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Sandy Gaston celebrates with the Low-A East trophy | @sashagcreative

Three Rays minor league pitchers to watch

Including 2 pitchers that must be protected next off-season.

The Tampa Bay Rays do a great job when it comes to developing young players. Seemingly every year the team turns prospects who are not highly ranked (in the public sphere at least) into some of the largest household names in the organization.

This year was no different, as we saw minor leaguers such as Taj Bradley, Curtis Mead, and Jonathan Aranda go from players who only appeared on the fringes of Rays prospects lists to top 100 MLB prospect candidates.

Since our very own DRaysBay Community Prospect List is now up to 20 players, I decided to highlight three pitching prospects who currently do not rank inside of that range now, but who do have the breakout potential to rocket up the list by the end of 2022. These three players are not ranked inside the current MLB Pipeline Rays top 20 either.

On to the list!

RHP Jayden Murray

Murray was a late round pick out of Dixie State University for the Rays in the 2019 draft. He’s done nothing but perform since joining the Rays organization, but has yet to get much love from public prospect outlets. In 2021, Murray threw to a pristine 2.16 ERA across 96 total innings in high-A and AA.

His biggest strength has been his ability to pound the strike zone, and his excellent 4.7% walk-rate in 2021 is evidence of that. He was also able to strike batters out at a 26.4% clip which suggests he’s not just a strike-thrower with underwhelming stuff.

The fastball, changeup, and slider are his primary offerings and there is a lot to like about each one of them. Most reports state that his fastball sits in the low to mid 90’s and has even been up to 97 mph. His fastball comes in from a relatively low release point and gets a ton of arm-side run, which is visible in this clip:

Murray’s best secondary pitch is his slider, which sits in the low 80’s and has big sweeping movement that enables the pitch to generate whiffs at a high level. Lead prospect evaluator Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs praised Murray for his ability to spin a breaking ball in his last write-up of him. The changeup is also a usable pitch for the right-hander and mirrors his fastball well in that it has similar plus arm-side movement.

The combination of Murray’s diverse pitch mix, excellent command, and great performance is rare to see in minor league pitchers. For these reasons I believe he’s a much more interesting prospect than he gets credit for and has a chance to be a back-end starter in the big leagues.

It’s possible that Murray’s developmental path could look similar to what we saw from Rays prospect Tommy Romero this past year. Romero jumped from a prospect who was not highly ranked at the beginning of 2021 to earning himself a spot on the Rays 40-man roster after his strong performance in the upper levels of the minors. Murray will have the opportunity to follow in his footsteps in 2022.

Additionally, the Rays will have to make a decision on Murray at the end of this year as he will be eligible for the Rule 5 draft in December of 2022. This means that Tampa Bay will need to either add him to the 40-man roster or risk losing him to another team via the draft. A trade is another potential option for the Rays, and is something they recently did with Joe Ryan and Tobias Myers, two minor league pitchers who were in Murray’s position last year.

LHP Antonio Jimenez

Listed at just 5’11” and 145 pounds, Jimenez is a small lefty with an electric arm. He threw well in rookie ball (2.90 ERA, 3.38 FIP) during his first full season with the Rays organization in 2019. His 2021 season was equally as impressive as he threw to a 2.62 ERA and a 3.49 FIP across 48 innings in the Florida complex league and low-A. His 33% strikeout-rate paired with a 7.2% walk-rate is nothing to scoff at either.

Despite his small frame, Jimenez has sneaky good velocity (91-95 mph range) with his heater and also flashes a slider with plus sweeping movement as his primary out-pitch. He also mixes in a changeup which for now is behind his other two pitches, but is still usable. On top of his three pitch mix, Jimenez’s great athleticism and advanced feel for pitching is arguably what stands out the most when watching the 20 year-old. If you want to see it all in action, here’s a highlight reel from his 2021 season:

In those clips you can see just how much that fastball jumps on hitters and how his slider sweeps away from barrels. This is an intriguing package for the young lefty and his 2021 results prove that. FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen described Jimenez as having “starter’s command already in place” after Jimenez twirled a 10 strikeout, zero walk performance during a 5-inning start in August.

Because of his deep repertoire and above average command, Jimenez has a very unique skillset for a pitcher his age. These tools give him the ability to turn lineups over multiple times, which helps his overall chances of making it to the show as a starter. Though he is still far from the big leagues, I believe he has a path to pitch in some sort of multi-inning role in MLB if he keeps this performance up.

Jimenez is similar to Jayden Murray in that they are both eligible for the Rule-5 draft at the end of the year, with the difference being that Jimenez has not yet completed a year in full-season ball.

Given that timeline, we may see Tampa Bay be just as or even more aggressive and have Jimenez start 2022 in high-A despite his young age. I’m excited to see what lies ahead for him and his development as he moves up the ladder in this farm system.

SP Sandy Gaston

If you follow Rays international signings closely then Sandy Gaston is probably not a name you are seeing for the first time.

The Rays signed Gaston for a lofty $2.61 million in 2018 which was the 6th highest bonus given to any international prospect that year. In the past 10 years, Wander Franco ($3.83M), Carlos Colmenarez ($3.0M), and Adrian Rondon ($2.95M) are the only Rays amateur international signings to receive a higher bonus than Sandy did.

Gaston’s arsenal is one of the loudest in minor league baseball. He possesses a fastball that routinely touches triple digits, a low-90s changeup with sharp downward movement, and a firm slider that sits in the low 90’s as well. His elite stuff enabled him to strikeout 33.2% of the hitters he faced over his 14 outings in 2021. While walking hitters has been Gaston’s kryptonite, he did make a subtle improvement in that department from 2019 (20.9 BB%) to 2021 (16.6 BB%).

Those walk-rates are certainly alarming, but Gaston does appear to be making steady progress throughout his time in the organization.

The Rays have cleaned up his mechanics and shortened his arm action considerably since he was an amateur. You can see this difference when you compare his unpolished mechanics from 2018 (when he was just 16-years old) to one of his best starts in 2021 which featured 100 mph fastballs and 93 mph changeups:

Gaston was starting games regularly once he was promoted to low-A in August and was able to throw four innings or more in every start at the level. I believe the Rays will continue to use him as a starter moving forward, as his upside in that role is massive if he is able to throw strikes more consistently.

The Rays have a recent history of targeting pitchers with big stuff and shaky command with hopes of improving upon the latter. Tyler Glasnow, Shane McClanahan, and Shane Baz are all recent examples of starters with huge stuff who have seen their command improve with time in the Rays organization. Gaston just recently turned 20 and obviously has a long way to go before getting anywhere near that level, but he does represent the exact type of arm that has thrived in this system.

In 2022, Sandy will be looking to build off of his first full season and projects to begin the season as a starter in the low levels of the minors with the potential to cement himself in the top tier of Rays pitching prospects.

Another positive for Gaston is that he has some time to improve upon his strike-throwing issues as he isn’t Rule-5 eligible until 2023. If he is able to land his walk-rate in the 10-12% range (which is still below average but much more manageable) next year, he will instantly become a very noteworthy arm in this Rays system.

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