SEATTLE - JULY 31: Ben Zobrist #18 of the Tampa Bay Rays watches his two run single in the sixth inning against the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field on July 31, 2011 in Seattle, Washington. The Rays defeated the Mariners 8-1. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Just call it Negative Nancy Week here at DRaysBay. In Steve's look at the trade deadline yesterday, he laid out a potential 2012 roster that was pretty underwhelming to some people, myself included (important note: that was pre-Matt Carson blockbuster). It seems crazy that a team with as much talent in the majors to go along with what's probably the top farm system isn't in better position for next year. The fact of the matter is the system isn't without flaws:
1. Lack of a middle-of-the-order hitter in the upper levels - Bats have been the system's weakness for a few years now, a problem the organization has addressed via trade. Here's a quick fun fact: As of this writing, Ben Zobrist's OPS+ is higher in 2011 than it was in 2009. He's already set a career high in doubles and along with a healthy Longoria gives the Rays two very good run producers. But other than those two (we can agree Longoria will better in 2012, yes?), there are questions marks everywhere. Matt Joyce certainly has the power but he's run hot and cold and still struggles with left-handed pitching. Sean Rodriguez hasn't come close to replicating his PCL-inflated power numbers.
Filling in anyone with a pulse at the two positions that have been black holes for the Rays this year -- catcher and shortstop -- will surely help. They have some short-term answers at catcher in Robinson Chirinos, Jose Lobaton, and maybe even Nevin Ashley, but shortstop will take a while. Tim Beckham figures to spend the entire 2012 season with Durham, and barring a breakout his ceiling looks to be that of a slightly-above-average starter. Hak-Ju Lee is the better prospect but I think the Rays will be more patient with him than Beckham as his body has more filling out to do. Even then, he projects more as a leadoff type, which -- while important -- isn't what the Rays desperately need.Desmond Jennings and Brandon Guyer should be an improvement over Sam Fuld and Justin Ruggiano, but Jennings' on-base/speed combo profiles better as a top-of-the-order player and Guyer has never hit more than 15 home runs in a season in the minors. The potential power bats are in the low, low minors where it's obviously hard to predict anything. Jeff Malm is having a breakout year after a rough 2010 season, Drew Vettleson is crushing Appy League pitching, and Josh Sale probably has the best power potential in the system, but the earliest you might see any of those players is at the end of 2014, and even that's unlikely given the organization's methodical approach.
This isn't to say there aren't useful prospects between Jennings/Lee and the short-season guys. Tyler Bortnick is walking more than he strikes out in Charlotte while maintaining a .300 average with 34 steals. Derek Dietrich has some power potential but will need to improve his approach to fully unlock it. Ty Morrison is toolsy, but again, a leadoff-type even if everything goes right.
2. Suddenly-thin pitching depth - This isn't exactly a surprise considering the team is currently operating with a six-man rotation that doesn't include stud Matt Moore, who would be in the majors with just about every other team. But beyond Moore, take a look at the system and tell me what you really like from the pitching side. Alex Torres and Chris Archer have top-flight stuff but neither has ever consistently thrown strikes. Alex Colome's rate stats have taken a step back while Nick Barnese's have furiously backpedaled. Wilking Rodriguez and Albert Suarez have combined for 21 innings. Jake Thompson is striking nobody out. Enny Romero is walking five players per 9 innings and he might be the guy I rate highest from this paragraph.
Because of the focus on hitters in recent drafts, the short-season pitching lacks big prospects. The 2011 draft has helped with Jeff Ames, Blake Snell, Lenny Linsky, and Ryan Carpenter, but the team hasn't had a breakout international signee or later-round pick in a few years. Signing 2011 first-rounder Taylor Guerrieri will surely help, of course.
The pitching pipeline that has delivered so much big-league talent over the past five seasons looks like it may dry up some after Matt Moore. It will be interesting to see if the Rays accelerate the timetables of bats like Malm, Vettleson, and Sale (provided they don't flop) to more closely align with the window of the current pitching talent.