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Best Rays affiliates: Class A

Our first full-season league is also the first level where Tampa Bay has had different affiliates.

Rome Braves v Charleston RiverDogs Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Prospects are about the future, but I thought I’d take a look back at the past. I looked at every domestic Rays affiliate on Baseball Reference and totaled up the major league wins above replacement (prior to the 2020 season) to try and determine the best affiliates in franchise history. I did my best to filter out rehab appearances and zeroed out negative-WAR players since reaching the majors shouldn’t count against them.

2000 Charleston RiverDogs — 79.6 WAR (10 major leaguers)

OF Carl Crawford (39.1)
OF Josh Hamilton (28.2)
LHP Joe Kennedy (7.4)
RHP Jose Veras (3.8)
LHP Mark Malaska (.5)
RHP Juan Salas (.4)
RHP Brian Stokes (.2)
IF Jorge Cantu (0)
IF Yurendell de Caster (0)
RHP Seth McClung (0)

For the most part, this team was just the 1999 Princeton Devil Rays making their full-season debuts. Doug Waechter was the only future major leaguer on Princeton in 1999 not on Charleston in 2000. However, these RiverDogs added Joe Kennedy, who pitched with Hudson Valley the previous season, giving them a boost in the rotation. He was 10th in the South Atlantic League with 142 strikeouts, which was good for second on the team behind Neal Frendling.

This was the season that earned Hamilton the top spot in Baseball America’s prospect rankings. He only played 96 games, but he showed off impressive tools. The results were good too. He batted .302 with a .348 on-base percentage and .476 slugging percentage, adding 13 home runs, 39 extra-base hits, and 14 steals.

Crawford wasn’t bad either. He played in 135 games, batting .301 with a .342 on-base percentage. His 55 steals in just 64 attempts led the organization and were 15th in all of minor league baseball. Esix Snead led with 109, but it was Crawford — not Snead — who earned a spot in BA’s top 100.

Those RiverDogs finished seven games over .500. Despite two future stars in the outfield, the offense was essentially average with an OPS one point over the league average, and the team ERA was .05 runs below the league average.

Charleston was just the first of four affiliates Tampa Bay has had at this level. For two years, it had the Southwest Michigan Devil Rays. Wade Davis and Jake McGee combined to form the best team in the Southwest Michigan years, and Desmond Jennings and Jeremy Hellickson the next season led the best of the two years in Columbus.

In 2009, the Rays settled in Bowling Green. The 2014 edition of the Hot Rods has been their best team yet, and it could challenge the 2000 RiverDogs for supremacy at this level. Over half their games were started by future major leaguers, including the affiliate’s top WAR accumulator to date, German Marquez. Cy Young winner Blake Snell should pass him, but both starters should add significantly to their totals over the next several seasons.

Helping them out on the offensive side is Willy Adames, one of the league’s top young, two-way players. The trio of Marquez, Snell, and Adames has a chance to make this the top Class-A affiliate for the Rays. The team has eight more players who have reached the majors, but other than Ryne Stanek, none seem to be lasting contributors.

If the 2014 Hot Rods don’t catch Crawford and Hamilton, the 2019 Hot Rods might. With a core of Wander Franco, Shane Baz, Shane McClanahan, and Matthew Liberatore, there was future-star power in Bowling Green last season. Unlike the 2018 Princeton Rays that also featured those players, the 2019 Hot Rods have Joe Ryan — another potential big league regular — plus other top-30-caliber prospects like Michael Plassmeyer and Cristopher Sanchez.