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What to watch for on the Rays short-season affiliates

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All of these players are far away from the big leagues, but it's never too early to start paying attention to talent

Fortunately, Thomas Milone hasn't had to do much of this so far
Fortunately, Thomas Milone hasn't had to do much of this so far
Jim Donten

As the calendar flips to July, the domestic short-season affiliates have been playing for about two weeks now.  With the draft, I've been so focused on the amateur players, but it's time to get back to the pros.  The sample sizes are small, so there's still plenty of time for the stats to change.

All the catchers

With Curt Casali continuing to climb the ladder, Justin O'Conner's breakout season and Oscar Hernandez rebounding from a rough start, Rays catching depth seems to be in good hands.  It doesn't stop with the full-season affiliates though.

2013 first round pick Nick Ciuffo is behind the plate for Princeton, and David Rodriguez, with a $600,000 bonus in tow from Venezuela, should get a lot of time at catcher for the Gulf Coast League Rays.  Ciuffo ranked 11th on our writers top 30 prospects poll, and Rodriguez just missed.  Both are young, but both have solid all-around games.  They'll be able to contribute at the plate and behind it.

There's depth scattered around the three short-season affiliates too.  I'm not convinced 6th rounder Mac James is a catcher long term, but he should hit a bit for Hudson Valley.  Besides Ciuffo, Princeton also has Taylor Hawkins, a former high school pick that received an over slot signing bonus, and Blake Grant-Parks, a player the Rays have drafted twice now.  Six catchers including Rodriguez are listed on the GCL roster, and five of them have actually caught games already this season.

A really, really young Princeton lineup

The average age of batters in the Appy League is 19.4, significantly lower than the league average of 20.1.  The Burlington Royals are even lower at 18.8, but unlike the Rays with their GCL affiliate, Kansas City does not have a lower domestic affiliate.

Along with Ciuffo, two other top 100 picks from 2013, Riley Unroe and Thomas Milone, are in the Princeton lineup.  Unroe ranked 14th in our writers poll, and after an impressive pro debut last year, he's off to another nice start mainly playing second base.  Milone's pro debut as a really raw prospect wasn't very good, but his first 10 games with Princeton have been great with an OPS nearing 1.000 and eight walks in 46 plate appearances.  I'm sure that won't keep up, but maybe he is more ready to compete professionally than expected.

The reason Unroe is playing a lot of second base is the presence of Cristian Toribio, another 19 year old that previously signed out of the Dominican Republic for just $65,000.  He's an athletic defender that could stay at shortstop, but he's not off to a great start at the plate.  His OPS is just .567, but he's new to switch hitting.  He has a .328 OPS batting left-handed, and a 1.189 OPS batting right-handed.  Perhaps you can guess which is his natural side.

The youngest player on the roster though is Angel Moreno, one of three 17 year olds in the league.  The other two are on the Royals and probably would have been on their Arizona League team if they still had it.

The Rays picked up Moreno from the Dominican Republic for $188,000 in the highly touted Jose Mujica, Jose Castillo and David Rodriguez class.  His .849 OPS was 22nd in the Dominican Summer League, but he was again one of the younger players in the league, one of three 16 year olds playing.

Obviously, the Rays are known for moving their prospects slowly, but they had enough confidence in Moreno to skip him right over the GCL.  It doesn't sound like any of his tools stand out, but he has good bat speed.

He's not the only Dominican outfielder just skipping the GCL.  Manny Sanchez, the DSL home run leader from 2013, joins Moreno and Milone to form an impressive outfield.  He has plus-plus raw power, but he has to refine his approach like a lot of young players.  He has a strong arm and a bit of athleticism.

Conquering the New York Penn League

This is tough for the hitters, anyway.  It's been the hardest league in affiliated baseball to hit in two out of the last three years, and it has the lowest league OPS in the early going this season.  It's important to keep that in mind looking at stats.  Casey Gillaspie's OPS is actually above the league average right now, but he really does need to cut down on the strikeouts.

That makes Hunter Lockwood's power display so far even more impressive.  His three home runs are top 10 in the league, a year after finishing fifth in the Appy League in homers and first in extra base hits.  His 27.7% strikeout rate is too high, and his 3.1% walk rate is too low, so he has to work on his approach like Gillaspie apparently does.

Conversely, it's fair to be skeptical of the pitchers putting up good numbers, and there is no shortage of those with Hudson Valley's staff so far.

Enderson Franco is one of those performing pitchers.  Picked up from the Astros in the minor league Rule 5 draft, he has 19 strikeouts and no walks in his first 15 innings.  His fastball has impressive velocity, but he's never performed like this in his career.  He won't sustain this, but striking guys out and not issuing free passes probably plays in most environments.

Nolan Gannon and Hunter Wood are two more arms to watch.  Gannon, a former fifth round pick, has 15 strikeouts to three walks in 16 innings, but eventually that .111 BABIP will probably bump up a bit.  Wood was taken in the 29th round last year, but he pitched great with Princeton last year.  His start with Bowling Green this year wasn't impressive, but he's only 20 years old.  It's not a big deal that he's back in a short-season league, where he's pitching very well with a 21.5% strikeout rate.