The Tampa Bay Rays always appear to have another wave of talent on the horizon, and as a small market team trying to compete with the Red Sox and Yankees it’s something that they desperately need. There’s another wave coming, luckily, and even more a few years away. Who are the best of the bunch? Let’s dive in and take a look:
1) Wander Franco –
Grade – A
ETA – 2022
Franco has a long way to go before he arrives in the Majors, but the success he had in Rookie Ball as a 17-year old (he’ll turn 18 on March 1) speaks to just how talented he is. Over 273 PA he hit .351 while showing a strong eye as he walked (27) more than he struck out (19). Regardless of the level, at his age that’s a highly impressive mark and he complemented it with significant extra base production:
- Doubles – 10
- Triples – 7
- Home Runs – 11
You put those two things together and it’s hard not to get excited about the outlook. Obviously a lot can happen between now and when he arrives, but thus far the upside is evident and the results back up the hype. It’s very easy to get excited.
2) Brandon McKay – Left-Handed
Grade – A-
ETA – 2020
The Rays appear determined to continue allowing McKay to work both as a pitcher and hitter, and you have to wonder if that will ultimately have an impact on the speed of his development. He certainly showed all of the skills we like to see on the mound, over 78.1 IP:
- Strikeouts – 11.83 K/9 (courtesy of a 16.9% SwStr%)
- Control – 1.61 BB/9
- Groundballs – 44.3%
He is more advanced as a pitcher, as he hit .214, though he did show an ability to make consistent contact with a 7.0% SwStr%. If he can develop both aspects of his game, and the results at the plate start to catch up to his ability on the mound, the upside will be tremendous. Even as just a starting pitcher there’s a lot to like, however.
3) Brent Honeywell –
Grade – B+
ETA – 2019
Things would be different if Honeywell hadn’t missed all of 2018 due to Tommy John surgery, as he likely would’ve debuted in 2018 and could’ve been an A- type prospect. As we’ve said, while we all like to assume that pitchers are going to recover and return to being the pitcher they were prior to surgery, is it a guarantee?
That said in 2017 he spent a little time at Double-A (13.0 IP), but spent the bulk of his time at Triple-A (123.2 IP) showing most of the skills we like to see from a pitcher:
- Strikeouts – 11.06 K/9
- Control – 2.26 BB/9
- Groundballs – 41.2%
We’d like to see a little bit more in terms of groundballs, especially pitching in the AL East where home runs could be an issue. That said there’s more than enough in terms of strikeouts and control that will make him an extremely strong option when the time comes (though he could be limited in his first season back).
4) Jesus Sanchez –
Grade – B+
ETA – 2020
Seeing time at High-A (359 AB) and Double-A (98 AB) Sanchez hit .282 with 11 HR and 7 SB playing as a 20-year old. The numbers were much better at High-A, hitting .214 after his promotion. He struggled to make consistent contact regardless of the level, with a 12.4% SwStr%, though we have to keep his age in mind and he actually showed an improvement:
- High-A – 12.9%
- Double-A – 10.8%
Obviously it was a small sample size, but it is promising all the same. There is no questioning the power potential, it’s just a matter of him fully putting it on display in game action (he added 32 doubles and 2 triples). That should come, as he develops, and if the Rays can get him a little bit more patient and capable of drawing a few more walks (5.3%), he could develop into a top outfield prospect in short order. A strong start could lead to him rising to a A- prospect or better.
5) Ronaldo Hernandez –
Grade – B
ETA – 2021
The Rays kept Hernandez at Single-A for the entire season and he produced well, hitting .284 with 21 HR and even chipping in 10 SB. There obviously is going to be a question as to if he’s going to be able to reel in his aggressive approach, despite a 15.4% strikeout rate, as his 11.4% SwStr% could rise significantly as he continues to advance through the system. That said he turned 20-years old after the season and has the defensive chops to stick behind the plate and develop into a Top 5 offensive catcher.
6) Vidal Brujan – Second Baseman (Grade – B)
While Brandon Lowe may get all of the attention, since he’s already made his MLB debut, Brujan may ultimately have the highest upside after hitting .320 with 9 HR and 55 SB splitting time between Single-A and High-A. His best assets are obviously his speed and his strong approach, as he walked (63) nearly as much as he struck out (68), and his ability to make consistent contact (6.6% SwStr%). Obviously being listed at 5’9” and 155 lbs. is going to bring questions, but by the looks of things he should develop into a strong top of the lineup threat who could steal bases in bunches.
7) Nathaniel Lowe –
First Baseman (Grade – B)
There had been questions about his power, but he made some adjustments (both with his conditioning and approach) and put it on full display. Playing across three levels (including 100 AB at Triple-A) he hit .330 with 27 HR (while adding 32 doubles and 1 triple). He also maintained a strong approach, with an 8.0% SwStr% (and at Triple-A he basically maintained it, with an 8.9% mark). It is possible that he’s more of a DH due to some defensive limitations, but the bat will play regardless. If he can maintain these types of marks over an extended period at Triple-A, the grade would move up into the B+ level.
8) Matthew Liberatore
– Left-Handed Pitcher (Grade – B)
The Rays selected him 16th overall in the 2018 draft and he delivered immediately, with a 1.38 ERA and 1.04 WHIP over 32.2 IP. Obviously it’s an incredibly small sample size, but he has the ideal size (he’s listed at 6’5” and 200 lbs.) and already has a strong arsenal that should only get better as he matures/develops both physically and on the mound. The upside is there to develop into a #2 starter, and at 19-years old he has the time to develop into that.
9) Brandon Lowe – Second Baseman (Grade – B-)
He saw time at Double and Triple-A, as well as getting his first taste of the Majors (148 PA), totaling 28 HR along the way. The question is whether or not he can consistently make contact, with a 12.7% SwStr% in the minors jumping to 17.6% in the Majors. It’s not necessarily a poor eye, as he posted a 29.1% O-Swing% in the Majors and had a 12.8% walk rate in the minors. He needs to get a little bit less aggressive to cut down on the strikeouts, but with the power, walk rate (and that makes him a much stronger option in OBP formats) and the ability to chip in a few stolen bases, and there’s a lot to like. The potential strikeout issues do limit his grade, at least a little bit, but you could argue him as a B type prospect.
10) Shane Baz – Right-Handed Pitcher (Grade – B-)
Acquired from the Pirates as part of the Chris Archer trade, the 2017 first round pick (12th overall) struggled to a 4.47 ERA and 1.62 WHIP over 52.1 IP. There’s no questioning the pure stuff, the issue is going to be if he learns how to harness it and consistently throw strikes (4.99 BB/9 in ’18). He needs to be given time, something the Rays will afford him, and he has ample time to figure it out and get there.
Sources – Fangraphs, MLB.com, MILB.com, Baseball Reference
Make sure to check out all of our 2019 Top 10 Prospect Lists: