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. Do the Rays have the prospects to get their team back on track before long? Over the next few weeks, we will go position-by-position in the Rays organization in an attempt to answer that question.
This has taken way too long to complete, but it’s really time to finish this up. You can find the evaluations of catcher, the four infield spots, and left field here, and we will talk about centerfield now.
Kevin Kiermaier is set to man centerfield for the Tampa Bay Rays against right-handed pitching, although he could often be replaced by Desmond Jennings against lefties. Jennings is set to start in left field otherwise.
Kiermaier’s offense was a complete revelation during his rookie year. He hit to a .263/.315/.450 line (117 OPS+), drilling 10 homers in 364 plate appearances after managing just 15 in 1724 PA’s in the minors. Kiermaier dropped off at the plate as the year progressed, and there is no reason to think that he can be a force in the Rays’ lineup. Luckily for him, he doesn’t have to be.
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The Rays are expecting Kiermaier to be a Gold Glove-caliber centerfielder, making tremendous plays with both his arm and glove, and doing just enough at the plate. His power will mostly disappear, but if he is a halfway-decent hitter against right-handed pitching and improves on the basepaths, he will be deserving starter anyway. If he does make strides at the plate–specifically with regards to his plate discipline and his performance against lefties–then he could be an All-Star.
Brandon Guyer will join Jennings in backing up Kiermaier.
Assessment: There is no guarantee that Kiermaier will hit, but he should be decent enough to warrant playing time given his defense. At the end of the day, every ridiculous throw or tremendous catch will justify why the Rays are giving Kiermaier this opportunity, and more than serviceable offense would only be a bonus.
Triple-A Durham Bulls
Taylor Motter saw time in centerfield in Winter Ball, but he will still defer to the better-regarded Mikie Mahtook at the position. Mahtook, 25, is coming off a breakout year at Durham, hitting to a .292/.362/.458 line with 33 doubles, 12 homers, and 18 stolen bases in 550 plate appearances. Despite such a year, though, he didn’t have a real chance to make the Rays’ roster this spring.
Even as he moved past his mediocre results from his first two pro seasons, Mahtook still struck out far too much in 2014, 137 times against just 46 walks. That is even worse than Wil Myers‘ 140-61 strikeout to walk ratio from 2012, and Mahtook doesn’t have anywhere near Myers’ power. Mahtook also did most of his damage against left-handed pitching, managing a crazy .387/.448/.597 line in 143 PA’s against them compared to a .260/.332/.411 line versus righties.
Between Mahtook’s defense, speed, and the way he hits lefties, he has a very high floor. The Rays have to like their chances of turning him into a strong fourth outfielder who could contribute to their team for several years. However, they are hoping that he can be more than that and they will give him another year at Triple-A to see if that is possible. We will have to see if injuries or poor results in the outfield cause them to deviate from that plan.
Backing up Mahtook in center will be Motter and Corey Brown.
Assessment: While Mahtook isn’t the highest-upside prospect, he represents good depth for the Rays and it’s always nice to have a player like him at Triple-A. It would be surprising if he didn’t make his big league debut by the time the season ends.
Double-A Montgomery Biscuits
Johnny Field, the reigning Rays Minor League Player of the Year, is set to patrol center in Montgomery. He hit to a .300/.376/.488 line with 36 doubles, 12 homers, and 23 stolen bases in 531 plate appearances between Low-A and High-A. While Field spent just 169 PA’s at the latter level, he is already 23 years old and it is time for the Rays to start finding out whether he is a real prospect.
Field was drafted as a second baseman, but he hasn’t played a single game on the infield as a pro. Instead, he played well in right field in 2013 before proving himself to be an above-average defensive centerfielder last season. Field combines his defense with great speed, a strong plate approach, and solid pop. He has the abilities to be a good utility or even super-utility player, but the Rays see a potential outfield starter if he continues to exceed expectations.
Backing up Field for the Biscuits will be Kes Carter.
Assessment: Field jumped onto everyone’s radars with his outstanding season, and 2015 will mark a turning point for him. The Rays are hoping that he is just getting started as a prospect and can create some buzz.
High-A Charlotte Stone Crabs
Andrew Toles struggled last season before needing to miss time with personal issues, and the Rays hope that all of that is in the past now. Toles features blazing speed, strong defense in center, and solid gap power, but the knocks on him are his discipline–in the batter’s box and off the field. The critical questions for Toles will be whether he can dramatically improve his plate approach and maintain focus on his professional career.
Toles turns 23 in May, so he doesn’t have forever to figure everything out. The Rays still think highly of him, but he needs to reward their faith with a bounce-back year. If not, Boog Powell (who we discussed in the left field piece) will start chipping away at his centerfield time while Granden Goetzman and Justin Williams get more time in the outfield corners.
Assessment: Toles is one of the most high-variance player in the system and the Rays are hoping that he trends in the right direction next year. He could finish the season as one of their top five prospects or nowhere near their top 30.
Low-A Bowling Green Hot Rods
At least to begin the season, Braxton Lee will be the Hot Rods’ centerfielder. The 21 year old didn’t play particularly well in his pro debut at Hudson Valley, hitting to a .287/.350/.332 line with just 12 stolen bases in 21 attempts, but the Rays are hoping for better results in his second season in the system. Lee has never hit for much power, but he features good defense, above-average speed, and solid plate discipline.
Lee’s goals in his second professional season will be to drive the ball better, improve his success on stolen base attempts, and continue to improve his bunting. His rough start to his career certainly isn’t impossible for him to overcome, but he better starts showing signs that he is moving in the right direction. Backing up Lee in center will be Bralin Jackson.
Assessment: Lee comes with his questions, but a more interesting name could be on the way.
Short Season-A Hudson Valley and Below
The player who may quickly get the bump to Bowling Green is Thomas Milone. Milone, 20, delivered solid numbers at Advanced Rookie Princeton last year, hitting to a .266/.348/.378 line with 12 doubles, 2 homers, and 12 stolen bases in 266 plate appearances. He also showed off a mature plate approach, walking 28 times against 61 strikeouts.
Milone looked like a project after the Rays made him their third round pick in 2013. He was relatively raw in baseball after playing running back in high school. However, they were impressed by how much his spring improved at the end of his high school career, and that process remains ongoing.
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Milone has looked very good with regards to his plate discipline, stealing bases, and his defense in center. His next step is to use his good bat speed to hit for more power. The Rays may start Milone in extended spring training, but his set of abilities may be too impressive for them to leave him there for long.* Expect Milone to end up at Bowling Green before 2015 is through, and he may be there as soon as May.
Another Short Season player worth mentioning is Zacrey Law. Signed to an above-slot bonus in the 23rd round of last year’s draft, Law has at least four-tool potential (power is the most questionable of his tools) and will hope to keep progressing at the plate at either Princeton or Hudson Valley this season.
Assessment: Milone is arguably the most exciting player in this entire group while Law also has good upside. It will be fascinating to see if and when Milone ends up in Bowling Green.
Other than Thomas Milone, there is no true five-tool talent among the Tampa Bay Rays’ centerfield prospects, but there are several interesting players and a couple more who could be converted to the position. A guy like Andrew Velazquez may end up as the future of the Rays in centerfield. For now, though, Kevin Kiermaier could be a productive starter and it’s great to have players like Mikie Mahtook as depth behind him.
*The Rays have also promoted players like Josh Sale, Granden Goetzman, and Spencer Edwards to Bowling Green after some time in extended spring training. Milone looked considerably better in Short Season ball than any of them did before they earned their call-ups to the Hot Rods.