Aside from David Price, you go up and down the Rays’ homegrown starting pitchers, and each of them were high school picks. Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, Jeremy Hellickson in their current rotation, and James Shields and Wade Davis in recent years were all high-upside pitchers drafted out of high school. The Rays’ latest top pitching prospect, Taylor Guerrieri, was also a prep pitcher. The Rays have found so many top pitching prospects by taking chances on talented teenage pitchers and developing quite a few of them to become impact arms in the major leagues. On the other hand, drafting college pitchers has led to some of the biggest embarrassments in the history of the team, with Wade Townshend and Dewon Brazelton immediately coming to mind. But maybe that is beginning to change. Selecting Jesse Hahn out of Virginia Teach in the 6th round in 2010 after he had undergone Tommy John Surgery is beginning to look like a stroke of genius as he is quickly emerging as a frontline pitcher, showing that the Rays’ success has much less to do with finding high school pitchers than finding upside. And even though he’s a college pitcher, as Ryne Stanek hopes to translate his potential into performance at the major league level, he could not have ended up in a better place than in the Rays organization.
Stanek is a 6’4″, 190 right-hander coming out of Arkansas with a repertoire to dream on. At his best, Stanek’s fastball sits in the low-to-mid-90’s and bumps 96-97 MPH with excellent sink and he combines it with a mid-80’s slider with devastating late action, a high-70’s curveball with big 11-to-5 break, and a developing changeup. However, it was rare that you got to see all of this pitches working on any sort of consistent basis. Stanek’s height should give him an outstanding downward plane on his pitches, but he gets in trouble too often by losing his arm slot and getting his other pitches, causing his fastball to stay up and his slider to flatten out. He also has struggles through issues overthrowing, with his curveball blending together with his slider as he tried to be too fine on it to miss bats. Stanek’s pure stuff is outstanding, enough that he was once considered a potential top five pick in the draft, but will he ever harness it enough to remain a starter?
Once they get Stanek signed, the Rays will look to firm up Stanek’s mechanics to help his command, and it will be interesting to see if they decide to take away one of Stanek’s breaking balls. Stanek’s slider has more upside, but it’s also much more inconsistent and the Rays prefer to work with curveballs in their prospects. We could even see a situation where the Rays limit Stanek to his curveball while they work on his arm slot and then see if they can reintroduce his slider once he does a better job driving his pitches down in the zone. The Rays actually have a couple of recent precedents for that: they had Jake McGee work with a curveball in 2011 while he worked on his slider and then there was the interesting case of David Price. Price arrived in the major leagues with a slider as his primary breaking ball, limited its usage as he developed a great curveball, then brought it back as a slightly harder cutter that has emerged as a weapon against right-handed hitters. The Rays aren’t afraid to get creative to get their starting pitchers quality secondary pitches that they can utilize in games as they continue they development, and that could pay off significantly for Stanek in the next few years. Stanek’s changeup has a long way to go, but we all know how much of a focus it is in the Rays organization and if anyone can get him a plus changeup, it’s the Rays. Stanek has a lot of things to work on, but he’s an excellent project for the Rays to tinker around with, and if they get him right he could be a true ace in the major leagues.
An advantage of selecting a college arm over a high school one is that even if Stanek’s command never improves as the Rays hope, he still could become a very effective late-inning reliever. But at the end of the day, the Rays believe that Stanek has everything he needs to become an excellent starting pitcher with more refinement, and if he does, this will be a steal of draft pick. Stanek does come from some signability concerns–if he rebounds next season at Arkansas he could return to being a top five pick and maybe even top two–but the Rays have enough draft picks that they will be able to hand him a solidly above-slot bonus. And for Stanek, he has the opportunity right in front of him now to play in the organization renowned throughout baseball for its abilities to develop young pitchers. How could he turn them down if they make him a reasonable offer?