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.
We have already talked about catcher and first base while also discussing the positions that the Rays’ infield prospects will play. That last piece is especially pertinent because as we discuss second basemen today and the rest of the infield in coming days, not everyone we mention will be playing his natural position.
Asdrubal Cabrera is lined up to be the Rays’ starting second baseman for next season. The Rays signed him for $8 million, which would be considered a bargain for any other teams, and are expecting a nice season from him and just maybe a breakout. His defense should be much better at second than it was at shortstop and that should also increase the value he provides the Rays.
Backing up Cabrera will be three players, each of whom would describe second base as his best position: Ben Zobrist, Nick Franklin, and Tim Beckham. None of them figure to play there too often–Cabrera will play every day given that he lacks a platoon split–but it is great for the Rays to have so much depth.
Assessment: Going from Zobrist at second base to Cabrera is a downgrade, but that won’t matter too much if Zobrist is still on the team helping at another position. Cabrera should at least be an average starter at second and the Rays can dream of him being good enough to decline a qualifying offer at the end of the year.
Triple-A Durham Bulls
Ryan Brett is competing with Nick Franklin for the title of Rays second baseman of the future, and although he trails Franklin in experience, he probably has the edge. Brett hit to a .303/.346/.448 line at Double-A in 2014 with 25 doubles, 6 triples, 8 homers, 38 RBI, and 27 stolen bases in 34 attempts.
Brett’s plate discipline and pitch recognition did not look as good last season as it had in years past, and those are things he will need to work on to continue hitting at Triple-A and in the major leagues. However, his defense at second has made huge strides, and he has what it takes to be a starting second baseman in the big leagues as soon as 2016.
Assessment: Brett ranks among the Rays’ top prospects, and the Rays hope that he can continue performing well on the surface while getting his plate approach up to big league-quality. He will certainly be a prospect to watch in the system this year.
Double-A Montgomery Biscuits
Tommy Coyle‘s offensive production dropped off at High-A, and the Rays hope that he can change that in Montgomery. Coyle has looked spectacular in the Australian Baseball League, but the obvious question is whether that means anything at all.
Coyle is an excellent basestealer who also shows good plate discipline. He’s a grinder who does the little things well, but the question with him is always going to be whether he can hit the ball with enough authority. If Coyle’s power from the ABL doesn’t come stateside, a High-A middle infielder could join the Biscuits and take his starting job before the year concludes.
Assessment: Coyle faces an uphill battle to return to prospect relevancy. The Rays are hoping that Coyle has really broken through, but don’t expect to hear too much about the Biscuits’ second base situation in 2015.
High-A Charlotte Stone Crabs
The Stone Crabs have a host of middle infielders, but it looks like Andrew Velazquez will be the one seeing the most time at second base. Velazquez shines for his excellent speed and his defense at both shortstop and second base, but it will be interesting to see how he performs at the plate in High-A.
Velazquez has work to do on his plate approach, and he is especially under pressure to improve in that regard because he does not have much power. Luckily for him, he has a good fallback as a speed-oriented player. The Rays dream of him becoming a solid all-around hitter, but his secondary skills all but ensure that he will be a player to watch in this system moving forward.
Assessment: Velazquez’s speed, defense, and decent hitting will keep him relevant, but a true breakthrough at the plate would make him into a top prospect. The Rays will give him every chance to get there.
Low-A Bowling Green Hot Rods
Jace Conrad appears set to start at the keystone in Bowling Green. Conrad’s all-around abilities made it seem surprising that he fell to the 13th round of the 2014 MLB Draft, but his first professional season showed us where all of the concerns lied: his bat.
Conrad is a superb defender at second base who also has blazing speed, but he has the unfortunate combination of pitch recognition issues and little power. The difference between him and Velazquez is that Velazquez, despite the effort he will still need to put in, is advanced enough at the plate to give him some margin for error. Conrad is not there yet.
Step one will be to have Conrad take more pitches, and the Rays are hoping that will start the process to get him on track at the plate. Conrad comes with plenty of risk, but the Rays see a player with much more upside than guys like Tommy Coyle and Tyler Bortnick and hope that they can work with him.
Assessment: As alluded to above, we are used to seeing low-upside college players at second base in Bowling Green, but Conrad is cut from a different cloth. Unlike the others–whose strong numbers at Low-A faded at higher levels–Conrad could be a starting second baseman in the big leagues if his hitting makes strides.
Short Season Leagues
As usual, everything is up in the air for the Short Season leagues, but we can at least talk about Riley Unroe. The 2013 second rounder showed an excellent plate approach in 2014, but he needs work tapping into his raw power and stealing more bases. In an ironic twist, Unroe is one of the few prospects who needs to be told to be more aggressive.
Combining Unroe’s plate approach with his tools makes him a fascinating player and one who may be timed to break out in 2015. That seems primed to happen with the Hudson Valley Renegades, especially given the presence of Jace Conrad, but he has the ability to work his way to Low-A before the year is through.
The rest of the Rays’ second baseman will likely come from the 2015 MLB Draft. Ricardo Perez and Anthony Cantillo did put up nice numbers in the Venezuelan Summer League last year, but we know how little that means.
Assessment: Unroe is a nice conclusion to this list of second base prospects and has a chance to rank among the best in the entire group.
The Tampa Bay Rays find themselves with several real second base prospects, and they even have others (like Kean Wong) who are playing other positions. Ben Zobrist’s impending departure could certainly prompt fear in the Rays’ long-term second base situation, especially once Asdrubal Cabrera leaves as well, but the Rays have the prospects to continue what Zobrist started and continue making second base one of their team’s strengths.