Labor Day Weekend marks the end of the regular season for most minor league teams. Some will go on to playoffs, but most pack up their gear and wait for next spring. The end of the season also gives major league management a chance to review each player’s year and start deciding where every prospect will be playing next season.
With that in mind, this is a good time to create a “Best of 2015” team for the Tampa Bay Rays organization. This team will be compiled from the rosters of all four full-season Rays affiliates, and the players will be those who had the best 2015 seasons, not necessarily those who are the best prospects. They do, however, need to be prospects of some sort and not career minor leaguers. We will start today with a starting rotation of five pitchers plus a closer and three setup men.
1) LHP Blake Snell (15-4, 1.41 ERA, 163-53 K-BB, 1.022 WHIP in 134 innings between High-A, AA, and AAA)
2) RHP Brent Honeywell (9-6, 3.18 ERA, 129-27 K-BB, 1.051 WHIP in 130.1 IP between Low-A and High-A)
3) RHP Taylor Guerrieri (5-3, 1.85 ERA, 72-19 K-BB, 1.077 WHIP in 78 IP between High-A and Double-A)
4) RHP Jacob Faria (17-4, 1.92 ERA, 159-52 K-BB, 1.036 WHIP in 149.2 IP between High-A and Double-A)
5) RHP Austin Pruitt (10-7, 3.09 ERA, 122-38 K-BB, 1.238 WHIP in 160 IP at AA)
Snell, Honeywell, and Guerrieri are legitimate top-of-the-rotation prospects. Each of them has a fastball reaching the mid-90’s, a potential plus changeup, and at least one equally impressive breaking ball. Snell blew through High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A, dominating at all three levels. He was recently named USA Today’s Minor League Player of the Year and could join the Rays’ rotation as early as next year.
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Honeywell has command of five different pitches, most notably his screwball, and performed well between Low-A and High-A. He is probably slated for Montgomery to start next year but could be advanced enough to make it to Triple-A Durham during the year. Guerrieri was coming back from Tommy John Surgery and did so in outstanding fashion. Although his innings were limited, he was lights out when he was on the mound and was unfazed when he moved from High-A and Double-A. He has the ability to start next season at Durham, but the Rays will be careful with him given that his 78 innings this season were his career-high.
Faria had the second-best season of any pitcher in the system, trailing only Snell. He also throws hard, touching 96 MPH with his fastball, but he needs to work on throwing it down in the zone and doesn’t yet have a plus secondary pitch. He has come a long way since spending his first three professional seasons at Rookie ball, but he still needs to prove that he can be more than a fourth starter. Pruitt, meanwhile, is an older prospect at 25 years old who tops out around 90 MPH with his heater and profiles as a potential fifth starter or middle reliever.
1) RHP Brad Schreiber (2-5, 2.60 ERA, 57-24 K-BB, .995 WHIP, 30 SV in 62.1 IP between High-A and Double-A)
2) RHP Jeff Ames (4-3, 2.56 ERA, 62-38 K-BB, 1.470 WHIP, 3 SV in 66.2 IP between High-A and Double-A)
3) LHP C.J. Riefenhauser (4-2, 2.86 ERA, 34-7 K-BB, 0.923 WHIP, 1 SV in 34.2 IP at Triple-A)
4) RHP Hunter Wood (2-7, 2.20 ERA, 113-25 K-BB, 0.875 WHIP, 4 SV in 106.1 IP between Low-A and High-A)
Schreiber has never been a prospect but has been impressive since joining the organization as a non-drafted free agent. His 30 saves were the most in the system and the rest of his numbers were equally as impressive. He is more “low-90’s with deception” then “fireballing late-inning arm”, but he could fill a middle relief role for the Rays someday. He will probably start 2016 back at Double-A, although he may not be there for long.
Ames has been a fringe top-30 prospect who began as starter. Shifted to the bullpen this year, his mid-90’s fastball worked well as a setup man. He needs to work on his secondary pitches and will probably be back at Montgomery in 2016. Riefenhauser, meanwhile, has split duty between the Rays and Durham over the past two years. Injuries have slowed his progress, but his excellent breaking ball could help him to his first extended big league opportunity next season.
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Finally, we have Wood, who is the most interesting of the four between his numbers and the fact that he could keep starting at higher levels. He broke out in relief this year, getting his fastball up to 97 MPH to go along with his good curveball, and he actually showed enough that the Rays had him start games. Unsurprisingly, his strikeouts per 9 innings fell from 11.7 as a reliever to 7.5 as a starter, but he also improved his walk rate as he still managed a 2.48 ERA in 54.1 innings out of the rotation. Wood could be fast-tracked as a reliever, but it looks like the Rays will let him keep starting for now. It will be interesting to see whether they push him to Double-A to begin 2016.
These nine pitchers had standout years for the Tampa Bay Rays’ minor league affiliates and we can only hope that their success continues. Riefenhauser is currently with the Rays while Snell should make an impact at some point next year. The others, in typical Rays fashion, will be brought along slowly, but they are advanced enough that they can’t be held back for too long. A strong group of minor league pitchers will be key to the Rays’ continuing success, and these nine pitchers make the team’s current reservoir of arms look as formidable as ever.