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Rays top prospects of all-time: No. 20

After 20 years of Rays baseball, we’re counting down the top prospects in franchise history.

Oakland Athletics v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images

To continue celebrating the team’s history this offseason, we came up with a list of the top prospects in team history — 20 prospects for 20 seasons of Rays baseball.

It was not an easy list to create. There are a lot of factors to consider, and it’s difficult to look at players how they were as prospects and not through the lens of how their major league career panned out.

To make the list, I started with players that appeared on Baseball America’s Top-100 prospects list, sorted by their highest appearance. I then went to work arranging them based on reading scouting reports and considering pedigrees, like draft status or signing bonuses.

We’ll start with No. 20 on the list and count down.

20. SS Reid Brignac

Acquired: No. 45 pick by Devil Rays (2004)

Baseball America Top-100 ranks: 17 (2006), 39 (2007), 54 (2009), 78 (2008)
(Devil) Rays Top-30 ranks: 3 (2006), 4 (2005), 4 (2008), 5 (2007), 5 (2009), 6 (2004)
League Top-20 ranks: 1 (2006 California League), 4 (2004 Appalachian League), 4 (2008 International League), 6 (2007 Southern League), 10 (2009 IL), 17 (2005 Midwest League)

(Devil) Rays best tools: Best defensive infielder (2007, 2008, 2009)
League best tools: Best defensive infielder (International League 2008, IL 2009)

The Rays have never really had a franchise shortstop. From 2003-10, Julio Lugo and Jason Bartlett were the starting shortstops for seven of eight seasons. However, neither player was homegrown.

In fact, Brignac, in 2011, was the first homegrown player to play the majority of games in a season at shortstop in team history. Unfortunately for the team, it was also his last.

Brignac burst onto the prospect scene in 2006, his second full season as a professional. Before a promotion to Double-A Montgomery as a 20 year old, he dominated the Cal League with Visalia, hitting 21 home runs with a .939 OPS in 100 games.

Because of that season, his scouting report focused on his offense, noting his strong hands and good bat speed. He could hit 25-plus homers annually. That’s very valuable up the middle of the diamond, but at the time, it wasn’t totally clear Brignac would stick at shortstop.

He wasn’t a hopeless case, though. Although 63 errors between the 2005 and 2006 season were concerning, clumsiness can be worked out of a player. It wasn’t a case where he didn’t have the physical ability to play the position. Ultimately, his defense did improve.

Not only did it improve, his defense became his best trait. He cleaned up his game, and he was twice judged to be the best defensive infielder in the International League. Combined with his offensive prowess, he could be a very valuable player. However, his offense eventually stagnated.

What happened? It’s possible his potential at the plate was inflated by Cal League environments. He never came close to duplicating his .231 ISO, so in that sense, maybe his power potential wasn’t what it seemed.

On the other hand, he still offered offensive potential. His plate approach was good — going from the Cal League in 2006 to the Southern League in 2007, his walk rates and strikeout rates both improved. He still hit 17 home runs and over 50 extra-base hits.

But after that, something changed. He didn’t walk as much, and his strikeouts, temporarily, anyway, in 2008 with Triple-A Durham spiked. A broken wrist that season probably didn’t help matters. He still earned his first major league cup of coffee, but he didn’t get regular at-bats in the majors until 2010. Even then, he was playing a lot of second base because of the emergence of Bartlett.

With good defense at the two middle infield positions and modest offensive contributions, he earned 1.4 bWAR in 2010, Brignac was poised to replace Bartlett, who was traded to San Diego that winter.

However, the 2011 season did not work out. His defense was good, but his offense was putrid. He batted .193 with a .227 on-base percentage. The promise he had shown five years earlier would not be fulfilled.

He had 264 plate appearances in 2011. In the five seasons after that, he had just 257 total with five different teams. In 2017, he spent the entire season with Houston’s Triple-A club in Fresno.

Brignac did not pan out. His transformation from offensive dynamo with questionable glove to smooth defender with a poor bat is certainly one of the more interesting I’ve seen since I’ve been watching prospects. For a time, he was certainly one of the better middle infield prospects in baseball and earned his billing as the Rays’ shortstop of the future. Sometimes, it just doesn’t work out.