Having a strong minor-league system can fuel an organization for years to come. Quality young talent can propel an organization to new heights—see the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays.
And it's those Rays who are the subject of this edition of the top five series. As a team with limited financial muscle, the Rays are forced to develop their own talent. Over the years, it's something they have done very well. It paid off in 2008 as several key players from their farm system were key contributors in their World Series run. James Shields and Evan Longoria are two of many examples.
Tampa Bay Ray 2009 Top-Five Prospects
1. David Price, LHP, 8/26/1985 - Price, the top pick in the 2007 draft, is the best pitching prospect in baseball.
Lefthanders with his size and stuff don't grow on trees. He's 6'6" and backs it up with a mid 90's fastball, as well as a slider and a change.
Price had a rapid ascent to the majors—he began the year making his professional debut with High-A Vero Beach. By the end of the season, he was a key cog in the bullpen during Tampa's playoff run.
Overall, he threw 123.2 IP in 2008, allowing 92 hits and 32 walks. He struck out 121, nearly a batter an inning.
He has the potential to be as good—or even better—than any of Tampa's current starters. Considering who they have, that's quite a compliment, but one well deserved.
Price is likely to begin 2009 in the big league rotation, possibly at the expense of Edwin Jackson, who could be shifted to the bullpen or traded.
2. Tim Beckham, SS, 1/27/1990 - After taking Price first overall in 2007, the Rays took Beckham with the top pick in 2008. Beckham was one of a handful of players who were considered to be the best player available in the draft.
His professional debut was shaky. Between R-Princeton and NYP-Hudson Valley, he hit .246/.309/.350 in 183 AB.
It's far from panic time—Beckham is an exciting talent, but one that's several years away from breaking into the majors.
He's an up-the-middle player that's loaded with tools and potential. Opinions vary, but some evaluators believe he could end up hitting 20 homers and stealing 40 bases on an annual basis in the majors.
That's worth waiting for.
3. Jeremy Hellickson, RHP, 4/8/1987 - A fourth rounder in 2005, Hellickson has performed well at every stop he's made in his minor league career.
Last season, he set a career high with 27 starts and 152 innings pitched. In the previous three seasons, he threw a total of 195, so it was an important step forward after a few injuries raised durability issues.
He split the year between Vero Beach and AA-Montgomery and continued to show impeccable control (20 walks) and an ability to strike batters out (162).
His BAA rose by .068 in AA and he allowed more than twice as many homers, despite pitching roughly the same number of innings as he did for Vero Beach.
Hellickson could open 2009 with AAA-Durham and he'll have plenty of time to get ready as the Tampa rotation will be very hard for anyone to crack.
He profiles as a middle of the rotation option.
4. Wade Davis, RHP, 9/7/1985 - The native of Lake Whales, Florida was drafted in the third round of the 2004 draft. He's been consistently ranked among the best prospects in the organization since and did little to change that in 2008.
He made stops in Montgomery and AAA-Durham last season. He made 28 starts and threw 160.2 innings, giving up 144 hits and 66 walks while striking out 136.
It was the first time since his debut season in 2004 that he ended with fewer strikeouts than innings pitched, but his rate was still strong.
His best assets are low-to-mid 90's fastball and a hard curve, but he'll need throw more strikes. He walked 24 in 53 innings for Durham, nearly a batter every other inning.
He'll return to Durham in 2009 and work on throwing more strikes. If he can do that, he'll be ready for Tampa, but again, breaking into their rotation won't be easy.
He could be tried out in the bullpen, an area Tampa figures to have openings in.
5. Nick Barnese, RHP, 1/11/1989 - Barnese was nabbed in the third round of the 2007 draft and backed out of a commitment with Cal State Fullerton so he could sign with Tampa.
So far, it's looking like the right decision.
Barnese, who hails from Simi Valley, California, opened eyes with a strong debut for Princeton. In 36.1 innings, he allowed 30 hits, walked only four, and struck out 37.
Barnese has a fastball that can reach 93 MPH and spent this season with Hudson Valley. In 13 starts totaling 66 innings, he gave up 52 hits and 24 walks. He struck out 84, nearly a third of all of the batters he faced.
He walked a greater percentage of hitters in 2008, but also struck them out at a higher clip.
Barnese has done a good job at keeping the ball in the yard. In 102.1 professional innings, he's surrendered just two homers - one in each season.
After spending his first two seasons in short season ball, look for him to begin 2009 with Low-A Bowling Green. A full season assignment will give a better idea of how good he might be.
NOTE: Only players with no more than 130 AB/50 IP in the majors qualify for this list.