We’re now two weeks into minor league baseball season. While I tend to agree with those who say “it’s a small sample size, and there are no conclusions to be reached yet,” it’s still common for people to wonder how prospects and teams are doing so far.
So despite the small amount of data we have, I looked at the stats of the players on Baseball America’s Rays top-30 prospects and found some storylines from the early going. All stats and standings are through the games of April 18.
Experienced Triple-A prospects
Durham’s roster has five hitters in the top 30, including three who have regular-season experience in Triple A. Entering the season, it wasn’t a matter of if Willy Adames, Christian Arroyo, and Jake Bauers would make their Rays debuts in 2018 — it was a matter of when. With the Rays’ offense struggling, are any of the prospects forcing the team’s hand?
Matt Duffy going on the disabled list presented an opportunity, particularly to Arroyo. However, he landed on the DL himself with a calf strain. He wasn’t playing well prior to the injury, but his BABIP was just .250.
For Adames and Bauers, the front office has its own criteria for when they’ll be promoted, and I’m sure stats from 50 plate appearances isn’t part of the evaluation. That said, Adames is off to a nice start. His strikeout rate is what it generally has been, and he’s walking quite a bit. The extra-base hits will come, perhaps with warmer weather.
Prior to 2017 — his first season with Durham — Bauers had a 15.5 percent strikeout rate. In Triple A, it’s at 19.9 percent, including the escalation so far in 2018. I am a bit troubled by that increase for a contact hitter, although 19.9 percent is still around average.
Steven Souza Jr. trade could pay off
A healthy Steven Souza Jr. would certainly help the Rays. But he’s not, and entering a transition season, the team took an opportunity to potentially improve in future seasons. A couple more players will be arriving from Arizona in the next 10 days, but the two new prospects already in the organization -- lefty Anthony Banda and second baseman Nick Solak — are off to good starts.
Equipped with a slider, Banda has pitched well in his first three starts. His walk rate is his lowest since 2014, and his 64 percent strike percentage is higher than it was in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League in 2017. His strikeout rate is significantly higher than it has ever been, possibly due to his improved secondary offering.
Solak has done nothing but hit since the Yankees made him a second-round pick two years ago. With adequate speed, feel for contact, and a good plate approach, he could be a classic top-of-the-order hitter if he doesn’t develop power. For the first time in his professional career, he’s played some outfield, splitting time between second base and left field with fellow prospect Brandon Lowe.
Trio of lower-level hitters may break out
Jesus Sanchez is already a top-50 prospect according to Baseball America, so how much he can actually break out is a fair question. Maybe that’s true for Josh Lowe too, as a first-round pick, and Ronaldo Hernandez is already one of the five best prospects in the organization, according to Baseball Prospectus ($). Still, they’re all A-ball players who could soon be garnering more attention.
Really dedicated Rays prospect watchers may remember Hernandez from his 2016 season in the Dominican Summer League when he struck out just 12 times in 229 plate appearances. His 2018 stats are down compared to his career numbers, but those heavily weigh his great 2017 season with Princeton in the Appalachian League. I think for him, the important thing is he’s playing in full-season ball for the first time, and he’s still hitting the same way and having success.
Before sustaining what’s believed to be a minor ankle injury, Lowe was off to a great start. Great starts were not the norm in his career — he didn’t have a hit in his first five games in 2017. But in 2018, his strikeouts were down, and he was showing some of the power potential expected of a 6’4, 205-pound player with the bat speed that he has.
Sanchez will want to walk more, but so far in his career, his aggressive approach hasn’t hurt him. The Florida State League is not known for its power hitting, but the extra-base hits have been there for him and Lowe.
How are players repeating a level faring?
Players with prior experience at a level are expected to use that experience to improve their performance. In the early going, it’s been a mixed bag for those players in the Rays organization. I only included players who were already with the organization, so even though players like Banda and Solak are both returning to levels, I didn’t want to compare across different environments.
Jake Cronenworth was promoted to Triple A this week to fill in for Arroyo. Fortunately, he did get his first hit of the season with Durham. He played well with Montgomery last season, so he should be able to dig himself out of this hole.
Lucius Fox has shown improvement with Charlotte. For the first time in his career, his strikeout rate is below 20 percent. Making more contact is important for him. He’s probably never going to hit for much power, so he has to put the ball in play and use his speed.
Brandon Lowe has struggled with the jump to Double A. At the two levels of A ball, he struck out in 17.4 percent of his plate appearances and walked in 13.1 percent of them. With the Biscuits, that approach has been out the window. Now he has to find his rhythm at the plate again while also playing left field as a professional for the first time in his timeshare with Solak.
Last season when he first transitioned to Double A, Genesis Cabrera’s walk rate was essentially what it was at previous levels, so I think this season’s elevation will just be a blip by the time the season is over. His strike percentage is actually up, going from 62 percent last season to 64 percent in three starts in 2018.
The same goes for Diego Castillo. He has never walked batters at that rate over larger samples. When he throws more than 4 2⁄3 innings, that rate will certainly decrease.
Comparisons for Chih-Wei Hu are tough. Most of last season was spent in the bullpen, but he’s back in the rotation this season. He may not keep striking out batters at that rate, but his BABIP probably won’t be .444 forever either.
Jaime Schultz is hit with a small sample size in both seasons. He missed most of 2017 with a groin injury. I think that strikeout rate could play in the majors, though.
Brendan McKay’s workload
I have no tables (or more accurately, images of tables) for Brendan McKay, I was surprised he only threw two innings in his first start. There’s the natural buildup that every young pitcher has to start the season, but it was still more conservative than I expected. He’s also playing his first full season of professional baseball, which is a factor.
Even if he’s promoted to Charlotte, which I’m sure he will be at some point, he’ll probably remain a part of a six-man rotation this season. As long as he’s healthy, that’ll put him around 23 starts for the season. Between Louisville and Hudson Valley in 2017, he threw 129 innings, so an ordinary starter might now be looking at 150 in 2018. To reach that, McKay would have to average nearly seven innings in his next 21 starts, and that doesn’t seem likely.
When FanGraphs released its list of top Rays prospects Monday, Eric Longenhagen wondered if McKay’s future role would be mostly as a first baseman and designated hitter while only throwing a couple innings a week.
This is likely not an original thought, but i wonder if the Rays’ so-called bullpen days could be a pilot program for how McKay is used as a pitcher in the majors. Maybe it’s not the full Shohei Ohtani experience, but he could still provide value at the plate and on the mound.
Offense so far
The Rays haven’t been producing enough offense so far, and as a whole, neither are the affiliates. Here is how the organizations stack up:
The two upper-level affiliates have been dragging the organization down so far. Charlotte’s offense has been the best in the Florida State League, and Bowling Green is above league average itself.
On one morning, I noted the affiliates weren’t homering much. That’s still the case:
Remarkably, Beloit — Oakland’s Midwest League affiliate — doesn’t have a home run yet this season, although it has only played eight games due to inclement weather.
For both tables, it’s probably important to note that the Rays’ affiliates don’t play in any leagues like the PCL or California League that favor offense, and none of them play in a particular stadium that favors offense, like Asheville in the South Atlantic League. Still, there haven’t been many dingers yet.
Standings so far
This has no relevance to player development, and I’m not sure anyone really cares about minor league records besides the local fans, but here is the combined record for each organization’s full-season affiliates:
Again, playing on a lousy club isn’t going to affect how a prospect develops.
If you read the links in the daily minor league posts, you might remember a BA story showing the average age of each team’s affiliates compared to the league average. All four Rays affiliates are the average age or younger. Even with a lot of talent, having less experience may play a role in wins and losses.
We’ll see if any early trends hold up. I suspect that in four months, a lot of things will look quite different.