Tampa Bay Rays Organization Assessment: Left Field
By Robbie Knopf
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 for a while, but let’s finally get back on track. You can find the evaluations of catcher and the four infield spots here, and we will talk about left field now.
The Tampa Bay Rays could end up with a fine left field situation at the big league level this season, but there are still several questions to be answered. Ultimately, Steven Souza will be the Rays’ starter in left, although he could shift to right field when playing alongside Desmond Jennings and Brandon Guyer against left-handed pitching.
The expectations for Souza are extremely high after the Rays acquired him in the Wil Myers trade, but he has the ability to reach them. He is a player that has broken through in the minor leagues the last few years, improving his plate discipline and doing a better job harnessing his power. He also has some speed and is a much better defender than Myers.
While we can’t expect Souza to be a Rookie of the Year candidate, and the Rays are looking for him to be at least an average corner outfielder–which Myers was decidedly not last year. However, will that come from the very beginning of the season?
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If Souza does not make the Rays’ roster out of spring training, David DeJesus would be set to reprise his 2014 role as a solid bat against right-handed pitching. Will he comes with some injury concerns, DeJesus has always hit righties well and may even be an option to lead off against them for the Rays. In any event, Souza’s arrival–whether in April or in a few months–will almost surely end DeJesus’ time starting consistently for the Rays.
Brandon Guyer will be the primary backup for the Rays in left field, and others like Nick Franklin and Tim Beckham could also see time there. It will also be interesting to see if the Rays play Kiermaier in center and Jennings in left, which would shift Souza to right field.
Assessment: There is certainly reason for optimism here, although it would be nice to have more certainty about what left field will look like for the Rays on Opening Day.
Triple-A Durham Bulls
The Bulls will have prospects in the other two corner outfield spots, but they will have minor league free agents playing left unless Souza does not break camp with the team. Specifically, we will see Corey Brown and Eugenio Velez.
Brown is a little bit interesting because he can play centerfield and has power and speed, but he has struggled with making contact basically for his entire career. Velez, meanwhile, has good speed and can play second base in addition to the outfield, but he will turn 33 in May and has never hit the ball with enough authority.
Assessment: Brown and Velez have some sleeper potential, but this is a mostly forgettable group. There is an opportunity for a Double-A prospect to earn a midseason promotion and make the Bulls’ left field picture more exciting.
Double-A Montgomery Biscuits
The Biscuits’ likely left field duo will be Kes Carter and Marty Gantt. Presumably Tyler Goeddel will be playing right field in his first season as an outfielder–he certainly has the tools to play the position–although the Rays could decide to start him in left and gradually move him up the defensive spectrum.
Carter, one of the Rays’ supplemental first rounders from 2011, never hit much as a pro until he delivered 230 solid plate appearances with the Biscuits in 2014. Carter still faces an uphill battle to become a big league factor, but his tools have never faded away–he still has a quick bat, solid speed, and the defensive chops to play centerfield. His biggest issues are consistency at the plate and his unceasing struggles versus lefty pitching.
Gantt, meanwhile, is an incredible story because he has battled through an underdeveloped right hand to become a professional baseball player. While he doesn’t have much power and has never been young for his league, Gantt has hit well at Low-A and High-A the last two years, showing off good plate discipline and speed. This is a big year for him as we find out whether his inspiring story will continue.
Willie Argo could also see some time for the Biscuits in left as a backup.
Assessment: It’s always better to have a true prospect, but Carter and Gantt are still two players to keep an eye on. The Rays are hoping that Carter has turned a corner and are wondering whether Gantt can keep hitting at higher levels.
High-A Charlotte Stone Crabs
Boog Powell has the defensive chops to play centerfield, but he will likely defer to Andrew Toles and play mostly left field. Powell, acquired in the Ben Zobrist trade, delivered a breakout season between Low-A and High-A in the Oakland Athletics’ system but saw it come to an end after a drug suspension. This is a critical season as he hopes to prove that his progress is real.
Powell stands out for his defense, excellent plate discipline, and plus speed. The biggest questions facing him are whether he can learn to hit the ball with more authority and do a better job stealing bases. The Rays think that they acquired a player on the upswing and are hoping that he plays well enough to warrant a promotion to Double-A before the year is through.
The Stone Crabs’ other notable corner outfielders are Granden Goetzman and Justin Williams. Both of them will likely play more right field than Powell because they have better throwing arms, but they will see some time in left as well.
Assessment: Daniel Robertson was the gem of the Zobrist trade and the Rays are also excited about John Jaso, but Powell represents another potential impact player. While Powell hasn’t been highly regarded thus far, he could earn more recognition if he delivers another strong year.
Low-A Bowling Green Hot Rods
Hunter Lockwood will be the Hot Rods’ left fielder and represents one of the more interesting prospects in the organization. He isn’t a big guy at 5’10”, 180, but he has big-time power as evidenced by his stint with the Hudson Valley Renegades last year. Lockwood’s 13 homers not only topped the team but were nearly double the 7 hit by the second-place finisher, Casey Gillaspie.
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Lockwood has arguably the best power potential in the system, and he will need to continue harnessing it at higher levels. He is limited to left field defensively, so his future will be built around his bat. In order for him to be a real prospect despite that, Lockwood will need to make major strides with regards to his patience and pitch recognition. His flaws may not be exposed at Low-A this year, but they certainly will be at higher levels if his development does not go as hoped.
Grant Kay and Alexander Simon should also see some time in left field for the Hot Rods.
Assessment: Lockwood’s power is exhilarating, and the Rays are hoping to see plenty of it this season. We could start hearing a lot more about him if he continues to hit.
Short Season-A Hudson Valley and Below
I won’t even try to guess which outfielder will play which spot at the Short Season levels, but I’ll pick out a few prospects to note based on which position they played primarily in 2014. In this case, a player to watch is Manuel Sanchez, a 19 year old whose power was enough for the Rays to jump him from the Dominican Summer League to Advanced Rookie Princeton last year. His results were not great, but the Rays are expecting bigger things in his second go-around in the US.
Assessment: Players like Lockwood and Sanchez have major upside but plenty of variability, so it is always nice to have as many of them as possible.
The major league players currently seeing time in left field often played a different position in the minor leagues. Like we said about third base, it would have been nice to see more potential impact bats in this group, but it is difficult to find top prospects playing left field anyway. On a positive note, Powell and Lockwood are two players for whom the Tampa Bay Rays have high hopes and Sanchez is another name to file away.