AAA Durham Bulls. Summary: The offense and bullpen are stacked; the rotation, less so -- at least until midseason when reinforcements arrive. There are a half-dozen legitimate prospects on this team, plus a bunch of MLB-fringe vets who could see time on the Rays this year.
With Chris Archer demoted to AA, we can look forward to a pretty stacked team at Montgomery this year. So then I thought I'd take a look in depth and take my best guess as to who might be playing where for the Rays' top four full-season minor-league affiliates in 2011.
Cobb and Torres project out as mid-rotation starters in MLB; the other guys are organizational roster filler. I should add that Baker is a supremely nice guy and something seemed to click for him when he joined Durham's rotation in midseason last year. My gut tells me that Torres is probably slightly closer to the majors than Cobb, although Cobb had arguably better numbers at AA last year.
That's a ridiculously great bullpen for a AAA team. My guess is that Gomes gets the first crack at the closer's role, although it could be de la Rosa (or even Delaney). I also think lefty and former 4th rounder David Newmann is probably ready to pitch at AAA, but there isn't any space for him. Lefty Darin Downs is a great story; he survived a line drive to the head and came back to strike out nearly 11 guys per nine innings at AA.
C: Robinson Chirinos, Jose Lobaton. Both are pretty much MLB-ready now, although I the Rays want to see Chirinos get in some regular defensive reps. If I were Charlie Montoyo, I'd start Chirinos at short once per week just to keep him fresh; I'm guessing this is one of the many reasons nobody has called me up and offered me a job managing in the International League.
1B: Casey Kotchman, as spelled by Leslie Anderson. We all know about Kotchman; I don't think he's ever going to hit MLB pitching, but as insurance I certainly like him a lot more than, say, trying to talk Chris Richard out of retirement.
2B: I'm going with Cody Cipriano here; he was a 9th rounder in 2007 and is coming off of a solid .275/.371/.399 season at Montgomery last year. He doesn't have the arm to play short and so seems like a longshot to have a MLB career as a utility infielder, but I don't see that the organization has anything to lose by seeing if he can hit. Probably the safer choice is to have Felipe Lopez play second, but see below.
SS: Although Felipe Lopez looked a lot more like a third baseman than a shortstop in camp, he played 163 innings at short last year, and I think the Rays are best served by having Lopez work out at the most demanding defensive position since he's obviously the first guy to get the call if anyone gets hurt at the MLB level. The Bulls also have no-hit defensive specialists in Rey Olmedo and Omar Luna on the bench, so I think the Bulls have a backup if Lopez can't handle SS defensively any more.
3B: Did you know that Russ Canzler is only 25 and had a .938 OPS at AA last year? Neither did I. He sure looked like crap this spring, though. On the other hand, it's not much fun being a third base prospect in this organization.
OF: Brandon Guyer (LF), Desmond Jennings (CF), Justin Ruggiano (RF). Offensively and defensively, I suspect that this group is better, right now, than whatever the Cubs are going to send out to patrol the OF at Wrigley on a nightly basis. Oh, and Leslie Anderson (1B/OF) is the overqualified fourth outfielder.
DH: Chris Carter. Durham's cleanup hitter and the organization's apology to the Bulls for stealing Dan Johnson.
Projected Lineup: Jennings / Ruggiano / Chirinos / Carter / Guyer / Canzler / Kotchman / Lopez / Cipriano. That's probably at least a replacement-level MLB lineup, all things considered.
AA Montgomery Biscuits. Summary: Without a doubt, the Southern League's team to beat in the first half of 2011, with a rotation that's almost worth going to Alabama to see. (Almost.) The lineup features four legitimate prospects, although all of them come with serious question marks.
SP: Matt Moore, Chris Archer, Nick Barnese, Joe Cruz, Shane Dyer. When the worst guy in your AA rotation is an intriguing long-shot prospect (Dyer), you know the team is stacked. I was kind of surprised to see Archer assigned to AA; my guess is that the Rays were concerned that if he went to AAA he might dominate the league even with his current control issues and thus learn some bad habits. So I suspect he was instructed to head to AA and throw strikes, with the promise that if he cuts his walk rate in half, he'll be fast-tracked to AAA. Barnese and Cruz would be top pitching prospects in almost any other organization.
RP: So many arms here. I suspect Zach Quate will be the closer and Marquis Fleming the set-up guy; those two are legitimate reliever prospects. David Newmann, Neil Schenk, Ryan Reid, Josh Satow and Chris Andujar round out the rest of the 'pen.
C: Stephen Vogt, Nevin Ashley. Vogt, who will be 26 this season, hit .345/.399/.511 at high-A last year. The Rays are firm believers in the 'catchers-develop-late' theory; I'm skeptical. Still, Vogt, a 2007 12th-rounder, has done nothing but hit as he's advanced through the minors after losing almost all of 2009 to injury. With a strong '11, he could be the Rays' home-grown version of Robinson Chirinos. Ashley is probably at least as good as a half-dozen backup catchers already in the majors.
1B: Henry Wrigley, although if it were up to me, I'd just move Matt Sweeney here and be done with it. Not a prospect.
2B: Cole Figueroa. Pilfered from the Padres in the Jason Bartlett deal; I'd say he projects somewhere in between Luis Castillo and Quilvio Veras. He's someone I'd really be looking forward to watching this year if I were stuck in Alabama for some unknown reason.
SS: Tim Beckham. The make-or-break year. Got a long look in ST and (to me, at least) looked the part of a legitimate SS prospect at the plate and in the field. Shawn O'Malley is the utility infielder.
3B: Matt Sweeney. I would move him to first and have him concentrate on hitting.
OF: Reid Fronk (LF), Isaias Velasquez (CF), Brett Nommensen (RF), with minor-league speedster (and lifer) Emeel Salem as the 4th outfielder. Nommensen is the only real potential prospect in this group; at 24, I think the Rays jump him the extra half-level from Bowling Green to AA to see if he can handle it.
DH: John Matulia. A high school draftee in '05 who finally hit a little bit last year at AA (.269/.324/.408). I think he repeats the level before going free agent next year. Not a prospect.
Projected Lineup: Fronk / Figueroa / Matulia / Vogt / Beckham / Sweeney / Nommensen / Wrigley / Velasquez. I suspect the Biscuits will be under orders to hit Beckham, Sweeney and Nommensen lower in the lineup until they show they can hit AA pitching.
A+ Port Charlotte Stone Crabs. Summary: Another seriously promising rotation, backed up by an exciting middle infield. Unfortunately, the rest of the lineup lineup is mostly failed and/or fringe prospects. I also think this is where Matt Bush lands for the first few weeks of the season, so that could be fun.
SP: Alex Colome, Kyle Lobstein, Jake Thompson, Wilking Rodriguez, Kirby Yates. Four legitimate high-ceiling pitching prospects. Lobstein and Rodriguez are coming off of somewhat disappointing seasons at Bowling Green last year, but scouts are still high on their arms. 2010 second-rounder Thompson made two starts for Port Charlotte at the end of the year last year, pitching 11 scoreless innings and winning both. I think that's enough for the ordinarily-conservative Rays to send Thompson back there to start 2011. Yates is roster filler.
RP: Matt Bush, Scott Shuman, Alex Koronis, Rayner Oliveros, Matthew Stabelfeld, Jake Sullivan, Michael Jarman. Bush you know about. Shuman is a legitimate prospect and Koronis struck out 10.6 batters per nine in relief last year at Bowling Green. Everyone else is roster filler.
C: Jake Jeffries, Mark Thomas. Jeffries is the '08 third-rounder; he gets to repeat the level until he learns how to hit. Thomas moves up from Bowling Green; he's basically been a league-average hitter in his four seasons in the minors, and I know nothing else about him.
1B: Mikey Sheridan repeats the level; a 2008 fifth-rounder, he's looking like a bust so far. Organizational player Ryan Wiegand, also a lefty swinger, probably moves up from BG to push Sheridan.
2B: Tyler "WHAAMMYYY" Bortnick. Is almost exactly the same player as Cole Figueroa. Matt "the other guy at www.jakesdugout.com" Hall is the backup infielder and occasional relief pitcher. (Seriously.)
SS: Hak-ju Lee. This should be a fun keystone combo.
3B: Julio Cedeno. Just 21 years old; signed with the Dodgers at age 16, and I'm not sure how he came to the Rays -- I didn't think it was in the Dioner Navarro deal. Still, given his relative lack of plate discipline and total lack of power, he's almost certainly a nonprospect at this point. He'll split time with Greg Sexton, who's 26 and didn't hit at Port Charlotte last year.
OF: Dustin Biell (LF), Ty Morrison (CF), and Kyeong Kang (RF). Morrison is the prospect here, although he's got to get his plate discipline under control (43 BB to 133 Ks in 512 PA last year); I liked Kang two years ago before his bat went backwards, his speed disappeared, and he had to move out from center. I guess that sounds pretty rough. Biell is a former fifth rounder who's never hit, so he's basically the Mikey Sheridan of the outfield. Christopher Murrill -- who spent a third of the season at Port Charlotte last year (and didn't hit, either) is the fourth outfielder.
DH: I suspect that Wiegand and Murrill will split time here.
Projected Lineup: I can't do it. Lee and Bortnick should hit near the top of the order; everyone else you can just draw out of a hat.
A Bowling Green Hot Rods. Summary: This seems to be where a lot of the 2010 draftees and international signees are headed; it should be tremendously fun to watch and also the key as to whether the Rays pipeline of prospects continues on in 2012 and beyond.
SP: Albert Suarez, Wilmer Almonte, Enny Romero, Braulio Lara, and Jason McEachern. Four international signees (Almonte, Romero, and Lara out of the Domincan Republic, and Suarez from Venezuela) that I think are all clearly ready for full-season ball. Romero gets the most press, but they're all legitimate prospects and all bear watching. McEachern has dropped off of basically everyone's radar after a crappy 2010, but as a 19-year-old in full-season A-ball, he still bears watching. He'll repeat the level in 2011.
RP: I'm not going to bother to project an A-ball bullpen; other than 2010 8th rounder Merrill Kelly, I'd just be cutting-and-pasting names like Miguel Sierra, Aaron Dott, and Robert Dickmann that mean nothing to me or you (unless you're reading this, Mrs. Dickmann, and if so, kudos to you).
1B: Phil Wunderlich. 2010 draftee (12th round); destroyed the living crap out of the New York-Penn league last year, hitting .330/.372/.478. I'd like to see even more power and better strike zone judgment (9 BB/40 Ks) in 2011.
2B: Robby Price. See "Cole Figueroa" and "Tyler Bortnick." Listed at a laughable 5'10", Price has slightly better numbers and a slightly worse pedigree. I would also bet one American dollar that he never slugs as high as .423 again. Still, I love slap-hitting, high-OBP middle infield prospects with speed, and Price is yet another guy with the skill set to help a major-league team someday.
SS: Derek Dietrich. Scouts love his bat but question his ability to stick at shortstop. Went straight from Georgia Tech to the NYPL and held his own at 20 (.279/.340/.419); I'm excited to see what he can do in a full-season league. Diogenes Luis is the backup.
3B: Nick Schwaner. Not a prospect.
OF: I think the Rays are going to be aggressive and slot their 2010 first-rounders, Drew Vettleson (LF) and Josh Sale (RF) at the corners. Fringe prospect Cody Rogers returns to play CF; he didn't hit at all in his first exposure to a full-season league, but who knows. Brian Bryles is the 4th OF; he's a roster hamster.
DH: Gabe Cohen, whom I can only assume is a member of the tribe, returns.
So that should be some food for thought.