The Tampa Bay Rays are a small market team. They rely on drafting and developing prospects into good major league ball players to stay competitive with a small payroll. If their own draft picks can’t cut it, they trade away major leaguers for others that presumably will.
With several major league pieces on the trade block this winter, it’s important to do a diagnostic of the farm system to understand the pros and cons.
The current state of the farm system shows significant positional strengths and weaknesses that will factor into the quality of talent that ends up contributing to the Rays, and that which they hope to acquire in deals down the road.
Upper Minors Strength: Pitching and Infielders
The Rays have been great at developing pitching lately, and the current state of the upper minors continues to speak to that.
The starting rotation for the 2017 Triple-A Durham Bulls should include most of the Rays top pitching prospects, featuring Brent Honeywell, Chih-Wei Hu, Jacob Faria, Jaime Schultz, Taylor Guerrieri and Austin Pruitt. Notice that is six names for a five man rotation. One will either start the year in the Bulls bullpen with fireballer and former first round draft pick Ryne Stanek or in the Double-A Montgomery rotation. That isn’t even fair. Expect to see more than one of these names with the Rays at some point this upcoming season.
The major league rotation is likewise stacked with former prospects, both developed and acquired, that came from the Rays farm system: Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Blake Snell, Matt Andriese, and to some extent Chase Whitley (who may also start the year in Durham, due to roster constraints) are former farm arms.
Bulls manager Jared Sandberg will also have plenty of talented infielders to choose from when he sets his lineup. Top prospects SS Willy Adames, 1B Casey Gillaspie, SS/3B/2B Daniel Robertson and 1B/RF Jake Bauers will all be knocking on the door to the majors very soon. Dark horse prospect 2B Kean Wong could also be a factor, and I expect to see all of them in spring training at a minimum, and possibly again in September when rosters are expanded.
Pitching and Infield Talent Infusion: 2017-2018.
Upper Minors Weakness: Catchers and Outfielders
2016 was not a great year for catchers or the outfielders in the upper minors. With the recent news of former top catching prospect Justin O’Conner being designated for assignment, the prospect depth at catching may have become the weakest position in the organization when it comes to near major league ready talent.
That is not to say the Rays have had an issue developing excellent defense behind the plate, but they certainly haven’t been able to find or groom a prospect that can bring a decent bat with that defense. Guys like Nick Ciuffo, Jake DePaw, and the recently acquired Jonah Heim have been excellent defensively and will likely spend 2017 with the AA Montgomery Biscuits working on their offense.
The Bulls will need to bring in a catcher or two on minor league deals just so someone is standing behind the plate, particularly if Luke Maile and Curt Casali or on the major league squad.
The Rays have long relied on a cycle of veteran, low cost catchers to spell gaps in the major league side, including guys like Ryan Hanigan, Hank Conger, and Bobby Wilson, and that does not look like it will be changing in the coming season. And with recent signee Wilson Ramos out with a torn ACL, the Rays may need one or two more fungible catching pieces to survive the early go of things in 2017.
Looking at the upper minors, there weren’t many outfield performances to get excited about last year either, but 2017 could be the start of a turnaround.
I would expect the positional situation with Jake Bauers to be similar to 2016 again. That is to say he’ll play a lot of RF/LF as long as he’s on the same team as Casey Gillaspie, with a transition to 1B only if/when Gillaspie gets promoted.
There are a few other names of note. Johnny Field was left unprotected in the Rule-5 draft and survived, but that’s likely because he doesn’t project well in center. Justin Williams plays a great RF and could finally grow into that projected strength to propel his already-good bat to the next level. A healthy Joe McCarthy could start 2017 with the AA Montgomery Biscuits as a corner outfielder that has no issues getting on base and brings some line drive power too.
But that leaves the near-depth in Center Field wide open unless the Rays think an unexpected name can transition to give it a shot.