The next player on the list of top prospects in franchise history isn’t a current prospect, but he is a recent one whose major league career is still unfolding.
20. SS Reid Brignac
19. RHP Matt White
18. RHP Chris Archer
17. RHP Wade Davis/LHP Jake McGee
16. RHP Jeremy Hellickson
15. 1B/LHP Brendan McKay
14. SS Tim Beckham
13. RHP Brent Honeywell
12. SS Willy Adames
11. OF Desmond Jennings
10. LHP Blake Snell
Acquired: No. 52 pick by Rays (2011)
Baseball America Top-100 ranks: 12 (2015)
Rays Top-30 ranks: 1 (2015), 9 (2012, 2014), 14 (2013), 20 (2011)
League Top-20 ranks: 4 (2012 Appalachian League), 5 (2015 Southern League), 6 (2016 International League), 13 (2011 Gulf Coast League)
Snell was only listed in the Baseball America Top 100 once, but it wouldn’t be fair to say he came out of nowhere. He was a Day 1 pick in the Rays’ huge 2011 draft class, but I don’t think anyone expected him to perform the way he did in 2015.
BA summed it up perfectly when it awarded him its Player of the Year honor following the season. In 3 1⁄2 professional seasons, he had not yet reached Double A. That’s not unusual for high-school pitchers, but no one could have predicted what happened next. He started the season with 46 scoreless innings, earning that promotion to Double A in the process. By the end of the season, he found himself in Triple A.
Statistically, Snell was on a different plane of existence than everyone else. His 1.41 ERA was the lowest among minor-league qualifiers since Justin Verlander’s 1.29 ERA in 2005, and no one has topped him in the two years since. He was tied for fourth in the minors in strikeouts with future Ray Jose De Leon, five punchouts behind teammate Jaime Schultz, who was tied for second. He was ninth in WHIP and first in opponents’ average.
Snell made improvements in all aspects of his game in 2017, according to BA ($). His fastball velocity jumped into plus territory, and his changeup developed into a potential plus pitch to go along with his slider. More importantly, his control improved. His 10.2 percent walk rate was still too high, but he showed progress after walking 12.6 percent in his career prior to 2015. It proved he could make changes and improve.
He probably would have been taken much sooner than he was if his stuff had been that good in 2011. In BA’s draft report, his fastball sat 88-92 mph, and “scouts question whether he’ll be able to maintain that velocity over a full minor league season because of his frame.” Since then, he has added 10 pounds, and his fastball is fine. In addition, “[h]is curveball and changeup are just average at best.”
Clearly, it took Snell some time to become the pitcher he was in 2015. He pitched decently in his pro debut and earned the No. 13 spot on BA’s Top-20 Gulf Coast League prospects list. He was the only Ray on that list, even though there were no fewer than half a dozen other picks from their draft on that roster. In retrospect, that season hinted what that draft class would later produce.
Snell, like most, if not all, high-school pitchers drafted by the Rays, started the next year in a short-season league. In his case, it was with Princeton in the Appalachian League, and he excelled. Compared to his season in the GCL, he lowered his ERA by nearly a full run, and his strikeout and walk rates both improved. BA named him the No. 4 prospect in the league, comparing him to hard-throwing lefties like Matt Moore, Enny Romero, and Felipe Rivero. It also appears to be the first time his slider was referenced in a report.
The numbers weren’t great when Snell made his full-season debut in 2013. He did strike out 106 in 99 innings, but he also walked 73 with a 4.27 ERA, quite a bit worse than the league-average ERA of 3.83. He wasn’t listed among the league’s top prospects, and he fell five spots in the organization rankings. However, his report called both his slider and changeup potential plus offerings, so some of the signs that Snell would become the prospect he eventually did were there.
In a return to the Midwest League in 2014, Snell was much better. In 40 1/3 innings, he reduced his walk and home run rates, increased his strikeout rate, and allowed fewer hits. After a promotion to Class A-Advanced Charlotte, he went through another adjustment period, but the organization named him its Pitcher of the Year with a 3.19 ERA and 119 strikeouts in 115 2⁄3 innings between the two levels. He reclaimed a spot in BA’s Rays Top 10.
After his breakout 2015 campaign, Snell returned to Durham in 2016, but it wasn’t for long. After three starts with the Bulls, he was promoted to the Rays for a spot start. In his major league debut, he was sharp, striking out six Yankees and allowing just one run in five innings. He returned to Triple A for nine more starts, but once he was promoted to the big leagues again in June, he was up for good.
In his 19 major league starts, he was inconsistent, but a lot of 23-year-old pitchers are. As usual, he struck out a lot of batters, but he also walked a lot, leading to quite a few short outings. In 89 innings, he had a 3.54 ERA.
Those inconsistencies continued in 2017. After eight generally poor starts, he was optioned back to Triple A. He struck out 12 in his return to the Bulls and punched out at least seven in all of his outings and cut down on his walks. He again found himself back in the majors at the end of June, and despite another brief option back to Durham in August, he didn’t actually appear in a minor league game again.
Snell made 16 starts in the majors the rest of the year, and he was better. He had a 3.71 ERA, struck out nearly a batter an inning, and his walk rate was below 10 percent. He certainly still had his share of ugly outings, but he was showing his promise. In his 2017 finale, he struck out 13 and walked none in seven scoreless innings.
Still just 25, the future seems bright for Snell. Throughout his professional career, it took time to make adjustments to new levels, and at the end of 2017, he finally appeared to be settling in as a major leaguer. If he fulfills his potential, the Rays could have a left-handed weapon at the top of their rotation.