My process is to focus on skills ahead of tools, an ability to show major league talent above and beyond the tools to do so eventually. As such, welcome to my list for 2014.
It may be more noteworthy to first acknowledge who is not my top prospect, the community's consensus No. 1 Taylor Guerrieri. Last year I ranked him only behind Myers and Archer, who both graduated an placed first and third for Rookie of the Year, but he succumbed to an elbow injury and needed Tommy John surgery. The sure fire way to fall on my list is to have a significant injury.
Tier 1: Major League Bound
1. Jake Odorizzi, RHP (24) - Scouting reports describe Odorizzi as the best athlete in the farm system, but I prefer his ability to be consistent and healthy. He has all the upside of being a better Jeremy Hellickson, and may appropriately take that player's spot in the rotation shortly. His delivery is simple and repeatable, which is more than I can say for his peers in the system. (Video: A | B | C | D)
2. Enny Romero, LHP (23) - Romero has a higher ceiling and decent control, with a loose delivery and erratic command. Romero's delivery is inconsistent, which often causes his fastball to take off, his changeup to straighten out, or his curveball to slurve (unless you think that's his slider). As to whether he should be considered a Top-100 talent, Romero has become one of the more polarizing prospects in baseball.
3. Alex Colome, RHP (25) - Colome might have been at the top of my list if it weren't for an elbow injury that sidelined him last August. The ball comes easy from his hand, despite the stutter steps prior to each pitch. Colome has four above-average pitchers, the best mix in the farm system, but his command comes and goes. The four-seam grades a seven and climbs the ladder, and already sits mid-90's. Out of the ‘pen, it could be dominant. It's paired with a strong two-seam and a well-matched change, and a legendary curve that disappeared sometime last season...
4. Hak-Ju Lee, SS (23) - After a lightening start to the season, torn ligaments ended his 2013 before it really began. Lee is fully participating in Spring camp, but is he the same? A full recovery would boost him to the top of this list, but it's too unknown. A quick bat and a game based on speed, he has every tool but power, and the ability to star at shortstop for years to come.
5. Taylor Guerrieri, RHP (21) - Among the four starting pitchers in my top five, Guerrieri has the highest ceiling - the talent of a true ace, if he finds the change up. Tommy John surgery takes some of the shine off. Time is both for and against him, with very little professional experience but a young age. The Rays approach to Guerrieri had been slow, and will continue to be. His delivery and curveball are reportedly textbook, but his fastball is what dreams are made of, so keep dreaming.
Tier 2: Identifiable Major League Skills
6. Nate Karns, RHP (26) - Karns lacks consistency in his delivery, with varying leg movement and a stiff landing, but his mid-90's fastball and plus-knuckle-curve (the same pitch used prolifically by the Rays starting rotation) should bring him success in the majors. He earned a promotion from Double-A to the Show last season, in a loaded Nationals system, but didn't shine in his four starts. His body could carry 200-innings, but a third pitch above average and some consistency in his delivery are lacking. Still, when he's on, he's on.
7. Curt Casali, C (25) - We put together our lists in Spring Training this year to make sure we included all players that should be on the list, and Casali is a good reason why. The Rays traded for him two months after we published our lists, and he deserved inclusion. Completing the Rule 5 selection of Kyle Lobstein by the Tigers, the acquisition of Casali was certainly the product of good scouting. When he was nabbed, reports were he was a low-K, high defense catcher. That impression came from too much emphasis on what should grade as average MLB defense behind the plate, and a poor two-month performance beside it after his promotion to High-A with the Tigers. If you take a step back, this was his total offensive production:
2011: 126 wRC+
2012: 126 wRC+
2013: 160 wRC+
Not to mention a 14.5% walk rate in Montgomery. Tommy John has weakened his arm against the run, but every other aspect of his game has vaulted him to the first name on the catcher depth chart. He should have a place in the majors as a back up for years to come. Read more from Michael here.
8. Matt Andriese, RHP (24) - It's becoming more notable in the Rays system if a top pitching prospect does not have a projection toward the bullpen, which is surely why the Rays acquired Andriese this off-season. His throwing motion is across the body, which adds deception but takes away command, and his promotion to Triple-A last seaon was not smooth; however, he has solid control of four pitches - mid-90's sinker, harsh curve, off-speed splitter, and a cutter (for lefties) - that profile him for the rotation. Above average control, 55% groundball rate, just needs to settle into Durham's rotation.
9. Kevin Kiermaier, CF (24) - "KK" typifies what I look for in a prospect: the presence of major league skills. Tools are not enough for me to think highly of a player, I want to see those tools in action, developed into skills that will play at the major league level. Kiermaier, according to reports, has the best outfield defense across all levels in the minors.
10. Brandon Guyer, OF (28) - Quality defense from the corners with an ability to cover in center, Guyer is the perfect complement to David DeJesus's necessary platoon in left field. With the exception of Logan Forsythe's 2012 season, Guyer projects to be the best option the Rays will have against left handed pitching from the bench. Also in his favor, he is out of options, and has the speed that Joe Maddon covets on the base paths (which was sorely lacking last year). Guyer has been often injured, and missed his promotion opportunity last year for that reason. It's possible he doesn't even qualify as a prospect due to serving significant time on the major league disabled list, but his time is now, and for our purposes he's included.
Tier 3: Tool Bags
11. Andrew Toles, CF (22) - Toles is the closest thing the Rays have had to a five tool prospect since
Matt Joyce Jennings?, even if the power is still on its way. He's a blue chip prospect in the low minors who should continue to impress in the field as he deals with elevated levels of pitching, starting with High-A in 2014. There are concerns he's undersized for his same level of production to continue, but his speed should play all the way up to the majors.
12. Nick Ciuffo, C (19) - The top draft pick of 2013, the reports on Ciuffo's game management in short-season last fall were so positive that Keith Law labeled him a Top-100 prospect. Even at 19 he stands out as a leader on the field with above average defense and an easy swing from the left side (including power). He's too young to call him the future, but the potential is there.
13. Ryan Brett, 2B (22) - A contact hitter who attacks and directs to the ball, but isn't projected to much power with his 5'9" frame. Lots of speed, but already relegated to the right side of the infield due to his arm. That doesn't make him a poor defender, just limited and with room to grow. An early suspension saw a late debut with a strong showing at High-A thanks to his line drive and even keel swing, then a weak one at Double-A as he advanced. He'll return to Montgomery and have another chance to impress.
14. Ryne Stanek, RHP (22) - First projected as an early first round pick, he fell to the Rays with their late in the round due to health and mechanical concerns. He'll miss the first half of the season due to hip surgery, and there are questions about the condition of his elbow, but he has a live arm with a high-90's fastball that - coupled with whichever breaking ball succeeds professionally - should at least carry him to the bullpen.
15. Riley Unroe, SS (18) - Athletic enough to play anywhere up the middle, Unroe has the defensive profile I love in a toolsy prospect: flexibility. The Rays drafted him in the second round and lured him away from Southern Cal with a $1M signing bonus, showing confidence in the Team USA short stop.
Tier 4: Fallen from Grace
16. Richie Shaffer, 3B (23) - Prospects will break your heart, and that includes Shaffer who underwhelmed at the plate last season. He has the mindset to make things work, and a willingness to learn more positions to increase his value. He has real power, but tinkering with mechanics have not helped his game thus far (more here). The hope is for his bat to become what he showed for Clemson in 2012.
17. Blake Snell, LHP (21) - Listed in my top-ten last season thanks to his incredible change up (among four above-average pitches) and a big frame for a southpaw, but Snell had a rough season, unable to keep his walks down while building strength and velocity in his fastball. Command and control both need reigned in, but the talent is there.
18. Jeff Ames, RHP (23) - A big, intimidating right hander, mid-90's fastball and strong slider make his MLB projection likely, at least as a reliever. If he can round out his arsenal (particularly the change), perhaps more.
19. Jake Hager, SS (21) - Also fallen from my top-ten after buying too much of the hype from his age 19 performance at short. A shoulder injury and a nightmare of a season both need put behind him this year, especially if that comes with a promotion to Montgomery.
20. Josh Sale, OF (22) - If he hadn't been suspended for all of 2013, my hope was that Sale would be on the fast track through the farm system, but amphetamines and night clubs intervened. He's reinstated, but I'm worried a year away will have sapped his power.
Tier 5: Piecing it Together
21. Oscar Hernandez, C (20) - Power with quick bat speed, and a proper feel for the strikezone got him drafted out of Venezuela as a teenager. I didn't have faith that the glove would follow the pace of his progression in the batter's box, but he's been a pleasant surprise. Entering his sixth year in the organization, it's quite possible we have all underestimated how far his glove could take him, but let's see what he does with Class-A Bowling Green.
22. Tim Beckham, SS (24) - A torn ACL will delay what should have been a strong showing at Durham for Beckham after years of simmering. If his defense shows progress when he returns, a future on the Rays bench as a utility player is not out of the question.
23. Grayson Garvin, LHP (24) - A textbook delivery and returning stuff give Garvin some hope for what has been a stalled career, thanks to Tommy John.
24. Mikie Mahtook, OF (24) - The Rays made a top-down decision to move him to the corners to develop his defense and power last season, but it didn't take in Double-A. Another try could see him promoted to Durham by the year's end, in what will be just his third professional season.
25. Jose Mujica, RHP (18) - Advertised to have a lively fastball with late action, His fastball and his frame are both growing, and his change up already has superior control. Arriving stateside earlier than expected, Mujica found relative success in his first season of rookie-ball, including a mere three walks in 32 IP.
Tier 6: Prospects on the Rise
26. Jose Castillo, LHP (18) - Signed alongside Mujica, Castillo had a rougher 2013, but according to Baseball Prospectus, his fastball, "had a Rays official drooling in September." He can get a little ahead of himself in his throwing motion, but according to BA, he's taken to his coaching adjustments well. If his breaking pitches can follow, perhaps the numbers will show his talents in 2014.
27. Justin O'Connor, C (21) - Former first round draft pick with enough power to move to the corners, if catcher doesn't pan out. Behind the plate he's a competitor for the best arm in the minors -- that's worth something, but not everything. He doesn't have much of a stride, but should the rest of his hit-tool show for Port Charlotte, he could jump two tiers.
28. Dylan Floro (23) - The organization's MiLB pitcher of the year, backed by a sinker/slider combination with excellent command. I'm worried he pitches too much to contact, but the strong groundball numbers make up for it. His mechanics need smoothed out (examples from '12: A|B)
29. Steve Geltz (26) - Acquired from the Angels for now-closer Dane De La Rosa, he struck out 31.3% of batters for Durham (80 K in 67 IP). He has a high flyball rate, but that should play to the Trop. The command isn't quite there, but the numbers are. As the depth gets cycled through, I fully suspect Geltz will get his chance next season with the Rays.
30. Jacob Faria (20) - Faria straight up dominated in his third (and final) season in rookie ball, with a 28.6% strikeout rate and only nine walks in 62.1 IP. Hopefully the fastball/change up combo plays well in Class-A as he continues the Rays Way of a slow development through the minors.
Tier 7: Prospects to Watch
Infielders: Acquired for a song from the Padres last off-season, Vince Belnome's bat lit up the first half of Durham's season before he ran out of gas. He hits to all fields, but not with the power necessary of a DH, and he has the downside of previous injury and no true defensive position. Still, the Rays protected him on the 40-man roster this winter and rightfully so. Belnome knows how to take a walk, and there's always room for that in the big leagues.
Another man without a strong position is Cameron Seitzer, who's bat is at least projectable to the majors and should reach Durham this season as a corner infielder. Elsewhere, 3B Tyler Goeddel does not have my confidence but others believe he'll start making contact, but Kean Wong does. He who owns an"impressive hit tool" that goes opposite field (according to Baseball Prospectus), and has the pedigree to follow his brother to the major league level down the road.
Catchers: Luke Maile has gotten a spotlight this Spring, joining the conversation on the minor league depth chart behind Casali and former Padres farmhands Ali Solis and Eddy Rodriguez. Elsewhere in the minors, international signee David Rodriguez and recently acquired switch-hitter Maxx Tissenbaum (who wants to transition to the position) are each worth a follow.
Also worth mentioning is former catcher Alejandro Segovia, who is officially a full-time DH prospect, but man can he rake.
Outfielders: Thomas Milone and Willie Argo each have the raw tools to impress down the road.
Pitchers: Keep your eye on 40-man protected Kirby Yates and (graduated) Brad Boxberger if you want to see impact arms out of Triple-A in 2014.
C.J. Riefenhauser got a spotlight last season in the Future's Game and might parlay his talents to major league quality this year. The same could be said for little-righty Matt Ramsey in Montgomery, Andres Gonzalez in Bowling Green, and rookie ballers Hunter Wood and German Marquez.
Finally, Mike Montgomery and Matt Lollis are two former top starting prospects that have become relief projects acquired via trade. Either may still be something special, if the Rays are lucky enough.
That's who I'll be following in 2014.