In most cases, a team’s Class-A team won’t be of too much importance. Watching teenagers play baseball isn’t always fun, and with how far away these players are from the majors, most casual and even dedicated fans won’t necessarily pay too much attention to what’s going on in the low levels of the minors. But for certain teams, the low minors might tell a story or provide hope.
For the Rays, it might do both.
The Bowling Green Hot Rod lineup features prospects Garrett Whitley, Jesus Sanchez, Joshua Lowe, Adrian Rondon and Lucius Fox. All five have considerable upside and tools, but more importantly, all seem to be a part of a shift in the kind of prospects Tampa looks to acquire through various methods.
How the young guns got here
In 2014, the Rays traded for Willy Adames, among others, for David Price. That same year, the Rays signed Adrian Rondon as their top international prospect, incurring the financial penalty and not being allowed to spend big on the international market for two years. In December of 2014, the Rays acquired Jake Bauers in the Wil Myers trade, again picking up a young, advanced hitter as a small part to a large deal.
In the 2015 draft, the Rays took outfielder Garrett Whitley in the first round and catcher Chris Betts in the second round. Prior to the 2015 draft, Jesus Sanchez was signed out of the Dominican. High risk, high reward teenage position players remained the theme.
In 2016, the rays acquired Lucius Fox in the Matt Moore trade and drafted Joshua Lowe in the first round of the draft, continuing the trend of young, toolsy young hitters, and all of them stand in stark contrast to the players the Rays seemed to value in previous drafts and acquisitions, such as college hitters Mikie Mahtook, Richie Shaffer, or possible success story Casey Gillaspie.
How it’s going so far
This new approach isn’t a far cry from what has made the Rays successful in the past, picking up Chris Archer as a smaller part of the Matt Garza trade and help him blossom into a top of the rotation arm, or gambling on Tim Beckham number one in the 2008 draft over safer college targets. But the difference is noticeable. With the Rays running into some tough years and needing as much upside as possible to regain a winning edge, these recent moves are a good sign.
The early returns have been mixed, with Whitley and Lowe showing plenty of plate discipline but almost all of Bowling Green’s lineup struggling to make consistent contact.
On the positive side, the group athleticism gives them a solid chance to make the majors without putting too much pressure on their bats. Lowe and Whitley profile as possible center fielders with plus legs while Fox profiles as a true up the middle shortstop.
This swing towards raw, young athletes has already yielded success in the Rays’ upper farm system, and hopefully, soon the major league team. Willy Adames has filled into his 6’1” 180-pound frame while remaining a capable shortstop with a great batter’s eye. Jake Bauers has steadily increased his power production while still using the whole field and extending his versatility to the corner outfield.
A little further down, Justin Williams (acquired for Jeremy Hellickson) is progressing towards hitting more fly balls and line drives and utilizing his raw strength in game, with above average reports on defense. He’ll turn 22 this year, his second season with Double-A Montgomery.
At the time of each of these player’s acquisitions, they were an extra piece with raw upside, and each has shown signs of becoming quality major leaguers, maybe even all-stars, in the future.
With that approach in full swing, Bowling Green’s roster is an extreme example of the Rays getting younger and more athletic in the low minors, resulting in the youngest farm system in the game:
The Rays draft many high school players and sign many international amateurs, and they tend to trade for players from those backgrounds, so it makes sense that the organization’s minor league affiliates would be the youngest in the game.
Indicators for what the Rays might do next
This youth-prioritized approach may hint toward what the Rays might plan to do at the top of the draft or at the trade deadline.
Alex Cobb’s name has popped up in rumors in spring, and a strong first half could not only put him out of the Rays’ price range, if he isn’t already, but also give them an asset they can flip for prospects. If a team like the Cubs calls up the Rays for Cobb, expect to hear names like Bryan Hudson, Jose Albertos, or D.J. Wilson as pieces discussed.
As for the draft, the Rays have already been linked to North Carolina righty J.B. Bukauskas in a Baseball America mock draft, and the Florida ties to Alex Faedo make him a natural, fit but high school bats like Royce Lewis, Austin Beck, or Jordan Adell may be better fitted at number four given the Rays’ new prerogative.
Youngsters with physical tools and high ceilings (specifically position players) are becoming the Rays’ continuing objective, and it will be exciting to see who climbs the ladder toward the Trip in the coming years.