The 2013 season is over, and while the Rays wish they could still be playing for a few more weeks, they will take a well-deserved break. What’s done is done this year, and they will have to wait until 2014 to change their fate. For the Rays, though, there has to be some part of them that wants to get back at it right now and prove to the rest of baseball that a tough sseries to the Red Sox doesn’t reduce their status as one of baseball’s top-peforming franchises in the slightest. The same is also true of several Rays prospects. As Baseball America has been analyzing the Rays’ top prospects the last few weeks, several Rays prospects have seen their games pulled into question. They want nothing more than to start proving their doubters wrong immediately. Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll go through the Rays’ minor league teams discussing the players that Baseball America has casted doubt upon as they have gone through their league Top 20 prospects series. We will analyze what the problems are and what they neeed to do to cement their status as some of the best prospects in baseball. Let’s start today with the Bowling Green Hot Rods.
Taylor Guerrieri– Even after Tommy John Surgery, Taylor Guerrieri will likely be ranked as one of the Rays’ top prospects. But aside from the usual caveats that apply to a player returning from an injury, Baseball America questioned Guerrieri’s potential as well in their report of him for their Midwest League Top 20 Prospects. “Prior to his elbow injury, he had the makings of a mid-rotation starter.” Mid-rotation starter? Wasn’t this guy supposed to be the next Rays ace? While that assessment of Guerrieri may be more on the negative side, Guerrieri does have some clear issues to address. He came out of high school with a mid-90’s fastball, and this season it was down to more 91 to 93 MPH. He commands it well and gets good movement on it, but it’s not an overpowering pitch. Can Guerrieri find a way to reach back for more velocity while still being able to locate it? Meanwhile, Guerrieri’s curveball has not quite progressed as hoped and his changeup has more average potential than anything else. Guerrieri has plenty of work to do turning the curveball into the plus pitch the Rays thoguht it would be and add effectiveness to his changeup as well. Guerrieri has more than his health to prove the next time he takes the mound. The worst thing for him is that because of the surgery, his return will not come until June or July. The specter of proving himself will weigh over Guerrieri the next several months, and it’s going to take everything Guerrieri has to stay focused on his rehab and wait until the middle of next season to prove himself again.
Andrew Toles– Andrew Toles is coming off a huge season for the Bowling Green Hot Rods, winning the Midwest League batting title with a .326 average to go along with 35 doubles, 16 triples, and 62 stolen bases. Yet Toles made it to just the No. 19 spot on the Midwest League Top 20, getting criticized for his pitch recognition, focus, and all-around inconsistency. Isn’t that harsh for a player coming off an incredible season? As a Rays prospect watcher, of course you want to say it is, but the critiques of Toles are going to be major obstacles that he will have to overcome moving forward. You look at Toles’ talents and it’s hard not to see the Carl Crawford or Desmond Jennings type of skill-set with tremendous speed and defense and considerable upside at the plate as well. Considering Toles was, like Jennings, a junior college pick, the comparison goes even farther. However, there is a major difference between putting up Crawford-esque numbers at Low-A and doing the same at the major league level.
The biggest thing that jumps out from Toles’ numbers is that he struck out 105 times while walking just 22 times. Toles has excellent bat speed, helping him hit line drive after line drive, and his blazing foot speed helped him leg out hits even when he didn’t hit the ball as hard. But neither of those matters if he can’t make contact. Toles often looked lost against breaking pitches, feasting against poorly-located fastballs while struggling against almost everything else. Luckily for Toles, A-ball pitchers almost always have a long way to go in the command department, so fastballs left in zones where Toles could handle them were extremely commonplace. But can Toles learn to lay off the pitches he can’t handle to keep hitting even as the pitchers against him get more advanced? In addition, can he keep hitting for a high average even when more developed infield defense makes his infield hits more infrequent? Toles got into bad habits, and no matter how much the Rays told him that he would have to keep polishing his approach, he continued doing the same thing. The mental side of the game is hindering Toles as much as anything else and further complicating his future.
The scary thing about Toles is that he has the ability to put up even better numbers than he did this season if he can keep developing at the plate. He only hit 2 home runs this season and he has the raw power to hit more if he finds better pitches to hit. He may get less infield hits, but he doesn’t bunt well yet and that will turn into a weapon for him once he hones it. And on the basepaths, Toles stole 62 bases but got caught 17 times–he’s stealing bases much more based on speed than instinct. Once he actually learns the art of the stolen base, pitchers will have an even tougher time containing him. The concerns in his game don’t minimize the fact that Andrew Toles’ upside is as high as any player in the Rays system. But none of his talent will matter if he doesn’t refine it.
Andrew Toles has to improve his patience and pitch recognition, and his lack of focus was a big reason why that has not happened in his first two pro seasons. Scouts described him as inconsistent even when he hit .326, something that will be even more the case at higher levels. Toles has flaws in his game he has to address, and overcoming his tendency towards not always putting in 100% effort will be principal among doing so. The Rays dream of Toles becoming a superstar outfielder, but let’s see him make the necessary improvements to his game before we consider that a realistic possibility.