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2017 Season Review: Durham Bulls Top 10 Prospects

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The next wave of talent for the Tampa Bay Rays is a strong group just one promotion away.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays-Media Day
Willy Adames
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Durham Bulls had a lot of prospects that are on the doorstep of the major leagues. They are young and there are some impact players that could fuel the next great Tampa Bay Rays team.

The Durham Bulls were the youngest team in the league and had a boatload of prospect talent in 2017. It was disappointing to not see some of these guys help out the major league club in 2017, but there’s a group that did in the bullpen.

To be eligible for this list they must still have rookie eligibility which is exhausted at 130 at bats for position players or 50 innings pitched for pitchers.

#1. Willy Adames, SS

The 6’0” tall 200 pound Adames has made big strides on the defensive side of the ball where most scouts think he’ll stick at short, and could be above average there. Davenport graded his defense at +7 and Baseball Prospectus gave him +1.1 FRAA. After a slow start he really picked it up down the stretch. His overall line of .277/.360/.415 and 120 wRC+ was quite impressive for a 21 year old middle infielder. Adames should play a major role in the 2018 Rays.

There currently isn’t a lot of home run power in Adames’ swing, but there should be 15-20 power in a full season. Primarily he uses a line drive approach that should lead to a strong average, but might limit his overall power profile. As he ages you could see some of the doubles start going over the wall.

#2. Brent Honeywell, RHP

Much like Adames, Honeywell got a rough welcoming to AAA. For the first time in his professional career he really struggled with a 5.87 ERA and 4.64 FIP in his first three starts at the AAA level. He finished strong over his last 21 starts with a 3.32 ERA and 2.58 FIP in 108.1 innings. Overall he threw 152.1 innings including the post season. Next year he’s going to be limited to around 180 innings.

Honeywell has a wider repertoire than most minor league pitchers with a 92-94 fastball that can reach 97, slider, changeup, curveball, and the legendary screwball. Most see him as a #3, but he does have upside to be a true top of the rotation stud.

The last thing that Honeywell really needs to reach that level is the ability to keep his stuff deeper into a game. By the fourth or fifth inning around the 75 pitch mark his stuff starts to really play down. You’ll see his fastball around 90 and his control starts to waver.

SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game
Brent Honeywell
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

#3. Jake Bauers, 1B

Jake Bauers is likely to man the first base in the near future. Coming into the season this wasn’t a sure thing with the presence of Casey Gillaspie. Now the Rays traded off the struggling Gillaspie and Bauers is their chance of filling the first base hole in the minors for a few years.

Bauers combined with Adames to man the middle of the Durham lineup as 21 year olds for most of the season. Bauers continued what he did last year in Montgomery. Just like Adames and Honeywell, Bauers struggled in his first taste of AAA. In April he batted .229/.330/.289 and put up a 79 wRC+. From May 1st he hit his stride and hit .270/.375/.437 and put up a 129 wRC+ over 479 plate appearances.

The most surprising stat line out of the minors was Bauers willingness to run and doing so successfully. He stole 20 of the 23 bases he attempted. He’s not fast, but he moves well for a bigger guy and gets good jumps.

The power is the question when it comes to Bauers. That’s not a great thing when it comes to first base prospects, but it’s not like there is none. The last two years in AA and AAA he hit 14 and 13 home runs respectively. His hit tool is his best tool and should carry him even if he doesn’t put up big power numbers you expect out of a first baseman. Rays fans will fear he’s a James Loney type with very minimal power for a first baseman, but Loney never hit more than 11 homers in a minor league season despite being a year older at each level and having much more friendly homerun environments on the Pacific coast while in the Dodgers system. I expect he’ll hit 20-25 homers over full seasons.

While there is some debate among scouts about how much power Bauers will hit for in the majors just about everybody agrees that he will hit. His hit tool is above average to plus. Combined with excellent plate discipline should provide a valuable average and on base skills.

#4. Jose De Leon, RHP

I believe in Jose De Leon the pitcher. The problem has been durability. He’s missed a lot of time due to relatively minor injuries in his career. This year that escalated to missing most of the season and limited him to 29.0 innings. The results and stuff have been there when he’s been able to be on the mound. He’s always struck out around 30% of batters while not walking a ton of batters.

If I was more confident in his health I would put him just behind Honeywell. He will either out surpass the value of the guys below and maybe some of the guys above or bring closer to nothing. I think they should consider him for the opening day rotation if he makes it through spring training and use as much as they can while he is healthy.

Tampa Bay Rays v Texas Rangers
Jose De Leon
Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

#5. Diego Castillo, RHP

This is where there is a clear drop off and talent and we begin with a run of relievers. The Rays have a lot of arms in Durham that should be able to build the foundation of a strong bullpen for the next five years. Of the group Diego Castillo is the guy I think that is most likely to be the closer once Alex Colome is gone.

Castillo is listed at 6’3” and 240 pounds. He is a large man and has a huge fastball. He started the year in Montgomery, but quickly found himself closing games to end the season and win the AAA National Championship for the Bulls. He threw a total of 71.2 innings in 51 appearances including one start compiling a 2.76 ERA and 2.24 FIP. He had a 30.6% strikeout rate and 6.8% walk rate.

Castillo generally sits in the 98-99 range with the ability to reach 101 with the fastball which matches what he showed the Arizona Fall League last year with a 99.13 mph fastball and maxed out at 101.75 mph. He adds a low 90s changeup and slider in the high 80s.

#6. Jose Alvarado, LHP

Jose Alvarado made the rare jump from Montgomery to St. Pete at one point in the season. Due to the injury of Xavier Cedeno early in the season the Rays were looking for a left handed reliever. In the majors he threw 29.1 innings with a 3.64 ERA and 2.55 FIP. He has a 23.6% strikeout rate and 7.3% walk rate.

It was never a question of stuff with Alvarado. They protected him from the rule 5 draft last winter, because of the 100 mph fastball. For his minor league career he has a 15.1% walk rate. During his time in the majors things have looked much different than they have in the minors.

Alvarado’s calling card is a fastball that has averaged 98.59 mph this year. His breaking balls of choice are a curveball and slider. He doesn’t throw them often, but is able to get swings and misses when needed.

Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox
Jose Alvarado
Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

#7. Chih-Wei Hu, RHP

Chih-Wei Hu is the one I have the hardest time seeing where he sits in the Rays plans. I think Hu has good enough stuff and in a different organization would still be a starting pitcher. This year they moved him to the bullpen after the injury to Jaime Schultz early in the season.

The Rays have been using more relievers for multiple innings. Maybe that’s their plan with Hu. He has built up innings as a starter and could be used in the Erasmo Ramirez role. He never threw back to back days in the minors and typically had 2-3 days off between outings.

As a starter I seriously considered him for fifth on this list. I’m deferring a little to the Rays usage of him in seeing something that I don’t.

Hu throws a 93-95 four seam fastball, 92-94 sinking fastball, and a palmball in the high 80s. The palmball is a changeup with an old school grip. As a starter he sprinkles in a curveball.

#8. Ryne Stanek, RHP

Ryne Stanek is an enigma. He has a 100+ mph fastball out of the bullpen, but the results in the minors never really matched the stuff until this year. In 44.2 innings with the Bulls he had a 1.21 ERA and 1.79 FIP. His 34.5% strikeout rate was a huge step forward.

Stanek had a rough welcoming to the majors with a 6.39 ERA and 7.42 FIP in his first cups of coffee with the big league club. Afterwards he went down to the minors and added a split changeup to his arsenal. The results were markedly improved. In his September callup stretch he struck out 39.4% of batters, but still walked 15.2%.

Stanek will live and die by his fastball command. It averaged 98.45 mph and hit as high as 101.24. His slider lives in the low 90s and his split change sits in the high 80s. The fastball has a great deal of rise with +10.72” of vertical movement. This leads to a really high 13.38% whiff rate on a fastball.

I didn’t have a lot of faith that he would be a high leverage reliever, but he’s shown a lot of growth this season. He’s won me over.

Tampa Bay Rays v Texas Rangers
Ryne Stanek
Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

#9. Jaime Schultz, RHP

Jaime Schultz was expected to be up in short order this season. After working as a starter for the entirety of his minor league career the Rays decided to move him to the bullpen. It was expected he would be up in short order after getting accustomed to life in the bullpen. Things didn’t go as planned as he was pulled out of his first appearance. He ended up missing around three months.

Schultz’s fastball sits in the 94-96 range out of the bullpen. His change and curve are his offspeed weapons of choice. His curve is thrown very hard in the low to mid 80s and sometimes mimics a slider. He shows great separation with his change that gets him whiffs.

There is a lot on the farm to be excited about in the bullpen and Schultz has the chance to be a quality arm back there either in one inning bursts or be available in a multi-inning role.

#10. Kean Wong, 2B

Kean Wong is the younger brother of the St. Louis Cardinals second baseman/center fielder Kolten Wong. Kean Wong is a little bigger than his older brother, but has a very similar swing. Kean hit .265/.328/.361 and put up a 94 wRC+ in 2017. He hit four homers and stole 14 bases but was caught nine times.

Wong is in a really tough spot. He doesn’t have the arm to play on the left side of the infield or the speed to play center field. So he’s pretty much just limited to second base. That works against him as it’s hard to see him fitting in as a utility guy on a MLB bench, so to work out he really has to be your starting second baseman.

If Wong had either a little more power or speed I think he could be capable of being a starting MLB second baseman. His hit tool is his best tool, but has well below average power. His speed is in just above average.

Wong is extremely young at 22 and had a successful year in AAA. His defense grades out well. He scored a +12 by Davenport and +10.0 FRAA at Baseball Prospectus. There’s an outside chance he could hit enough to be a defense first 2B.

Honorable Mentions

Tampa Bay Rays v Baltimore Orioles
Ryan Yarbrough
Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Ryan Yarbrough, LHP

The 25 year old 6’5” left handed pitcher was acquired in the trade that sent Drew Smyly to the Seattle Mariners. Ryan Yarbrough received the start in the AAA National Championship game after a very good year that saw him as the Durham Bulls starting pitcher to make it through the season in the rotation.

Yarbrough saw a rise in strikeouts to 24.7% after posting a 19.0% rate in his breakout campaign last year in AA. His 159 strikeouts led the International League.

Yarbrough fastball sits 90-93, but gets downward plane due to his 6’5” frame that causes sinking action. He sells his changeup well and is his best secondary pitch. His third pitch is a low 80s slider that is inconsistent but fringe average.

Yarbrough is a reasonable option for the back end of the rotation that is more an innings eater than quality starter.

Yonny Chirinos, RHP

Yonny Chirinos just continues to put up results. In 26 starts split between AA and AAA Chirinos put up a 2.73 ERA and 3.30 FIP. After a couple years of posting strikeout rates in the mid teens he pushed that up to 21.7%. He doesn’t hurt himself with walks. This led him to winning the Minor League Pitcher of the Year Award in the Rays organization.

Last year Chirinos was available in the Rule 5 draft and there was some smoke that he would get selected. He ended up making it through safely.

Chirinos’s fastball sits in the low 90s, but he can bring it up to 95-96 when needed. His best secondary is an average slider that sits in the mid 80s. He throws a low 80s changeup that isn’t great, but is a usable third pitch.

Chirinos upside is a innings eater back of the rotation pitcher. He throws a lot of strikes, but doesn’t have the stuff to really be much more than that. The fear is he’ll get punished for being in the zone too much. He’ll need to show that he can pitch effectively out of the zone.