On Sept. 17, 2019, the Sacramento River Cats beat the Columbus Clippers, 4-0. It was the last minor league game until the 2021 season begins, which is currently scheduled for May 4.
When minor league baseball does come back, it will be structured differently than it was when Sacramento won that game (Baseball America $). For the first month and a half, things will be relatively familiar, although many affiliates are different. It will be more noticeable come summer when short-season affiliates are mostly gone.
Those structural changes — and of course, the missed season — will result in significant changes to player development. Who’s ready to advance a level if they didn’t play at the alternate or in an independent league in 2020? How prepared will younger players be for full-season ball without the New York-Penn League or Appalachian League?
We tried to answer those questions by projecting rosters for the Rays’ full-season affiliates.
Catcher: Brett Sullivan
The versatile Sullivan repeated Double A in 2019 and performed much better, improving his OPS by 90 points. At 27 years old, he’s an experienced minor leaguer that earned a chance to play at the team’s alternate site in 2020. He also picked up some at bats in the Dominican over the winter and also made a few appearances for the contradictory independent Lightning Sloths over the summer.
Kevan Smith would probably still be the first catcher up if the Rays need one this summer.
First base: Kevin Padlo
In 2019, Padlo became the prospect the Rays hoped they were getting when they acquired him five years ago. He crushed Double-A pitching, earned a promotion to Triple A, and crushed Triple-A pitching. He earned a spot on the team’s 40-man roster that winter but hasn’t made his major league debut yet. That should change in 2021.
Second base: Vidal Brujan
Brujan finished the 2019 season in Double A, and his results in 55 games were ... fine. His .266 average and .336 on-base percentage were career lows, but he was only 21. With that experience, his time at the alternate site in 2020, and his month in winter ball, he should be ready for Triple A, where he may be in the mix in center field to further increase his versatility.
Third base: Taylor Walls
It was an easy choice to add Walls to the 40-man roster over the winter. Like Brujan, he had a midseason promotion to Double A, where he excelled, showing more power in addition to everything else be brings to the organization. If the Rays need an infielder with the ability to play multiple positions, Walls may be the player they’re looking for.
He’s only played six professional games at third base, but there is another shortstop who will probably be playing for Durham to start the season.
Shortstop: Wander Franco
A “rule” I tried to follow when filling out the depth chart is that if a player spent 2020 at the alternate site, that would count as moving up a level. That means in this projection, Franco goes to Triple A instead of Double A. If being on the postseason taxi squad is any indication, he was on the cusp of making his debut last season. He still is.
Left field: Tristan Gray
Gray hasn’t played outfield since college, but he has appeared out there briefly during spring training. The Durham infield will be crowded, but his bat is probably still interesting enough that they’ll try to get him in the lineup as much as they can. He batted just .225 in Double A in 2019, but he slugged 17 homers with a high walk rate. He played 12 games in an independent league in 2020.
Right field: Dalton Kelly
In 2019, Kelly reestablished himself as a solid minor league hitter in Double A in Triple A. He set career lows across the board in 2018, but he hit a career-high 10 home runs in 2019. Typically a first baseman, he’s spent more and more time in the outfield over the last couple seasons and will probably be an everyday player again in 2020.
Ryan Boldt hasn’t played a game since 2018 due to elbow surgery, but he’s back and should be a factor in the Triple-A outfield.
Center field: Josh Lowe
Lowe broke out in Double A in 2019. He was set to miss the start of the 2020 season due to shoulder surgery, but he was able to play in the second spring training and alternate site over the summer. This winter, he was added to the 40-man roster, and the 2016 first-round pick should soon make his major league debut.
Starters: Luis Patino, Shane McClanahan, Joe Ryan, Brent Honeywell Jr., and Josh Fleming
Patino made his big league debut with the Padres in 2020, and he was even on their postseason roster. However, that was in a relief role. He has immense potential as a starter, and at 21 years old, he needs more seasoning in the minors. He has just 25 career innings above Class A.
Like Patino, McClanahan hasn’t pitched in Triple A but has pitched in the major league postseason. As a reliever, he could likely excel in the majors today, but developing him as a starter is a higher priority to start the season. In 2019, he rose up prospect lists with improved control as he progressed from Class A to Class A-Advanced to Double A. In 2020, his stuff gave him a chance to pitch in the majors.
Ryan does not have the stuff that Patino and McClanahan do, but his results have been among the best in the minors. When he last pitched in games, he was second in the minors in strikeouts — just two behind the leader in 25 2⁄3 fewer innings — and led the minors in strikeout percentage. He only had 13 1⁄3 innings in Double A, but he was at the alternate site in 2020.
With his health and a fourth option, Honeywell will return to Triple A and work to get his career back on track. On Monday, he pitched in a game for the first time since 2017. After several surgeries and setbacks, it’s unclear what his future holds, but the extra option allows the Rays to keep him in the organization and find out.
It doesn’t seem likely that Fleming will be in the Rays’ rotation to start the season, but if there’s an injury or someone falters, he could be the next player up. After starting 2020 at the alternate site, he reached the majors and had a solid debut, even appearing in the World Series. He’ll look to stay ready at the alternate site and then Triple A in May if he’s not needed before that.