The story of the season so far has been the offense. I know, newsflash, right? There have been countless articles written about how the Rays will score runs this year. I'll take a slightly different look: How will the Rays score runs next year, and the year after that, and the year after that?
The Rays should be fine with the pitching; there's enough at the major-league level and a ton of depth in the minors for the forseeable future. But what about the hitting? Even if Manny and Damon had worked out, they were one-year band-aids for an offense whose 2010 runs scored total was a tad over-inflated thanks to some GTMI luck.
The two areas a small-market team needs to build from within are quality starting pitching (check) and impact bats (...). Bullpens can be creatively (and cheaply) built, nice complementary players can be shrewdly signed or traded for, but stars need to be developed. Whereas the Red Sox and Yankees lineups are, roughly speaking, three or four stars and some nice pieces, the Rays' current offensive make-up is one star and almost all nice pieces. Is that enough? Let's look at when the hitting prospects in the system might realistically arrive in the majors:
Robinson Chirinos has gotten off to a slow start with Durham, but hit well in the spring and could reasonably be expected to hold his own in the majors if forced up today. Turning 27 in June, he's pretty much done developing in the traditional sense, but with only 174 games behind the plate (having just recently switched from shortstop to catcher), is still working working on the finer points of catching. Because of his age, there aren't any concerns about service time or his arbitration clock and he should make it to St. Pete this summer (especially if the Rays can find a taker for Kelly Shoppach).
After Chirinos, there's no immediate help on the way. Nevin Ashley and Jose Lobaton are on the 40-man roster but are known for their defensive acumen. Stephen Vogt led the Florida State League in OPS last season, but he was quite old for the league and has only been a part-time catcher in the minors because of his defense.
The next great hope would be Luke Bailey, the fourth-round pick in 2009. Projected as a first-rounder before Tommy John surgery put him on the shelf, Bailey impressed enough to jump from the GCL (where he hit .182) to full-season ball. He has good raw power and has shown he can work a walk, but still needs to tighten his strike zone and cut down on his swings and misses to help that power show up in games. He's hit well in the enormous sample size of five games, but unless he keeps up the 1.276 OPS, he'll spend the entire year with Bowling Green. He's athletic but like all young catchers will be moved along slowly so that his glove doesn't become a liability. The realistic best-case scenario that he moves one level at a time and would be ready in September of 2014.
The Rays invested heavily in a catcher again in 2010, selecting Justin O'Conner at the end of the first round with the compensation pick they got for not signing Levon Washington. O'Conner is sort of a boom-or-bust guy, even accounting for the built-in unpredictability of projecting short-season catchers. He's got two tools in his power and arm that are potential plus-plus assets, but there are questions about his pure hitting ability. He's never going to be a .300-type guy, but can he hit .260-.280 to make the power usable? He showed he had a decent idea at the plate in his debut (.090 IsoD) but struck out roughly once per game. He figures to trail Bailey by a level through the system, so Bowling Green in 2012 and on the cusp of the majors in late 2015/early 2016.
The traditional big-bat position, it's a spot the Rays are really hurting at in-house. Cuban Leslie Anderson's skills are much better suited to the outfield, though even then he doesn't project to hit the power expected from a corner outfielder. He was removed from the 40-man roster and cleared waivers, so he didn't exactly get a vote of confidence.
Matt Sweeney's prospect stock took a bigger hit than anybody's last season after hitting .196 in 46 games with Montgomery. He lost some weight in the off-season and moved across the diamond to first base (which was only a matter of time with his sub-par third base defense) for the Biscuits this year. He hasn't played a full season since 2007, so anything more than just playing in 120+ games this year could be considered a bonus. He has two home runs on the young season, but is just 3-18 overall with seven strikeouts in five games. Already 23 years old, his bat will need to develop in a hurry to project as an impact guy.
Down the system, there isn't much to be optimistic about. Mike Sheridan is a contact specialist who offers little in the way of walks or power (and his batting average hasn't been very good either) and Phil Wunderlich packs some good raw power but not much else. Jeff Malm got a nice of bonus in the 2009 draft on the premise that he could flat hit (he led the state of Nevada in home runs his senior year, beating out Bryce Harper), but he's put up a .222/.296/.302 line as a pro. Luke Bailey and Todd Glaesmann, also of the 2009 draft class, made it to Bowling Green this year while Malm hasn't, and that should tell you something.
So outside of a 2011 draft pick moving quickly (and it's a not a great year for first baseman in the draft) or sticking with Dan Johnson, the Rays will almost certainly have to go outside the organization for their first baseman of 2012 and beyond. So here are some fun trade candidates, even if they're pipe dreams:
Yonder Alonso is blocked by Joey Votto, though his numbers don't exactly have the NL MVP sweating. He's got a good eye at the plate but doesn't hit for ideal power from a first baseman, and hit just .207 in a late-season cameo with Cincinnati. A hammate injury could be blamed for some of his power issues, but even taking that into account it's a concern. If the Rays acquired Alonso, he'd be ready for the majors right now.
Jonathan Singleton with the Phillies would certainly be a dream come true. Rated the 39th-best prospect in the game by BaseballAmerica, Singleton hit .290/.393/.479 as an 18-year-old in low-A last season. He's giving it a shot in left field with Ryan Howard's Contact blocking him at 1B in Philadelphia, but let's just say his best defensive tool is his hitting ability. You'll give yourself rosterbation blue balls thinking about getting him, especially since the Phillies don't match up well as a trade partner. They obviously having major-league pitching (so Shields wouldn't do much for them), and they have a ton of lower-level minor league depth on the mound as well (so guys like Alex Colome and Enny Romero may not excite them as much). The best fit might be B.J. Upton if he hits well and they're starved for some offense, though his defensive ability is negated by the unlikelihood of them moving Shane Victorino to a corner. Singleton would figure to be ready for the big leagues as soon as early as mid-2013 if he continues to hit.
Quite frankly, the rest of the 1B prospects around the minors either aren't going to happen (Eric Hosmer, Freddie Freeman, Brandon Belt) or aren't very appealing. I'll go as far as to say that the first base position is my biggest concern in taking a long-term look at the Rays future.
This is one position where the Rays don't really need to look for a 2012-2015 answer (I'll give you three guesses as to what the other one is) with Ben Zobrist inked to a long-term deal -- through 2013 with club options for '14 and '15. While they lack any super-prospects at the position, it's one of very good depth.
They acquired Cole Figueroa in the Jason Bartlett deal, and he's coming off a season in which he hit .303 and drew 81 walks (albeit in the offensive paradise of the Cal League). His range is decent and he's very sure-handed, but likely won't hit enough to start every day, and wouldn't be an "impact bat" if he did. Figuring a full year in both Montgomery and Durham, he'd be ready for the majors (perhaps in a utility role) at the end of 2012.
Tyler Bortnick was an unheralded 16th-round pick in 2009 out of Coastal Carolina, but he's hit quite well as a pro. He hit .300 and .295 his first two seasons, upping his on-base percentage to over .400 last year. He plays quality defense and has 20-30 SB potential at the major-league level. Lacking the high draft pedigree, Bortnick will have to hit at each level as he moves along. He's done that so far in the first week of the minor-league season, starting 9 for his first 21 at Charlotte. He wouldn't be a true impact bat, but how many second baseman are? If he maintains his production as he moves into the upper levels, you can project him as an everyday starter. Figuring the customary level per year, Bortnick would be ready for the majors in 2014.
Hector Guevara tore up the Venezuelan Summer League in 2009 before a more mild stateside debut in 2010. As a low-strikeout, low-walk type hitter, his ultimate future value hinges a lot on how his power develops and whether or not he can translate "consistent contact" into "consistent quality contact." He was rough defensively as a shortstop in the VSL, but has made improvements as he switched positions and is considered at least average in the field at second base. He made Bowling Green as a teenager and it's likely the Rays slow him down at some point unless he absolutely rakes (he's 1 for his first 14 with the Hot Rods). He has the potential to make an impact, but he's a long ways away from reaching his ceiling.
Ryan Brett, last year's third-round pick, has top-of-the-order potential with his speed and hitting ability. He has a short, quick swing and stings the ball pretty well for his size (5-9/180), but power shouldn't really be his game. He hit .303 in the Gulf Coast League (where pitching rules the day) in his debut. He has work to do defensively and may eventually wind up in the outfield. Whatever the case, he's quite a ways away from the majors, headed to short-season ball this year.
Reid Brignac has never been able to live up to the hype that was created after his big 2006 season, which was a combination of the Cal League Effect and some over-achieving. He's turned him into a quality defensive shortstop, but ideally the Rays would get some more in the way of offense from the position. He'll get the opportunity to provide that offense with no prospects yet knocking on the door.
Tim Beckham is in double-A, but he's only 21 years old and I'd imagine the Rays will slow down his rise through the system, perhaps not unlike how Brignac spent a few seasons at Durham. He's yet to have that "I was the #1 pick" season at the plate, with a career .263/.333/.371 line. There have been well-documented debates about his defense, but he's obviously going to get every chance to succeed at shortstop. He's off to a nice start with Montgomery, hitting .316/.381/.421 in his first five games.
Complicating matters is the fact that Hak-Ju Lee is right behind Beckham (so they wouldn't be able to just park Beckham at triple-A if Lee is ready for that level). Assuming Lee doesn't bomb in Charlotte this year, and assuming the Rays don't move Beckham off the position, Lee will be in double-A and presumably Beckham in triple-A in 2012. Lee offers more typical shortstop skills, projecting to hit for a decent average with little power, a high stolen base total, and quality defense. Both Beckham and Lee have suffered consistency problems in the field, racking up high-ish error totals. Lee is considered to have the better range, and when it comes down to it, you'd take him in the field over Beckham.
As obvious as it sounds, how they handle this sort-of logjam comes down to how they perform. If Brignac realizes his offensive potential, then he should be able to hold off the prospects. If Beckham breaks out, he won't be pushed off by Lee. And if Lee sparkles, they'll find a way to move him past Beckham. Further down the system, the only SS with a chance to make a splash is Derek Dietrich. He might have the best bat of the four, but he's probably not long for the position. As he moves through the system, especially as he catches up to Beckham and Lee (whom he is older than), he'll switch off the position, likely to third base.
Evan Longoria. We good here?
Well, let's start at the major-league level. There's a decent chance B.J. Upton isn't back in 2012 as his cost begins to rise through the arbitration process. Matt Joyce should, in my humble opinion, be in left field every day this season to see how he handles LHP. Left field is wide open as Sam Fuld is more of an ideal fourth outfielder than a day-in, day-out starter.
Assuming Upton isn't back, Desmond Jennings is the obvious choice in center field. He's off to a hot start in Durham (.348/.483/.522) and will be up before the 2011 season is through. R.J. Anderson took a longer look at Jennings' 2011 prospects here (http://theprocessreport.com/2011/04/11/when-will-desmond-jennings-be-promoted/). The leading candidate for the LF job (again, assuming no Upton)? That would be Brandon Guyer, acquired in the Matt Garza trade. He played three non-descript seasons in the Cubs organization after being selected in the fifth round out of the University of Virginia before breaking out at double-A last year, hitting .344/.398/.588. He's an aggressive hitter, and needs to keep his batting average up to offset a low walk total, but he has the tools to make it work. He has solid all-around tools, though he's not going to hit for big power (he hit 13 HR and stole 30 bases in 2010). He's not going to be a star, but he won't kill you as long as his batting average doesn't go in the tank.
The players with the chance of making the biggest impact are also the furthest away. Josh Sale and Drew Vettleson, a pair of high draft picks from this past year, are in extended spring training and probably won't make their full-season debut until 2012. Sale has game-changing power, and I think he'll be a very productive major-leaguer, but we're taking 2014 at the earliest for him in the bigs. 2015 is more realistic for Sale, and is Vettleson's realistic best-case. If you want to talk about someone REALLY far away, Yoel Araujo signed for $800,000 and should make his U.S. debut in 2012.
So where do we stand? Looking over the system, I only see two potential middle-of-the-order bats, and that's Sale and O'Conner. We know how foolish it is to count on prospects five years away, so we could be looking at some tough offensive times coming up. Do the Rays have enough of a pitching edge over Boston and New York (and Baltimore/Toronto) to off-set the offensive disadvantage it seems they might be at? It's possible, I suppose, but another big bopper sure would be nice.
I'll end with a thought and a question. Thought: The reason there's this lack of bats at the upper levels? That would be a product of the way the team drafted from 2005-2007. In the first four rounds those years (12 picks), the Rays selected one hitter: Evan Longoria.
Question: Is there any (realistic) scenario you would consider trading David Price away for some offensive help?