About two weeks ago, Rays Prospects announced that it was closing its doors after over four years of great coverage of the organization. We had a nice discussion in the Rays Tank here the next day, but I thought a full obituary was in order. Doug Milhoan made the first post in August 2008. On the 7th when that post went live, the Rays were 68-45 and three games up in the AL East. Hours later, Raul Ibanez hit a walkoff home run against Dan Wheeler, blowing a great start from Andy Sonnanstine who went pitch-for-pitch with Felix Hernandez. For this snapshot from August 2008, I'll start with the first post and go through some of the highlights from the month.
Ripken group buys Vero Beach, Rays minority partner
At the time, the Rays were in their second year back in the Florida State League as the Vero Beach Devil Rays, still known as the Devil Rays despite the big club's huge identity overhaul that season. They were still owned by the Dodgers prior to the purchase by Ripken Baseball, the third team owned by the Hall of Famer's business venture. It was expected that they would relocate to Port Charlotte where the Rays were also headed for spring training started in 2009. They became the Charlotte Stone Crabs, and professional baseball hasn't been back at Vero Beach since. The next day, Doug posted a recap of Baseball America's top 30 prospects from before the 2008 season.
Looking back at Baseball America's Top Tampa Bay Prospects
This was a pretty impressive list, and looking back, it's obvious why this team is so good now. The top eight prospects, Evan Longoria, David Price, Jake McGee, Wade Davis, Reid Brignac, Desmond Jennings, Jeff Niemann and Jeremy Hellickson, all played for the Rays in 2012. Longoria was well on his way to winning Rookie of the Year, and Price was just over a month away from making his ML debut against the Yankees. This list shows that often times even when prospects succeed, they can take unconventional routes. McGee had Tommy John surgery a month earlier, and along with Wade Davis, now has success out of the bullpen.
Some of the names down the list are even more interesting. Eight players outside of the top 10 would play in the majors, including John Jaso, Alex Cobb and Justin Ruggiano, all coming off solid 2012 seasons. Prior to 2008, it was expected that Delmon Young and Elijah Dukes were a part of the team's future. Five days after Young was traded to Minnesota along with Jason Pride for Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett and Eduardo Morlan, Dukes was sent to Washington for Glenn Gibson. Both Morlan and Gibson were in the top 30, but neither reached the majors. Morlan most recently pitched for Spain who qualified for the 2013 World Baseball Classic, and Gibson never advanced past low-A with the Rays.
Wade Townsend, picked eighth overall twice, was only ranked 24th. Three years after undergoing Tommy John surgery, he was still struggling through the minors with poor command. In a few months, he would have surgery to repair a torn labrum and would only make three more appearances in the Rays organization. One time top five prospect in baseball Joel Guzman was in the midst of his second straight disappointing season in Durham. This would be his last year in the Rays organization. Nick Barnese checked in at #17, and that leads us to one notable absence: Matt Moore. Barnese was drafted five rounds ahead of Moore, and he was more impressive in his brief 2007 pro debut as well. With Princeton, Barnese had a 9.25 K/BB ratio in 36.1 innings, and Moore had a 7.1 BB/9 in 20.1 innings. For a while, these two were considered roughly equivalent, but obviously a separation grew as years passed. A week after this entry, fans got great news about a top draft pick.
Tim Beckham hits first career pro HR
On August 12th, the first overall pick of the 2008 draft hit his first home run in the 33rd game of his career with Princeton. At the time, he had a .622 OPS, and over the rest of the year he would raise it to .642 before getting a cup of coffee with Hudson Valley. It was the first of 30 home runs that Beckham has hit in his minor league career that has been, well... debated quite a bit in the internet community. While many have soured on Beckham since then, there was still plenty of optimism at the time right after being drafted. One final note on Beckham's first home run; well-known infielder Burt Reynolds was batting behind him in that game. Later in the month, fans got a glimpse of the team's future rotation in just one day.
Niemann, Hellickson, Moore all shine
On August 20th, these three members of the 2012 Opening Day rotation took the mound for Durham, Montgomery and Princeton respectively. This start happened to be the best of Niemann's minor league career, his only complete game shutout over the Louisville Bats. Eight of nine Bulls collected at least one hit in the 5-0 win, including Fernando Perez, Jonny Gomes and Elliot Johnson. Dan Johnson was the only Bull to go hitless, but he would have a big one in a game a little more significant a month later.
Back when Rays pitching prospects moved through the organization at a speed faster than glacial, Hellickson dominated in a half season at Vero Beach before being bumped up to Montgomery. He struggled a bit, but he still showed the great control and strikeout stuff that eventually landed him in Baseball America's top 10 prospects in baseball. In this start, Hellickson allowed one home run and two runs overall in five innings while striking out five in Montgomery's 6-4 win over Tennessee. Tyler Colvin hit the home run against him, and Sam Fuld led off and reached base twice.
While Moore wasn't in the Rays top 30 entering 2008, he exploded onto the scene with Princeton and would be ranked number six before 2009. In this particular start, Moore would flash enormous potential, striking out nine and only walking two while allowing an unearned run in five innings. That start would lower his ERA to 1.82, and it would eventually reach 1.66 in 54.1 innings. He struck out 77 batters and only walked 19, hopefully a sign of things to come in his ML career. Also on this day, Columbus lost 10-8 to Charleston. Jesus Montero, Austin Romine and Brandon Laird combined to hit four home runs. Vero Beach and Hudson Valley did not play.
The Arizona Fall League is set to wrap up Saturday. What did the Rays contingent look like four years ago?
Arizona Fall League roster set
With Hak-Ju Lee, Richie Shaffer and Tim Beckham out in Arizona, fans are hopeful that part of Phoenix's roster provides a glimpse of the Rays' future. Fortunately for the Rays, the players they sent out in 2008 didn't preview anything. Only two of the seven players, James Houser and Rhyne Hughes, have reached the majors, and Moonlight Graham probably stuck around longer than both of them put together. Not only that, neither appeared with the Rays. After a PED suspension cost Houser the early portion of the 2008 season, he went on to have a solid campaign in Montgomery, but he would never recover a spot in the organization's top 30 prospects. Hughes was sent to Baltimore for Gregg Zaun, and he appeared in 14 unproductive games for the Orioles in 2010.
Of the other five players, only reliever Ryan Reid and catcher Matt Spring are still in affiliated baseball. Reid earned minor league free agent status, and he signed with Pittsburgh earlier this off-season. Spring has spent the last two years catching in the Red Sox organization, and he was re-signed to continue doing that in 2013. Starter Chris Mason last pitched in the Atlantic League in 2011. Starter Mike Wlodaryczyk last pitched in Indy ball in 2010. Outfielder J.T. Hall last played in Indy ball in 2011.
I hope you enjoyed this look at a snapshot of August 2008 when Rays Prospects began. At the time, not every organization had a site dedicated to its farm system, and Rays Prospects was a bit of a pioneer in that regard before people like me saturated the internet with minor league blog posts. It had good timing too; it was just as the team entered this era of winning baseball as the fanbase grew, hungry for more information. Please join me in thanking Kevin, Doug, Jim Donten and everyone whoever wrote for the site for the hard work put in over the years.