It’s Finally here, Happy 2021 Minor League Opening Day!
By Kasey Kuhrts
We are feeling like Sid from Toy Story today, because the 2021 Minor League baseball season finally came! For the Tampa Bay Rays, and every other team, it starts tonight.
All around the country minor league teams from Triple-A through Low-A will have opening night on Tuesday. Now, there have been some changes to the Tampa Bay Rays minor league system, so let’s get you caught up on the teams, and prospects getting their seasons started tonight.
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Triple-A: Durham Bulls
The Durham Bulls will once again be the final step in the Tampa Bay Rays minor-league system. The Bulls have served as the Rays Triple-A affiliate since 1998.
There will be a lot of buzz in Durham to start the season, as the number-one prospect in all of baseball will start his season with them tonight.
Wander Franco, the 20-year-old phenom, and nephew of former Tampa Bay Ray Willy Aybar, will begin his final season in minor league baseball tonight. Franco, who will likely be a member of the Tampa Bay Rays at some point this season, has done nothing but hit in the minors so far.
Franco carries a career .336 batting average over two minor league seasons, where he never played above High-A ball in Charlotte.
Franco was likely to start the season in Double-A Montgomery last year, but the season was obviously wiped out due to COVID-19.
Now, Franco will skip Double-A and head straight to Triple-A to start 2021.
The big question I have about Franco is this, the Tampa Bay Rays have been dreadful on offense so far this season. If Franco gets off to a hot start in the first couple weeks of May, do the Rays look to make the move to Franco, and jumpstart this team?
However, with all the buzz around Franco, he will be joined by two other top-100 MLB prospects in Durham.
Vidal Brujan, the number 42 prospect in all of baseball according to MLB.com, will also start his 2021 in Durham.
Brujan has been in the Tampa Bay Rays system since the age of 17. Now, at 23, he looks to make an impact.
Brujan has played at nearly every level of the Tampa Bay Rays minor league system, Durham marks the only spot he hasn’t played, until tonight.
Brujan is a career .294 hitter in the minors, which is solid. However, he’s a game-changer once he gets on base.
Brujan has stolen 151 bases throughout the minor leagues and is likely still wanted in Bowling Green for all the theft. Brujan stole 43 bases in Bowling Green in 2018, in only 95 games.
Whenever the Tampa Bay Rays decide to make the move for Brujan in 2021, he will bring game-changing speed to St. Pete.
The final top-100 prospect starting the season in Durham is Brendan McKay. McKay is ranked as the 62nd best prospect in the MLB according to MLB.com, and that seems a little low.
McKay is still working back from shoulder surgery, so he will only serve as a DH for Durham to start the season.
McKay is another guy who could start hot, and be called up to help the Tampa Bay Rays in the batters box.
Along with Franco, Brujan, and McKay some highly-rated prospects in the Tampa Bay Rays system will join them.
Taylor Walls, the seventh prospect in the Rays system, Josh Lowe-11th, Joe Ryan-12th, Brent Honeywell Jr.-18th, Drew Strotman– 19th, and Kevin Padlo– 22nd will all start the season in Durham, making it one of the most stacked minor league teams in recent history.
Double-A: Montgomery Biscuits.
The Montgomery Biscuits will once again represent the Tampa Bay Rays in the Double-A ranks. The partnership between the two teams has been going strong since 1999.
Although the Biscuits won’t have the incredible amount of highly-rated prospects that Durham does, they will still have two of the top-100 prospects in baseball according to MLB.com.
The first is Xavier Edwards. Edwards, a 21-year-old middle infielder, will be starting his first professional season with the Tampa Bay Rays. He was acquired in the trade that sent Tommy Pham to San Diego.
During his time in San Diego’s system he never played above High-A ball, but he never hit under .300. His career minor league batting average is .328 with a .395 OBP.
Edwards is very comparable to Brujan in my opinion, as Edwards also has speed to burn. Edwards has stolen 56 bases in his minor league career and has only been caught 12 times.
The second top-100 prospect who will start the season in Montgomery is Shane Baz. Baz was another played acquired in trade by the Tampa Bay Rays, as he was the third player in the Chris Archer trade.
However, unlike Edwards, Baz has played in the Tampa Bay Rays system.
Baz finished up the 2018 season with the Princeton Rays in Rookie-Ball, but he only pitched twice.
In 2019, Baz started, and finished the season in Single-A Bowling Green. In that season, Baz pitched to a 2.99 ERA in 17 starts. He featured a 1.23 WHIP and a very respectable 9.6 strikeouts per nine innings pitched.
With the announcement of Baz starting the season in AA, he will skip High-A ball completely. Which is something you usually don’t see.
Joining Baz and Edwards in Montgomery is one other top-30 Tampa Bay Rays prospect, and that is Ford Proctor.
Much like Baz, Proctor has never played above Single-A. However, in 2019 at Single-A Bowling Green Proctor hit .290 with six home runs, and 53 RBI’s.
High-A Bowling Green Hot Rods.
Bowling Green, Kentucky stand up! Since 2009 the Bowling Green Hot Rods have been the Low-A affiliate for the Tampa Bay Rays, but after the minor league restructure this past offseason, Bowling Green was promoted to High-A.
Now, with that, the Tampa Bay Rays did lose the Charlotte Stone Crabs. The Stone Crabs had been serving as the High-A team for the Rays since 2009, but will no longer do so.
Having a minor league team only 80 miles away from Tropicana Field was an advantage for the Rays for many years. Players would often rehab with Charlotte before coming back to the Rays, and I remember seeing David Price pitch for the Stone Carbs back in 2013 on rehab. What a time.
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However, we shift attention to Bowling Green. Although the Hot Rods won’t have any top-100 prospects, they will have a number of top-30 Rays prospects.
The highest ranking of those is Greg Jones. Jones is a 23-year-old shortstop, who was selected in the first round of the MLB Draft by the Tampa Bay Rays back in 2019. Jones however will start the season on the IL.
Along with Jones, Blake Hunt, the 17th ranked prospect in the Rays system, and Pedro Martinez, no, not that Pedro Martinez, will start the season in Bowling Green.
Blake Hunt was the second catcher acquired in the Blake Snell trade this past offseason, the first being Francisco Mejia. Hunt, a career .258 minor league hitter, was a second-round draft selection by the Padres back in 2017.
Pedro Martinez is the 28th ranked prospect in the Tampa Bay Rays system according to MLB.com. The 20-year-old middle infielder was acquired by the Rays in September of 2020 as the player to named later in the trade that sent Jose Martinez to the Cubs.
Martinez is a career .310 hitter in the minors, and has racked up 50 stolen bases in only 108 career games. Lots of speed in the Tampa Bay Rays system.
Charleston RiverDogs Low-A
With Bowling Green being elevated to High-A, the Tampa Bay Rays had a hole to fill in Low-A. Insert the Charleston RiverDogs.
The RiverDogs served as the Low-A affiliate to the New York Yankees for the past 15 seasons, but come to the Tampa Bay Rays in 2021.
Charleston will be home to seven of the top 30 prospects in the Tampa Bay Rays system to start 2021, the first being Cole Wilcox.
Wilcox comes to the Rays as another part of the Blake Snell trade. Just one year ago, the Padres made Wilcox a third-round pick out of the University of Georgia.
I was surprised to see Wilcox not start the season in Bowling Green. When a player comes out of college, rather than high school, High-A is usually a good starting spot. However, not for Wilcox.
Now yes, Wilcox has never played in a minor league game due to the cancellation of the season last year, but he was electric in college. I saw him pitch for Georgia, he’s good.
I imagine the Rays are hoping to see some of that electricity early in the season and move him to High-A quickly. In my opinion, this guy could see time in AA this year.
Heriberto Hernandez, another catching prospect, will start the season in Charleston as well. Hernandez, the 13th ranked prospect in the system was acquired by the Rays as part of the deal that sent Nate Lowe to Texas.
Hernandez is a career .320 hitter in the minors, with 23 home runs and 98 RBI’s in only 378 at-bats.
Seth Johnson-15th, Taj Bradley-21st, Alika Williams-25th, John Doxakis– 29th, and Nick Schnell– 30th will all start the season in Charleston as well.
Needless to say, there is a lot of talent in the Tampa Bay Rays system right now, and lots that could break into “The Show” very soon.
Minor League tickets available now!
All four of these teams will get underway tonight, as Durham, Montgomery, and Bowling Green will all start the season on the road.
Durham will travel to Memphis, Tennessee, Montgomery will travel to Knoxville, Tennessee, and Bowling Green will head to Greenville, South Carolina to open the season.
Charleston will stay at home, and open with the Myrtle Beach Pelicans tonight.
Minor League Baseball will be allowing fans in the 2021 season, but each stadium will have different rules and regulations. All four of the teams mentioned here are selling tickets, and they are available for purchase now!