Nick Ciuffo, Hak-Ju Lee Among Rays Prospects Best At Their Positions


Every fan base in baseball wants the assurance that no matter how their team looks now, somebody is coming. Better yet when that somebody is good. Several Tampa Bay Rays ranked among the best at their respective positions according to Baseball America, providing hope that players to watch are on the way.

Catcher has long been a train wreck for the Rays franchise. But this offseason, they traded for Ryan Hanigan, and more help is on the way. Baseball America ranked 2013 first round pick Nick Ciuffo 9th among all catchers in the minor leagues thanks to excellent defensive promise and a smooth swing with power potential at the plate. Ciuffo headlines a Rays catching corps that also features Oscar Hernandez, Curt Casali, and Luke Maile as the Rays hope to finally develop a quality big league catcher.

After years of inconsistency, the Rays solidified the catcher position last season by acquiring Yunel Escobar. But they have another prospect primed to push Escobar as soon as the end of this season. Hak-Ju Lee ranked 14th among shortstop prospects even after knee surgery cost him nearly all of 2013. Now he is back and hoping to build on his hot start at Triple-A Durham before he went down. Lee has something to learn from Escobar, who also impresses for his defense at shortstop but has been able to provide some pop at the plate. Escobar and Lee are both 6’2″, but Escobar weighs 210 pounds while Lee tips the scale at just 170. Could we see Lee bulk up a little and start hitting the ball with more authority?

Ciuffo was not alone among Rays first round picks on these lists. The player the Rays drafted with their second pick of the first round, Ryne Stanek, ranked 65th among right-handed pitchers. 17 spots earlier was 2011 first round pick Taylor Guerrieri, whose talent was impossible to ignore even after Tommy John Surgery and a drug suspension. Both Stanek and Guerrieri will be limited by injuries for most of 2013–Guerrieri may not even pitch–but the Rays look forward to helping along both of them in their development and see two potential frontline starters.

A third former first round pick ranked 28th among the top right-handed pitchers in baseball, Jake Odorizzi, who was selected by the Milwaukee Brewers. Odorizzi lacks the upside of Stanek, Guerrieri, or the other promising pitching prospects of the Rays’ past, but he will likely begin the year in the Rays’ rotation and they are confident he will be comfortable right from the start. Some Rays prospects, like David Price and Matt Moore, came to the major leagues with quite a pedigree. Others, for example Alex Cobb, were lesser known but quickly rose to prominence. Odorizzi hopes to join the latter group.

Not to be forgotten was the Rays’ 2012 first rounder, Richie Shaffer, who came in at 20th among first basemen. A tough 2013 season has seen Shaffer’s prospect stock take a major dip, but the Rays certainly have not lost hope yet. They still see excellent bat speed and power potential, and 2014 could be the year where he comes together.

Joining all the first rounders is also 2011 supplemental rounder Blake Snell, who ranked 30th among left-handers. Snell’s 2013 showcased his dominant stuff but disastrous control as he struck out 9.6 batters per 9 innings but also walked 6.6. But the Rays find themselves with yet another lefty with big-time stuff. Snell’s arsenal consists of a power sinker, a promising curveball, and even a changeup that has its moments. Can the Rays help him figure out where they’re going? Ahead of Snell at 14th was Enny Romero, who will spend 2014 at Triple-A and could become a rotation factor before long. Romero has electric stuff as well, and with more consistent command, hitters are going to have an awfully hard time.

One more pitcher who garnered recognition was Alex Colome, who ranked 8th among relief pitchers. Baseball America thinks that Colome will end up in the bullpen, and at this point, there is a really good chance that his durability and command controls prove them correct. But it is not yet time to give up on Colome as a starter, and there are far worse things then him moving to the bullpen. Colome’s mid-90’s fastball, slider, changeup, and curveball are dominating enough already–put him in short stints, and he could emerge as a late-inning option before long.

Finally, we go out to centerfield, where two more Rays prospects caught the evaluators’ eyes. Coming in at 12th was Andrew Toles, who did it all in his first full season at a pro at Low-A, quickly establishing himself as the next Rays outfield prospect in the mold of Carl Crawford and Desmond Jennings. The Rays can’t wait to see where he goes from here. Then down at 28th was Kevin Kiermaier, who shocked everyone by making his major league debut in Game 163 and looks to make a bigger impact this season. Years of hard work have finally gotten Kiermaier on the prospect map, and a strong 2014 season could leave Jennings wondering about his job security.

Even in a year where the Rays’ minor league system is considered weak, they had 11 players among the 290 players listed among the best at their positions, more than their 1/30 of the pie. The Rays have promising players coming at several positions, including a few ready to make an impact in 2014, as their prospect pipeline certainly has not dried up yet. Don’t worry–there are still plenty of Rays prospects to be excited about.