State Of The System, Part I: Infield

Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

In part one of our overview of the Rays farm system heading into 2013, we take a look at the infielders.

January is probably the worst month in the sports calendar if your NFL rooting interest didn't make the playoffs (I'm a Cowboys fan so this isn't really an 'if'). Basketball is happening at the pro and college levels but... who really cares right now? And the NHL is ahahahahaha. So with more than a month until pitchers and catchers report, let's follow my governor's lead and take stock of the farm system in our State of the System, part one (infielders0...

We'll start behind the dish with the catchers. Scott covered the Rays' recent attempts at developing catchers pretty well here, but it's worth re-hashing some of it. Stephen Vogt flopped in his major-league time in 2012, taking 27 trips to the plate and reaching base just twice, both on walks. Given his defensive limitations, he was never really a potential solution anyway, even on a temporary basis. The Rays haven't brought anyone in but Vogt is still on the outside looking in at the Jose's, Molina and Lobaton. He figures to be back in Durham where a catching logjam will probably result in him seeing more time at 1B/LF/RF.

If the Rays need to bring a catcher up in 2013, it may well wind up being Vogt or Chris Gimenez. Robinson Chirinos may end up in the mix by season's end, but his bad post-concussion syndrome requires he return to game action very slowly and gradually.

There's a little bit more room for optimism down the system. Luke Bailey's draft pedigree and $750,000 signing bonus will keep him on our minds, but the reality is he hasn't hit in three seasons as a pro. He missed time with a broken hand in 2012, and in the 67 games he played, his .231/.277/.393 batting line is in line with career averages. He was only 21 years old in high-A, but that's not enough of a sugarcoating for 8 walks and 67 strikeouts. Given his lack of production, another promotion for 2013 would be a surprise, but at the same time, the Rays may want to make sure Alejandro Segovia gets enough playing time in 2013. Segovia came out of nowhere to hit 15 home runs in 70 games for Bowling Green last season, finishing with a season line of .269/.362/.527. He did it as a 22-year-old, so he still rates as just "worth watching" and not "future big leaguer." Similar production in the Florida State League in 2013 would go a long way.

Matt Rice also hit decently with Bowling Green, and together with Segovia may push Bailey up to Montgomery. Alternatively, the Rays could skip Rice up to double-A, a stop that shouldn't overwhelm a 2011 9th-round college senior. If not and they opt for three catcher with the Stone Crabs, Mark Thomas and Mayo Acosta would split the Biscuits' duties.

Down in the short-season leagues, all eyes were on Justin O'Conner and Oscar Hernandez. The good news is that O'Conner raised his batting average about .065 points, the bad news is that was starting from .157. He cut down slightly on his strikeouts, but 73 whiffs in 257 at bats is still too many. He played the entire season at DH as he recovered from hip surgery. He should get a shot at full-season ball in 2013, but it may be his last hurrah as a hitter. Between the hip problems (he had one operated on in high school as well) and the lack of production, another rough season may spur the Rays to shift him to the mound, where he was a quality prospect as a high schooler.

Hernandez ripped up the Venezuelan League in 2011, so whatever he did last year was going to pale in comparison. He held his own as an 18-year-old in the Appalachian League, hitting .231/.349/.394. Unlike O'Conner's low average, Hernandez's isn't due to contact issues: he struck out only 31 times in 49 games, a promising sign going forward. The Rays could get aggressive and send him to Bowling Green in 2013, but my guess is another year in extended spring training before an assignment to Hudson Valley is more likely. Taylor Hawkins, the Rays' 12th-round pick last year, will fill the void left by Hernandez's in Princeton.

Okay. So that's catchers. If you thought that didn't sound too promising, you might want to skip the 1st base section. Another position that's historically given the Rays problems in the big leagues, there's very little on the horizon here. Of course, 1B is on the opposite end of the defensive spectrum, so things may not be as bad here as they seem (Richie Shaffer and Patrick Leonard, looking your way). But as for guys who are actually first basemen, you have to slip down to A-ball to get to ones worth talking about. Guys like Leslie Anderson and Phil Wunderlich and Mike Sheridan will populate 1B at the upper-levels, so let's fast-forward to Charlotte.

Bowling Green had both Cameron Seitzer and Jeff Malm last season, and it makes sense for both to graduate to the Stone Crabs. Seitzer, an 11th-round pick in 2011, raised some eyebrows by hitting 11 home runs in 64 games in his debut with Princeton, but his power was back down to its expected level in 2012 when he knocked just four over the fence in 118 games. Barring a power resurgance, Seitzer will settle into a capable organizational hitter, producing but without the tools for a big-league future.

Malm is more intriguing with a higher pedigree, but his production has fallen short of totally legit prospect territory. First baseman essentially have to mash as prospects since they don't carry enough defensive or other value to cover up a weak bat, though James Loney is giving it his best shot. Malm had something of a breakout with Hudson Valley in 2011, hitting .257/.382/.462, but he wasn't really able to build on that in 2012 with a .263/.356/.438 line. Entering his age-22 season, it's not make-or-break in Charlotte, but future big leaguers at 1B have to start hitting in the minors sometime.

John Alexander, an 8th-round pick in 2011, disappointed in Princeton last summer, hitting just .230/.260/.353. He has the body and athleticism to grow into some power, but a refined plate approach is needed as he walked just nine times in 62 games. Expect him to be bumped to Hudson Valley in 2013.

The system isn't exactly busting with 2nd base prospects either, but that's more forgivable as it's always a weak position in the minors with shortstops sliding down the defensive scale later on (Tim Beckham figures to follow that road). The Rays have traded away two potential upper-level second basemen in the past six months, dealing Tyler Bortnick for Ryan Roberts and Derek Dietrich for Yunel Escobar. So it'll be very much a patchwork job at the upper levels. Downstream, the biggest name is Ryan Brett, who will miss the first month and change as he serves out the remainder of his drug-related suspension (#teammeth). He passed the test at Bowling Green and when he does get back he'll head to Charlotte. With the Hot Rods, Brett hit .285/.348/.393, the lack of power forgivable for a player who is a) a second baseman and b) brings value on the basepaths, with 48 steals and just eight times thrown out. If he's able to keep his average and on-base in the same area while shoring up his defense, then you're talking about a future major-leaguer. Even though his OPS fell .100 points from 2011 to 2012, I don't think much has changed about his projection.

Past Brett, it's a pretty motley crew. Hector Guevara was a nice sleeper three years ago after he hit .330 in Venezuela, but he hasn't come close to replicating that in the States and bottomed out with a .578 OPS in Charlotte last season. Juniel Querecuto got a decent bonus to sign from Latin America, but hit just .249/.316/.303 with Bowling Green last season. And those are the guys worth highlighting. Come back soon, Ryan Brett.

And now, onto shortstop. I'll try to keep this brief since it's been talked to death and we're creeping up on 1400 words as it is. Hak-Ju Lee looks like he'll be the starter in Durham, even though he did precisely nothing to answer questions about his bat last year. While he did put together a nice on-base streak at one point, on the whole he hit .261/.336/.360 for the Biscuits and after a trip to the DL with an oblique strain, followed that up with a poor AFL campaign. That relegates Tim Beckham to... I don't know. He'll certainly still see some time at shortstop for the Bulls, but the plurality of his time is likely to come at 2B and 3B. He hit .256/.325/.361 -- I didn't realize how similar his and Lee's slash lines were -- in Durham last season in 76 games, missing 50 with a marijuana suspension. Lee is the superior defender, so Beckham could be in a super-utility role where he's starting every day, just not at one position consistently. The other option is to simply plant him at 2B, but if you have him learn 2B, might as well have him gets some reps at 3B too.

Okay. That's it on them. Montgomery will patch things together with Shawn O'Malley and Robi Estrada, so let's get right to Charlotte and Jake Hager. The forgotten 1st-rounder from 2011, picked after Taylor Guerrieri and Mikie Mahtook, Hager had quite a nice season as a teenager with the Hot Rods. He rebounded from a slow start to finish with a .281/.345/.412 line, and he Said No To Drugs. He didn't do anything exceptionally well, but there's not much weakness either. Ten home runs is very good power for a teen middle infielder in the Midwest League, the 40-60 BB-SO ratio is healthy, and he swiped 17 bags as well. If he's able to build on that while Lee and Beckham remain stagnant, Hager would leapfrog them in the "future Rays shortstop" conversation.

In the short-season ranks, the two players worth watching disappointed in 2012. Brandon Martin, a supplemental 1st rounder in 2011, matched Hager in the home run column with ten but did little else, finishing .209/.272/.402. Still, a shortstop with good defense and power is always going to be intriguing. Martin needs to fix some contact issues as he struck out 73 times in 63 games. It's a toss-up at this point as to whether that happens in Bowling Green or Hudson Valley. Spencer Edwards will step into the Princeton job. The 2012 second-rounder hit .188/.250/.281 in a month's worth of games with the GCL Rays, so let's just hope he's the next "rookie-ball stats don't matter" posterboy.

Let's close today with the hot corner, easily the system's strongest infield position. There's nobody knocking on the door right now, so it won't be pretty if Evan Longoria gets hurt again. But down in A-ball you've got Richie Shaffer and Tyler Goeddel. This is something to look out for this spring: Goeddel played at Bowling Green and Shaffer at Hudson Valley, but it's very possible that Shaffer winds up jumping Goeddel. Seeing Shaffer, who hit for an .893 OPS with the Renegades, leap to Charlotte with Goeddel back at Bowling Green may be the most likely scenario, with an eye toward mid-season promotions for both (precedent for Shaffer: Mikie Mahtook, a college 1st rounder, also played in the AFL, then started next season with Charlotte and got bumped to Montgomery). Goeddel started white-hot but finished at .246/.335/.371. He's got a good package of tools with present speed (30 steals) and power projection in a 6-4/180 frame.

The new toy at 3B is Patrick Leonard, acquired in the Wil Myers trade this winter. A fifth-rounder in 2011, Leonard smashed a league-leading 14 home runs for the Burlington Royals of the Appalachian League en route to a .251/.340/.494 line. There's no clear fit for him at an affiliate in 2013 since he looks full-season ready, so we'll just have to wait to see how it shakes out. Splitting time with Goeddel at Bowling Green is possible, as is Shaffer and Goeddel splitting time in Charlotte as Leonard gets the everyday 3B job.

Next Tuesday: Outfielders!

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