The Tampa Bay Rays organization has established itself as one of the best-run systems in major league baseball.
The scouting and player development have been especially top-notch over the past five years, which has allowed the Rays to put together a very talented young ball club despite limited resources.
Even with the plethora of young talent that has been brought up in recent years and the failure to sign their top two picks in last year’s draft, the Rays farm system is still loaded with talent.
Most scouts list the Rangers and Rays as having the two best farm systems right now, with Baseball America still listing the Rays as the top system overall.
No one will argue that the Rays have been drafting and developing starting pitching better than anyone in recent years. We’re talking about a team that in the past two years has traded Edwin Jackson, Scott Kazmir, and Jason Hammel, promoted David Price and Jeff Niemann, and still boasts the best system pitching depth in the game. Six of the players on this list are starting pitchers, and many more just missed the cut.
These rankings are inclusive of the entire Rays minor league system and are my personal opinions taken from a combination of scouting reports, statistics, and observations. For each player I’ve written a scouting report summary and a short projection on where they’ll spend this season. The top three are a bit more extensive, as they’re guys I’ve seen a bit more of.
The Rays’ minor league affiliates are the Durham Bulls (AAA), Montgomery Biscuits (AA), Charlotte Stone Crabs (A+), Bowling Green Hot Rods (A), and Hudson Valley Renegades (A-). The ages listed are baseball age (age on July 1 of the coming season).
1. Desmond Jennings – OF
Acquired: 2006 draft, 10th round (Itawamba CC)
Up until last season he was a guy who had all the tools but had just had some bad luck with injuries. Finally healthy, he put together one of the best seasons in all of the minor leagues.
He was on fire from the get-go at AA Montgomery and never really slowed down, even after a midseason promotion to Durham. His final numbers over both levels included a .318 average with a .401 OBP, 11 homers, 10 triples, and 52 stolen bases.
He has great bat speed, is an exceptional runner, and even has the potential for some power as he continues to develop. He’s your prototypical top-of-the-order guy, a very good contact hitter that has the speed to get on base anytime he puts the ball in play. One game late in the year at Durham he went 7-for-7. How’s that for setting the table?
His defensive skills rate equally high, a great outfielder with a good arm.
At 23, the former Alabama football recruit has established himself as one of the game’s premier prospects. He already seems to have an advanced approach to hitting and baserunning (his 88 percent success rate on steals was among the best in the minors) and is just an exciting player to watch. The ball shoots off his bat, and he flies around the bases and in the outfield.
If he’s able to come up this season, he could team with Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton to give the Rays one of the fastest defensive outfields ever assembled.
2010: The Rays don’t want to rush his development, and barring a phenomenal spring he will begin the season in Durham. I’d expect to see him in a Rays uniform this season at some point, particularly if the Rays aren’t getting the production they want in right field.
2. Jeremy Hellickson – RHP
Acquired: 2005 Draft, fourth round (Hoover HS, Iowa)
The top pitching prospect in a loaded system, Hellickson has been dominant at every minor league level. In 2009 his numbers were ridiculous, giving up just 41 hits in 57 innings while striking out more than a batter per inning with Montgomery.
He was even better the second half of the season in AAA, where opponents batted a measly .157 off him. He finished the season a combined 9-2 with a 2.45 ERA, an 0.89 WHIP, and 132 strikeouts in 114 innings.
Hellickson, who’s earned the nickname “Hellboy,” is a guy who really knows how to pitch and has pinpoint control. When you combine that with the stuff he has, he’s practically unhittable at times. He throws a 90-94 mph fastball, with a very good curve and a developing changeup that’s turned into possibly his best pitch. He’s a fly ball pitcher but to this point in his career has managed to keep the ball in the yard.
2010: Hellickson would crack the starting rotation for most MLB teams right now. Unfortunately for him, he’s stuck behind a young Rays rotation of James Shields, Matt Garza, David Price, Jeff Niemann, and Wade Davis. Still, with his talent, he shouldn’t be held down for long.
3. Wade Davis – RHP
Acquired: 2004 Draft, third round (Lake Wales HS, Fla.)
Davis has been among the Rays’ top prospects for a long time and finally got a chance to show what he can do last season as a September call-up. He’s worked his way through every level of the minors and has developed into a potential top-of-the-rotation guy.
The thing to like about Davis is that he’s an absolute workhorse. There’ll be no “Joba Rules” here. His 6’5”, 220-lb. frame and strong arm should allow the Rays to handle him without the extra care of a typical rookie.
Although he hasn’t been as dominant as Hellickson, he has a bigger arsenal of pitches, and many would argue he has better stuff overall. He can throw five pitches, highlighted by a 93-95 mph four-seam fastball. He’ll mix in a two-seam fastball, a solid curveball, and change, as well as a slider that’s been described as “nasty.”
Rays fans got a preview of what he can do on Sept. 17 against the Orioles when he threw a complete game four-hit shutout with 10 K’s. In six starts with the Rays he struck out 36 in 36 innings with a 3.72 ERA.
2010: Davis is expected to be in the Rays' starting rotation this season. He’ll likely be the fifth starter and a Rookie of the Year candidate.
4. Matt Moore – LHP
Acquired: 2007 Draft, eighth round (Moriarty HS, New Mexico)
In his short time in the minors Moore has established himself as a strikeout pitcher, averaging around 12 K’s per nine innings to date. In Single-A last year as a 19/20-year-old he went 8-5 with a 3.15 ERA, while striking out 176 in 123 innings.
He did get roughed up a couple times, but his strikeout numbers speak to his long-term potential. Also, the fact that he’s given up just six home runs in nearly 200 minor-league innings is encouraging.
Moore can dial it up around 94 mph and also throws a curveball and changeup. The major concern with him thus far is that at times he’s struggled with his control. He walked 70 last year, which isn’t bad but is something that could hurt him at the higher levels.
2010: He’ll be the ace of what looks to be a very talented staff in Charlotte. It’ll be impressive if he can post similar strikeout numbers at this level.
5. Alex Colome – RHP
Acquired: Signed in 2007 (Dominican Republic)
Colome had a breakout season in ’09, adjusting to playing stateside and figuring out how to use his immense talent. He dominated the New York-Penn League for Hudson Valley, posting a 1.66 ERA and striking out 94 in 76 innings without giving up a single home run on his way to being named the league’s player of the year.
His stuff is as good as anyone in the system, throwing 95-96 with a good curveball. For him it’s just a matter of learning how to pitch, something the Rays teach very well. Right now he has the makings of a top prospect, but he will have to improve his secondary pitches and gain more command of his pitches overall.
2010: He’ll begin the season in A-ball with Bowling Green. It’ll be interesting to see how he does in his first full season of pro ball and how his arm handles the increased innings. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a midseason promotion to Charlotte.
6. Tim Beckham – SS
Acquired: 2008 Draft, first round, first overall (Griffin HS, Georgia)
So now we get to the name everyone has heard. The former No. 1 pick played his first full season of pro ball in ’09, with mixed results. He was inconsistent at the plate, as expected, but he also really struggled defensively, leading many to question whether he can stay at shortstop long-term.
Beckham’s final line in 491 at-bats at Bowling Green: a .275 batting average, five homers, 63 RBI, .328 OBP, and 13 steals. He struck out way too much (116 times), walked just 34 times, and was caught stealing in 10 of his 23 attempts. The Rays have to be disappointed in the lack of power and patience at the plate.
That being said, it’s way too soon to give up on Beckham. He has extremely quick bat speed and makes good, hard contact. The plate discipline is something he can continue to work on, while his 33 doubles are encouraging and hopefully a sign of developing power.
Just the fact that he played a full season at Bowling Green as a 19-year-old is impressive. He seems eager to learn and will be given every opportunity to get better.
2010: Beckham is on the one stop per year plan, and the next stop is high Single-A. He’ll spend the season at Port Charlotte. This means the Rays will have him right in their backyard and be able to monitor him closely. They’ll be looking for significant improvement, especially in his plate discipline and defense.
7. Kyle Lobstein – LHP
Acquired: 2008 Draft, second round (Coconino HS, Ariz.)
There’s a bit of a drop-off between the top six and the bottom four on this list. Lobstein looks like your classic crafty lefty, with the added advantage that he’s 6’3” and should have good durability. He doesn’t have near as high of a ceiling as the guys rated above him, but I think he is a safe bet to become a productive middle-of-the-rotation starter in the bigs.
His fastball comes in anywhere from 88 to 92 mph, and he throws a curveball and changeup that are better than what’s expected for his age. He has good control and an advanced feel for pitching that is beyond his years. As a 19-year-old for Hudson Valley, he posted a 2.58 ERA with 74 strikeouts in 73 innings.
2010: He’ll pitch for Bowling Green and team with Colome to give them a very strong 1-2. I expect him to respond well to the increased workload, and if he can add a couple ticks to that velocity, his prospect status will jump.
8. Nick Barnese – RHP
Acquired: 2007 Draft, third round (Simi Valley HS, Calif.)
Barnese has always been compared to teammate Matt Moore as they’ve gone through the system together. After some shoulder issues and a drop-off in strikeouts for Barnese in 2009, Moore is the one getting all the attention. Barnese could end up being just as good though.
With a fastball that comes in around 91-93 mph, he has a good starting point as his secondary pitches continue to develop. He made 15 starts with Bowling Green but missed time at the start and end of the season with the shoulder injury. He still managed to post a 2.53 ERA in 74 innings. The big question with him is if he can stay healthy and improve his curveball/changeup.
2010: He’ll team with Moore once again, this time in Charlotte. If he can show there are no lingering effects from his shoulder issues, he could shoot up this list in a hurry.
9. Reid Brignac – SS
Acquired: 2004 Draft, second round (St. Amant HS, Louisiana)
Brignac is another guy who’s been on these lists for years. Now 24, he’s spent two full seasons in AAA while Jason Bartlett has solidified himself as the big league shortstop. In 2009 the lefty improved his batting average to .282 after hitting .250 the year before. He also hit eight home runs and drove in 44.
We did get to see him in a couple stints with the big league club, where he hit .278 in 90 at-bats. He looked overmatched against lefties but seemed to get better with increased playing time.
A lot of people still have him really high on these lists, but I don’t see how you can rate Brignac as a top-five prospect in this system based on the fact that he gives you no power, no speed, and doesn’t draw walks. Without those other tools, he has to be able to hit for a higher average. He’s good at a lot of things, but not really great at anything, although his fielding is definitely big league-ready.
2010: It’s looking like a third year in Durham for Brignac unless he can win a job in spring training. If he looks ready, the Rays would have no problem starting him at second base and moving Ben Zobrist to right field. He’ll have to outplay both Matt Joyce and Sean Rodriguez though.
10. Matt Sweeney – 3B/1B
Acquired: (Aug. '09) From Angels with Sean Rodriguez and Alex Torres for Scott Kazmir. Originally drafted in 2006, eighth round by the Angels.
Sweeney is an interesting case, and I don’t know if I’ve ever encountered a player with so much disagreement on where he stands as a prospect. He’s rated as high as fifth in the system by ESPN and as low as 29th by some others. Part of the reason for this is that he is largely an unknown quantity having missed so much time due to injuries.
So he makes this list based purely on potential. He missed all of 2008 with a knee injury and missed much of last season as well. Overall he hit .287 with nine homers in 230 at-bats between two high Single-A teams. He looked good in the Cal League early on in the year, but that place is a hitter's paradise and doesn’t tell you much.
He’s a lefty with a good swing and a quick bat for a big guy, giving him good power potential. His defense grades out as weak; he’s slow and will probably have to end up at first base. There’s no way he’s cracking the bigs with the Rays as a third baseman anyway.
2010: He could probably use some more time in Charlotte, but from what I’m hearing the Rays will push him to AA Montgomery. The biggest thing for him is staying healthy and finally showing what he can do over a full season.
Best of the rest: Alex Cobb (RHP), Alex Torres (LHP), Jake McGee (LHP), Luke Bailey (C), Aneury Rodriguez (RHP), Todd Glaesmann (OF).