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Kiley McDaniel on the Rays system’s surplus of hitters

Kyle Manzardo & Co. get a spotlight from ESPN prospect writer Kiley McDaniel.

2022 SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game
Curtis Mead in the field at the All-Star Futures Game 2022
Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

ESPN MLB Insider Kiley McDaniel answered questions for the press regarding his top MLB prospects series. The series includes McDaniel’s top 100 prospects, rankings of all 30 MLB teams’ farm systems, team-by-team prospect rankings and predictions for when the top prospects will make the majors in 2023.

A transcript of the conversation was provided (without noting who from the press was asking questions) and contained some interesting Rays responses on the system’s hitters.

Check out what McDaniel had to say about the prospects coming up on offense below:

Q. Two questions, if I could. First, a guy I think we’re going to be writing a lot about is Kyle Manzardo and your comments on maybe it was a little bit of a gamble in taking him at 63, from what you said, and just kind of curious what you saw then, what you have seen now, and where you think he may end up.

McDaniel: Yeah. He was an interesting one because I was, I typically do this every year in mid-to-late March, early April as you start getting to conference play in colleges. I’ll go through all the numbers and just look at, all right, who are guys that are 20, 21 years old, eligible this year and next year that I don’t really have much on that are performing really well? So I know who to ask questions about.

Given that I’m based in Atlanta, I would say like three-quarters of the good players are either from here in high school, play here in college, or they’re like in DC and they come down here during the spring. Like I don’t have to venture that far out of my area to, maybe to Texas, or a couple SoCal guys that also come to the southeast usually, the high school kids, for tournaments.

There’s not typically a lot of guys that are like outside of my view, but if there is one, it’s almost always a dude in Oregon or Washington that wasn’t a big guy out of high school, and which, as I’m sure you’re aware, the reason they tend to dip into that a little more often than most teams is because they trust their scouts up there, and I think they’re like genuinely a little underrated.

So he was one of those guys that popped up, and I was like, oh, that looks like maybe a fourth- or fifth-rounder just based off the pure numbers, not knowing anything about him, and started asking around.

It was like, the week of the draft that there were teams telling me, and this has happened in recent years, where I think a guy is a third to fifth round, I’ll call around to see if it’s more of a third or fifth, and they will kind be like, oh, maybe like top of the third, back of the second.

And then when you ask someone, hey, I heard he’s back in the second, they’re like, yeah, maybe top of the second. And you start hearing like, oh, okay, this is the guy that no one wants to tell me that he’s going to go really good.

But if I get close enough, they will tell me like, oh, well, like, you know, I think they were ringing them up a little bit. And that was Manzardo.

But the problem was not huge raw power, and first base only. So it’s like, well, how high could he really go? This is the kind of guy that if he is, you know, a guy that’s known in high school, that’s performing in the SEC, he gets moved down 10, 15 picks because of that.

Whereas, if you can be an average left fielder, then you move back up in the spot that your hitting ability suggests. And you saw with the Rays this year taking Xavier Isaac, a first-base only high school guy, at a really high pick.

And it sounds like he was another guy that was rising late that some teams were really on, and the Rays were one of them. They tend to not be scared of that after, I would say, a decade of just intentionally just taking middle infielders that don’t have a lot of power as like a strategy.

Now they seem to be leaning more into the, well, we think this guy is a plus hit, plus power. It doesn’t really matter where we put him. We’re taking guys that should be playing second base and playing them at first base anyway, so why should we look at first base as a problem?

So all that said, Manzardo was a guy where, same as Aaron Zavala, who is from Oregon, another guy in that draft that designed of popped up later and went in a similar range, you’re like, okay, let’s see if he can live up to the sort of late hype of this guy might be like a real hitter.

And even the Tampa guys were just like, we didn’t think he would do this. I was like — I forgot who it was, I was talking to somebody with Tampa, about a player who didn’t have a great pro debut and they said at one point, “well, not every guy can have a debut like Manzardo. Like not everybody can do this.” Like that’s sort of unreasonable to expect that.

So again, I would say it is very interesting to take a not-super-long-pedigree-history guy, first base only, not a ton of raw power that really puts yourself into a corner, and he’s hit the crap out of the ball and looks fantastic and looks like he’s just going to hit his way to the Big Leagues, but we have such a small sample of him being this kind of guy, and there’s no margin for error, that if he gets hurt and has a bad season, then he’ll just go back to where everyone thought he was going to be before the draft.

So he’s a really intriguing guy to watch in a system that seems to be full of like the same kind of guy. Tampa likes the same kind of guy.

And now I guess we’ll see with him and Xavier Isaac, if they both take off this year, that might become an in vogue thing to take first base only guys that you’re just really sold on the bat for some reason.

Q. Actually my second question feeds right into that with, you noted in your organization rankings today, I think you said 11 of your top-12 Rays prospects are hitters. Are we seeing a shift there? We’ve certainly written this off-season on the Big League level, they didn’t get a hitter, they didn’t get a hitter. Are there reinforcements coming, is the calvary coming? Have they changed their philosophy a little bit to go more offensive, do you think now?

McDaniel: They don’t, I know a lot of guys in Tampa, obviously being from there, and they usually will not tell me strategic things as they’re happening, but after they happen —

Q. Join the party.

McDaniel: Yeah. After they’ve made a couple moves and it becomes obvious that they’re doing a thing like this, they’ll be like, yeah, we kind of noticed – like, they eventually admitted, we cut bait on some of these arbitration guys after their value had already peaked. Now we’re going to be a little more aggressive, maybe trade ‘em before, to make sure we don’t lose that value.

I wouldn’t be surprised if they said, “Hey, in all these trades that we make, reading the market, teams don’t want to trade position players in the upper minors. We can’t really get those guys unless we overpay for them, so we need to make them ourselves.”

We can get pitchers. We can get Peter Fairbanks. We can get Nick Anderson. We can kind of just grab these guys off the scrap heap and turn them into guys. Guys that aren’t drafted high can turn into big parts of the bullpen. Drew Rasmussen can have 17 Tommy Johns. We’ll turn him into a starter.

That feels like something they can sort of create something out of whole cloth. Whereas position players, not quite as much. And I think teams are a little smarter about trading those guys.

So it wouldn’t surprise me if they sort of the admitted like, hey, whether it’s first-base only, second-base only, it was big athlete out of high school, it doesn’t really matter, we can’t make these guys out of nothing on minor league deals, we can’t get ‘em for undervalue.

Like, the Rays were one of the first teams to send multiple scouts to go scour the DSL to get guys on trades before they broke out.

So it wouldn’t surprise me if there is an underlying strategy of, we need to stock up on position players everywhere we can get ‘em, college, high school, performance guys, whatever position. Because we just can’t get ‘em.

And pitchers, we’ll take sort of the running back approach in the NFL, which is, we’ll get ‘em where we can, we’ll turn ‘em into guys that they’re not.

That seems to me what they’re doing and I think that also goes all the way back to like those Theo Epstein Cubs teams where they just, they made all the hitters and they went and bought a few pitchers and then invented a couple Jake Arrietas, and I think that’s a proven thing that works.

Hitters do like a slow linear climb of value, and pitchers are like roller coasters all over place.

So it would make sense to invest early in hitters, homegrown, get ‘em as early as you can, and then jump on the pitchers at the right times and hopefully you get a deal.

Q. These guys that are coming, you think have a chance to get there?

McDaniel: Yes. Manzardo is talking about sort of a lower upside.

Mead I think is probably limited defensively but can really hit.

Carson Williams has, like, the pieces are here to be a star, depending upon how it all comes together.

Caminero and Vázquez are, again, above average every day type guys that are in the low minors, a long way off.

Aranda could be like a sneaky Rookie-of-Year-type candidate. These guys all have a chance to be above average, every day guys and a lot of teams at the top of the system is guys that’s like, oh, they will be fine. They might put up a two-and-a-half win season, but like I don’t see much more there.

It’s all contact-oriented, but they don’t have any power, they don’t play a position, or whatever, and Tampa does a pretty good job of getting different sorts of guys and I think they lean toward the tools on outside, again, because like the sort of a generic hits an empty .280 and plays an okay second base, you can get those guys off the scrap heap. You don’t have to draft those

Q. I know you had him in your kind of coin flip at the bottom of you list there, Junior Caminero, who is a guy that everyone is talking about a little more. Who does he remind you of? Is there a comp on him? What do you think he could turn into?

McDaniel: Yeah, I saw my notes from last year when — I don’t know if I had him on the list. I think I had him at the very end.

Where the — I’m now looking at the notes from my call last year. And it was: big kid, only played in the DSL, got him late in the trade, power over hit, we hope he can play third base.

So I hear that, it’s like, this guy is five years away, we don’t think he has any defensive value and it’s power over hit. So like he might not hit either. It’s just sort of like, oh, I don’t know, he’s a big guy that can hit a ball a long way in batting practice. Like, that’s something. That was basically what it was.

And he is now advanced to the level where it’s, all right, we got a little better chance at third base and it will be like some defensive value. Similar to that Miguel Vargas thing, where it’s like, maybe he’s a 45 at third base, but he can play good first base, he can play left or right, you can put him in a bunch of places.

But the thing that happened when I was putting him on the end of the list was I thought there wasn’t quite enough bulk of performance against good competition for people to feel conviction. So I put him in that 130 to 140.

Once everyone graduates, if he has a good season, then you put him on. It’s like he’s not quite there yet.

And him and Zavala with the Padres were the two guys that, when I sent a list around of 20 guys, like, hey, who goes on? People just kept saying those two names over and over. Like, oh, put him on, yeah. And I was like, oh, I guess people have conviction.

And the feedback was, this guy’s huge power and we really think he can hit. We don’t really care about anything else. At that point, having that age at that level, the pitch selection come and go, whatever. The position, we’re not sure. But if you can really put the bat to the ball and you got giant raw power and you’re performing in games, that’s all you need at that point. So I think that’s what he is.

You could say it’s sort of like Yandy Díaz. Where it’s sort of like all right, corner guy, big power, he can hit, we’ll see. It can turn into that.

Or you can name any hall of famer of all time and it’s like, yeah, maybe they were not quite that good at that level. You can sort of imagine anything. That’s kind of the thing people love about that.

Whereas when you got a Triple A guy that’s had up and down seasons. You didn’t like him in college. Then you liked him here. Then he got traded. It’s really easy to poke a hole in that guy and be like, that guy, really? Whereas the exciting guy in L.A. — I mean, people love those guys.

I think there’s a reason the guys that haven’t played a lot in pro ball got onto the end of the list. Those are the ones that people — it’s easier to feel excited about those guys.

So he definitely fits the bill. And if he doesn’t slow down then, well then, well, great. I can almost guarantee you of those three guys at the end, one of them is going to be terrible next year, because that’s just how it works.