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Tampa Bay Rays Affiliate Analysis: Bowling Green Hot Rods

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The minor league season has been underway for a while know, as we have been detailing in our minor league recaps, but it’s always nice to know which players should be catching your eyes as you follow those games. We have informed you about the Tampa Bay Rays’ top three full-season affiliates, and now we are up to the final team we will discuss for a while, the Bowling Green Hot Rods.

Starting Pitchers: Brent Honeywell, Enderson Franco, Greg Harris, Henry Centeno, Hyrum Formo, Chris Pike

This is a promising group, but none of the others can compare to Honeywell. He has burst onto the scene since debuting as a pro with a fastball touching 97 MPH, an unhittable screwball, and even two more promising pitches in his curveball and changeup. He is beginning to establish himself as one of the best prospects in baseball, quite a feat for a player we knew very little about when he was drafted. Some people even thought he was a money-saving pick!

Franco was a minor league Rule 5 pick last year and we can’t say that those guys have great track records, but the Rays may very well have something here. Franco is 22 years old, making him exactly the Midwest League’s average age, but his stuff certainly compensates for that. He can reach 96 MPH with his fastball and pairs it with a good changeup and a halfway-decent slider. The Rays think that they have an power reliever in Franco and just maybe a starter if they are patient enough.

Harris does a good job throwing his fastball for strikes and can occasionally get it as high as 95 MPH. It usually stays in the 88-92 MPH range, making his ability to command it even more important. His return to the Midwest League may have had more to do with his secondary pitches, a curveball and a changeup that both need work.

In regards to the other three, Centeno led the Gulf Coast League in ERA last year and it says a lot that he was moved up to Bowling Green, Formo is 23 but can reach the mid-90’s with his fastball, and Pike is an advanced college right-hander with a strong three-pitch mix (I discussed him more here).

Relievers: Brian Miller, Damion Carroll, Mike Franco, Hunter Wood, Edgar Gomez, Edwin Fierro, Kyle Bird

There is certainly some reason for excitement with these relievers, beginning with two guys on the opposite edges of the spectrum. Miller is beginning the season with Bowling Green but is unlikely to be there for long as a quick-to-the-big-leagues middle relief type. He generates extreme deception by throwing out of three different arm slots with a fastball in the mid-to-high-80’s and a very good high-70’s slider.

Carroll, on the other hand, has late-inning upside but plenty more questions to answer. He can reach 100 MPH with his fastball, but his control and secondary pitches have not yet come along. The Rays still saw enough to finally promote him to full-season ball after three years at Rookie ball, and they are hoping that something will click for him before long.

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I will also add a thought or two on each of the next three guys. Franco is a deceptive right-hander who can hit the mid-90’s with a pair of decent secondary pitches. Wood returns to Bowling Green and will hope that a relief conversion is enough for him to advance. He could be very good in the role with his fastball-curveball-changeup arsenal. Finally, Gomez looked very good in Hudson Valley and in Winter Ball in the Mexican Pacific League, and we’ll have to see if that means anything.

Catchers: Nick Ciuffo, Mac James

You can make an argument for this being the most interesting catching tandem in the system. Ciuffo, a 2013 first rounder, has struggled as a pro but there is an explanation. A stomach virus caused him to lose significant weight last year and derail his season. Now he’s healthy and the Tampa Bay Rays saw enough to skip him over Hudson Valley. It’s time for him to start turning his smooth lefty swing and promising defense into better results, and the team thinks he can do that.

James, meanwhile, was a late bloomer at the University of Oklahoma and enters pro ball as a catcher with interesting tools. He shows solid bat speed, a good approach, and power potential at the plate while projecting to be a decent defender. The Rays drafted a player with a similar profile, Luke Maile, and watched him take off, and they are hoping for similar results with James.

Infielders: Casey Gillaspie, Riley Unroe, Cristian Toribio, Jace Conrad, Grant Kay, Coty Blanchard

A few other affiliates may have more recognizable prospects on their infield, but this group is interesting from top to bottom. It is a little disappointing that Gillaspie is starting at Low-A, but the team decided it was worthwhile to start him slowly and let him build confidence before heading to Charlotte. He has the advanced approach and power to hit extremely well in the Midwest League, and the Rays see a potential above-average first baseman.

Unroe, meanwhile, has always stood out for his plate discipline but is hoping to hit the ball with more authority this year. If he does, he has the all-around package of tools to be a top prospect. He stands out for his speed, defensive actions, versatility, and even his attitude. The Rays see a potential starter at one of several positions–or even a Ben Zobrist-esque super-utility player–but first he has to hit.

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We don’t have time to say too much on everyone, but Toribio is a sleeper prospect at shortstop with the bat speed and defensive tools to have a chance to start at the position. Conrad does a lot of things right-particularly playing defense at second base and stealing bases–but he needs a better plate approach to harness his nice bat speed. Kay got off to a crazy start to his pro career and has a decent all-around game. Finally, Blanchard is an older prospect, but the former college quarterback has incredible athleticism and the polish to give him a chance.

Outfielders: Thomas Milone, Justin Williams, Bralin Jackson, Hunter Lockwood

To finish off this team, we have a rock-solid outfield. Milone entered pro ball a little raw after playing a lot of football in high school, but he has quickly made up for the lost time with bat speed, foot speed, and great defense in centerfield. His power hasn’t shown up yet, but that may be next. Milone may be considered one of the Rays’ top prospects following the season.

Williams, acquired in the Jeremy Hellickson deal, stands out for his big-time power potential and solid corner-outfield defense. The Diamondbacks were able to smooth out his swing after he arrived in pro ball, and now the next step will be for him to develop more patience. Williams’ power hasn’t been seen much in games yet, but if he makes the necessary improvements to his approach, they may begin arriving in a hurry.

Jackson always stood out for his athleticism, but there was a question about whether he would ever hit. That finally happened last year at Hudson Valley, and now he will be fascinating to watch. Jackson could be above-average in terms of all five tools and profile as a right fielder who could hit 15 to 20 homers and swipe 30 bases while getting on base at a nice clip. We will have to see if Jackson can keep making the adjustments necessary for him to get to that point.

Finally, Lockwood has among the best present power in the system and will need to continue harnessing it to have a chance. Despite being just 5’10”, he is limited to left field and first base defensively, and he also lacks speed. It is all about the power for him, although hopefully he will add some plate discipline to avoid being a complete all-or-nothing player.

Looking at this Bowling Green Hot Rods team as a whole, the Tampa Bay Rays have to love the upside at every position. Honeywell, Ciuffo, and Milone have the ability to take huge steps forward this season while others like Gillaspie and Miller are more advanced and may not be too far from the big leagues. Check out the Hot Rods if you have a chance this season because you will leave the game feeling awfully good about the state of the Rays’ minor league system.

Next: The Undercards: Alex Colome Moves Closer To Return

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