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Rays Top Prospects by Position: Center Field

After pitching, CF offers the deepest part of the system for the Rays

NCAA Baseball: College World Series-LSU vs TCU Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

After signing a 6-year $53.5M contract, Kevin Kiermaier is going to be in center field for the Rays for the foreseeable future. This makes it likely that the prospects included below, should they progress to merit a starting position on the major league team, would be included in trade or forced to move to a corner outfield position, at least for the foreseeable future.

The Rays have seemingly made CF one of their more significant foci of late when it comes to drafts and player investments. They love the athleticism found at the position and seem comfortable with having the majority of their OF prospects profile as good CF options.

From the $1,150,000 they spent on Mikie Mahtook and $490,000 on Granden Goetzman in 2011, to the $554,400 spent on Spencer Edwards and $394,200 on Andrew Toles in 2012, the Rays have made CF a priority each draft year. And In 2013, it was $528,100 on Thomas Milone while in 2014 it was $127,820 on Zacrey Law.

But by far the most significant investments have come from the last 2 drafts and the 2014 international signing period, a time period that saw the Rays invest $400,000 on Jesus Sanchez, $2,959,600 on Garrett Whitley, $997,500 on Ryan Boldt, and $797,500 on Jake Fraley. And that doesn’t include the $2,597,500 spent on Josh Lowe who is said to be moving to CF this season.

Maybe they were protecting against their ability to retain Kiermaier long-term, but they’ve certainly built up a stable of young center fielders who will now have to look at the corner outfield spots as main options if they want to break onto the Rays roster. If not, some on this list will become valuable trade chips at the very least.

We kick things off with a 2016 signee who actually would profile well in a corner outfield position if he could draw his power out come game-time....

#6: Ryan Boldt | 22 - SS | 6’2” 210 lbs

Drafted: in the 2nd rd of the 2016 draft, signed for $997,500

Twitter Handle: @ryanboldt21

2016 SS Stats: 186 PA | 1 HR | 8 SB | 5.4 BB% | 12.9 SO% | .273 wOBA | 71 wRC+

Scouting grades: Hit: 50 | Power: 40 | Run: 55 | Arm: 45 | Field: 55 | Overall: 45

Noted for his tools more than his on-the-field performance (which has yet to impress), Boldt has continued to frustrate evaluators - and fans - as a result. The Rays believe enough in his attributes to have signed him for just under a million, however, so they must have faith that he’ll develop as they anticipate.

I’m more skeptical, but will wait for a full season before making that opinion firm.

The one tool that Boldt displayed handily in college was his hit tool, along with speed in the field - some of which translated on the bases (20 SB his last season, but with 9 CS). His hit tool has not, however, trended in the right direction, as he dropped from .344/.429/.408 in 2015 to .288/.344/.416 in 2016.

To me, the more concerning issue is the lack of power in his 713 AB in college. Boldt hit 33 doubles, 10 triples, and 8 HRs, showing minimal game power tools that indicate more is possible. This trend continued in HV (.059 ISO) where he struggled against RHP, hitting .211/.284/.258 through 128 AB. On the bases, Boldt managed 8 SB, but also 9 CS.

Boldt will need to revamp his approach at the plate and tap into his tools pronto. This is one pick the Rays will regret quickly if he doesn’t begin to show at least average in-game power. At this point, his ceiling seems to be that of a 4th OF who can slot in when needed and provide some speed off-the-bench.

#5: Nathan Lukes | HiA - 22 | 5’11” 185 lbs

Drafted: by CLE in 7th rd of ‘15 draft, signed for $130K, obtained by TB in Guyer deal

Twitter Handle: @nathan_lukes

2016 LoA Stats (CLE): 393 PA | 5 HR | 14 SB | 9.4 BB% | 15.3 SO% | .383 wOBA | 145 wRC+

2016 HiA (CLE): 23 PA | 0 HR | 1 SB | 0 BB% | 21.7 SO% | .259 wOBA | 53 wRC+

2016 HiA (TB): 71 PA | 1 HR | 0 SB | 4.2 BB% | 12.7 SO% | .230 wOBA | 40 wRC+

The Rays are hoping they got a decent returns from their deal with the Indians. Guyer was a fan favourite - and LHP killer - in TB, so there’s a lot riding on Lukes’ performance going forward, although knowing the Rays the likelier main target in the trade was likely Jhonleider Salinas, a 6’7” RHP who could move quickly through the system.

Thanks to an open stance with right foot back, Lukes is able to see the ball well and cover a lot of the plate, making good contact. This limits the strike outs, but it remains to be seen whether the approach continues to bring success in HiA and above. There is a lot of movement in his approach at the plate, and although some don’t like that, it does work well for some.

The thing he’ll have to work on most is tapping into his gap power and make it stand out enough to be viewed as an everyday outfielder if he reaches the majors. Already 22 years old and limited in height, there isn’t much projection left in his case but he could add enough strength to add more pop.

Lukes uses his above-average speed well on the bases. He still has to learn more about stealing bases (8 CS with 14 SB on the year), but he should be able to reach 20+ SB per season if he does. A good comparison for Lukes may be fellow Rays prospect Johnny Field who put up similar numbers at the same age in LoA and has similar tools.

#4: Jake Fraley | SS - 21 | 6’0” 195 lbs

Drafted: in rd 2.5 of the ‘16 Draft, signed for $797,500

Twitter Handle: @jfral_23

2016 SS Stats: 239 PA | 1 HR | 33 SB | 10.9 BB% | 14.2 SO% | .340 wOBA | 115 wRC+

Scouting grades: Hit: 50 | Power: 35 | Run: 70 | Arm: 40 | Field: 60 | Overall: 45

The Rays invested yet another high-end pick on a player who lacks game power when they drafted and signed Fraley, but this time they seem to have hit on one that has a higher ceiling because of his approach at the plate and plus-plus speed.

Fraley knows how to work counts, can make enough contact to get on base at a decent - but not yet above-average - rate, and doesn’t strike out a whole lot. That makes him an intriguing prospect in terms of being able to work his way through the minors and get a shot on an MLB team, even if it isn’t as a regular.

His best attribute, however, is his speed, which he uses well both on the field — where he provides above-average defensive skills in CF — and on the bases, as shown by his 33 SB. Fangraphs rate his speed at 9.0, which is a fairly rare mark. As a comparison, they only rated Trea Turner as having a higher rating once (9.1 in 2014 while with the Nats AA team), and Dee Gordon only matched or exceeded that mark twice in his career.

The package Fraley brings to the table is very similar to that of Mallex Smith, who the Rays are clearly very fond of. While at SD’s LoA affiliate at a similar age, Smith put up comparable stats (12.5 BB% and 18.2 SO% with 0 HR and 48 SB). If I were to pin-point a ceiling for Fraley, Smith’s profile would fit best at this point.

With KK now signed long-term in TB and Smith also on board, there’s a good chance that another team (possibly an NL team) comes asking for Fraley’s services. Likely headed to BG for his first full season play, there’s a very good chance he’ll find himself in HiA Charlotte quickly.

#3: Garrett Whitley | 20 - SS | 6’1” 205 lbs

Drafted: in the 1st rd of the 2015 draft, signed for $2,959,600

Twitter Handle: @RealGWhit

2016 SS Stats: 292 PA | 1 HR | 21 SB | 10.3 BB% | 25.7 SO% | .355 wOBA | 124 wRC+

Scouting grades: Hit: 50 | Power: 45 | Run: 60 | Arm: 55 | Field: 60 | Overall: 50

If you’ve grown frustrated waiting for Whitley’s breakout performance since he was taken in the 1st round, you’re not alone. Many are waiting for that explosion. But it may have already begun.

Looking closely at his 2016 performance, from August 1st onwards Whitley hit .304/.381/.471 with a .167 ISO, .403 wOBA, and 155 wRC+. He managed 10.3% BB% over that span while limiting his SO% to 21.3%. But most encouraging in all of this was the power shown by hitting 9 doubles, 4 triples, and 2 HR (15 extra-base hits) in 155 PA. As Whitley stated in the midst of this span:

"[I'm] pretty comfortable and I've been able to find a place with my swing that I'm happy with and hope to be able to continue the success to finish out this season strong," Whitley said. "To be able to [come through and find my groove] in a situation like the one we have going on here is even better. We have a great group of guys here and we're trying to keep this win streak going through the final game. It's a lot of fun to play on a team like this."

For the first time since he was drafted, Whitley showed true signs of power, enough power that he’s become one of my favorite breakout prospects to watch in the Rays organization for the 2017 season.

Likely to be challenged with his first full season of baseball this season, Whitley will get a chance to prove to everyone that the Rays didn’t make a mistake in drafting him 13th overall, just ahead of high-end prospects like the Braves’ Kolby Allard and the Brewer’s Trent Clark.

While we all wait to see if he comes through, there’s good reason to be optimistic. However, his greatest competition is coming up and may represent the biggest barriers to his getting a shot with the Rays down the road, making him a potential trade chip.

#2: Jesus Sanchez | 19 - Appy | 6’2” 185 lbs

Signed: for $400,000 as an international free agent in 2015

2016 GCL Stats: 173 PA | 4 HR | 1 SB | 3.5 BB% | 17.9 SO% | .401 wOBA | 153 wRC+

2016 Appy Stats: 53 PA | 3 HR | 1 SB | 5.7 BB% | 22.6 SO% | .442 wOBA | 170 wRC+

Scouting grades: Hit: 55 | Power: 55 | Run: 55 | Arm: 55 | Field: 60 | Overall: 50

If Jesus Sanchez had gone through the draft and had been selected in the first round, there’s no doubt in my mind that he’d top this list. As it is, he gets the second spot.

Baseball America ranked Sanchez 6th best prospect in the GCL after the season, 2 spots ahead of Josh Lowe who topped the DRB list. Meanwhile’s Top 30 Rays prospect list and BA’s Top 10 Rays Prospect list had Sanchez ranked as the 7th best prospect, one spot behind Lowe - so take you’re pick! It is confusing, however, that rank all of Sanchez’ tools at 55 or above and yet rate him at a 50 overall.

The best OF prospect this organization has had for a long time when it comes to a power and speed combination, Sanchez has a lot to offer. Above-average speed, power, and arm strength top the list, along with a tremendous ability to make contact. If there’s a knock on him so far it may be the aggressiveness at the plate which has restricted the number of walks he earns. But hey, if it leads to .400 wOBA or better, does it really matter?

Scouts seem to agree that Sanchez should be able to handle CF going forward since he has enough speed to cover the area. While that’s true, his bat should play well in RF and he has the arm strength to play there, making it a possibility that he winds up there as he moves up through the system. And if he were ranked on our corner prospects list, he would definitely top it.

There a very good chance that you’ll see Sanchez in both HV and BG this season as the organization continues to challenge him at a young age. Playing all of 2017 at 19 years old, Sanchez is a prospect Rays fans should be very excited about.

#1: Josh Lowe | 19 - Appy | 6’4” 190 lbs

Signed: for $2,597,500 after being drafted 13th overall in 2016

2016 GCL Stats: 28 G | 114 PA | 2 HR | 1 SB | 17.5 BB% | 23.7 SO% | .380 wOBA% | 140 wRC+

2016 Appy Stats: 26 G | 100 PA | 3 HR | 1 SB | 17 BB% | 32 SO% | .351 wOBA% | 113 wRC+

Scouting grades: Hit: 50 | Power: 50 | Run: 60 | Arm: 60 | Field: 55 | Overall: 50

That Sanchez compares well when put alongside Lowe tells us a lot about how great an athlete he is, because many evaluators believed Lowe to be the best athlete in the 2016 draft class. He not only rated well as a position player, but also on the mound, which explains his 60 Arm rating - something that plays well either at 3B or in the OF.

Lowe’s power rates just below that of Sanchez but he’s likely to be able to manage his fair share of extra-base hits going forward. It’s hard to say whether that translates into HR power, but it should easily exceed the 15 HR level with an above-average ISO overall.

The most worrisome aspect Lowe’s package so far is his SO rate and the holes in his swing that pitchers can attack effectively. That led to a .237/.362/.409 line through his last 116 PA with 31.9% SO% and .172 ISO. While the power and BBs were nice (17.2% BB%), it wasn’t as effective as the period before that which saw him hit .258/.386/.409 in 114 PA with a similar walk rate but much more tolerable 23.7% SO%.

What this all points to is that the tools are there to be harvested, but that Lowe will have to protect against having his weaknesses exploited as he moves through to the higher levels of the minors. Scouts still love his patience and “polished” tools at the plate, however, so he should be able to meet the challenges of facing more advanced pitchers.

The Rays are moving Lowe to the OF this season (some say it doesn’t mean he can’t return to 3B down the road), and it will be interesting to see where he plays. There’s a good chance he’ll continue to play with Sanchez, possibly in BG along with Whitley, making them one of the better tandems - or trios - to follow in 2017.

While it’ll be a few years before they begin to challenge for roster spots, Lowe and Sanchez remain two of the more intriguing position prospects the Rays organization has to offer.

To finish off this list, here’s Josh Lowe performing in a HR Derby.