It looks like brighter days are ahead for the Devil Rays. In his second season, Lou Piniella guided the team to seven more wins and out of the basement for the first time in team history.
Despite sending potential slugger Jose Bautista to the Royals and Rocco Baldelli's ACL tear that will keep him out for the first half of the season, the D-Rays have some young talent to build around. Carl Crawford made the All-Star Game as a 22-year-old, and last year's top prospect B.J. Upton graduated from the minors and held his own in limited action despite just being 19.
Along with solid veterans like Aubrey Huff and Julio Lugo, Tampa Bay is building a lineup to compete in the AL East. On the pitching side, the picture is a little less clear. We got a glimpse of a potential ace in Scott Kazmir at the end of last season, and the Devil Rays need him to come through to take the next step.
One name who is not here is right-handed pitcher Jeff Niemann. The fourth-overall pick did not sign until last month, but that was too late to be listed. He'd almost certainly be slotted between Kazmir and Joey Gathright.
In the bullpen, Jesus Colome is coming off a solid year, but he could pay larger dividends in the future. One of his nephews, Alex, is eligible to sign in this season's July 2nd international signing period, and another nephew, Jose Dominguez, turns 16 next August.
Here is Baseball America's top 10:
1. RF Delmon Young (R/R, 6'3 205, 19 in 2005)
2004 with Class A Charleston: .322/.388/.538, 25 HR, 56 XBH, 21/27 SB, 20.8 K%, 9.2 BB%
Being the youngest player in the South Atlantic League did not stop Young from being one of the league's best prospects, if not the best one. He was top 10 in average, slugging, OPS, top 20 in OBP and one of three players with 20-or-more home runs and steals.
The former first-overall pick could be a big-time presence in the middle of the order, hitting for average, taking walks and slugging a lot of home runs. As Young's body matures, he could lose his speed, but there's no way he could become his brother Dmitri, right? He has a great arm and profiles in right field.
2. LHP Scott Kazmir (6'0 170, 21 in 2005)
2004 with Class A-Advanced St. Lucie: 3.42 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 24.2 K%, 10.4 BB%
2004 with Double-A Binghamton: 1.73 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 29.0 K%, 9.0 BB%
2004 with Double-A Montgomery: 1.44 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 25.0 K%, 11.5 BB%
2004 with Tampa Bay: 5.67 ERA, 1.62 WHIP, 27.0 K%, 13.8 BB%
Kazmir's 2004 season was a whirlwind, starting with a minor injury and finishing in the big leagues with a new organization. Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson believes he's a few years away from being a big leaguer, but obviously Devil Rays management feels differently.
His elite fastball and slider give him some of the best stuff among any young pitcher. While he has to improve his changeup and control, the ingredients for an ace are there. Anonymous allegations about his makeup are likely just sour grapes or damage control from the Mets.
3. CF Joey Gathright (L/R, 5'10 170, 24 in 2005)
2004 with Double-A Montgomery: .341/.399/.397, 10/16 SB, 21.7 K%, 8.0 BB%
2004 with Triple-A Durham: .326/.384/.373, 33/46 SB, 17.7 K%, 7.3 BB%
2004 with Tampa Bay: .250/.316/.250, 6/7 SB, 24.6 K%, 3.5 BB%
With Crawford and Baldelli, the D-Rays already have an athletic outfield. Gathright has car-jumping athleticism that aids him in the field and on the bases. He could be the best outfielder of the bunch, and his speed could change games at the top of the lineup. He excels at putting the ball in play and letting his speed do the work, and if he can just be a little more patient, he could be a great leadoff hitter.
4. RHP Jason Hammel (6'6 200, 22 in 2005)
2004 with Class A Charleston: 3.23 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 21.7 K%, 6.7 BB%
2004 with Class A-Advanced Bakersfield: 1.89 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 23.6 K%, 7.3 BB%
After his breakout 2004 season, it's easy to see why area scout Paul Kirsch encouraged the Devil Rays to draft Hammel twice. His strikeout rate spiked across two levels, and his upside has been adjusted accordingly. He works with a solid fastball that he throws on a downhill plane and good breaking ball, and he does a better job throwing strikes than most young pitchers of his height.
While pitching in the Cal League can sink pitchers, but he did a little more than hold his own, as did his teammate Jamie Shields. He could move through the system quickly, but some scouts believe it could take several trades before he reaches his potential in the big leagues.
5. SS Reid Brignac (L/R, 6'3 170, 19 in 2005)
2004 with Rookie Princeton: .361/.413/.474, 7 XBH, 9.2 K%, 8.3 BB%
The Devil Rays drafted Brignac in the second round last year, and it looks like they may have hit a home run. He hit the ground running as a professional, and he could form a formidable left side of the infield with Upton in a few years. He has great bat speed and power potential, and as long as he learns he can't pull everything, he has a great chance to fulfill his potential. That's not a rare problem for young hitters, and it can be worked through.
6. LHP James Houser (6'4 185, 20 in 2005)
2004 with Class A Charleston: 2.20 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 20.6 K%, 9.9 BB%
A sore elbow limited Houser to 32 2/3 innings, but they were impressive. For a young pitcher, he already does a pretty good job throwing strikes, and his fastball, curveball and changeup all have very good potential. As long as he can regain health without turning to performance-enhancing drugs, he should be a part of the steady stream of pitching prospects arriving in St. Petersburg.
7. OF Elijah Dukes (S/R, 6'2 220, 21 in 2005)
2004 with Class A Charleston: .288/.368/.423, 16 XBH, 14/15 SB, 25.4 K%, 9.7 BB%
2004 with Class A-Advanced Bakersfield: .332/.416/.540, 26 XBH, 16/23 SB, 20.5 K%, 10.7 BB%
While he's only seventh on the list, Dukes' tools could be better than anyone's. He's a true five-tool talent, even moreso than Young because he should maintain his speed. Along with that speed, he's a strong player with big power potential. He just needs more experience as a full-time baseball player. The only thing that can hold him back is his attitude on and of the field, but the Devil Rays think he has that under control.
8. RHP Chad Orvella (5'11 190, 24 in 2005)
2004 with Class A Charleston: 1.33 ERA, 0.70 WHIP, 42.9 K%, 2.8 BB%
2004 with Class A-Advanced Bakersfield: 3.06 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 33.8 K%, 5.6 BB%
Orvella has been unbelievable as a professional, and the Devil Rays could use some depth in the bullpen around All-Star Lance Carter. With his fastball, changeup and slider, he has the arsenal to start, but his best fit is in relief. There's no reason to think he won't quickly reach the majors, and the team won't be forced to trade a surplus player like Gathright for additional help in the bullpen.
9. RHP Seth McClung (6'3 230, 24 in 2005)
2004 with Class A Charleston, Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham: 2.97 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 19.7 K%, 9.9 BB%
McClung lost much of 2004 due to his Tommy John surgery, but his hard fastball and curveball seem to be on the way back. He'll eventually work in the rotation some more, but with his control problems, attacking mentality and middling third pitch, McClung's best bet for success could be in the bullpen. As long as he doesn't take a comfortable approach to spring training because he believes he's out of options when he's not, he should carve out a big-league role.
10. 1B Wes Bankston (R/R, 6'4 200, 21 in 2005)
2004 with Class A Charleston: .289/.390/.513, 23 HR, 56 XBH, 18.9 K%, 13.2 BB%
The Devil Rays could have their first baseman of the future. Along with Young, he formed a powerful right-handed power duo for Charleston. His raw power is clearly already showing up in games, and if he can maintain a selective approach, he should continue advancing through the organization. Tampa Bay could use a player like this, because players who can hit 40 home runs don't come around on minor league deals too often.
What do you think, Devil Rays fans? Are these the players that could lead them to an AL Championship?