About a month or so ago, when the Rays traded for Brendan Harris, I posted a blurb about Harris on Sickels' blog about some past hype about Harris that never really has appeared. I, however, incorrectly posted that Baseball America hyped Harris as "The Next Pujols", when it really was Baseball Prospectus. I got an email from Manuel(of Baseball America fame) about this blurb and after a few emails back-and-forth, I asked him if he'd answer a handful of minor league related questions from me with full understanding that I'd have to wait due to my poor timing coinciding with BA's College Preview and Top prospects lists. I've learned already that the best things come to those who wait, which proves to be very true yet again.
Jake Larsen: What's your opinion on the Devil Rays farm system? Many people claim it to be the hands-down best overall farm system in baseball, while many think it's very top-heavy with big names and players with tons of potential but not-so-great results.
John Manuel: I wouldn't say it's hands-down the top system, but I do agree that it's the best system. That ranking has nothing to do with past results of Rays' big leaguers though; it's a ranking of the organization's current level of talent. The best, most encouraging thing for a Rays fan is the variety, depth and quality of the pitching in the system. The Rays have had no problems producing hitters; Joe Kennedy and Chad Gaudin shouldn't be the top pitchers the system ever has produced, but they are. That should change shortly.
JL: One of my favorite Rays prospects of all time is a prospect that I created his nickname for, which is Reid "The Cajun God of Baseball" Brignac. He had a "breakout" season in 2006 in the Cali League and a short stint in the Southern League(which included the Biscuits' title run). Do you think that Brignac's bat is "for real" or should Rays fans be patient and give him time to cut down the Ks, while increasing the walks, and improve his fielding problems? Should we remember our mistakes with Upton and try not to rush a prospect "too fast"?
JM: Boy, that nickname is a handful and doesn't work for me, but whatever floats your boat. We do think Brignac is for real, but definitely don't rush him too fast. Ben Zobrist is a good place-holder for 2007; let him play in the majors, let Brignac get one more year under his belt, then you can ease Brignac in. I do think his bat's for real, though, just like I still think Upton's bat is for real; B.J. just needs to find a position. I kind of like the Chone Figgins-type experiment idea.
JL: Jeff Niemann has tons of potential, but has little to show for it due to injuries. Does he have a chance at breaking the Devil Rays rotation out of Spring Training or should the Rays attempt to give him more "seasoning" in Durham?
JM: If Niemann is healthy, frankly there's no reason to let him learn in Durham. He's already on the 40-man roster; let him learn in Tampa, I say. I know Jeff a bit from covering him at Rice and think very highly of him as a person and as a player, and if he's healthy, he'll be a No. 1 or No. 2 starter. But that's a big if. He hasn't been fully healthy since 2003.
JL: On a side question, I had an argument regarding Niemann and Dodgers prospect Chad Billingsley. I believe that Niemann is every bit of a pitching prospect as Billingsley is, just Niemann's nagging injuries haven't given Rays full view of how great Niemann could possibly be. Am I insane to say that our behemoth is better than Billingsley is?
JM: I believe Niemann's ceiling is higher than Billingsley's, but they're kind of similar in terms of what they should produce. Billingsley is more conventional, which has its advantages. If I had to pick one I'd pick Billingsley, but it's not "insane' of you to think that, no.
JL: Jake McGee, Wade Davis and Matt Walker make a hell of a trio, but who has the most potential/upside?
JM: It depends on when you see them it seems; I'll always take the hard-throwing lefty in that argument.
JL: Jeremy Hellickson, Tyree Hayes and Alex Cobb are some of our other younger "studs" when it comes to Pitching prospects, who do you think that Rays fans should keep an eye on?
JM: Well, I don't see a mention here of Mitch Talbot or Andy Sonnanstine, and I think both those guys can contribute in the majors, and I also like James Houser quite a bit
JL: All "issues" aside, if you had to pick one player to build your OF around, would you pick Elijah Dukes or Delmon Young?
JM: Delmon Young. You can't put issues aside on Dukes; his issues go back almost 8 years. Delmon has not handled fame/attention particularly well, but I think he has a better chance to get it together. In terms of tools, frankly they are similar, Delmon's the better hitter, similar raw power, they both run well, Delmon's arm is better . . . Dukes is a shade more athletic and frankly is more skilled, i.e., he works counts and uses his power better, and is a better athlete. But I'm not a believer in Dukes; I don't think he's a guy who makes his teams better. He seems like a very difficult person to be teammates with, and that's not to be discounted.
JL: Joel Guzman has been a highly regarded prospect since he signed at the age of 16, which was about 6 years ago. However, he's grown out of his original position and the Rays organization is pretty much full at alot of positions. Should we give Guzman time for his talent to catch up to his massive size?
JM: Yes; he could be a powerful 1B with excellent size and probably be a good defender there; maybe he can be Derrek Lee. That's the high end, in my opinion. He has to work at it though; he has such immense talent, he hasn't quite worked at his craft like he needs to.
JL: Sergio Pedroza and Justin Ruggiano were both interesting pick-ups in 2 out of the 3 trades with the Dodgers last year. Which is a more interesting prospect to you?
JM: Pedroza, because he's a lefthanded hitter with power, those guys are always hard to find.
JL: With Edwin Jackson being "out of options", what are your thoughts on what the Rays should do with the former teenage phenom?
JM: Stick him in middle relief and see what he can do.
JL: Best Rays prospect that noone has heard of/not getting his "just due"?
JM: Well, that's a hard question . . . WE haven't mentioned Longoria; personally, I like him almst as much as Delmon Young and think he is an elite prospect, one of the top five in the game. I also think Woods Fines has a nice arm, good pro body and could be a sleeper RHP.