Last month, I took a shot at guessing what the rotations will look like for the Rays' full-season affiliates. To continue this extremely early prediction series, I'm moving onto the starting lineups for the two upper-level affiliates, Durham and Montgomery.
I did this last year, and it actually seemed a little easier this year; that is I had to fit in fewer organizational soldiers. That's a bit of an indicator that the talent level is a little better, at least for the Bulls and Biscuits. There were still some tough choices to make, but overall the players fell into place neatly.
CF Kevin Kiermaier
SS Hak-Ju Lee
1B Vince Belnome
3B Richie Shaffer
RF Mikie Mahtook
DH Cameron Seitzer
C Curt Casali
LF Justin Christian
2B Cole Figueroa
There's only one minor league free agent signing here, and that's Christian. He only had a .685 OPS with Memphis (Pacific Coast League) last year, but he has a track record of some success in Triple-A and was in the majors as recently as 2012. For those wondering where Brandon Guyer is, I made this lineup with the assumption that he'd be in the big leagues.
The outfield is rounded out with a pair of top 30 prospects, one a former high draft pick who hasn't really met expectations, and the other a later pick easily outperforming them. Kiermaier will patrol center field, and Mahtook will probably play mostly right field. Aside from some action in the Arizona Fall League in 2011, he has not played left field as a professional, and getting experience at all three outfield spots will help him.
In the infield, Lee should be ready to make his return to replace the injured Tim Beckham. If Richie Shaffer starts here, he would be skipping over Double-A. I'm not sure if he will, but Baseball America's Bill Ballew noted this in his chat about the Rays organization earlier in the offseason:
I feel there’s more upside in his long-term potential, particularly from an offensive standpoint. He struggled for most of 2013 before seeing the light at the end of the tunnel late in the year. He worked out a few kinks at the plate and will be counted on to provide more power, beginning this year at Triple-A.
I'd imagine Figueroa and Belnome will see time at other positions, and Seitzer will get in the field a bit too. Although Jose Lobaton seems to be the odd man out behind the plate for the Rays, I can't imagine a scenario in which he's not traded and then clears waivers. Casali only played 35 games for Montgomery last year, but he should be ready to move up.
2B Ryan Brett
SS Jake Hager
RF Drew Vettleson
1B Alejandro Segovia
DH Kes Carter
LF Willie Argo
3B Riccio Torrez
C Luke Bailey
CF Ty Morrison
I'll say upfront that Hager is probably going to be the most discussed play here. He was dreadful for Charlotte last year, but I still think he'll move up. The Rays have always challenged him with his assignments, and they could show some confidence in him with this promotion. With a lot of infielders set to play in Charlotte, this assignment clears up a potential logjam too.
Brett should complete the double play combo. He finished 2013 at this level, and I think he'll be back, at least to start 2014. Torrez would be repeating Montgomery as well, but as more of an organizational player, he'll probably just be assigned where he's needed. With Shaffer apparently ticketed for Durham, Torrez is needed in Montgomery again.
One name I considered but ultimately assigned to Charlotte was Leonardo Reginatto. Having players skip over Charlotte is rare, but they did do that with Seitzer last year. He'll be 24 this year, can play multiple positions and was pretty good for the Hot Rods last year, so the big jump here wouldn't surprise me.
To be clear, I don't think Carter is going to DH for 140 games, but he's going to be at this level with three other outfielders that should be playing every day. Morrison has 119 games of Double-A experience, but that includes just 17 last year due to injury. He probably could move up a level and take Christian's spot in Durham to form a really good defensive outfield.
This is a big year for both corner outfielders here. The transition from A-ball to Double-A is generally considered to be the second hardest one, behind only going from the minors to the big leagues. Vettleson's 2013 was down from 2012, but there is a chance it was a product of playing in the offense-suppressed stadiums of the Florida State Leagues. His walk rate was a bit worse, but he cut down on his strikeouts too. Argo will be looking to prove his 2013 wasn't a fluke.