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February 6, 2007

Future Shock

Tampa Bay Devil Rays Top Ten Prospects

by Kevin Goldstein

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Excellent Prospects
1. Delmon Young, RF
2. Evan Longoria, 3B
3. Reid Brignac, SS
4. Jeff Niemann, RHP
Very Good Prospects
5. Jacob McGee, LHP
6. Wade Davis, RHP
7. Elijah Dukes, OF/1B
Good Prospects
8. Jeremy Hellickson, RHP
Average Prospects
9. Elliot Johnson, 2B
10. Matt Walker, RHP

1. Delmon Young, RF
DOB: 9/14/85
Height/Weight: 6-3/205
Bats/Throws: R/R
Drafted: 1st round, 2003, California HS
What he did in 2006: .316/.341/.474 at Triple-A (370 PA), .317/.336/.474 at MLB (131 PA)
The Good: Pure hitting skills that are unparalleled in the minor leagues. Ultra-fast bat, plenty of raw strength and enormous plate coverage allow for projections of a .300+ average with 25-35 home runs annually. Not just a one-dimensional talent, Young is a tick-above-average runner and an excellent base stealer, as well as a good outfielder with an outstanding arm.
The Bad: Young's natural ability to put a bat on a ball has worked against his need to develop plate discipline, because he can hit nearly anything. Makeup questions abounded before the now-infamous bat-throwing incident, but he was a model citizen during his big-league stint.
The Irrelevant: Young's hometown of Camarillo, California was once the home of the California State Mental Hospital, where jazz great Charlie Parker detoxed from heroin in the late 1940s.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: A perennial All-Star.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Average. Young will be the starting right fielder for the Devil Rays and should be a candidate for Rookie of the Year honors in what is becoming a crowded field. A more patient approach and tapping into his power potential will help his cause.

2. Evan Longoria, 3B
DOB: 10/7/85
Height/Weight: 6-2/215
Bats/Throws: R/R
Drafted: 1st round, 2006, Long Beach State
What he did in 2006: .424/.487/.879 at Short-Season (39 PA), .327/.402/.618 at High-A (128 PA), .267/.266/.486 at Double-A (109 PA)
The Good: Best pro debut among 2006 draftees, as the third overall pick reached Double-A and mashed 18 home runs in 248 at-bats. Natural power to all fields thanks to strong wrists, and an advanced feel for recognizing which pitches he can pull. Very good defender at third base who is athletic enough to play the middle infield in a pinch.
The Bad: Longoria gets busted inside at times by righties, but he's made some adjustments already and it's not a long-term concern. He rushes his throws at times.
The Irrelevant: Longoria attended St. John Bosco High, a Catholic high school in southern California that also produced Nomar Garciaparra and, less famously, Dennis Lamp.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: A stud third baseman.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Average. Despite slugging six home runs in 105 Double-A at-bats, Longoria did struggle at times there, and will return to Montgomery in 2007. He's in line for a big-league look at the end of the year, and the Opening Day job in 2008.

3. Reid Brignac, SS
DOB: 1/16/86
Height/Weight: 6-3/170
Bats/Throws: L/R
Drafted: 2nd round, 2004, Louisiana HS
What he did in 2006: .326/.382/.557 at High-A (455 PA), .300/.355/.473 at Double-A (121 PA)
The Good: After an impressive full-season debut, Brignac lived up to breakout predictions with a California League MVP campaign, then capped it with a strong late-season showing at Double-A. In the mold of the modern, big shortstop, Brignac consistently squares up balls and drives them into both gaps. He has a very good arm at shortstop, wants to stay there despite defensive concerns, and works as hard on his glovework as he does on his hitting.
The Bad: Brignac remains a below-average defender up the middle, lacking any consistency with the glove, and he's slow and mechanical on the double play. He has the arm for third base, where the Devil Rays are crowded, as well as right field, where the Devil Rays are, once again, crowded. He changes his approach against southpaws, sacrificing his power and focusing solely on contact.
The Irrelevant: In 2006, Brignac hit a whopping .429 (33-for-77) with runners in scoring position and two outs.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: The bat is enough to project an All-Star level future no matter where he ends up defensively.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Average. Brignac will return to Double-A, combining with Longoria to comprise the top left-side infield combo in the game.

4. Jeff Niemann, RHP
DOB: 2/28/83
Height/Weight: 6-9/260
Bats/Throws: R/R
Drafted: 1st round, 2004, Rice
What he did in 2006: 2.68 ERA at AA (77.1-56-28-84)
The Good: The gigantic righthander was finally 100 percent healthy for the first time since being drafted in 2004, and delivered an outstanding half-season. Niemann's 91-95 mph fastball touches 97 and seemingly comes out of the sky thanks to his size, and his slider is a power breaker. His changeup is at least average, and he has very good control.
The Bad: Niemann has been hampered by groin and shoulder problems since signing, and his half-season at Double-A was his first healthy stint as a pro. Is anyone surprised that he went to Rice?
The Irrelevant: Despite his height, Niemann failed to make the basketball team during his junior high years at Lanier Middle School, a squad that featured current NBA star Emeka Okafor.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: An above-average power righty.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Low. The Devil Rays are cautiously optimistic about Niemann, and they don't want to rush him. He'll begin the year at Triple-A Durham, with the opportunity to pitch his way into the big leagues.

5. Jacob McGee, LHP
DOB: 8/6/86
Height/Weight: 6-3/190
Bats/Throws: L/L
Drafted: 5th round, 2004, Nevada HS
What he did in 2006: 2.96 at Low-A (134-103-65-171)
The Good: The fast-rising lefthander had and outstanding full-season debut, averaging 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings with a power arsenal. His low-90s fastball can get up to 94-96 at times, and his big, looping curveball freezes batters in their tracks. His changeup is at least average. Athletic and fields his position well.
The Bad: McGee has some control issues, mostly due to overthrowing his fastball. He has a tendency to elevate his pitches, and needs to work inside more frequently.
The Irrelevant: In the second innings of games, batters facing Walker in 2006 went 12-for-89 (.135) with 43 strikeouts.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: A power lefty who strikes out 200+ batters annually.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: High. While the Devil Rays have gotten out of the California League, their pitchers at High-A will still have a challenge in keeping balls in the park at Vero Beach. McGee will front the rotation there in 2007.

6. Wade Davis, RHP
DOB: 9/7/85
Height/Weight: 6-5/220
Bats/Throws: R/R
Drafted: 3rd round, 2004, Florida HS
What he did in 2006: 3.02 ERA at Low-A (146-124-64-165)
The Good: An intriguing righthander with prototypical power-pitcher build and the stuff to match, beginning with a 92-96 mph fastball that he can dial up to 98. His best breaking pitch is a power curveball, and his changeup shows flashes of being a plus pitch at times.
The Bad: Davis went through a dead-arm period in the middle of the year, dropping to 89-92 mph for about six weeks, so he needs to prove he can handle a full-season workload. He needs to become more effective against left-handed batters, who hit .284 against him last year.
The Irrelevant: In the 15 starts outside of his June/July swoon, Davis had a 1.19 ERA and 104 strikeouts in 80 innings.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: See McGee, but change 'lefty' to 'righty.'
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: High. Davis will join McGee in what will be the best rotation in the Florida State League.

7. Elijah Dukes, OF/1B
DOB: 6/26/84
Height/Weight: 6-2/220
Bats/Throws: S/R
Drafted: 3rd round, 2002, Florida HS
What he did in 2006: .293/.401/.488 at Triple-A (334 PA)
The Good: A broadly-built, outstanding athlete with plenty of baseball skills to boot. Patient, cereberal approach, good hitting skills, plus power and speed as well as an above-average arm in the outfield. Despite all of his off-the-field troubles, Dukes enjoys playing the game and has worked very hard to improve.
The Bad: Dukes' biggest weakness has little to do with baseball. Since signing, Dukes has had a seemingly endless string of confrontations with teammates, coaches, umpires, and the law. His background is a sobering one, and the Devil Rays have exercised incredible patience with him, but at some point he needs to straighten up and fly right.
The Irrelevant: Dukes is a graduate of Hillsborough High in Tampa, an athletic factory that has produced Dwight Gooden, Garry Sheffield, and Carl Everett, as well as Michael Burgess, one of the top prep hitters in the 2007 draft class.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: An outstanding player, and one far better than many ranked ahead of him on this list. At the same time, I'm glad I'm not writing what he becomes in an imperfect world.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Low or Very High, depending on how you look at it. The Devil Rays don't want to send Dukes back to Triple-A, and at the same time, they desperately need someone to play first base, a position where Dukes got some work in the Arizona Fall League and looked good. Provided he keeps all of his non-baseball issues in check, Dukes has an excellent shot of spending 2007 in the big leagues.

8. Jeremy Hellickson, RHP
DOB: 4/8/87
Height/Weight: 6-1/185
Bats/Throws: R/R
Drafted: 4th round, 2005, Iowa HS
What he did in 2006: 2.43 at Short-Season (77.2-55-16-96)
The Good: The raw product from Iowa has grown a couple of inches since signing, and led the college-heavy New York-Penn league in strikeouts. He effortlessly delivers a 89-92 mph fastball with outstanding location, and his curveball gives him a second plus pitch.
The Bad: Hellickson has good release on his changeup, but needs to work on his arm action. His fastball can get a little straight at times.
The Irrelevant: Hellickson had at least one strikeout per inning in 13 of 15 starts, and was just one whiff away in each of the other two outings from going a perfect 15-for-15.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: A middle-of-the-rotation starter.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: High. The Devil Rays tend to take it very slow with young pitchers, preferring that they spend two years in short-season leagues after signing. The system is working so far, and Hellickson will make his full-season debut in 2007 at Low-A.

9. Elliot Johnson, 2B
DOB: 3/9/84
Height/Weight: 6-0/170
Bats/Throws: S/R
Signed: 2002, Arizona HS
What he did in 2006: .281/.335/.455 at Double-A (542 PA)
The Good: The rare non-drafted free agent out of high school, Johnson continues to be an interesting product with at least average tools across the board. He established a career high with 15 home runs in the pitching-friendly Southern League, as his power stroke continues to develop. He's also a plus-plus runner who was limited in 2006 by a nagging groin injury. He's shown consistent improvement defensively, as Johnson shows good range at second base and turns the double play well.
The Bad: Johnson needs to work on his approach to fit into his projected role as a No. 1 or 2 hitter, as he currently strikes out too much and doesn't walk enough. If he can't do that, he only fits in the bottom part of the batting order.
The Irrelevant: Johnson hit .323 with 11 home runs at home, but just .236 with four home runs on the road.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: A solid second baseman.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Average. Johnson will begin the year at Triple-A Durham; to break into the Tampa Bay lineup may require some time spent in a utility role initially.

10. Matt Walker, RHP
DOB: 8/16/86
Height/Weight: 6-3/195
Bats/Throws: R/R
Drafted: 10th round, 2004, Louisiana HS
What he did in 2006: 3.18 ERA at Low-A (82-66-41-68)
The Good: This athletic righthander joined McGee and Davis in the West Michigan rotation for the second half of the season, and fit right in. Yet another power pitcher, Walker's fastball sits at 90-94 mph and touches 96. His spike curveball is even more impressive, and is his primary out pitch.
The Bad: Walker has violent mechanics and inconsistent control, leaving some to see him as more of a late-innings reliever. The fact that his changeup is currently pretty marginal adds weight to the argument.
The Irrelevant: With runners in scoring position and two outs, batters went a remarkable 1-for-30 against Walker in 2006.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: A No. 3 starter or set-up man.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: High. Seriously, if you live in East-Central Florida, head over to Vero Beach, because the McGee/Davis/Walker rotation is going to be a lot of fun, but probably not there for very long.

The Sleeper

An outstanding football prospect in high school and junior college, outfielder Desmond Jennings was the team's 10th-round pick in June, and had an impressive pro debut, showing plus-plus speed, surprising power potential, and a solid approach to hitting (.277/.360/.390 at Rookie-level Princeton, with 32 steals).

The Big Picture: Rankings Combined With Non-Rookies 25 Years Old Or Younger (As Of Opening Day 2007)

1. Scott Kazmir, LHP
2. Carl Crawford, LF
3. Delmon Young, RF
4. Evan Longoria, 3B
5. Rocco Baldelli, CF
6. Reid Brignac, SS
7. Jeff Niemann, RHP
8. B.J. Upton, Somewhere
9. Jacob McGee, LHP
10. Wade Davis, RHP

Yes, I really do like Scott Kazmir that much. Look at this list again: how many guys there are you confident could become All-Stars, or even more? Six? Eight? You could even argue ten with some big optimism on the young arms.

Being in the American League East is a nightmare, and the Devil Rays have yet to win more than 70 games in any of their nine seasons, but based on this list, that's all about to change, as this is the best collection of young talent in the game.

Next: The Texas Rangers.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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