Over the past three drafts, the Pacific Northwest region of the country has been producing better amateur talent. This is of course the territory for Rays scout Paul Kirsch, a long time member of the club's staff. Kirsch was born in Eugene, Oregon to the long time coach of the Oregon Ducks, Don Kirsch. After four years playing in the unaffiliated Northwest League, Kirsch was signed by the where he bounced around three levels over three years as a first baseman. After his playing days ended, he spent 10 years coaching and managing in the Reds, , and organizations before he joined the then-Devil Rays staff in 1999.
From 1999 to 2008, Tampa Bay would sign between one to three of Kirsch's picks per draft, 19 in all. While not all of them were key picks high in the draft, five of them were selected in the 10th round or earlier. Two picks signed by Kirsch have reached the majors: Jeff Ridgway and Jason Hammel. Ridgway was twice a top 20 prospect in the organization, and while his major league career could best be described as uneventful, he battled through elbow and shoulder injuries to eventually make it. Hammel's career has been unspectacular prior to his great start for Baltimore this year, but he's carved out a niche for himself with 124 starts in the majors so far. Another Kirsch pick, Zach Rosscup, was involved in the Matt Garza trade.
In the following three drafts, Kirsch's influence in the organization apparently increased, and the team trusted his evaluation of players for some of their top picks. 13 Kirsch picks have been signed in the last three drafts, bringing his total to 32 since he joined the scouting staff. In that time period, 437 picks have been signed from Kirsch's six states. That means 7.3% of players that come from that region became Rays, more than twice the amount you'd expect if all 30 teams scouted and signed players equally from the region (an admittedly silly assumption). However, it's still clear that top amateur players from the Northwest can expect to see Kirsch in attendance for their platform seasons.
If the Rays are going to remain contenders within the confines of a small budget, they'll have to keep producing young, cheap talent from the draft. This is where the success of Kirsch's scouting eye is critical. A number of the team's top picks from the last few years, in particularly the 2010 and 2011 drafts with a lot of the extra picks, were signed by Kirsch, so in a few years, a lot of his players will be shaping the direction of the franchise. Here are some of his key players in the organization.
LF Josh Sale (17th, 2010)
After a rough 2011 season that had just about everyone down on Sale, he made his Bowling Green debut in May and tore the cover off the ball before he hurt his hamstring trying to stretch a double into a triple. When he returns, he'll need to keep hitting to prove that the changes he made in approach are for real and not just a 15 game statistical blip. Even when he does cool off, it's clear that Sale has looked a lot more like the player they thought they were getting with the 17th pick two years ago. He's strong and has great bat speed, so if he lives up to his potential, his bat will definitely profile in left field. A player without Sale's work ethic and makeup may have not been able to make the changes he made to become a successful player after his rough season with Princeton.
RF Drew Vettleson (42nd, 2010)
Vettleson's pro debut went much smoother than Sale's, even though fatigue set in as he wore down near the end of the season. He dedicated himself to conditioning in the offseason and becoming a better all-around player, and in the early going, it seems to be paying off. His defense has improved, particularly his arm which should be good enough to land him in right field. That's not to say that his bat has declined, and he still has very good potential at the plate. His plate approach is very good for a young player, and he's going to make plenty of hard contact. As he gets stronger and is no longer in the Midwest League, he could develop 20-25 home run power.
2B Ryan Brett (98th, 2010)
Brett won't overwhelm anyone with his tools, but he absolutely has big league potential. However, as a player limited to second base that isn't going to develop any power, he's going to have to hit, hit and hit some more to reach the majors. All indications are that he has a good chance of doing that. Recently, Baseball Prospectus analyst Kevin Goldstein described Brett as a "line drive machine", and that description suits him well. If a player is going to have one standout tool and average or below in other areas, it's always best for that tool to be the hit tool. If Brett can spray line drives to all fields, work counts to get on base and be smart on the bases, there will always be a spot for him in the majors.
LHP Blake Snell (52nd, 2011)
Snell may have been drafted sooner than most expected, but he's still decently polished high school pitcher that could be a #3 or 4 starter. He had a modest 2011 debut in the Gulf Coast League, and he should have a chance to have a solid season with Princeton starting next month. While he has nice pitchability for a high school arm, his stuff has to make some strides for him to develop. He has average fastball velocity with movement, but Baseball America's scouting report indicates that he may not have the frame to add more velocity down the road. His curveball and changeup need work, and that'll only happen with more repetitions and innings. With the amount of starters with similar ceilings that the Rays have in the lower levels, if Snell doesn't make it most won't notice, but the Rays obviously see something to draft him as high as they did.
While the Rays don't have an absurd number of extra picks this draft, there will still be some options from the Northwest that they could be looking at in the early rounds. Unlike last year, Wyoming won't be represented by a top 20 pick like Brandon Nimmo, and there are certainly no notable players from Alaska, Montana and Idaho, but Washington has a solid crop and Oregon could have a first rounder. It seems likely that this draft will have Kirsch's fingerprints on it again.
C Clint Coulter (Union HS, WA)
Before the season started in the Rays Prospects prediction series, I guessed that the Rays would select Coulter in the first round. His stock didn't tank this spring, so it's still possible if they really like him. He's a big, physical and durable player, and this affects his game behind and at the plate. The question about his defense isn't his arm strength but whether or not he's quick enough to stay back there. He has the bat to profile elsewhere on the diamond, but whoever drafts him will certainly take their time to develop him behind the plate. He's committed to Arizona State, but the Sun Devils will likely have to look elsewhere for their catcher. He will likely not be available at the Rays' second pick.
3B/RHP Carson Kelly (Westview HS, OR)
Kelly is a true two-way player in that scouts don't know what to do with him. However, it seems more likely that he'll be playing third base in the future. He's just an okay defender there with a strong arm, but he's good enough. He's strong and has the power to profile at the hot corner, and his plate approach and swing have improved. He's one of the youngest players in the class, but if he doesn't get picked in the first or supplemental rounds, he could be headed for Oregon.
3B Jake Lamb (Washington)
Lamb was a high school teammate of Josh Sale, but his potential doesn't come close to the current Ray's. Usually college hitters are expected to be more polished, but a team could adjust his swing to allow him to tap into his natural power. He's a good defender at the hot corner, and someone will sign him in the top 10 rounds and hope to turn him around.
RHP Mitch Gueller (West HS, WA)
Gueller is on major helium this spring and is now considered more of a pitcher than position player. He has a physical 6'3, 205 pound frame and already has plus velocity in the 90's. He's more advanced than the typical high school pitcher, and that could get him drafted as high as the supplemental round. He's athletic with smooth mechanics and a nice feel for a curveball. There's nothing that indicates he would be particularly difficult to sign away from Washington State.
COF Andrew Pullin (Centralia HS, WA)
Pullin made a name for himself in high school as a switch pitcher like Drew Vettleson did two years ago, but his future is in the outfield. His tools don't really stand out, and even though he should probably go to college and improve his stock, he's expected to sign in the top 10 rounds. He has a good approach at the plate with a feel for making contact, and he could develop above average power despite only standing at 6'0 and 185 pounds. Most prospect comps are miserable failures, but I'll throw my hat into the ring. He reminds me oftop 30 prospect Brian Pointer who is having an up and down season in low-A.
RHP Adrian Sampson (Bellevue JC, WA)
Sampson's brother Julian was a failed Phillies prospect, and it shouldn't be hard for Adrian to surpass his career. He has the ideal 6'3, 200 pound frame teams look for in a pitcher, and he could still add a bit of velocity to his average fastball. He has a nice curveball and a developing changeup. He commands all of his pitches well, and after being drafted by Florida in the 16th round last year, he's expected to be signable this time around. If the Rays are interested, they can probably sign him quickly in the second round and allocate more money to other picks.