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 took a break from this series thanks to all of the trades and arbitration signings, but today, we are getting back on track. You can find the evaluations of catcher, first base, second base, and shortstop here, and now we will talk about third base.
The Tampa Bay Rays have Evan Longoria signed for eight more years plus a team option for the ninth, and even after his down year, they like the deal. Longoria’s contract is quite fair–$11 million in 2015, $11.5M in 2016, $13M in 2017, $13.5M in 2018, and so forth. He doesn’t top a $15 million salary until 2021, and by then, such money should not be so crazy, even for the Rays.
Of course, Longoria has to get back to hitting like we know he is capable, but the Rays certainly think he will. He got past whatever caused his bizarre middle-of-the-year slump, and at 29 years of age, he has at least a few more prime years left. The Rays are expecting at least a return to his 2013 numbers–.269/.343/.498 line (133 OPS+) with 32 home runs–but Longoria could be even better than that as he hopes to make up for his disappointing 2014.
Backing up Longoria at third base will be Logan Forsythe and one of Juan Francisco and Tim Beckham, but Longoria played all 162 games last season–including 154 at third base–so don’t expect them to get many chances.
Assessment: The Rays’ offense will rely heavily on Evan Longoria next season and he has the ability to carry the load. Longoria gives the Rays at least one hitter that strikes fear in opposing pitchers, and now they have to hope that he won’t be alone.
Triple-A Durham Bulls
At the end of the 2014 season, the Rays finally saw the player they thought they had selected at 25th overall in the 2012 MLB Draft. From July 22nd to the end of the regular season on September 1st, Richie Shaffer hit to a .272/.384/.552 line with 11 doubles, 8 homers, and 27 RBI. His plate discipline was equally as impressive as his power as his strikeout to walk ratio was 30-22.
Of course, Shaffer’s overall results were not nearly as good. Shaffer hit just .222 on the season, although the good news with that he both hit the ball with more authority and improved his approach at the plate. On the whole, he hit to a .222/.318/.440 line with 28 doubles, 16 homers, 64 RBI, and a 119-56 strikeout to walk ratio in 491 plate appearances. His OBP and SLG were nice steps up from his .308 and .399 marks from 2013.
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Shaffer made strides last season, but he still has a long way to go as he hopes to reach his potential. It is never a good sign for a prospect to be a low-average slugger at Double-A, and Shaffer needs to find a way to get his pitch recognition up to par and make more contact. However, it was great to see him both hitting for more power and drawing more walks than he had before as a professional, and the Rays are hoping for a breakout this season.
Shaffer’s primary backup at third base for the Bulls will likely be the versatile Taylor Motter.
Assessment: This is a big season for Shaffer and the Rays are hoping that it ends in success. One of the Rays’ 2011 first rounders, Mikie Mahtook, managed to deliver a huge season in his Triple-A debut last season. The Rays are hoping for similar results from Shaffer–only with less BAbip luck and more improvements that will translate to the major leagues.
Double-A Montgomery Biscuits
Thanks to the acquisition of Daniel Robertson in the Ben Zobrist trade, the Biscuits will have Jake Hager, Tommy Coyle, and Leonardo Reginatto all seeing time at second and third base. We already discussed Coyle, so this time, we’ll talk about Hager.
Hager is a frustrating combination of everything you want from a prospect and things that drive you nuts. He is known for a great work ethic, he has a quick bat, he does a nice job making contact, and he plays solid defense at shortstop. On the other hand, he hasn’t done a good enough job tapping into his power potential, he doesn’t draw enough walks, and he has no idea how to steal bases despite good speed.
Hager probably has enough tools to be a big league utility player, but the Rays would love to see him start making the adjustments that would him the chance to start. In any event, he will start playing a variety of positions this season and the Rays can dream about a Zobrist-esque breakthrough at the plate after his move off shortstop.
Assessment: It would have been nice for the Rays to have a better offensive prospect manning third base, but Robertson will provide plenty of hitting at shortstop and just an average season at the plate would be progress for Hager. He is repeating Double-A, but the Rays are hoping that he forces his way to Durham at some point.
High-A Charlotte Stone Crabs
While we are talking about players stuck at positions other than their best ones, we come to Kean Wong. Wong can really hit–he followed up his .328 average in the Gulf Coast League in 2013 with a .306 mark at just 19 years of age in 2014. He also made nice strides defensively at second base. However, now he needs to put together all of the other aspects of his game.
Wong is said to have decent power potential but has shown almost none of it so far. That could come along as he improves his plate discipline and finds himself in better hitters’ counts. Wong shows good pitch recognition for such a young player, and now he has to start using it to lay off the pitches that he can’t hit well. If that happens, the Rays could have interesting prospect on their hands.
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As we have discussed, Wong will play both second and third base as part of a crazy arrangement of infielders. Juniel Querecuto will also see quite a bit of time at the hot corner while Andrew Velazquez and Willy Adames will likely see a bit of time there as well. Noticeably absent from this arrangement is Tyler Goeddel, who played outfield in the Rays’ Winter Development Program and appears set to play there this season.
Assessment: This is another case of the Rays not having an actual third baseman at a level, but middle infielders provide more flexibility and Wong could be a good one. It will be interesting to see whether arguably the best pure hitter in the system can keep hitting for average while also adding some power.
Low-A Bowling Green Hot Rods
Kay hit for the cycle in his first professional game and managed a .400 average through his first 103 professional plate appearances before he finally cooled off. He finished with a .314/.376/.491 line in 178 plate appearances–certainly a far cry from that .400 batting average–but he isn’t just a flash in the pan.
Kay’s previous knee problems are moving farther and farther into the past and his athleticism is starting to show up in earnest. He shows good bat speed with flashes of power, and he was even an excellent basestealer in the past. He may never be a regular second baseman like he once had a chance to be, but he already has the versatility to play third base and left field.
Blanchard, on the other hand, is a former dual-threat quarterback who is quickly acclimating himself to baseball. He is already 23 (Kay is still 21), but he hit to a .298/.364/.423 line for the Renegades with 15 doubles, 2 homers, 30 RBI, 22 stolen bases, and a 47-24 strikeout to walk ratio in 276 plate appearances. He also did all of that while playing third base, shortstop, second base, centerfield, and left field.
Blanchard is an incredible athlete who has shown signs of being able to hit. His age puts him at a major disadvantage, but he has the tools to start moving more rapidly towards the major leagues. Expect the Rays to challenge him and see if he can defy the odds.
Assessment: Having a top prospect at this spot would have been nice, but Kay and Blanchard are two of the biggest sleepers in the system. We will have to see if they can put themselves on the prospect map before the season is through.
Short Season Leagues
Most of the Rays’ Short Season third basemen will be from the 2015 MLB Draft, but one player to watch out for will be Juan Carlos Arias.
Signed for $200,000 out of the Dominican Republic in 2013, the 19-year-old Arias has two excellent tools: his raw power and his strong arm. Now he needs to do a better job making contact and improving his defense at third base. Arias was decent in the Dominican Summer League last year, and whether he is moved up to the Gulf Coast League will speak volumes about what the Rays think about him as a prospect.
Assessment: At least Arias actually has the power we would hope to see in a third baseman, but obviously we can’t say much about everyone else until after the draft.
As the Tampa Bay Rays continue to struggle finding middle-of-the-order hitters, it would have been nice if they had a few third base prospects with that sort of upside. The good news, though, is that Richie Shaffer does give them one such player while Jake Hager and Kean Wong could reach the majors in other roles. In addition, if there is any position that the Rays don’t need to worry about, it is third base with Evan Longoria locked in for the long-term.