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Top Prospects Part V; #s 5-1

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Introduction

Well, we've been through our first 20 prospects, and now we count down the final five. Well, four actually. We know who #1 is going to be. I just posted the last installment of the series Sunday, and we will finish with the actual prospects countdown here, with the two feature articles coming later. So without further adieu, here is the full list, the final Top 25, as determined by me, and details on the final five follow the jump, as does my opinions on the list as a whole, with breakdowns by position, and for pitchers, their throwing hands.

  1. LHP Jarrad Lavergne
  2. LHP Brandon Mann
  3. OF Garret Groce
  4. OF Francisco Leandro
  5. OF John Matulia
  6. RHP Jeremy Hellickson
  7. C Shawn Riggans
  8. 3B Chris Nowak
  9. RHP Matt Walker
  10. LHP Jon Barratt
  11. LHP Jake McGee
  12. LHP Chris Seddon
  13. RHP Chris Mason
  14. RHP Jamie Shields
  15. LHP James Houser
  16. C John Jaso
  17. SS Reid Brignac
  18. RHP Andy Sonnanstine
  19. RHP Jeff Niemann
  20. RHP Wade Davis
  21. OF Elijah Dukes
  22. RHP Jason Hammel
  23. LHP Chuck Tiffany
  24. 1B Wes Bankston
  25. OF Delmon Young
Interactive Question

Just a friendly reminder about this week's Interactive Question, asking you to take the over/under on the PECOTA projections for several key Rays. Get your response in by Sunday by emailing me at mrprezz@gmail.com, or by clicking the 'Contact Patrick' button on the side of the page.

Series
Monday-Part I; #s 25-21
Tuesday-Part II; #s 20-16
Wednesday-Part III; #s 15-11
Yesterday-Part IV; #s 10-6
Today-Part V; #s 5-1
Tomorrow-Part VI; Outtakes
Sunday-Part VII; Next Year

Overview

Well, we are down to our final five. The best of the best. Het Beste van het Beste, Le meilleur du meilleur, Das beste vom besten, Το καλύτερο του καλ, Il la cosa migliore del la cosa migliore, O mais melhor do mais melhor, Самое лучшее самого лучшего, El mejor del mejor. Did I miss anybody? Oh yeah, you can say it in Norwegian, Frode. Anyways, our final five includes two position players and three hitters. Our strongly pitcher-favored list doesn't feature a hurler in the last two, and the top pitching prospect in the DRO, in my opinion, wasn't even in the organization two months ago. So here we go, my final five prospects, numbers five through one.

5. OF Elijah Dukes:

Background-Elijah Dukes, like Davis and Houser, would be the loveable local kid if he were loveable. The only thing keeping Dukes from #2 on this list is a rap sheet that is longer than some novels. Domestic battery this, creating a disturbance that, it just goes on and on. Now, I'm not saying that Dukes is a bad person, but if he doesn't want to become the next Milton Bradley, he needs to stay clear of the wrong side of the law. That being said, let's move on to the baseball part. Dukes was drafted with the 74th overall pick in the third round of the 2002 MLB amateur draft out of Hillsborough High School. A switch-hitter, he signed too late to play in the 2002 season, so he started out playing his first year in 2003 in Charleston, the Rays didn't even bother with the short season leagues. He had his difficulties in his first pro season, batting .245/.338/.366, .704 OPS, while hitting seven home runs and driving in 53. He needed work on his plate patience (nearly three strikeouts for every walk), but showed some wheels, stealing 33 bases at a 75% success rate. Another interesting, but not real key sidenote was that he was hit 10 times in 2003. Perhaps this contributed to his future anger? Whatever it was, the Rays kept Dukes in Charleston for another year because he had gotten off to a slow first campaign. Well, Dukes left no doubt about his hitting ability in 2004, hitting .288/.368/.423, a .791 OPS, while successfully stealing on 14 of 15 attempts. His BB/K remained disappointing, but the Rays saw enough in his batting line to give him the call to Bakersfield.

Was there really any doubt as to how Dukes would fair in the California League? I mean, really, in that extreme hitters environment, Dukes was bound to tee off. In little over half a season with the Blaze, Dukes hit .332/.416/.540, a .956 OPS, while improving his K:BB, and finished with eight home runs and 34 RBI. His stolen base success rate fell, but improvements in nearly every other part of his game meant a promotion to AA Montgomery in 2005.

Last Season-Last year, Dukes' hot bat kept going as he played in 120 games with the Biscuits (446 at bats), hitting 18 home runs and 73 RBI, continuing to improve his BB/K, and ended up finishing with a line of .287/.355/..478, an .833 OPS. Dukes and fellow prospect Delmon Young, and later 1B Wes Bankston, the three top hitting prospects within the organization,mashed the hell out of Southern League pitching, in a relatively pitcher-friendly league, and left a dent in scoreboards around the league. If Dukes could keep his act together, the future looked bright.

2006 Outlook-The only thing standing between Dukes and Durham is his act, it certainly isn't talent, and he hasn't done anything stupid for a while. Expect to see him in Durham Bulls Athletic Park next season.

4. RHP Jason Hammel:

Background-It was a tough choice for me between Hammel and newly acquired Chuck Tiffany for the role of No. 1 pitching prospect within the DRO, but his age, and his few not spectacular years worked against him, and in a real toss-up, Hammel goes behind Tiffany at No. 4. Hammel was drafted not once, not twice, but three times, twice by the Rays, before the team finally got him under contract after the 2002 draft. Hammel's draft position improved every time. He was picked with the 686th overall pick in 2000 by the Mariner, was picked at No. 559 by the Rays in 2001, and was finally netted out of Treasure Valley CC when he was picked 284th overall in the 10th round of the 2002 entry draft.

Hammel made his pro debut after signing in '02 with the Princeton Devil Rays of the Appalachian League. He only appeared in two games, but did not surrender a run over five innings while walking none and K'ing five. Because of his impressive start, he was quickly promoted to Hudson Valley, where he struggled a little, going 1-5 with a 5.23 ERA in 13 games, 10 starts, for the Renegades. His K:BB number was decent, he just gave up waaaaay too many hits, so his ERA probably was flukeishly high. Still, a 1.65 WHIP is not good. However Hammel got the promotion to the full season leagues the next year anyways, and rose to the occasion, going 6-2 with a 3.40 ERA in 14 games and 12 starts for the RiverDogs. His K:BB hovered around 2:1, and his WHIP was a respectable 1.27, however he pitched only 76.2 innings due to injury, and was held back in Charleston as a result.

Hammel began 2004 in 'the remedial class', as he was back in Chrleston once again, but not for long. Hammel went 4-7 with a 3.23 ERA in 18 starts for the 'Dogs, nearly doubling his K:BB to over 3:1. His WHIP remained a steady 1.28, and his K/9 increased by almost three whole points. As a results, Hammel was promoted to the big, bad California League, where he, oddly enough, but up his best stats in his pro career. In 11 starts with the Bakersfield Blaze, Hammel went 6-2 with a 1.87 ERA, had a K:BB of more than 3:1, and compiled a WHIP of a microscopic 1.01. In the year 2004, Hammel put himself on the map as a key prospect, in 2005, he would put himself on the map as a top prospect.

Last Season-Last year began with Hammel in Double A Montgomery. He ended up spending a little more than half his season with the Biscuits, starting 12 games and keeping up the hot play, going 8-2 with a 2.66 ERA. He threw three complete games, or one every four starts, while striking out exactly four times more batters than he walked, and kept his WHIP at an excellent 1.09. But Hammel ran into his first significant roadblock when he was promoted to Triple A Durham. Hammel had already been able to successfully corral the California League, so Durham Bulls Athletic Park was expected to be an easy hurdle. Not so, as it turned out. In 10 starts with the Bulls, Hammel went 3-2 with a 4.12 ERA, not terrible stats, and neither was his decent K:BB close to 2:1. However several alarms went off that dropped Hammel from what would have been the number three spot on this list and top pitching prospect overall.

  1. His hits per nine innings ratio (H/9), increased by nearly 1.5 from Montgomery, 7.75 to 9.38
  2. His HR/9 increased dramatically, to the tune of about 2.5 times his numbers with the Biscuits, 0.55 to 1.32.
  3. His BB/9 more than doubled from 2.1 to 4.45.
  4. His K/9 dropped almost half a point
  5. And it all came together in a 1.54 WHIP
His struggles at Durham were not evident by his ERA, but peripherals bring it to light, and his performance at DBAP took him down a notch on my list.

2006 Outlook-'If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.' That is what Hammel will most likely be doing next year, as he returns to DBAP to try to conquer his one minor league hurdle. He is the one prospect on this list that has a half-decent shot at the final 25 man roster out of camp, and he has an outside shot at that position, but I'm betting on a return to Durham Bull blue for the start of next season.

3. LHP Chuck Tiffany:

..."And I said "What about, Breakfast at Tiffany's?"

Well, the Rays' front office was obviously having breakfast at Tiffany's a month ago when they traded for one of the Dodgers' top prospects in the Danys Baez trade that also brought Edwin Jackson east and sent Lance Carter west. The fact that Tiffany hasn't thrown a single pitch for the Rays organization, yet is their top pitching prospect doesn't mean that the team's farm system is bad. It just confirms that the Dodgers have the best system in all of baseball, hands down. Where else could a prospect like Tiffany be easily expendable without affecting the top two pitching prospects in the organization. Tiffany was overshadowed by Jon Broxton and Chad Billingsley in the Dodgers' organization, and it worked to our advantage in the trade.

Background-Tiffany hails from Califronia, and was drafted out of a high school in 'The Golden State' by then-Dodgers GM Dan Evans with the 61st overall pick in the second round of the 2003 MLB amateur draft. He made his debut in the Dodger organization pitching for Ogden of the Pioneer League, pitching in only two innings while giving up three earned runs. He got a much bigger look at the minors, and we got a much bigger sample size of him when he was promoted to Columbus of the SALLY League. Tiffany did much better there, as he went 5-2 with a 3.70 ERA in 22 starts, to go along with a K:BB of nearly 3.5 to 1. He struggled with the long ball, as he was only 0.01 off of a flat rate of one homer per nine innings, but his astronomically high 12.73 K/9 rate easily overshadowed that, and his 1.16 WHIP was excellent. By now, the Dodgers knew they had something special.

Last Season-Last year, Tiffany was moved up to High Class A Vero Beach of the Florida State League, where he went 11-7 with a 3.93 ERA in 21 starts and one relief appearance for the VB Dodgers. He continued with his good K:BB, this time slightly lower, but still in the 3 to 3.5 range. The disturbing part is, Tiffany's home run rate continued to climb at a very steep rate. This year, his HR/9 was up to 1.39, a .40 increase. But his K/9 remained an awesome 10.96, and his WHIP was still 1.22, still leaving him as a high profile prospect.

Let me explain though, before I move on to our Nos. 2 and 1, why exactly I put Tiffany ahead of Hammel. The RaysBaseball.com list did not do this, but I felt that since Tiffany had high strikeout rates, an excellent sign for prospects, a track record of decent stats with no wavering, and just, in my opinion, more talent, he deserved to be ranked higher. But to be sure, this was a very close race, and had Hammel had decent peripherals at Durham, it likely would have looked different. Alas, Tiffany needs to keep his home run rate down for him to stay at No. 3 or higher.

2006 Outlook-You know, if I were in a psoition of power to determine where Tiffany goes next year, I would send him to Visalia. But, you say, Tiffany already excelled in high A. No, he excelled in a very pitcher-friendly Florida State League. The California League, we all know. is a much different slice of cake. The FSL is somewhere in between Single A and Single A Advanced in terms of challenge for pitchers. A jump from that type of challenge to the Southern League, which is also pitcher-friendly, however, I feel would be too big a jump. Alas, it is not my decision, and I fully expect to see Tiffany squaring off against his old teammates on the Jacksonville Suns when SL play begins in April.

2. 1B Wes Bankston:

Background-Our No. 2 prospect, and Possible best first base prospect in the game was drafted in the fourth round of the 2002 entry draft with the 104th overall pick out of a high school in Plano, Texas. He immediately signed and made his debut with the Princeton Devil Rays of the Appy League, where he to a line of .301/.346/.569 for a .915 OPS, while hitting 18 homers and driving in 57 runs. For this effort, he was given a brief promotion to the New York-Penn League, where he didn't do as well, .627 OPS in 33 ABs, but this was just passing time for his promotion to the full season leagues the following year.

He began off the 2003 season in Charleston, and stayed there through the course of the year, accumulating 375 at bats. He did decently with the Dogs, but was not anything special. He hit 12 long balls and drove in 60 runs over the course of the season, hitting to a line of .256/.346/.405 for a .751 OPS. Still, the Rays knew Bankston could do better, and sent him back to Charleston in 2004 to fine tune him. Mission Accomplished. In 470 ABs with the 'Dogs, Bankston  hit 23 blasts, and drove in 101 runs, creating with Delmon Young a fearsome middle of the order that SALLY League pitcher were glad to see go.  He improved his BB/K rate, and was walked intentionally eight times. He eventually finished with a line of .289/.390/.513. Was there any doubt about what the equation Bankston+California League would equal?

Last Season-Well, if there were any lingering doubts about that last question they were squashed about as hard as California League pitching. In just 62 ABs with the Viaslia Oak, Bankston hit eight extra base hits, drove in 23, and walked just two less times than he stuck out. His batting line .387/..513/.629, for an OPS of 1.142. Now of all the talented hitters so far on this list, none has come anywhere close to that. So is it any wonder that Bankston spent the remaining 82 games and 301 ABs of his season in Montgomery. And what, exactly, did he do to SL pitching. The answer: more of the same. He smacked 12 home runs and drove in 47 runs, while hitting to a line of .292/.362/.482 for an OPS of .844. Amazing, simply amazing rise by Bankston since his 2004 season. And I look for nothing less next year.

2006 Outlook-Why do I look for nothing less from Bankston next year? Well, besides his incredible talent, he will be playing in Durham Bulls Athletic Park next year, one of the most hitter-friendly parks in the minors. If Bankston hits like he has the past two years, Travis Lee could find himself riding the bench by the All-Star Break.

1. OF Delmon Young:

Background-I know that your suspense is boiling over, because you clearly did not know who was going to be No. 1 on this list. Surprisingly, it happens to be the guy with the hoard of talent and the stats to back it up. Drafted by the Devil Rays out of his California High School with the first pick of the 2003 MLB amateur draft, Young was one of the more highly regarded prospects in the last few decades, and certainly the best to come through the Rays system, no offense Josh. He has participated in both the 2004 and 2005 MLB All-Star Futures Game, a rarity, and if he's still in the minors come July, he may be in another.

Young signed too laste to play in the 2003 season, so he signed in the offseason and was relegated to start off his pro career in Chalreston and the Single A Sally League. At just 19, he racked up 513 ABs with the Riverdogs, dispatching of SAL pitching with no problem, hitting 25 home runs and driving in 115 runs, more than even most of the best major league players, and in one less month. He also converted on a ratio of 7/9 of his steals, 21/6 in reality. Like today, he had his problems with plate patience, but it is hard to find many problems in a batting line of .320/.386/.536/.922. Having him face Cal League pitchers would be cruel and unusual punishment...

Last Season-...so they didn't. Instead, they decided to give him a "challenge" by promoting him up to Double A Montgomery, where he appeared in 82 games and 330 ABs, smacking 20 home runs and driving in 71, while swiping 25/33 bases. He continued to have problems with his plate patience, which neared three k's for every walk, but his batting line still remained .336/.386/.582, a .968 OPS. So, essentially, Young was promoted up two levels, and still managed to improve his OPS by .46 points. After the AAA All-Star Break, Young was promoted up to Durham, and it looked like his major league debut couldn't be far off. Alas, he hit a bump in the road, and money concerns stalled his ML debut. In 228 ABs with the Bulls, Young hit six homers and 28 RBI, while still striking out 8.25 times more than he walked. Eventually, Young finished the year with a "disappointing" line of .285/.303/.447, a .750 OPS, but the future still looks bright for the near unanimous overall top minor league prospect.

2006 Outlook-Next year, Young should be able to take care of that nagging hitting problem, DBAP will see to that, and he will make his major league debut at some point next year, when monetary concerns and the outfield surplus are dealt with. But on Opening Day, look for Young in a Bulls uniform. Now if only he could learn to let four balls go by...

List Recap

Well, that is it. My Top 25 is done, and let me tell you, it got pretty exhausting at times. Overall, I think it shows that the Rays' farm system has progressed over the last few years. No longer are we reliant on a few five star prospects like Josh Hamilton or Matt White to carry the load of the future. We have much more depth, and much more quality B/C level depth. That is what I like most about our system. No one other than Delmon Young is a blue chipper, but the rest are extremely good and even if a few flunk out, you've still got plenty more to fall back on. And I expect that with a few more smart drafts like last year's (excluding the first round pick), our team will get even stronger.

Anyways, for your information, I have broken down my Top 25 by position, and, for the pitchers, their throwing arms. I thought it was pretty interesting when I glanced over it. Have a look.

Top Prospects List: By the Numbers:
25 Top Prospects
10 Position Players
2 Catchers
3 Infielders
5 Outfielders
15 Pitchers
8 Right-Handed Pitchers
7 Left-Handed Pitchers
2 Of the 25 prospects drafted in the 1st round
8 Top Prospects who have advanced past Single A Advanced
5 Of those eight in the top seven overall
6 Of the top prospects who have yet to pitch in a full season league

Well, there you go. My final Top 25, with some interesting numbers and a summary. Don't forget, the final two parts of the series appear tomorrow when I list some of the players who just missed the cut, and preview what the 2007 list may look like. Hope I entertained you all with this last list, and I hope all of thse top prospect lists haven't bugged the crap out of you.

Photo Credits:
Dukes, Hammel-Montgomery Advertiser
Tiffany-Dodgers.com
Bankston-Minor League Baseball
Young-TSN