Interesting Prospects In Short Season Ball

Matt Moore pitched for Princeton in 2007-2008. - Al Messerschmidt

A look at some of the best prospects assigned to Hudson Valley, Princeton, and Port Charlotte (GCL).

During the past week or so, the short season affiliates for the Tampa Bay Rays have gotten underway, with the Hudson Valley Renegades, the Princeton Rays, and the GCL Rays each beginning their seasons. While many of the players on these rosters are very young and far away from the majors, there is still plenty of talent worth keeping an eye on. Once upon a time, Matt Moore and Desmond Jennings donned Princeton Rays' jerseys. Jeremy Hellickson began his pro career by pitching for the Princeton Rays and then the Hudson Valley Renegades. Last year's Hudson Valley roster featured Taylor Guerrieri and Jesse Hahn, two of the top pitching prospects in the organization. So while many of these players will never sniff the majors, there is still plenty of talent to follow in these low levels.

Here are some interesting prospects from each short season team....

Hudson Valley Renegades

While this year's Renegades team does not contain as much talent as the roster that won the New York Penn League title last year, there are still a few prospects of note. Oscar Hernandez is the player who will surely receive the most attention. After raking in the Venezuelan Summer League (.402/.503/.732), Oscar Hernandez posted a solid season with Princeton last year (.231/.349/.394, 110 wRC+) as an 18 year old. While he did not make Baseball America's top 30 prospect list, he was considered a sleeper prospect with the potential to both hit and defend well as a catcher. Nick Ciuffo is presently the best catching prospect in the system, but a good season from Hernandez could make it a tight competition.

Granden Goetzman and James Harris are two high picks from the 2011 draft (second and first round respectively) with poor track records yet intriguing tools. Goetzman was one of the best prep power hitters in the 2011 draft, yet he has battled injuries in his pro career. He was promoted to Bowling Green part way through their season, but a disastrous stint sent him back to extended spring training. Harris has elite athleticism, but is extremely raw and in his second straight year of short season ball.

In the infield, Johhny Field (2B) was a fifth round pick by the Rays this year. Pat Blair, the shortstop, was taken in the 12th round. John Alexander has size at first base (6'5), but his performance last year was dismal after getting second round money in the 2011 draft.

On the pitching side, top prospects are nowhere to be found as none of the Renegades pitchers were top 50 prospects heading into the year. Ten of the pitchers listed on the roster were college picks in this year's draft, the highest being Austin Pruitt in the 9th round. Jordan Harrison, a 2012 25th round pick, has had a nice start to his pro career.

Princeton Rays

Historically speaking, Princeton has been a hot spot for top prospects as the Rays have sent many of their top high school draft picks there to begin their first full professional season. This year's roster isn't as talented as it has been in the past, but there are still sleepers from the past few drafts worth keeping a tab on.

The best prospect on the team is Bralin Jackson, a high school outfielder taken in the fifth round of the 2012 draft. His performance last year in the GCL was not eye-catching, but Jackson may be the best athlete in the system. He was a surprising inclusion in Baseball America's top 30 prospect list this offseason, coming in at #27. Joining him in the outfield are three other prospects: Yoel Araujo, Johnny Eierman, and Hunter Lockwood. Araujo was a hyped international signing who hasn't quite panned out but showed signs of putting it together late last season. Signed for $800,000, this will be the 19 year old's second season stateside. A highly touted player in the 2011 draft out of high school, Eierman has proven to be more raw than expected. In his second year in the GCL last year, Eierman actually took a step backwards, posting a dismal .618 OPS. It is too early to write him off, but the early returns are not promising. The final prospect of the group, Lockwood was taken in this year's draft. A junior college player who signed well over slot (11th round), he has plus power and loads of bat speed, though his actual hit tool lags behind. In the infield, Spencer Edwards is the most well-known name. Last year's second round pick, Edwards is a bit raw, but he is very athletic at shortstop.

Nolan Gannon, Jacob Faria, German Marquez, and Geisel De La Cruz highlight the pitching side of the roster. None of them are consensus top 30 prospects, so they are not something to write home about. Gannon was a fourth rounder in last year's draft and gets his fastball up to 94 mph; however, his mechanics need work and both of his offspeed pitches need improvement. Though drafted a year earlier, Jacob Faria is only a few months older than Gannon. He also rides his fastball into the low-90s, but his all-around game needs improvement. In their review of the 2011 international signing period, Baseball America rated Andres Gonzales as one of the Rays top signings. The report noted that his fastball sat around 90 mph and that his curve-ball and change-up both showed potential. He pitched relatively poorly in the VSL last year, but the promotion to Princeton seems to be a vote of confidence by the Rays developmental staff. He will pitch in the Appalachian League as an 18 year old. Of the four, Geisel De La Cruz is the most unknown commodity. His stats in years past have been promising, though reports on his stuff are hard to find.

GCL Rays

Out of all the short season teams, the GCL Rays have, by far, the most pitching. The Rays two big international signings last year, Jose Castillo and Jose Mujica, landed stateside this year with the team. They were considered two of, if not the best, international pitching prospects in last year's class. Jose Castillo received the larger of the bonuses and already sits in the low-90s, touching 95. Scouts believe he will add even more velocity, giving Castillo a special arm for a 17 year old. Mujica's scouting report reads similarly, as he has a low-90's fastball with room for more in the future. Baseball America is actually more optimistic about the 16 year old Mujica though, saying that his change-up looks like a future plus pitch. Both Castillo and Mujica were expected to play in the DSL this year, so it is a pleasant surprise to see both state-side.

Also on the pitching staff are Roel Ramirez and Damion Carroll. Ramirez was the Rays second (but probably most talented) high school pitcher taken in the 2013 draft. With a fastball from 88-92 and a strong feel for a curve-ball, Ramirez has the makings of a good pitching prospect. A 6th round pick in the 2012 draft, Carroll received top 30 consideration last off-season. His fastball works in the low-90s, occasionally bumping 95-96, and he shows a feel for his curve-ball. It is a little discouraging that he is repeating the GCL, but with his reputation as a very very raw pitcher, it isn't a huge surprise.

After those four pitchers, there are still some more interesting arms. Andres Gonzalez doesn't appear to have pitched last year, but he was a big signing out of Venezuela in 2011. Baseball America's scouting report indicated his fastball sat in the upper 80s touching 91 and both his offspeed pitches are promising. Hyrum Formo was a junior college pitcher taken in the mid-rounds of the 2013 draft.

The talent for the GCL Rays doesn't stop with the pitching; the team is also stacked with positional players. Nick Ciuffo, the Rays first pick this year, was assigned to the team after signing. Expect him to see game action within the next week. Riley Unroe (SS), Thomas Milone (OF), and Kean Wong (2B) were the Rays' 2nd, 3rd, and 4th round selections in the draft. All three were sent to the GCL. Taylor Hawkins was a 12th round pick in last year's draft who signed well over-slot. A catcher with plus power, Hawkins is off to a hot start, hitting .308/.308/.615 through the first four games. Clayton Henning, the 11th round pick in that draft, is a toolsy outfielder.

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