Feb 26, 2014; Tempe, AZ, USA; Los Angeles Angels pitcher Mark Sappington poses for a portrait during photo day at Tempe Diablo Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Andrew Velazquez: He isn’t quite as advanced as the numbers would say
Velazquez, acquired by the Tampa Bay Rays in the Jeremy Hellickson deal, was excellent as the starting shortstop for the Diamondbacks’ Low-A South Bend affiliate. Overall, he hit to a .290/.367/.428 line with 18 doubles, 15 triples, 9 homers, 56 RBI, and 50 stolen bases as a player 2.5 years younger than the Midwest League’s average age. It is difficult not to be impressed by that.
Then Velazquez headed to the Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League and opened even more eyes. When the Rays acquired him, Velazquez was hitting to a .405/.419/.571 line for the Indios with 2 homers, 4 RBI, and 3 stolen bases through 10 games. Scouts were raving about both his tools and his approach at the plate. But then Winter Ball continued and Velazquez fell down to earth.
Velazquez finished with a .278/.327/.356 line in 99 plate appearances in the RCPBL. He did fine, especially given how much younger he was than his competition, but let’s not go crazy as we say how talented he is. The good news with Velazquez is that he is an excellent runner with the ability to be quality defender at shortstop in time. Working against him are his issues with pitch recognition and questionable power.
If Andrew Velazquez can continue making progress as he moves up to High-A Charlotte in 2015, he has the ability to become one of the Rays’ top prospects. He certainly is the type of high-upside player the Rays were looking for in exchange for Hellickson. For now, though, let’s keep the hype down as we wait to see how he will fare this season and beyond.
Kes Carter: There are still tools here
By all accounts, Kes Carter has been a disappointment since the Rays made him a supplemental first round pick in 2011. He followed up a .671 OPS at High-A in 2013 with a .674 mark between High-A and Double-A in 2014. He has never hit lefties at all, and he’s performing poorly even though he has never been particularly young for his level. At the very least, though, the abilities that made the Rays regard him so highly are still there.
Carter showed flashes of his potential after getting a bump to Double-A Montgomery to fill a spot and open up opportunities for others at High-A Charlotte. He hit to a .241/.339/.377 line in 230 plate appearances, including a .253/.345/.429 line against right-handed pitching. He played well enough that the Rays sent him to the Arizona Fall League, where he hit to a .199/.288/.382 line, standing out for his power if nothing else.
Carter is still a long-shot to be an impact player in the major leagues, but his stint in Montgomery and decent showing in the AFL remind us n0t to count him out entirely. Carter still features raw power, speed, and the defensive chops to play centerfield. If he can carry his recent strides into this season, he could still have a future as a big league fourth outfielder despite his flaws.
Mark Sappington: His bullpen conversion will take a little time
The Rays did a nice job getting Sappington in exchange for Cesar Ramos. Ramos was always their long reliever, yet they acquired a potential late-inning arm when they traded him. Of course, the picture is more complicated than that–the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim were only willing to deal Sappington because of the risk involved with him.
Sappington is coming off a season where he managed just a 6.02 ERA in 17 starts, 25 relief appearances, and 113.1 innings pitched between High-A and Double-A. After he was converted to relief, however, Sappington put up a 3.38 ERA and a 49-10 strikeout to walk ratio in 32 innings pitched. However, there were a few problems: he was pitching at High-A, a level he had conquered as a starter the previous year, and he allowed 7 home runs (2.0 per 9 innings).
Sappington’s Arizona Fall League stint made all of his concerns a little clearer. In 10 innings pitched, he managed just a 5.25 ERA and an 8-7 strikeout to walk ratio. That was disappointing for a player expected to start zooming through the minor leagues thanks to a fastball touching 97 MPH, a good changeup, and a decent slider.
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Given Mark Sappington’s stuff, though, the Rays have plenty to work with. Sappington didn’t dominate in his first ever stint as a reliever, but especially now that he is in a system with plenty of relief depth, the Rays didn’t need him to. The Rays took another pitcher who struggled in his first bullpen stint, Alex Torres, and refined his mechanics before watching him dominate in the major leagues the next year. The plan will be the same for Sappington, although the Rays won’t mind if it takes another year for him to break through.
Luke Maile: The Rays wish they could get him more playing time
It was quite a shock when we first saw that Maile was playing in the Arizona Fall League. The reason: unlike every other Rays prospect in the AFL, Maile was playing not for the Peoria Javelinas, but for the Surprise Saguaros. Once we saw it, it made a lot of sense. The Rays sent Maile to surprise because that is where he could find some playing time.
Maile has spent plenty of his time in full-season ball as the second-best catching prospect on his team. In 2013, he split time with Justin O’Conner at Bowling Green and wound up having the much better year. In 2014, meanwhile, he began the season behind Curt Casali and finished it behind a resurgent O’Conner. This year will feature more of the same as Maile splits time with Casali once again.
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The thing about Maile, though, is that there is a chance that he could end up being the best catcher of the three. He is a better defender than Casali and features much more plate discipline than O’Conner. He lacks O’Conner’s superstar upside, but the Rays still see him as a potential starting catcher. With that in mind, even though O’Conner remained their priority for playing time in the AFL, they were going to do what they could to make room for Maile as well.
Luke Maile hit to a solid .268/.341/.387 line in 393 Double-A plate appearances as a player 1.5 years younger than the league’s average age. After Casali sputtered, first at Triple-A and then in the major leagues, there is a chance that Maile could play well enough to pass him. Maile’s future in this organization is as a second catcher–whether behind Rene Rivera or O’Conner–but he may be primed for plenty of success in that role.
Edgar Gomez: Add him to the list of bullpen sleepers
Gomez spent the 2014 regular season pitching for the Hudson Valley Renegades. He pitched well, managing a 2.44 ERA and a 41-13 strikeout to walk ratio in 48 innings, but it was going to be tough for him going up against older and more advanced competition in the Mexican Pacific League. After Gomez succeeded despite that, now we have to wonder whether the Rays may really have something here.
In 21 appearances and 24.2 IP, Gomez delivered a 2.19 ERA and a 19-8 strikeout to walk ratio in 24.2 innings pitched. He was outstanding against right-handed batters, but he also did fairly well against lefties, holding them to a .222 average and 1.80 groundouts per airout. Between his low-90’s fastball that he controls well and a promising breaking ball, Gomez was able to come out of nowhere to deliver an impressive performance.
Winter Ball can only be so much, but Gomez may be the Rays prospect who raised his stock the most through his performance this offseason. The Rays will need to see him continue pitching well at full-season ball, but after seeing his combination of poise and stuff, they may be more willing to promote him in-season. Gomez will likely start 2015 in Low-A, but he has given himself a chance to reach High-A or even Double-A before the year is through.
Thanks for reading this series about how Tampa Bay Rays players and prospects did in Winter Ball. Quite a few players got themselves noticed–albeit a few for the wrong reasons–and it will be fascinating to see whether the apparent breakout players are able to keep up their strong results. It was fun having some baseball to follow during the seasons of football and basketball, and now we’ve almost made it–pitchers and catchers report in just two weeks.