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How is the Rays' depth at the corner infield positions?

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A look into the depth of the Rays in the minors that isn't pitching or outfield

Richie Shaffer is the major-league ready option out of all the depth the Rays have at the corners
Richie Shaffer is the major-league ready option out of all the depth the Rays have at the corners
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

While the depth of the Rays at shortstop, outfield, and pitcher has been detailed numerous times, they are not the only positions that are on the diamond. The Rays will eventually have to fill in holes at first and third, perhaps sooner rather than later. Surprisingly, the Rays have multiple players available that can become major league talents at the corner infield spots.

The Players

Richie Shaffer is the major-league ready option for either corner infield spot. While Shaffer strikes out more often than most players, he has continued to show plus power and draws a fair amount of walks as well. What adds to Shaffer's value is his versatility, as he is able to play both corner infield spots as well as a corner outfield spot if need be. While Shaffer has shown enough arm to play third, he will most likely remain at first base as long as Evan Longoria is still on the Rays. Longo is still more than capable at defending the hot corner, so there is no reason to jettison him yet for Shaffer.

The breakout of Jake Bauers in 2015 has lifted him up many prospect rankings, from Baseball America to our community rankings here at DRaysBay. While he wasn't a headliner in the trade that brought Steven Souza to the Rays, Bauers has impressed many fans, myself included. Bauers continues to show an above-average hit tool along with above-average power, combining to make a solid overall hitting profile. Bauers is an ample defensive first baseman, but like Shaffer, can play corner outfield as well. Ending the year at Double A, Bauers is only a couple steps behind Shaffer in terms of readiness, and a 2016 cup of coffee is not out of the question.

While Bauers wrapped up his impressive 2015 at Montgomery, Patrick Leonard had a quiet but solid full season at the Double-A level, hitting 10 home runs with a .256 average in 120 games. Leonard has the ability to play third, but scouts believe he will end up at first and act as a first/third utility option. Leonard has 50 raw power and it is his ticket to the major leagues.

Farther down the minor league level, Casey Gillaspie potentially has the highest ceiling of anyone I will list here as a power-hitting first baseman who cranks home runs like no one's business. He hit 16 home runs in 64 games with Class-A Bowling Green, but a wrist injury stymied his production in the latter part of 2015. A return of Gillaspie's hitting will sooth concerns over the injury hampering his career growth. Gillaspie's progress in the minors rides on his ability to hit; his slow speed limits him to first base.

Credit: Jim Donten

A Realistic Scenario for 2016

After James Loney's ghastly season at the plate in 2015, the competition at first base for 2016 Opening Day looks open for any takers willing to grab it. Shaffer could easily win the job with a solid spring training. After playing 31 games in the majors last year, it only makes sense he should stay there, even if he comes off the bench.

Even though Jake Bauers had a far better 2015 campaign than Patrick Leonard (and frankly one of the best in system), I wouldn't be surprised if Leonard starts in Triple-A Durham while Bauers remains in Double A. With Shaffer sliding up the chain to the majors, playing time would open up for Leonard in Durham. That way, the club can get a chance to see how Leonard's bat looks against Triple-A pitching on a much more consistent basis. Meanwhile, Bauers will be 20 when the 2016 season begins and had 69 games at the Double-A level. While his stats were impressive, a larger sample size of Double-A hitting while be indicative of how developed Bauers's hit tool really is. At worst, Bauers spends an extra half-season before making his major-league debut and we wait until 2017. What a crying shame.

While the trajectories of Shaffer, Leonard, and Bauers are mostly projectable, what happens to Gillaspie is completely up in the air to me. A strong spring training could earn him an aggressive assignment in Montgomery; a poor showing like his Arizona Fall League stint would probably land him in Class A-Advanced Charlotte, where Gillaspie finished 2015. No matter where he starts, Gillaspie's recovery from injury will dictate the path for his season.

Looking Beyond

While it would be amazing, all four of these talents most likely will not pan out to be a major-league talents. Bauers and Leonard should be major-league ready by 2017; Gillaspie will most likely be ready by 2018, but also could see the majors sooner than that. Thanks to the versatility of the some of these players, positional conflicts can be avoided.

While I am by no means a professional in projecting the careers of players, this is my ranking of the likelihood of the four infielders to be solid major-league level contributors (as starters):

  1. Jake Bauers
  2. Richie Shaffer
  3. Casey Gillaspie
  4. Patrick Leonard
I know full and well that this ranking could be flipped on its head this time next year. However, I like the consistency of Bauers at the plate and know his floor could easily be a 6- or 7-hole hitter that cranks 10-15 home runs a year. While I love the idea of Gillaspie as the cleanup hitter of the future, I am skeptical to slot him any higher before I see the power return to his hitting. Shaffer gets the nod at No. 2 since he already has time in the majors, and Patrick Leonard rounds it out since his career rides solely on converting his raw power into games.

If we step into the world where every player reaches his ceiling like all prospect writers dream about, these are my new rankings of each player's ability to contribute at the major-league level:
  1. Casey Gillaspie
  2. Jake Bauers
  3. Richie Shaffer
  4. Patrick Leonard
Gillaspie's ceiling remains attractive despite the injury-plagued season. Bauers has the potential for power as well, somewhere in the middle of Gillaspie's plus and Shaffer's average to above-average. Again, Leonard looks to be a utilityman unless his raw power really starts playing into games, so that limits his ceiling below the other three.

What lies in the future of the Rays at the corners could be one of several things, but enough depth exists in Richie Shaffer, Jake Bauers, Patrick Leonard, and Casey Gillaspie that the team should be taken care of no matter what happens.