The Tampa Bay Rays are notoriously conservative in developing their prospects. With that in mind, when a player gets promoted in the Rays system, it may be more meaningful that it would be for other teams. Another franchise may have bumped Casey Gillaspie, Brent Honeywell, and Jace Conrad to High-A a month or two earlier than the Rays did. Even though the standard was so strict, however, all three players found a way to impress the Rays sufficiently to be moved up the latter to the Charlotte Stone Crabs. There is significant reason to be excited about each of them.
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When the Rays selected Casey Gillaspie in the first round of the 2014 MLB Draft, he was widely praised for his advanced plate approach, but some people wondered about his power. Those concerns didn’t go away after he hit to a .262/.364/.411 line at Short Season-A Hudson Valley, hitting only a passable amount of extra-base hits while showing worse pitch recognition than expected. He played worse than Richie Shaffer, who had gone on to hit poorly at High-A and improve only moderately at Double-A. As Gillaspie prepared to join the Low-A Bowling Green Hot Rods–an affiliate that Shaffer skipped over–he was going to need to crush the ball to maintain his value as prospect. That is exactly what he has done.
Gillaspie hasn’t played a game in the Midwest League since June 25th, yet he still holds the circuit lead in homers by 4. Overall, he hit to a .277/.357/.538 line with 17 homers and 48 RBI in 272 plate appearances. Even more impressive is that he was hitting the ball that far without striking out. He struck out in just 15.8% of his PA’s while walking 10.2% of the time, hitting for power not only through strength and bat speed, but also by finding pitches to hit time after time. That is the approach he will need to have to continue hitting the ball with such authority at higher levels, and sure enough, he hit a grand slam in his first High-A game.
It was going to be difficult for Gillaspie to exceed expectations after he was assigned to Low-A rather than High-A, but that is exactly what he did as he enters his new level with his confidence at all-time high. It has been too long since a Tampa Bay Rays first round position player entered pro ball and hit as well as hoped in his first two pro seasons. The Rays are liking their chances of him turning into that middle-of-the-order bat they had envisioned when they selected him.
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After allowing four runs total (just two earned) in his first four starts of 2015, Brent Honeywell slipped to a 3.98 ERA in his following eight outings and a 4.67 mark in his last five. But here’s the thing–not once in any of his starts did Honeywell’s strikeout to walk ratio slip below 3-to-1, even during his supposed slump. Interestingly enough, it was only during his first four starts than his K-BB ratio dipped below 4-to-1 in any game. Honeywell was throwing strikes and missing bats start after start, even if the number of earned runs allowed fluctuated. It was bad luck and poor defense penalizing him more than anything else. That was also the case in his first High-A start.
In addition, no one is questioning Honeywell’s stuff. His fastball is reaching the mid-90’s more consistently than ever, and it isn’t just his screwball that is a dynamic secondary pitch. His curveball may eventually be a third plus offering while his changeup is turning into a more-than-reasonable fourth pitch. He still needs to work on his fastball command and the remainder of his arsenal still needs work as well, but the ingredients are there for Honeywell to turn into a frontline starter in the major leagues. If he dominates at High-A, the Rays may have no choice but to start moving him faster.
Jace Conrad, meanwhile, was never as highly regarded as Gillaspie was after the draft or Honeywell was a few weeks into his pro career, and he never will be. He was a sleeper prospect after the Rays made him their 13th round pick in last year’s draft thanks to his athleticism, speed, and defense. However, his bat came with significant questions, and those were only exacerbated after he hit to just a .265/.297/.362 line for the Renegades in his pro debut. We were nitpicking when we complained about Gillaspie’s first season–Conrad’s season, on the other hand, was super concerning.
Conrad showed nice bat speed from the left side along with raw power, but his patience and pitch recognition left much to be desired. He hasn’t left that scouting report completely in the past–he has walked just 10 times in 251 plate appearances this season–but he now is chasing out of the zone less frequently and hitting the ball harder when he makes contact. Overall, he hit to a .292/.332/.482 line with the Hot Rods, drilling 11 doubles and 10 homers while driving in 30. He also swiped 21 bases in 25 tries and looked good defensively at second base, third base, and left field.
The higher you get up the minor league ladder, the more difficult it is to succeed without patience. If Conrad continues walking in under 4% of his PA’s, it is going to be tough for him to continue performing well. The good news, though, is that he has so many things going for him and could have a big league future if his plate approach just becomes passable. High-A will be a challenge for Conrad, but he has put in a lot of work to get this far and has the talent to go the rest of the way.
You may be used to going to Port Charlotte only for spring training, but Casey Gillaspie and Brent Honeywell are two reasons to go there in the next two months and Conrad is another player that is worth watching. The Stone Crabs were a first-place team before they arrived, and though Jake Bauers and Jacob Faria are now at Double-A, Gillaspie and Honeywell should step right in to replace them.