Welcome back to the RCG Mailbag, where we take some of those burning Tampa Bay Rays questions on your mind and attempt to give you some answers.
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Ryan asks: Now that the order is set for the upcoming draft, could you possibly in the near future give an early look at some of the players the Rays could target with the 13th pick?
We discussed last week how the signing of James Shields with the San Diego Padres moved the Rays up to 13th overall in the 2015 MLB Draft. That turned out to be enough to prompt Ryan’s excellent question about who the Rays could pick. I went through four sources–Baseball America, MLB.com, Fangraphs, and Minor League Ball–to get a feel for who the top prospects are and who could be available when the Rays make their selection.
Before we even start, let’s go through what the Rays are hypothetically looking for. They certainly won’t be drafting based on need, but we know that they could use a middle-of-the-order hitter–especially one playing a premium defensive position. It also may be time for them to draft another well-regarded pitching prospect as their depth beyond the major league level is starting to run thin.
The Rays have drafted more college players in the first round in recent years, but they certainly won’t shy away from a topflight high school player either. They may place character on more of a pedestal than before, but at 13th overall, it should be relatively easy to find players without the slightest whiff of a character problem. In any event, let’s look at some possibilities.
Justin Hooper (LHP, De La Salle HS): Hooper is a 6’7″, 230 lefty with outstanding stuff. He has hit as high as 97 MPH with his fastball while also showing promise with a curveball and changeup. There are some red flags in his delivery, causing some to question whether he can remain a starter, but those same issues could also make him available when the Rays select.
Daz Cameron (CF, Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy): Mike Cameron‘s son is a five-tool player and the second-best prep position player in this draft. He is the best bet of all the players we’ll talk about to stick in centerfield, and he also has a quick swing and good power potential. However, he won’t steal a ton of bases, and his defensive tools are around average. As we’ll talk about later, I think the Rays would rather have a hitter with superstar upside than one that is solid across the board.
Alex Bregman (SS/2B, LSU): Bregman, who we once discussed as a prep catching prospect on this site, turned into a middle infielder instead at LSU and has had himself a productive career. He stands out most for his combination of bat speed and plate discipline, and he also has solid power for a middle infielder. However, his speed is unimpressive and he will more likely be a second baseman as a pro. He doesn’t seem like a great fit with the Rays.
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Carson Fulmer (RHP, Vanderbilt): It would be cool if the Rays drafted another Vandy pitcher in the first round the year after trading David Price. Fulmer fits a very different physical profile at 5’11”, 195, and between that and some effort in his delivery, there is some worry that he will end up in relief. Even so, he already has two plus pitches in his fastball touching 97 MPH and his curveball, and his changeup is already showing signs of being a third. If the Rays think he can start, he could easily be their pick.
Nathan Kirby (LHP, Virginia): Kirby is somewhat divisive–Fangraphs had him at #21 while MLB.com places him 5th–and that might be enough for him to be around at 13th overall. He is a lefty who combines good pitchability with a sinking fastball reaching 94 MPH, an excellent slider, and a developing changeup. He seems like a relatively safe number three starter type who could become a number two. I don’t think the Rays would value his quick-to-the-big-leagues profile as much as others.
Ashe Russell (RHP, Cathedral HS): Russell is extremely projectable at 6’4″, 195, but he already throws in the 92-95 MPH range with his fastball. He has also shown promise with a slider, and the same is true to a lesser extent with his changeup. However, he is another arm who may not remain a starter, and that may be enough to scare the Rays away. They’ll be drafting their share of high-risk, high-reward pitchers later in the draft.
Nick Plummer (OF, Brother Rice HS): Plummer may be the closest thing the Rays can find to a player with middle-of-the-order upside. His above-average power potential punctuates his quick bat and strong plate approach as a left-handed hitter. Plummer is almost entirely physically mature at 5’11”, 190 and is only an average runner, but excellent instincts give him a chance to stick in centerfield. He could make a lot of sense for the Rays.
Ian Happ (OF/2B, Cincinnati): Happ has a very high floor as a switch-hitter with good bat speed, plate discipline, and power who can even steal some bases. He has a very good chance to end up as a useful big league player. However, his defensive position is in serious question and he may be more of an offense-oriented utility man. Maybe he will hit enough to be an everyday player between a variety of spots, but the Rays are looking for more upside at 13th overall.
Chris Betts (C, Wilson HS): Betts is a good prospect as a lefty-swinging catcher with promise at the plate and very good arm strength. However, are the Rays really going to go the high school catcher route again? I don’t see it happening.
Cody Ponce (RHP, Cal Poly Pomona): At his best, Ponce has dominated opposing hitters, pairing a mid-90’s fastball and a dynamic slider/cutter. On the other hand, his fastball has tended to straighten out and often ends up in the 91-93 MPH range. His likely outcome is a mid-rotation starter, and the Rays have enough of those.
Trenton Clark (OF, Richland HS): Clark is basically Cameron with a slightly better bat and less of a chance to stay in centerfield. He is a lefty swinger with bat speed and power potential, and he also has solid speed. In any event, the Rays would almost surely like Plummer more.
Phil Bickford (RHP, Southern Nevada CC): The 10th overall pick by the Blue Jays in 2013, Bickford faces an uphill battle to be drafted that high again. At his best, he reaches 98 MPH with his fastball and shows a put-away pitch in his slider, but his heater was more in the 88-92 MPH range during the 2014 regular season. It’s hard to assess him until we see what his stuff looks like this season.
The three players that stick out the most among this group are Justin Hooper, Carson Fulmer, and Nick Plummer. Plummer could be exactly the type of prospect for whom the Rays are looking, but it would be awfully difficult for the Rays to let a pitcher with Fulmer’s stuff pass them by. In any event, the 2015 MLB Draft will be an exciting one for the Rays, and we will be talking about it plenty as it gets closer.