s Keith Law ranked (Insider-only) the top 25 MLB players under 25 and the Rays’ own Matt Moore came in at number 14. Law said that he “expects Moore to join David Price as a second ace atop the Rays’ rotation” and whether by coincidence or not, 14 is the number that Price happens to wear. Moore was inconsistent his rookie year, but his promise is evident and hopefully 2013 is the year everything comes together for him.
Speaking of fireballing lefties, Jack Moore of Fangraphs talked about how Jake McGee‘s altered throwing motion helped lead to his success in 2012. Moore talked about McGee in advance of McGee being a possibility in a Rays trade for Mike Morse, but I don’t think the Rays will trade three more years of a lefty with closer potential in McGee for one year of Morse. That aside, Moore’s piece is certainly worth the read.
Finally, a couple of Rays are involved with camps raising money for important charities in their community. Jeremy Hellickson is going to make a guest appearance at the “Kids Living Brave” pitching clinic in Hellickson’s hometown of Des Moines, Iowa on January 26th for kids age 8-14, and all the proceeds will go to children fighting cancer. Great to see Hellickson heading back to his hometown to make an impact in the lives of aspiring pitchers and most importantly to raise all that money for kids undergoing cancer treatment. And we have to finish with the one, the only Sam Fuld, who will be running his Sam Fuld Sports Camp once again for children with diabetes ages 8-18 from February 2nd to 3rd at the University of South Florida in Tampa. All participants will receive instruction in 7 different sports: baseball/softball, basketball, tennis, soccer, football, cheerleading (if you count that as a sport), and golf, with professionals or collegiate players in each sport, all of whom have Type 1 Diabetes, on hand to run the programs. Always amazing to see Fuld involved in the community and especially for children with diabetes, and with Fuld at the helm, you know that his event will be a tremendous success once again.