It's always an odd feeling when it comes time for me to make a prospect list. I don't follow prospects. I watch relatively few minor league games. I don't really know what I'm doing.
Why do I make a list then? Well, something's gotta go on the front page.
No, that's not right. I'll keep my snark under control. Bad snark! There's lots of other things I could be writing about. For instance, Matt Moore has been using his throwing arm this spring training, and the results have been good (more on that later).
The real reason I write a prospect list is that while some lists are more useful than others, they all become more useful and accurate when taken in the aggregate. That means that if I can take a specific viewpoint on prospect rankings and represent it faithfully, this list -- while not necessarily the most "correct" list -- will make the final aggregation of lists better.
And for that I'd like to draw your attention to the work of one of my favorite baseball writers and researchers, Chris St. John over at Beyond the Box Score. We know that when "scouting a box score," It's important to pay attention not just to performance and position, but also to age, and particularly age-relative-to-level. A four-year college slugger who dominates high-school pitching in short-season rookie ball isn't that impressive. But if a 19-year-old holds his own in a league full of 21-year-olds, it says very good things about the player.
With this knowledge, you could open up FanGraphs and try to thin-slice the stats. Or you could let St. John do the work for you. Last year, he developed the JAVIER prospect evaluation system. It looks at the age and production of prospects at every level and compares them to past prospects with similar profiles, in order to predict their major league careers. It's pretty neat.
St. John arrives at a prospect score, that he then adjusts for distance from the majors. That's a good idea, but the result is a ranking a little bit too floor-driven even for my risk-averse tastes. For this list, I've instead used his unadjusted buckets, and then used the adjusted scores for ranking within the buckets.
As for defense, I'm ignoring it. I started out trying to average in a defense factor based on what the industry is saying, but that just felt like I was ruining an otherwise objective viewpoint. Also, one of the factors considered is "speed score," which is an imperfect but reasonable representation of athleticism, which is an imperfect but reasonable approximation of defense. So some percentage of defense is already captured here -- just not all of it.
For prospect rankings using different methods, see:
- Scott's top-30 (for the take of a guy who spends real time thinking about Rays prospects)
- The DRaysBay community top-30 (for the wisdom of the crowds)
On to the rankings!
1. SS Willy Adames
A relative unknown before last season, the prospect prize in the David Price trade has been shooting up prospect lists, and it's easy to see why. In addition to his tools and his alleged maturity, his bat has played very well in The States where he tore up rookie ball at the age of 17, and then continued to hit at a rate well above average in 500 PAs of single-A.
It will be interesting to see where the Rays place Adames. If he continues to produce at this rate, he'll likely end the season in Port Charlotte. Right now, he is the only Rays prospect that JAVIER categorizes as "excellent."
2. RHP Burch Smith
This is the spot where this list deviates most from the conventional wisdom. Burch Smith is very highly thought of by JAVIER, and it's easy to understand why. As a 23-year-old, Smith struck out 31.4% of the batters he faced in double-A (walking 5.1%), 26.3% of the batters he faced in triple-A (walking 6.9%), and then was promoted to the majors, where he struck out 27.5% of the batters he faced. Of course, his walk rate ballooned there to a full 12.6% in 36.1 innings, but it's easy to write that off as a guy struggling to adjust to major league pitching after spending barely any time in the upper minors.
Injury kept him mostly out of action for 2014 season, but if he can regain his old form, the Rays have a starting pitcher who's basically ready for the show (and was at a relatively young age), who they just need to help make the transition.
3. OF Steven Souza
I bet you thought a system heavily dependent on age-relative-to-level wouldn't like a 26-year-old trying to establish himself in the majors for the first time. Guess not. Part of why it likes him is that Souza didn't just start hitting in triple-A when he got old. He's been blocked from the majors, but he's had success for awhile. Yes he mashed triple-A at 25, but he also mashed double-A at 24. And single-A and high-A at 23. You have to go back to 2009 to find a season where he didn't hit above average.
That's a long history of success, and it says good things for the sort-of-young Rays outfielder.
4. OF Mikie Mahtook
This one was a surprise to me. He's not young either, but he hasn't mashed in the way Souza has. He strikes out slightly too much and walks slightly too little. So what does JAVIER like? Turns out it's the ISO (which is one of the best indicators for minor league hitters) and the speed score, which is interesting. Mahtook is dinged for not being the toolsiest guy, but this take sees him as an outfielder with power and speed.
5. 2B Ryan Brett
This is another guy who gets a real boost from his speed, which JAVIER views as the second best in the Rays system. It'd be great if he could walk a little more, but the strikeouts are very low for Brett, and despite his often-noted small stature, he's hit for decent power so far.
Last year, Brett was a 22-year-old in double-A.
6. OF Johnny Field
This pick is a lot like Mahtook, except with below-average strikeouts, more power, and more speed. Field is at home in center, which gives him an edge, too. The reason he ranks below Mahtook is that he's not yet been promoted to double-A. He turned 23 this season.
7. SS Adrian Rondon
JAVIER doesn't know anything about this toolsy international youth, who Baseball America ranked as the top signing from last period. Leaving him off would give the impression that JAVIER hated him, so I've slotted Rondon in at the same spot the DRaysBay community did.
8. SS Andrew Velazquez
The return from the Hellickson trade may turn out to be better than people originally thought. The 19-year old has very good speed, and above average power. He's struck out a bit too much, but he's walked plenty. The Rays have a deep system of shortstops right now, but JAVIER thinks that Velazquez definitely deserves to be in the conversation.
9. LHP Blake Snell
Strikeouts at every level. Snell will be 22 next season.
10. RHP Brent Honeywell
The 19-year-old screwballer was extraordinarily impressive in his 33.2 innings of rookie ball, striking out 31.3% while only walking 4.7%. If not for the lower-level penalty, he would be number two on this list. It was only 33.2 innings of rookie ball, though. If he can replicate that at a higher level, look for him to deservedly vault up the prospect radar.
11. 3B/OF Tyler Goeddel
While the bat may not have wowed, the power was a bit above average, and the walks were there. The thing that's really helping Goeddel though, is his speed score, which is in the same neighborhood as Mahtook and Field. Athleticism matters for prospects, even if they're third basemen.
12. 1B Patrick Leonard
The last Rays prospect that JAVIER buckets as "good," Leonard had a strong season as a 21-year-old in high-A Port Charlotte, flashing the prodigious power he had shown as a teenager in rookie ball.
13. RHP Nate Karns
Now we're getting into the group of prospects labeled as "average." This group includes the trio of Karns, Romero, and Colome, all of whom have some things going for them and all of whom have some things counted against him. They've all received cups of coffee, so their max level isn't coming into play in this comparison. The truth is that it probably doesn't matter who you like more. With prospects who aren't a sure thing, it's best to have a bunch, and maybe one of them realizes his potential. For Karns:
Plus: Lots of strikeouts.
Minus: Will be 27.
14. LHP Enny Romero
Plus: Will only be 24, so still has time.
Minus: Too many walks.
15. RHP Matthew Andriese
Matt Andriese is the surprise in here breaking up the Karns-Romero-Colome party. The 25-year-old righty first made it to triple-A in 2013, and while he hasn't turned heads with his strikeouts, he's really, really good at not walking people.
Andriese has also posted very high groundball rates throughout his career (which JAVIER doesn't explicitly know, but it's a good bet that those 328 comparable players with low strikeout rates and low walk rates contain a ton of groundball specialists).
Basically, this is a ready-made innings-eater that the Rays have in their back pocket should their rotation need it, and that's not a bad thing at all.
16. LHP Alex Colome
Plus/Minus: Between Karns and Romero in terms of walks, strikeouts, and age.
17. 3B Rickie Shaffer
After Adames, Shaffer possesses the best isolated power rate (compared to age/level) in the system.
18. RHP Taylor Guerrieri
There just isn't a ton of information to work with as far as Guerrieri is concerned. His lack of walks were very impressive, but his injury problems mean that he's no longer that young. This ranking could either rise or fall a ton based on what he does this year.
19. 1B Jake Bauers
A very young first baseman that the Rays picked up from the Padres. His approach looks good, but the power hasn't been what you want out of a first baseman. He turned 19 in October, though, so take that lack-of-power with a grain of salt.
20. SS Daniel Robertson
So this ranking is a major "oof," either for JAVIER or for the Rays. It's not immediately clear why, as JAVIER likes his strikeouts, walks, and power just fine with regard to position, age, and level. The culprit is his speed score, which is lower than that of either of the first-basemen listed above him (Jake Bauers and Patrick Leonard). That calls into question his athletic ability as a shortstop, which would make his bat much less impressive.
There are other ways to evaluate fielding ability, though, like by watching a guy field. Kiley McDaniel doesn't think Robertson can play shortstop but notes that the Rays and Athletics do. Hope our guys are right and that this is a whiff for JAVIER.
21. RHP German Marquez
Marquez turned 20 ten days ago, and he had a breakout in Bowling Green last season after two unimpressive years of rookie ball. If he continues that performance, and earns a promotion to a higher level, he's another guy with a good chance to improve his stock.
22. RHP Ryne Stanek
He's 23 (and an old 23 at that). He's pitched 58.7 innings professionally. Your guess is as good as mine, and probably better than JAVIER's.
23. SS Hak-Ju Lee
Stanek was the last player bucketed as "average," so now we start the group labeled "bad."
Basically, all that Lee has done with his bat is walk. He can run (and field), but after losing significant time to a bad knee injury, that's in question as well, and he's no longer young. JAVIER doesn't have much hope, and you probably shouldn't either.
24. IF Tim Beckham
Once upon a time, Beckham was young for his level, and the unexciting offensive performance was excusable. Those days are passed, and he too has had to deal with a knee injury. His bat is a little bit more impressive than Lee's, but not by enough to make up for the speed and the age difference.
25. OF Andrew Toles
The man who was everybody's breakout darling last season fell hard in 2014. He did get his strikeout rate under control, but it came at the expense of power, which as I've said, is probably the best indicator of future success for players in the low minors.
Toles does have the best speed score in the Rays system, so I wouldn't write him off quite yet, but he'll turn 23 this year, and he hasn't yet hit well in high-A, so now's the time to start.
26. OF Bralin Jackson
A surprise inclusion on this list, the former fifth round pick came into some power last year as a 20-year-old in low-A ball. That shouldn't be enough to get us excited, but it is enough to get JAVIER to notice him.
27. Casey Gillaspie
The good news for Gillaspie is that he walk rate was excellent (13.6%) as a 21-year old in low-A Hudson Valley. The bad news is that walk rate in the low minors is a pretty terrible indicator of major-league success. Hope for him to develop another skill this year (maybe with a promotion to a less pitcher-friendly park than Duchess Stadium?) to show that his bat can play at first base.
28. RHP Dylan Floro
Floro walked almost no one as a 23-year old in double-A, while producing nearly a 60% groundball rate. He didn't strike people out, though, either, and he's not exactly a spring chicken. The ceiling is probably pretty low.
29. OF Boog Powell
And now we're done with the people JAVIER labels as "bad." Now it's on to the "terribles." Are you excited?
Powell is an unusual prospect. He walks a ton and rarely strikes out, but he has no power. Powell sometimes gets compared to Brett Gardner, but Gardner actually hit for a higher ISO at times in his minor league career. Powell has yet to pass .100.
And while I'm sure he's actually fast, Powell's speed score is unimpressive, in large part because he was caught stealing 15 out of 31 times last season.
30. RHP Cameron Varga
This pick is just JAVIER giving the finger to Justin O'Conner, who is at the top of many other prospect lists. He's a 19-year-old pitcher with 33.3 innings under his belt. Okay, JAVIER.
Not listed: C Justin O'Conner
This omission is the most controversial choice on here. There are a few reasons for it. O'Conner struck out a ton early in his career in the low minors. Like way more than a person can and be reasonably expected to become a major-league player. Even though he's improved a bit recently, that will always hang over him, and that's correct. You can't just write it away with recency bias.
The other thing is that O'Conner is apparently an excellent defender at catcher, the most difficult defensive position. Cather is unique, though, in that defensive ability is not captured by speed score at all, which means that no part of it is considered in this ranking.