The Tampa Bay Rays have certainly not given up on winning in 2015. However, this coming season will mark the least confident that Rays fans have been about their team’s chances in a long time, making the current status of the Rays’ minor league system even more important.
Especially if further changes are coming this offseason, do the Rays have the prospects to get their team back on track before long? Over the next couple of weeks, we will go position-by-position in the Rays organization in an attempt to answer that question. After discussing catcher on Saturday, the position we will discuss today is first base.
Major League Roster
James Loney will be entering the second year of the three-year, $21 million deal he signed last offseason. Loney followed up an impressive 2013 season with a solid though unspectacular 2014. He produced a line of .290/.336/.380 with 9 home runs and 69 RBI.
It is worth noting that Loney fell back to earth against left-handed pitching in 2014, seeing his OPS fall from .729 in 2013 to .601 this past season. That should mean less at-bats for against same-side pitchers next season.
His defense, meanwhile, took a slight dip numbers-wise, but there’s no reason to believe he won’t regain his Gold Glove-caliber form. The eye test showed no major difference in his defense other than him not scooping a few throws that he normally would have, and that was bad luck more than anything else.
Backing up Loney will be right-handed bench bats like Logan Forsythe and Tim Beckham. Forsythe has the only game at first base between the two, but expect him to see time at the position in spring training.
Assessment: You know what you’re going to get from Loney, a contact hitter who will give you for a solid average and good defense, albeit with minimal power. The Rays should be relatively pleased to have Loney at first base for the next two seasons.
Triple-A Durham Bulls
Cameron Seitzer will likely take over as Durham’s everyday first basemen in 2015. He repeated Double-A in 2014 to work on his power and was able to make progress, upping his homers from 6 to 14 in 60 fewer plate appearances. Seitzer’s plate discipline is excellent, and with enough power, he could at least be a useful big league bench player. Seitzer also received some playing time on the left side of the infield in 2014 to help him get there.
Vince Belnome should also see time at first base for Durham while also seeing time at the other three corner positions. Belnome has always been good at getting on base, but his numbers took a major dip in his second go-around with the Bulls in 2014. Belnome won’t hit for much power, but his plate discipline, neutral split, and versatility give him a chance to be a utility player.
Assessment: Seitzer and Belnome can’t be described as exciting prospects, but they have a chance to work their way onto the Rays’ major league roster in some fashion. After Belnome made his big league debut in 2014, an injury or two could lead either player to some MLB time in 2015.
Double A Montgomery Biscuits
Patrick Leonard will be the Biscuits’ everyday first baseman in 2015, and for good reason. The last piece of the James Shields–Wil Myers trade had a breakout season in 2014 with High A Charlotte, posting a line of .284/.359/.448 with 13 home runs and 58 RBIs. The righty-hitting first basemen finally tapped into some of his power potential despite playing in a league that suppresses power.
Double-A will be a big test for Leonard and it will determine whether his 2014 season was a sign of things to come or just an aberration. If he continues improving his plate approach and his defense while showcasing his power, then he could starting creeping onto some prospect lists.
Assessment: Leonard will get every opportunity to lock down first base in 2015 for the Biscuits. It will be a good test to see if he can hold his own against upper-level pitching.
High A Charlotte and Below
2014 first round pick Casey Gillaspie will start the year at either High-A Charlotte or Low-A Bowling Green, likely Charlotte. The switch-hitter’s calling card is his potential to hit for average and power from both sides of the plate. He’s not very agile and can’t really play any position other than first base, so his entire future will be based upon his bat.
Gillaspie is a prototypical first base prospect, something the Rays generally haven’t had in their system (even Richie Shaffer has played third base). He had a successful short season stint at Hudson Valley in 2014 and will look to put himself on the map by hitting at High-A next season.
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Jake Bauers is one of the newest members of the organization, but reminds us of one of mainstays. Acquired recently in the second Wil Myers trade, Bauers is an advanced hitter for a 19 year old. He hit .296 in the Midwest League thanks to a smooth line drive swing and strong plate approach. Bauers’ doesn’t have much power to tap into, but he could potentially hit 10-15 home runs a year. Finally, Bauers should also be an above-average defender at first.
Add it all up and Bauers’ ceiling is a James Loney-type player, something that we know the Rays value. He appears to be ready for High-A, where he may see time at other positions so he can coexist with Gillaspie. Bauers is a notable prospect, but he isn’t good enough to push Gillaspie to Bowling Green.
Speaking of the Hot Rods, their first baseman will likely be Alexander Simon for the second straight year. Simon managed to hold his own at Bowling Green despite never having played above the Gulf Coast League as he hit .298 (albeit with little power and on-base skills). He will hope for better results in his second year with the team.
Another name to keep an eye on is Nic Wilson. The 2014 draftee has tremendous power, but he will needs to limit his swings-and-misses to harness it more. He’ll likely start the year at Hudson Valley, where he’ll look to develop better pitch recognition. The Rays loved Wilson’s power down in the 24th round of the 2014 Draft and will see if anything comes of him.
Assessment: The Rays have a surprising amount of first base prospects, and that continues down to Short Season-A. Gillaspie and Bauers join Leonard to give the Rays three interesting prospects, and Wilson is a wild card with the Renegades.
Loney has provided stability for the Tampa Bay Rays at first base, something they hadn’t had since Carlos Pena left as a free agent following the 2010 season. That stability appears set to last. By the time Loney’s contract runs out after the 2016 season, the Rays should have at least one keeper between Leonard and Gillaspie that will allow them to maintain confidence about their future at first base for years to come.