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Tampa Bay Rays mid-season top prospect list 2018: Brent Honeywell rises to No. 1

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Although he’s out for the season, right-handed pitcher Brent Honeywell is at the head of one of the deepest farm systems in baseball.

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Now that the draft, deadline to sign draft picks, and trade deadline have passed, it’s time to update our top prospects list. We had four prospect followers on the staff put together top-10 lists, and we then combined those lists — 10 points for a first-place vote, nine for a second-place vote, and so on.

Players like Willy Adames and Jake Bauers, who have either graduated from prospect status or certainly will very soon, were not eligible for the list. Brandon Lowe, who may not be eligible by the end of the season, was still in the minors when we were putting the lists together, which means he’s included here.

All stats are through games on August 4. You can find the full pre-season ranking from DRaysBay here.

1. RHP Brent Honeywell (6’2 180, 23 years old)

2018 statistics: Has not pitched
Offseason rank: No. 2

Before the calendar even turned to March, Honeywell had Tommy John surgery, which will keep him out until sometime in 2019. Had he not gotten hurt, he almost certainly would be pitching in the majors right now, and that made me wonder how different the Rays’ season could be. With an additional reliable starter, would the team have experimented with pitcher usage less than it has?

If Honeywell is able to eventually return to pre-injury form, the Rays have a major league-ready starter with mid-rotation — or better — upside.

2. 1B/LHP Brendan McKay (L/L, 6’2 210, 22 years old)

2018 statistics: 181 PA, .227/.397/.348, 4 HR, 20.4 BB%, 21.0 K% — 55 IP, 2.45 ERA, 0.71 WHIP, 3.4 BB%, 38.4 K% (Class-A Bowling Green and Class A-Advanced Charlotte)
Offseason rank: No. 4

McKay was temporarily sidelined due to an oblique injury, but he recently returned from the disabled list with Class A-Advanced Charlotte. As expected, the two-way experiment continues, but there has been a development. Although he has walked more than he has struck out as a hitter, his pitching has been somewhat superior than his hitting. After this season, what route will the Rays take with his development?

Whatever happens, his upside remains unchanged — he could be a mid-rotation starter or middle-of-the-order hitter. With his two-way ability, he could play a key role if the Rays continue to push the envelope with their in-game tactics.

3. SS Wander Franco (S/R, 5’10 190, 17 years old)

2018 statistics: 162 PA, .342/.395/.589, 7 HR, 17 XBH, 4/7 SB, 8.0 BB%, 6.2 K% (Rookie-level Princeton)
Offseason rank: No. 11

After the Rays signed Franco — the top player available in last season’s July 2 market — for $3.8 million, anticipation started to build with rumors of outstanding extended spring training play, culminating in an assignment to the Appalachian League, not the Gulf Coast League. The hype appears to be warranted. He hits, hits for power, and doesn’t strike out.

It doesn’t even matter that he may not stick at shortstop long term as reports indicate. With his feel for contact, bat speed, and power potential, his bat will play at any position. As we see more and more young players hit the ground running in the majors, Franco could be the next young superstar (ESPN, $).

4. OF Jesus Sanchez (L/R, 6’2 185, 20 years old)

2018 statistics: 390 PA, .300/.336/.460, 10 HR, 37 XBH, 6/9 SB, 4.9 BB%, 18.5 K% (Class A-Advanced Charlotte and Double-A Montgomery)
Offseason rank: No. 3

With the exception of a poor month of June, Sanchez has shown all the tools that made him one of the organization’s top hitting prospects. He has remained a .300 hitter, rarely strikes out, and still has above-average power potential despite playing in the power-suppressing Florida State League.

As he moves through the organization, his pitch recognition will have to improve. His walk rate is very low, and pitchers at higher levels may be able to exploit his aggressiveness. As it stands, he has always had success with his current plate approach.

5. LHP Matthew Liberatore (6’5 200, 18 years old)

2018 statistics: 13 IP, 2.08 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 12.3 BB%, 22.8 K% (Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Rays)
Offseason rank: N/A

Liberatore was viewed as one of the top prospects in the draft, yet the Rays were able to land him with the No. 16 pick in June. They were fortunate, and he immediately became one of the team’s top pitching prospects.

Unlike a lot of tall, high school pitchers, he already throws a lot of strikes. In the spring, he showed improved fastball velocity, and he has room to add strength. His curveball and changeup are both promising pitches.

6. C Ronaldo Hernandez (R/R, 6’1 180, 20 years old)

2018 statistics: 360 PA, .294/.342/.523, 18 HR, 38 XBH, 6.4 BB%, 15.8 K% (Class-A Bowling Green)
Offseason rank: No. 25

I can’t speak for everyone on the staff, but personally, I missed on Hernandez. I wanted to see what he would do in a full-season league before ranking him highly, and clearly, I was not aggressive enough. He has quickly emerged as one of the top hitters in the organization. So far this season, he has the most home runs for a Rays minor league catcher since J.P. Arencibia had 22 in 2015.

The Rays have always been in search of a long-term catcher, and they may have finally found one. However, he still has a lot of work to do on his defense. He has the tools to succeed at the position, but his receiving reportedly needs a lot of work.

7. 2B/OF Brandon Lowe (L/R, 5’10 175, 24 years old)

2018 statistics: 445 PA, .297/.391/.558, 22 HR, 54 XBH, 8/11 SB, 12.8 BB%, 22.9 K% (Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham)
Offseason rank: No. 30

Lowe was another clear off-season miss for most. With his breakout season, he’s now ranked as a top-100 prospect by FanGraphs. After a slow start with Montgomery, he began tearing up Southern League pitching to earn a promotion to Triple A. After another slow start with Durham, home runs started coming in bunches. First, it was six in six games. Later, it was four in five games.

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Although he has added left field to his defensive resume this season, he’s likely going to generate most of his value with his bat and his newfound power. In his minor league career, he has always adjusted to the next level of pitching, and a tryout with the Rays to finish the 2018 season could provide some clarity about his future at the highest level.

8. LHP Anthony Banda (6’2 190, 24 years old)

2018 statistics: 14 23 IP, 3.68 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 5.4 BB%, 17.9 K% (Tampa Bay) — 42 IP, 3.64 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 9.9 BB%, 26.9 K% (Triple-A Durham)
Offseason rank: No. 9

Banda was acquired from Arizona in the three-team trade that sent Steven Souza Jr. to Arizona. In three appearances with the Rays, the lefty acquitted himself well in limited innings. With a new slider, he seemed to have turned a new corner from an up-and-down 2017 in the Arizona organization. However, after one start with Durham after being optioned back to the minors, he required Tommy John surgery, putting his future on hold.

If he’s able to return to form, Banda flashes a fastball that has averaged over 94 mph in the majors with a breaking ball and changeup with potential to be above-average pitches. His strikeout rate increased after the trade, but his control and command need improvement.

9. 2B/OF Nick Solak (R/R, 5’11 175, 23 years old)

2018 statistics: 470 PA, .269/.370/.419, 14 HR, 30 XBH, 19/24 SB, 11.5 BB%, 21.1 K% (Double-A Montgomery)
Offseason rank: No. 14

Also acquired in the three-team trade that seems to keep on giving, Solak adjusted quickly to his new organization, and even doing so while playing the outfield professionally for the first time. At the plate, he makes consistent contact with a good plate approach, doesn’t strike out often, and has hit for a little more power. He’s also an efficient base stealer.

Over the last two months, he has slumped quite a bit, but it was unlikely he would keep up his torrid May pace with a .994 OPS anyway. His numbers are similar to what he has produced in the past, and his expanded defensive versatility is an asset as he closes in on the majors.

10. LHP Shane McClanahan (6’1 190, 21 years old)

2018 statistics: Has not pitched
Offseason rank: N/A

Once viewed as a potential top pick in the 2018 draft, McClanahan’s results for South Florida weren’t the same once the school reached the American Athletic Conference portion of its schedule. This gave the Rays a chance to draft a talented college lefty with the No. 31 pick in June.

Already with a Tommy John surgery under his belt, McClanahan has pitched up to 100 mph in the past, offering rare velocity from a lefty pitcher. His developing changeup and slider helped him become one of college baseball’s best strikeout pitchers, but he also walked too many batters. It’s possible he ends up in the bullpen in the future, but with his stuff, the Rays will give him every opportunity to start.

Also receiving votes (in alphabetical order): 2B Vidal Brujan, RHP Jose De Leon, CF Josh Lowe, OF Joe McCarthy