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Rays 2017 Top Prospects by Position: Third Base

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The Rays system is full of talent for an eventual post-Longoria era at the hot corner

MLB: Spring Training-Tampa Bay Rays at Atlanta Braves Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s start this rankings list by acknowledging how successfully the Rays filled the hot corner over the past near-decade.

Selected 3rd overall in 2006, Evan Longoria made his MLB debut in 2008 and immediately emerged as an elite third baseman. Since then, he’s had 5474 PA, hitting 241 home runs and 1311 hits overall. Although third base is a stacked position across the league, note that Longoria, since his debut, leads all 3B with the highest WAR (47.1). A close second is Adrian Beltre (46.1), before we drop to David Wright (32.1) and Josh Donaldson (31.8).

His performance and his willingness to commit to Tampa Bay long-term means there hasn’t been much pressure to stockpile third basemen. This is one non-pitching position where this team has been set for years and continues to be for the foreseeable future.

That may explain why third base has received lower priority in Rays amateur draft selections. The Rays 2016 first round selection, Josh Lowe, plays third but is reportedly moving to centre field. There was no significant third base grab in 2015, and in 2014 only a late pick that received $7,500, 9th rounder Chris Pike.

Back in 2013 the Rays chose Ty Young (24) in the 7th round. He received a $162,900 bonus and played for Bowling Green last season. By far the largest investment (discounting Lowe) made at the hot corner in recent years was for 2012 first round selection, the recently dealt 1B/3B Richie Shaffer, who received a $1,710,000 bonus.

But Longoria won’t be playing 160 plus games a season forever, and perhaps with his aging curve in mind, the Rays have recently been re-focusing on making third base a priority in trades and international signings.

That shift in focus began with their largest international investment ever - $2.95M for SS/3B Adrian Rondon - and continued through the acquisitions of both Kevin Padlo from the Rockies and Carlos Vargas from the Mariners. At least one of these prospects, if all goes well, ought to be ready for promotion just as a Longoria replacement will be needed, while the others offer some form of insurance.

With that background, let’s take a look at the Rays top five third base prospects.

#5: Patrick Leonard | 24 - AAA | 6’4” 225 lbs

Drafted: by KC in the 5th rd of the 2011 draft Signed: for $600,000

Acquired: along with Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery from Kansas City

Scouting Grades: Hit 20/45+ | Power 20/45+ | Field 40/45 | Throws 55/55

Twitter Handle: @PTRays20

2016 AA Stats: 74 G | 307 PA | 9 HR | 8 SB | 6.5 BB% | 26.7 SO% | .373 wOBA | 136 wRC+

2016 AAA Stats: 42 G | 145 PA | 0 HR | 0 SB | 9 BB% | 37.2 SO% | .250 wOBA | 53 wRC+

Leonard has been a bit of an enigma as he’s come up through the minors. Although he has power to spare, he’s yet to show it off consistently in games. And although he’s able to put together some tremendous ABs, he’s yet to do so consistently enough for us to view him as a regular. His offense can be summarized in one word: inconsistent.

The Rays had Leonard split time between four positions in 2016 (1B/3B/LF/RF), building up his versatility, possibly to increase the chances he’ll earn a bench role in the near future. He’s excelled at each position he played, aside from the limited range he displayed in the OF. We decided to rank him as a 3B to highlight him as one of the most ready to contribute prospects at the position.

On the positive side of things, Leonard was able to produce at an above-average clip in AA, showing off a .373 wOBA that got him a good look in AAA thereafter. However, Leonard’s long swing was exposed in AAA and he struck out at an alarming rate in Durham, with little power to offset the strike outs.

Defense is his strong suit. His first base work earns him praise yearly as one of the best defensive 1B in the minors. That, combined with his power (if he can harness it), could make him comparable to recent Red Sox signee Mitch Moreland. Interestingly, Moreland was also in AA at age 23 but hit .326/.373/.488, which is significantly better than Leonard’s .286/.345/.471 at the same level and age.

However, Leonard is within reach of Moreland’s output and could still earn a shot at the majors if he comes out swinging in 2017 and corrects the struggles he had at the level last season. Interestingly, he was one of the last cuts in 2016’s Spring Training, which indicates how interested they were in seeing more of his play. He definitely needs to cut down on the strike outs, but could be headed to TB at some point this season despite that shortcoming.

#4: Andrew Velazquez | 22 - HiA | 5’10” 160 lbs

Drafted: 7th rd/‘12, 1 pick after Rays took Marty Gantt Signed: for $200,000

Scouting grades: Hit: 20/50+ | Power: 20/40 | Speed: 60 | Arm: 55 | Field: 50/55

Twitter Handle: @squezhao

2016 HiA Stats: 75 G | 313 PA | 1 HR | 11 SB | 6.7 BB% | 22.7 SO% | .296 wOBA% | 84 wRC+

Velazquez had his best season in 2014 (.290/.367/.428 plus 50 SB) but has failed to come close to that production since.

After a mediocre 2016 season in which he hit .262/.313/.308 with only 11 SB (6 CS), mostly due to a broken hamate bone and hamstring issues, Velazquez was allowed to play winter ball to get some extra work in, and it seems to have awakened his bat. Playing for Criollos de Caguas alongside Rusney Castillo of the Red Sox, Velazquez hit .329/.331/.660 and added 14 SB (3CS). An encouraging sign after an injury riddled season.

Make no mistake, Velazquez - when healthy - has the tools to have an impact on the field. If he gets a chance to show us what he can do with a full season in 2017, he could regain some of his top prospect allure, one that had him being a major return in the Jeremy Hellickson trade along with likely 2017 teammate Justin Williams.

Here’s a glimpse of what Velazquez can do when healthy:

Velazquez may never have enough power to be a top-of-the-lineup bat, but he has worked hard to lower his strike outs (22.7% in 2016), and has increased his fielding versatility by working at second and third base as well as shortstop. With above-average defensive tools and speed, it’s easy to envision Velazquez as a potential utility player who can impact the game with his speed (graded as 60 on the 20/80 scale when healthy).

Look for him to be challenged with a AA assignment at some point in 2017. Should he play a full healthy season, he could easily find himself in the top 15 Rays prospects conversation next off season.

#3: Carlos Vargas | 17 - DSL | 6’3” 170 lbs

Signed: as an international free agent for $1.7M by the Mariners (2015)

Acquired: in trade along with Ryan Yarbrough and Mallex Smith for Drew Smyly. Interestingly, the Rays couldn’t afford to sign as an international free agent, but were able to trade for him this offseason

Scouting grades: Hit: 50 | Power: 50 | Run: 30 | Arm: 60 | Field: 50

2016 DSL Stats: 62 G | 256 PA | 7 HR | 2 SB | 12.5 BB% | 13.7 SO% | .365 wOBA% | 119 wRC+

When the Rays busted their international budget and were restricted to $300K investments as a result, it looked that top international talent was beyond their reach. But recently, the Rays front office has proven ingenious by foregoing the initial investment required to sign such players ($6M for Lucius Fox and $1.7M for Carlos Vargas) and trading for them instead.

Vargas spent the 2016 season at shortstop but his size and potential range limitations are likely to require a move to third. As always, it’s tough to get a really good feel for a prospect that only played in the DSL, but there are aspects of his 2016 performance that are intriguing.

First and foremost, Vargas did in fact show off his power potential as he tied for 5th most HRs in the DSL with 7. Secondly, he did so with above average patience at the plate, walking 12.5 % of the time while only striking out 13.7 %. His resulting .365 wOBA was also encouraging, helping him to a 119 wRC+, while his splits indicate more comfort vs RHP (.260/.364/.412) than LHP (.158/.238/.289).

It’ll be interesting to see what Vargas can do stateside in 2017 as we get a glimpse of how he’ll fit within the Rays prospects after a season with this franchise. You can catch his smooth and powerful swing below:

#2: Adrian Rondon | 18 - Appy | 6’1” 190 lbs

Signed: as an international free agent for $2.95M in 2014

***Was 3.5 yrs younger than the average player in the Appy League in 2016***

2016 Appy Stats: 52 G | 210 PA | 7 HR | 1 SB | 6.2 BB% | 27.6 SO% | .330 wOBA% | 100 wRC+

Adrian Rondon is the kind of prospect you get really excited about when you consider his full potential. Not only does he have the tools to become a regular MLB player, but he has the ceiling to become one of its stars.

How much did the Rays love Rondon’s makeup when they signed the top international free agent of his class?

Dominican shortstop Adrian Rondon, the No. 1 international prospect for July 2, has signed with the Rays for $2,950,000. Rondon became eligible to sign today, his 16th birthday, and has earned widespread praise from scouts for his offensive potential at a premium position. The signing puts the Rays well beyond 15 percent over their $1,998,100 bonus pool, which means they will have to pay a 100 percent tax on their pool overage and won’t be allowed to sign any player for more than $300,000 in the next two signing periods.

That’s a Whole Lotta Love. But how was he last season?

On the surface, some could call his 2016 season a disappointment, particularly at the plate where his line of .249/.301/.430 may seem underwhelming. However, when you consider his age (17) and it being his second on U.S. soil (he forewent the DSL altogether), you realize that it was still a fairly good performance for a teenager.

Some noteworthy numbers include his .180 ISO, his .330 wOBA, and his 19 extra base hits in 193 AB. His arm strength and accuracy really stood out in Princeton, leading the Rays to shift him to 3B for 2017.

Just what is it about Rondon that gets us most excited? It’s performances like the one he put up on June 25th (noted in Tweet below), with 3 HRs in one game (first 3 of his pro career) and 9 RBI.

Strongest against LHP in 2016 (.333/.373/.635, good for a 1.008 OPS in 67 PA), Rondon will have to improve vs RHP against whom he only managed a line of .209/.270/.333. Still, when you consider that his overall performance was similar to that of Cardinals top 3B prospect Bryce Denton who was a full 2 years older at the same level, it shows us that he is well ahead of the curve.

It’ll be interesting to see how much of a challenge Rondon receives in 2017 and whether or not he’ll reach Bowling Green. As he makes the shift to the hot corner, however, the majority of his focus will be in adjusting to the new position and in taking that next step forward at the plate.

We expect really great things from Rondon going forward, and with many top Rays prospects expected to be promoted in 2017, he could easily top the Rays prospects list for 2018.

#1: Kevin Padlo | 20 - LoA | 6’2” 200 lbs

Drafted: 5th rd of 2014 draft (COL) Signed: for $650,000

Acquired: From COL, along with Corey Dickerson, for Jake McGee and German Marquez

Twitter Handle: @KevinPadlo

2016 MWL Stats: 115 G | 508 PA | 16 HR | 14 SB | 15.6 BB% | 26.4 SO% | .362 wOBA% | 130 wRC+

After getting 200 more PA than ever before in 2016, Padlo was able to show all Rays fans what it was about him that allowed the Rays to part with a high-end arm like Marquez as they targeted him in trade. He made both the mid-season and post-season all-star teams in 2016, and for good reason.

Padlo accomplished many feats in 2016, and can be found on Midwest League leaderboards: T-3rd in HR, 2nd in league with a 15.6% BB%, 3rd among 3B in ISO (.184), 4th among 3B with a 130 wRC, and 7th in OPS among 3B with .771. Most exciting of all was his best month of the season - August - when he hit .276/.413/.425 over 110 PA.

Defensively, Padlo improved at the hot corner a great deal - possibly more than most people know. He cut his errors from 13 in 730.2 innings (2015) to 10 errors in 954.2 innings (2016), something he needed to work on, while completing more double plays (21) and earning Baseball America’s top defensive 3B honours for the MWL as a result. And that’s what takes Padlo’s ranking above Rondon’s - for now. He’s played the position and has done so at a level well-above his peers.

In short, he improved all season long and is set to tackle HiA.

Padlo will need to work on handling breaking pitches and improve his overall average at the plate. With his patience, we know he’s going to get on base at a good rate. It’s a bit of an oddity to have such great power, patience, and speed, and yet be known for having serious holes in your swing, but that’s where things stand with Padlo.

Many are hoping he knocks the ball around at a greater pace in 2017 and silences those worries. If he does, look for him to break into most Top 100 prospects lists next offseason. If not, he still projects to challenge for an every day third base job in 2019 or 2020, at 22-23 years old, when Longoria will be 33-34 years old.

Here’s a video of Padlo knocking the ball around to finish off our 3B rankings list.