If you’re looking for strength in the Rays system that will help enhance the team’s fortunes for years to come, look no further than at shortstop. This list is topped by arguably the best Rays prospect, one that many have dubbed the team’s future Captain. High ceilings, versatility, hitting ability, this list really does have it all.
Just as the very prospects it holds, this ranking list was acquired by the Rays in various ways. Perhaps recognizing their shortfalls in being able to draft high-end shortstops, the Rays traded for the top 3 players on this list. One was acquired as part of the return for David Price (2014), another was part of the return for Ben Zobrist (2015), and the last was part of the returns for Matt Moore (2016). Trading any of those three players is hard to do, but getting the right returns is critical to this franchise’s continued success.
On the draft front, the Rays have been a disaster when it comes to selecting and developing shortstops. I’m not really sure who on their staff does the research work at the position, but it needs to change unless they want to continue to rely on trades to fill the position.
In 2016, no shortstop was selected in the first 19 rounds of the draft. In 2015, none within the first 29 rounds, and then Brett Sullivan was really drafted as a 2B and only moved to SS after the draft, before later progressing to catcher. In 2014, Michael Russell (5th rd) was the sole SS selection through 17 rounds. In 2013, Riley Unroe (2nd rd) and Pat Blair (12th rd) were the only SS selections in the draft and neither stayed at the position past their first pro season. And in 2012, there was no SS drafted through the 30th rd and Ben Kline (32nd rd) was the sole SS selected and signed overall.
Five years of drafts, and only Michael Russell and one late round surprise are notable as a short-stop. The shortcomings are obvious and possibly distressing.
Therefore, be happy that the Rays know how to make well educated trades and have been successful in building for the future at SS in that manner. It’s going to make the Rays a whole lot of fun to watch as they finally reach The Show, and we’re looking forward to the first few arriving in Tampa Bay as early as 2017, and definitely by the end of 2018.
We kick the list off with one of the few bright promising short-stops the Rays have been able to draft in recent years, one who fights well above his weight class....
Editor’s Note: If Rays prospect Michael Russell had played the majority of the 2016 season at shortstop, he would have been included on this list at No. 5, and should thus still be part of your consideration of the team’s depth. To read more about Michael Russell, who was the best player on the Bowling Green Hot Rods last season, read here.
#5: Deion Tansel | 22 - LoA | 5’8” 155 lbs
Twitter Handle: @Deiontansel1
2016 GCL Stats: 21 G | 81 PA | 0 HR | 1 SB | 4.9 BB% | 3.7 SO% | .343 wOBA% | 116 wRC+
2016 Appy Stats: 11 G | 38 PA | 1 HR | 0 SB | 2.6 BB% | 7.9 SO% | .369 wOBA% | 124 wRC+
We don’t have much of a sample size to work with when it comes to Tansel, but what we’ve seen so far has to be very encouraging. The lack of strikeouts and ability to make contact stand out over everything else. And that’s not just something he did as a pro in 2016, he also hit .327/.402/.408 in College while with Toledo, striking out only 9 times in 265 PA.
Over his last 60 AB, Tansel showed off that capability some more by only striking out only 5 times, walking 5 times, and hitting .300 with 2 doubles and 2 HR. That end to the season is what makes his hitting ability at the plate most intriguing.
What Tansel won’t do is hit for much power or steal many bases. It just doesn’t seem to be part of the package, even if he did add a few HRs last season. The best ISO he managed in College was .081 in 2016, the only year he managed to hit HRs (2) there. Still, as Omar Vizquel proved for many years, hitting well enough and playing outstanding SS defensively can make you a very productive shortstop.
Tansel doesn’t have enough track record to dig into the splits and to examine the defensive play. What we do know is that he shows great range and should continue to get playing time as he attempts to meet the next challenge in A ball. If he’s’ able to continue to put the ball in play and turn himself into an above-average defensive SS, he could surprise many.
Next up on the list is another Rays draftee who puts the ball in play very well....
#4: Jake Cronenworth | 23 - HiA | 6’1” 185 lbs
2016 LoA Stats: 81 G | 380 PA | 3HR | 66 R | 14.2 BB% | 15 SO% | .405 wOBA | 159 wRC+
2016 HiA Stats: 35 G | 126 PA | 1HR | 15 R | 10.3 BB% | 20.6 SO% | .255 wOBA | 56 wRC+
One of the most interesting stories coming out of the draft in recent years for the Rays is Jake Cronenworth, a prospect that many thought would be drafted as a pitcher, yet wound up being asked to leave the mound in a move to the infield.
Now, while many questioned the Rays move at the time due to his success as a pitcher in College (2.76 ERA, 1.26 Whip with 27 saves and 104 Ks in 98 innings of work), he hasn’t disappointed since. In fact, he excelled so much in a short time at 2B in 2015 that the Rays challenged him with an assignment at SS in 2016. Would he be up to that challenge?
Without a doubt. Here’s what Jake had to say on the experience:
Not only was Cronenworth named by BA as the best defensive short-stop of the Midwest League, he was also noted as having the best strike zone judgement, something that - as stated in the video above - comes a lot from having been a pitcher and knowing how pitchers are working the zone.
After hitting .291/.399/.398 for HV in 2015 and striking out 25.2% of the time, there were still some skeptical evaluations being made (due to the SO%) about his ability to hit as he progresses through the minors. However, he put most of those questions to bed in 2016 as he followed that up with a lower SO% (15%) for BG while hitting .322/.429/.436 on the back of a .485 wOBA. He also showed off some speed, stealing 12 bags on the season in BG.
His performance early on earned him a mid-season all-star appearance in the MWL and a promotion to Charlotte (HiA) where he did in fact face some challenges at the plate throughout the season, only hitting .171/.270/.243 overall at his new level.
It was really a tale of two seasons for Cronenworth. He dominated in LoA both on the field and at the plate, got a taste of HiA, and saw where he needs work there to continue going forward. Hopefully his knowledge of the strike zone can help him achieve success in Charlotte this year and he can work his way to Montgomery before season’s end.
Up next after two guys who can hit the ball extremely well is one whose ceiling earns him praise and also brings arguments about his overall potential.....
BPS MLB OFF SEASON TRAINING IS IN FULL EFFECT! We welcome back a couple of familar faces and add a new member to the familia! pic.twitter.com/I0gwzIos0L— BPS (@BOMMARITOS) October 19, 2016
#3: Lucius Fox | 19 - A | 6’1” 175 lbs
2016 Stats: 75 G | 331 PA | 2 HR | 46 R | 11.2 BB% | 23 SO% | .279 wOBA% | 74 wRC+
The Giants shattered their international budget in 2015 to ensure Fox didn’t wind up with the Dodgers, signing him for more than double their $2.13M budget. When the Rays sent Matt Moore to the Giants, they targeted Fox, a player that they couldn’t afford due to their Int’l budget being restricted to a max of $300K for each signing.
Although Matt Duffy was a big part of the trade of Matt Moore, make no mistake, Fox was integral to getting a deal done.
Overall, there are plenty of issues to point out in Fox’s case, and it seems people are quick to point out those deficiencies as they point to the huge bonus as an argument that he should be doing more. Of all the assessments made, after pointing out his being overmatched vs pro pitching so far, these strengths pointed out by BA seems to fit him best:
And that assessment fits his performance in 2016. He stole 25 bases (7 CS) while managing an underwhelming line of .207/.305/.277.
What most forget is that he played the majority of that season at 18 years old, his first as a pro. He has the raw tools to succeed, he simply didn’t have the lower-in-the-minors experience to help him succeed. Yes, the low line is worrisome and fielding wise he’s got plenty of question marks as the 32 errors made at SS are no highlight. But there are positives to draw from that point to progress made.
Fox hit .254/.353/.339 in June - a period that saw him walk 8 times and strike out only 7 times, he hit .269/.389/.369 at home - an indication that when comfortable, he performed well, and he hit .259/.412/.407 late in the games when score was close. A total of 5 of his 12 extra base hits on the year came with RISP, and he showed great range at SS.
To remain at SS, Fox will need to work on his throws and limit errors. He could wind up at 2B in the future, but the current plan is for him to remain at SS and attempt his first A ball season in 2017. If he can make the best of his speed and range, improve on his switch-hitting abilities, and drive the ball more consistently, he’ll regain many people’s confidence.
I, for one, still hold out hope he’ll surpass most skeptic’s expectations and do more of this than people expect (hit vs Braves 11th ranked prospect Max Fried):
#2: Daniel Robertson | 22 - AAA | 6’1” 205 lbs
Scouting grades: Hit: 20-55 | Power: 20-45+ | Throws: 50-50+ | Field: 50-50+
2016 Stats: 118 G | 511 PA | 5 HR | 50 R | 11.4 BB% | 19.6 SO% | .331 wOBA% | 110 wRC+
Continuing on with high expectations vs actual performance, Robertson continues to get a wide range of opinions when his role and ceiling are talked about. Some view him as eventually earning a regular role in MLB, while others view him as a utility player who can fill in at 2B/SS/3B.
The truth of his 2016 season lies in the splits. After a mediocre first half of the season (.254/.333/.331), while recovering from injury in his first year at AAA, Robertson managed a .270/.406/.409 at the plate in the second half, showing the confidence and patience he’s shown historically had at the plate. He managed 1 extra base hit for every 10 AB (13 through 137 AB), which was more representative of the .140 ISO he managed in 2015 (AA) than the .096 ISO he managed on the year in 2016 (AAA).
He also maintained a very similar OPS vs both LHP (.706) and RHP (.716), both of which improved as he increased his OPS from .664 Pre All-star game to .815 Post All-Star game. You can get a good look at that late season hitting ability here, from a game he managed to go 4-for-4 in late July.
On the field, Robertson spent 162 innings at 3B, 183 innings at 2B, and 663 innings at SS. Regardless of where he was played, he was a strong and dependable defender who could be counted on to make plays while displaying slightly above-average range.
It’s easy to envision his versatility earning him a shot on the Rays at some point in 2017. With Logan Forsythe now dealt and some questions to be answered at 2B and SS this season, he may get the chance to prove himself. With his professional approach at the plate and progress shown in the 2nd half of 2016, don’t expect the Rays to be shy about challenging him at the right time.
Now a polished and MLB ready product, it’ll be interesting to see how he performs when he gets his first shot in MLB. And at the top of our list was the unanimous choice as the best SS prospect the Rays have in-house this season....
#1: Willy Adames | 21 - AA | 6’1” 180 lbs
Scouting grades: Hit: 60. Power: 55. Speed: 50. Fielding: 55. Arm: 55
2016 AA: 132 G | 568 PA | 11 HR | 89 R | 13 SB | 13 BB% | 21.3 SO% | .372 wOBA% | 135 wRC+
Most recently ranked the the 11th best prospects in MLB by BA, Adames truly has the complete package you look for in a prospect. An extremely high ceiling, an extremely high floor, makeup off the charts and the baseball skills to match. Rays fans, Willy Adames is a prospect you should be excited about, and before I point out some reasons, let’s listen to more about Adames and his thoughts before the season began.
I don’t know about you, but what I take away from listening to him speak is that he’s a humble person who is an appreciative team mate, and one that seems to be aware that all he can control is how hard he works every day.
There’s a lot to get excited about when we look through Adames’ 2016 season. Here are some of the best, statistically speaking:
- Led Southern League (SL) in walks with 74 as a rookie
- Second in SL with a .802 OPS (only Tyler O’Neill was better)
- Third in SL with 31 doubles and 209 Total Bases
- Fifth in SL with a .372 OBP and .430 SLG
- Tied for 9th in triples with 6
- Ranked 15th in RBI with 57
- Made the mid and post-season all-star teams for the SL
- Overall, his performance was strong enough for BA to rank him the 2nd best prospect in the SL
Most impressively, however, is the fact that Adames managed all of this while being challenged by the Biscuits and the Rays who had him hit 3rd or 4th in the lineup the majority of the season. Instead of wilting within himself and succumbing to the pressure of being a rookie core of the lineup hitter facing AA pitching for the first time, Adames stayed within himself and showed well above-average patience at the plate.
A quick look at his first AA HR before moving on to his fielding abilities:
All of those are impressive and come with a strong and improving defensive package. Scouts praise his plus arm strength and think his nimble skills (particularly how effective he is at setting himself before making throws) can help make up for some of his limitations in range. Most agree he should stick at SS long-term, although others argue he’d also fit in well at 2B.
Here’s a good example of his defensive abilities:
That kind of professionalism from such a young player doesn’t come around every day. And that’s why the Rays felt comfortable enough to do it despite having other options like Casey Gillaspie, Jake Bauers, and Patrick Leonard that to take that kind of challenge on.
As described in BA’s write up on Adames this offseason:
Adames has exceptional makeup, both in terms of his work ethic and character. He quickly achieved fluency in English and connects well with American players as well as other Latin Americans. Rays officials laud his leadership ability and enthusiasm for game-day preparation.
Some day in the near future, Adames will be in the Rays infield and we’ll get the pleasure of watching him play every day. He could have the kind of impact that Francisco Lindor’s infectious personality had on the Cleveland Indians. With a passion for Baseball, makeup off the charts, and with the combination of skills and a tremendous work-ethic, he’s going to become a leader very quickly in Tampa Bay.
We wish all of these great prospects good luck in 2017 as some likely make an impact on the Rays playoff chances.