Can the Rays find a "diamond in the rough" reliever like Craig Kimbrel? (probably not) Mandatory Credit: Justin Edmonds-Getty Images
With the minor league teams recently (or soon) concluding their minor league regular seasons, we will begin our off-season prospect overviews. The first area of the farm system to be covered are the relief prospects.
While scanning across various prospect lists, a large assortment for players can be found. There are players for practically every position, and pitchers abound. Yet, one type of player is often noticeably absent: the reliever. Generally speaking, relievers rarely make top prospect lists because their value is limited. Even elite relievers rarely eclipse a few additional wins for their teams. Moreover, many relievers began their career as starters (Papelbon, Davis, McGee, and Chapman to name a few), eventually transitioning to the pen near or at the major league level to compensate for weaknesses such as the lack of a viable third pitch, stamina, or command issues. Going through the Rays farm system, pitchers who are currently starters such as Braulio Lara and Alex Torres profile better as relievers down the line. Even top prospects like Archer and Romero could eventually shift to the bullpen should the need arise, however unlikely it may be.
Yet, occasionally a minor league reliever makes an impact on a major league team. Craig Kimbrel, the fantastic closer for the Atlanta Braves, is a recent example. More often than not though, minor league relievers fail to achieve success in the show. Entering this year, Matt Bush, Lenny Linsky, and Marquis Fleming comprised the Rays top bullpen prospects, yet each has failed to live up to that billing. However, it doesn't hurt to search for that rare gem, regardless of the probability of success.
Currently, the Rays have several notable yet rarely mentioned relievers in their farm system, several of whom are mentioned after the jump.
The Rays inked Nevarez to a deal during the season, signing him away from the Wichita Wingnuts of the independent American Association. It wasn't a headline deal, so Nevarez managed to slip under the radar. So far this year, he has been statistically dominant with an 18/3 K/BB in 15.2 innings. In those innings, he has only allowed 3 hits, leading to a sole run. I managed to catch one of Neverez's outings with Port Charlotte in which he lit up the radar gun, firing his fastball in the 96-99 mph range. He also showed off a power curveball that wowed both the hitters and the attendees at the game. His command wasn't strong, but he has limited the opposition to only three walks this year, so that might not be an issue currently. Either way, his stuff is good enough to make up for any command blemishes.
RHP, 20 years old, A
Most fans recognize Bellatti for the tragic traffic crash he was involved in over two and a half years ago. Since then, Bellatti has gotten back on track on the baseball field, posting a solid season last year and successfully converting into a reliever this year. With Bowling Green, Bellatti has pitched to a 3.07 ERA while striking out 9.8 batters per nine innings and only walking 3.0 per nine. Unlike Nevarez, Bellatti doesn't have fantastic stuff but manages to succeed with a solid fastball and a good changeup. He doesn't have the high upside of some of the other arms listed, but his athleticism and solid stuff can help him develop into an MLB relief option.
RHP, 21 years old, A
Another former starting pitching prospect, McEachern always showed promise as a young, projectable arm. It wasn't until last year that McEachern's stuff really progressed, resulting in a breakout year. The Rays shifted him to the bullpen, hoping that his power arm would play up in shorter appearances. So far, the results have been positive. McEachern struck out 10 batters per 9 innings with a 2.80 ERA in 61 innings. His control needs to sharpen, but there is time left for improvement. McEachern's fastball velocity is reportedly in the mid-90's, and he compliments it with a curveball. His arm slot is low, so it remains to be seen if he will show a dramatic platoon split.
For a scouting report on McEachern from last year, click here.
RHP, 20 years old, Rk/A
Not many, if any, 2012 draftees for the Rays have made a greater impression in their short playing than Nick Sawyer. Drafted all the way down in the 40th round (the last round of the draft), the Rays managed to sway him away from a commitment to the University of Oregon. The reports on Sawyer were practically non-existent, and he appeared to be just another organizational filler. Instead, he has now emerged as one of the Rays top relief prospects. In 32 innings this year, Sawyer has struck out 59 batters (!) while walking fourteen. His ERA was a minuscule 0.28, with one lone run tainting his otherwise perfect performance. Baseball America, in their August 10th Hot Sheet, wrote this about Sawyer in the "Helium Watch" section:
Nick Sawyer, rhp, Rays: The Rays are masters at taking a raw pitcher with a great arm and turning him into something. Just ask 2007 eighth-round pick Matt Moore. There's no reason to compare Sawyer, a 40th-round pick this year, to Moore yet, but the hard-throwing, short righthander has dominated in his short pro career.
A three-time draftee who spurned the Reds (37th round) out of high school and Rangers (29th round) after his first year at Howard (Texas) JC, Sawyer decided to sign with Tampa Bay this year and quickly earned a ticket to Rookie-level Princeton. He has used his 93-96 mph fastball for electric results, and coming out of the pen he has allowed five hits in 21 innings while striking out 38. He's allowed one hit in his last 15 innings, while striking out 30. And it's not just his fastball that has baffled hitters.
"He threw some breaking balls with some bite," Rays pitching coordinator Dick Bosman said after watching Sawyer's four innings on Wednesday. "There's a lot to work with there."
Control was the big question about Sawyer coming out of Howard JC. He has walked 3.3 batters per nine innings in the Appalachian League, but then many hitters will chase a pitch out of the zone at that level, so check back in a year.
Following a decent performance last year with Princeton, Jose Molina has made strides this year, pitching to a 1.45 ERA. While he struck out over a batter per inning in 2011, his K rate did dip to 7.5/9 this year in his 31 innings, which is of some concern. Molina participated in the 2012 NY Penn League All-Star game, and Bullpen banter caught his outing, which they wrote about here (with video!). Their notes on Molina are as follows:
Jose Molina – LHP – Tampa Bay Rays
Threw a pitch at 87 (hitting Gaffney) that looked a bit like a cutter
RHP, 21 years old, A-
After previously drafting Floro in the 2009 draft out of high school, the Rays selected him again this past draft in the 13th round. The Rays managed to sign him for the maximum allowed bonus of 100k. In 29 innings with Hudson Valley, Floro has a 2.48 ERA, 21 strikeouts, and four walks. Baseball America's pre-draft report cited that his fastball velocity is in the 89-91 range (with more possibly in the future) and that he has shown a plus slider in the past. The report also says that he manages to fool hitters with his deceptive delivery. Floro won't overwhelm batters with his repertoire, but he is projectable enough and has shown enough ability in the past that he can be viewed potentially as a middle reliever.
RHP, 22 years old, Rk
The Rays selected Ramsey in the 19th round of the 2011 draft. Shortly after signing, Ramsey underwent Tommy John surgery, marking the end of his 2011 season and causing him to miss most of this 2012 season. In the 13.2 innings he pitched this year, he pitched to a 1.98 ERA with 9 strikeouts and only 2 walks. Health is the major issue with Ramsey, because when at full strength, he has the stuff of a late inning reliever. Before the draft, Baseball America wrote:
Teammate Matt Ramsey has bigger stuff, yet hardly pitched this year thanks to his catching and outfield duties as well as a forearm strain. At 6 feet, 200 pounds, Ramsey has strength and a quick arm that allows him to pump his fastball up to 98 mph, sitting at 94-97 in relief stints. He throws two different breaking balls, including a hammer curveball that flashes plus potential. Ramsey has 81 innings of college pitching experience and will need to refine his rough delivery, which probably led to his forearm strain when Tennessee tried to make him a starter. He could be drafted in the first 10 rounds if he has a clean bill of health.
With these relievers, the Rays have a solid core of relief prospects. The odds are that most of these relievers will never be successful in the majors, yet having depth in any area, even the bullpen, is always a good thing.
(Now if only they could develop a catcher.....)