Storming back from an 8 ½-game deficit with a month left, the Tampa Bay Rays threw themselves into the playoffs. While they did this with the usual production from guys like Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist, David Price, James Shields, and BJ Upton, the Rays also saw solid production from a few rookies. Starting with the Rookie of the Year Award winner, Jeremy Hellickson provided quality innings all season, and he should get better with time. Desmond Jennings waited a bit longer to make his debut, but he made his impact once he got there. The Rays even got a surprise solid performance from Alex Cobb. This is how the Rays operate – draft/sign, develop, and enjoy.
And there’s still more coming. Matt Moore pretty much cemented himself as the top pitching prospect in baseball. After having control issues for most of his minor-league career, Moore has spent the past year and a half putting those and many batters in the rear-view mirror. Hak-Ju Lee and Tim Beckham are also nearing helping out the big-league team, and they may cause a shortstop controversy at some point. Heck, even Brandon Guyer looks to be a big-league contributor next year after getting his feet wet this past season.
But most of the excitement is happening a bit farther down. Guys like Drew Vettleson, Ryan Brett, Josh Sale, Parker Markel, and Enny Romero are further away from the majors, but they all have significant upsides. Then came the epic number of early draft picks for the Rays. Taylor Guerrieri and Mikie Mahtook were the first-rounders, but the Rays added tons of solid young players in guys like Granden Goetzman, Jake Hager, Grayson Garvin, Tyler Goeddel, Lenny Linsky, and Johnny Eierman. This is how a good organization flushes cheap talent onto the major-league roster.
The Rays continue to have one of the better farm systems in baseball, but unlike previous years, there isn’t a lot of high-upside guys at the top. Moore goes a long way, but there are no other “stars” near the majors. And while the Rays look to have tons of depth and interesting lower-level guys, they are just that – lower-level guys – and they have plenty of risk attached to them. It’s always better to have them than not, of course, but the outlook of the organization could really change within a year. It could be incredibly outstanding or quite depleted after 3 of the top 6 here move to the majors.
Matt Moore SP
Here is the top pitching prospect in baseball. Moore begins with a mid-to-upper-90s fastball that is released from a ridiculously easy arm action, and he adds a plus hammer curve and an above-average change-up. Moore has always been a strikeout artist, consistently with K/9s around 13, but his control often wavered. About halfway through last season, he decided to make adjustments that his coaches had been advocating for years, and as a result, his mechanics got better and his control became average, which was a major improvement. Once he made those adjustments, Moore really took off, and now, he’s the best bet in the minors to become an ace.
Hak-Ju Lee SS
Projection: 3-5 WAR
Lee’s plus speed is his best asset, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a complete player. He uses that speed to give him excellent range at short, and combining that with his strong arm and good hands, Lee is a good shortstop that vastly improved his focus this past season, making half as many errors in 2011 as in 2010. At the plate, Lee makes frequent hard contact, though not for extra-base hits, and has a solid approach at the plate. His lack of power keeps him from being a tier higher, but Lee could make quite a few All-Star Games, nonetheless.
Taylor Guerrieri SP
Guerrieri fell to 24th because of some off-field issues in high school, but I wouldn’t be too concerned about that just yet. On the field, Guerrieri comes at hitters with a mid-90s fastball that can touch 98, and while it wavers at times, it should get better with more conditioning and growth. To the fastball, he adds a power curve, cutter, and change-up, though the latter two will need to be developed. Mechanically, Guerrieri looks fluid on the mound, and he should be able to make improvements to his control and command as he progresses through the system. The only question is how he performs in pro ball, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I had to put him a tier higher next year.
Brandon Guyer OF
Projection: 2-4 WAR
Guyer has plenty of major-league skills, but scouts often get caught up on what he isn’t. What he isn’t is particularly athletic-looking or a full-time center. What he is is a strong hitter that makes frequent hard contact and can drive the ball, though he probably won’t hit 20+ homers, and while he isn’t a center fielder, he should be excellent in a corner with a strong arm. Guyer risks being a tweener, and his age (26 next season) makes him seem too old. But he’s entering his peak, and I don’t think the Rays care too much as long as they get 6 cheap, productive years.
Mikie Mahtook OF
Projection: 2-4 WAR
Mahtook had an excellent junior season despite the change in bats, and despite the possibility of him moving to a corner, the offensive outburst was enough to get him drafted in the first round. While Mahtook is athletic and has a decent arm, his speed is a tick above average, and even if he “could” stay in center, Desmond Jennings will likely patrol center in the near future. His bat would be enough for center, but if he has to move, he risks becoming more of a tweener, though I think he can hit enough along with strong defense to be a decent regular in a corner. All of this, of course, remains to be seen as Mahtook hasn’t taken a professional at-bat yet.
Alex Torres SP
Torres has three above-average pitches in a low-90s fastball, change-up (that might be plus), and curveball, but what he has in stuff he lacks in control. His windup isn’t overly complicated or out of control, but Torrres exerts considerable effort in order to propel the ball toward the plate, which might affect his ability to locate the ball. And the control is a problem, as his career walk rate in the minors is an even 5. So why is he here? Because he also strikes out 9 per 9, and when one has three possible above-average and/or plus pitches, you can do that in the majors as well. But the control needs to be improved, and another run at AAA Durham should be in order to make those adjustments.
Drew Vettleson RF
Projection: 2-4 WAR
Vettleson actually hit a little worse than Brett and plays a less important position, but he’s more “prototypical” of a professional athlete, standing a bit more than 6 feet. He has a solid approach for his age and the potential for above-average power, but he is, not surprisingly, a little far away from reaching it. Defensively, he’s fine in a corner and has the arm for right field, but he is strictly a corner player, as his speed is a tick below average. Vettleson has everything he needs to be an excellent hitter at the big-league level, but he’s a while away and needs to hit, considering his position.
Chris Archer SP
Projection: 3/4, Relief Ace
After somewhat getting a handle on his control early last season, Archer has let it slip again, watching his walk rate rise over 4 again. It’s really a shame because the stuff – a low-to-mid 90s fastball, a wicked slider, and a solid change-up – is front-of-the-rotation material. His delivery isn’t disastrous, but he lands really stiffly on his front leg and cuts himself off. Archer needs a full season in AAA and maybe more, and knowing the Rays to be conservative with pitching prospects, I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets it. If he doesn’t pan out as a starter, he could still be an elite reliever.
Enny Romero SP
Lefties with big fastballs tend to get noticed, and Romero can run it up into the mid-90s. To the plus fastball, he adds an above-average curveball and an advancing change-up. These three pitches helped him strike out 11 per 9 in Low-A in 2011, but his inability to locate them consistently led to a high walk rate. As a 20-year old, Romero has the time to improve, and the Rays have a reputation for developing them well. Whether that happens or not is left up to debate, but there’s plenty of talent there to work with.
Tim Beckham SS
Projection: 2-4 WAR
When you were drafted instead of Buster Posey and haven’t made the majors yet, you’re likely not going to be in the fanbase’s good graces. While Beckham hasn’t quite lived up to expectations, he hasn’t really been a bust. With initial questions surrounding his defense and ability to stay at short, Beckham has quieted most of those questions and looks to be average-ish on defense. The remaining questions surround his bat, where he has really “disappointed”. It’s hard to see a star anymore, but you don’t have to look too hard for a decent regular. He strikes out a bit too much, but he can draw some walks, and he saw an increase in his power numbers last season. On top of all that, he’s been at least 2 years young for the levels he’s played. Don’t give up.
Big Question – Alex Colome
Colome is probably the most notable omission from this list as I expect that he’d be somewhere 4-7 on most other lists. The right-hander comes at batters with a mid-90s fastball and an above-average curve, but he has similar control issues to Archer and Torres without the strikeout rates. Lacking a decent change-up, Colome is often left with only two pitches, and this means he’s probably destined for the bullpen. And that’s why he’s off the list. Relievers take a huge value hit on these lists because their ceilings become very limited, and while Colome’s fastball and curve might play up in one-inning stints, a really good reliever is usually worth 1-2 wins, which just isn’t much. That being said, there remains a chance that Colome stays in a rotation, improves his change-up (will be 23 all next season), and decreases the number of walks he issues. Colome could be a future 2 or 3 or a closer, but there’s a substantial difference in his value between the two.