Hey there friends and others! This is a new series we are exploring. Our aim is to bring some additional coverage of the Rays minor league system, which plays such a pivotal role in the team's long-term success. If you like this concept, please let us know!
The four players I'll be keeping an eye on this year will be shortstop Hak-Ju Lee (A+), Justin Ruggiano (AAA), Dirk Hayhurst (AAA), and Rob Delaney (AAA). Minor league aficionados will easily observe only one of these four players is considered a prospect, but non-prospects make key contributors all the time, so it does not hurt to keep an eye on them. Also, it's fun to cheer these guys on.
Hak-Ju Lee -- (Stone Crabs, A+) .410/.472/.623 (149 wOBA+) 4 steals, 2 homers
If Timothy Beckham was not sweating in 2010, he aught be now. Hak-Ju Lee came to the Rays in the Matt Garza trade and has gone all Avatar State on the Florida State League. Lee's hitting is presently 49% above average. Lee, who is 20 years old, is about 2 years younger than the league average.
His two homers this year sure are dandy, but his improved walks (12.5% walk rate this year) have shown some early-season improvement over last year (9.0% while playing in Peoria A-ball). Last year, Lee was none-too-impressive with the bat, posting league average numbers (albeit with a nifty 31 steals). This year's success has a whiff of BABIP to it (.489), so we can expect his Albert Pujols numbers to come back down quite bit.
Still, he may be pushing Beckham to second base sooner rather than later.
Justin Ruggiano -- (Bull, AAA) .309/.378/.526 (122 wOBA+) 5 steals, 4 homers
Ol' Rugs is now a 29-year-old plugging away in Durham and waiting for his chance to be a 4th outfielder somewhere. He's off to a good start this year, and if Brandon Guyer weren't abusing pitchers like a fastball junkie, then Ruggiano would be next in line when the Rays need an outfielder.
The 2011 season marks Justin's 5th straight campaign in Durham. He spent some time with the team in 2007 and 2008, but never had the fortune to stick. If he can maintain this early season power, he could find himself pushing for a call-up this year, thought the chance remains outside.
Dirk Hayhurst -- (Bulls, AA) 22.1 IP, 2.42 ERA, 3.22 RA/9, 2.38 FIP (.238 BABIP)
Hayhurst, the best-seller author and prolific tweeter, has started the season with great success. He's currently on the DL with what sounds like elbow tightness, but considering he did not toss a pitch in 2010, it seems fair to expect there will be some kinks in his 2011 season. He has had four starts so far, and they look like this:
5.0 IP: 2 R, 1 ER, 3 K, 0 BB
6.0 IP: 1 R, 1 ER, 7 K, 1 BB
6.2 IP: 1 R, 0 ER, 6 K, 0 BB <-- Perfect game through 6 innings.
4.2 IP: 4 R, 4 ER, 4 K, 3 BB
I had the fortune of watching those last two performances. If I recall correctly, the opposing batters didn't get a ball into the outfield until the 5th inning in the near-perfect game. In the shortened game, he appeared a target of BABIP regression as a bunch of weakly hit dribblers and bloops ruined his 5th inning.
Here's the deal: When it comes to Hayhurst, you're never going to get a perfectly unbiased report from me. I'll admit to your pimpled and be-speckled face that I'm whole-heartedly rooting for this guy. That being said, I think -- if he can come back this week -- the Rays should strongly consider this gent for the long-man role if Andy Sonnanstine takes Jeff Niemann's rotation spot (this is pure speculation here, of course).
Rob Delaney -- (Bulls, AAA) 17.0 IP, 1.59 ERA, 1.59 RA/9, 2.53 FIP (.286 BABIP)
Rob, the 26-year-old righty, has looked rather sharp this year in Durham. Many of us recall his impressive play this last spring training, and it actually appeared he might beat either Jake McGee or Cesar Ramos for one of the final bullpen spots. Well, now that the Bulls' original closer Brandon Gomes is up with the Rays, Delaney may (I'm not sure here) get some shots at higher-leverage situations.
The oddity about Delaney's recent success sort of stems from his recent feh-ness. In 2010 and 2009, he sported 2.73 and 2.53 ERAs, respectively, with Rochester (AAA). How could this guy suddenly start turning in a sub-2.00 ERA? Well, his FIPs in 2010 and 2009 both teetered on 3.80 -- and his present FIP (2.53) suggest he's been a bit fortunate thus far. Either way, Delaney's had some good early results and the Rays have plenty of reasons to be happy with him right now.