1. Evan Longoria, 3B
2. David Price, LHP
3. Wade Davis, RHP
4. Desmond Jennings, CF
5. Reid Brignac, SS
6. Jacob McGee, LHP
7. Eduardo Morlan, RHP
8. Jeff Niemann, RHP
9. Jeremy Hellickson, RHP
10. Fernando Perez, CF
11. Ryan Royster, OF
Year In Review: The third overall pick of the 2006 draft won a Double-A MVP award in his first full season, and is already knocking on the door of a big-league opportunity.
The Good: Longoria does everything well, and many things exceptionally so. He combines outstanding bat speed with brute strength, and is capable of going deep to any part of the ballpark without needing to make perfect contact. He also has the feel for hitting to project for a high average, and draws a fair share of walks. Defensively, he shows good instincts and a plus arm. His makeup is outstanding, and he seems to gear up in clutch situations.
The Bad: Anything here is nitpicking. Right-handed pitchers found some success in pitching Longoria outside, and he needs to refine his pitch selection. He’s an average runner that some feel could lose his speed quickly and force a move to left field or first base.
Fun Fact: Again, he’s not related to Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria, and he’s kind of tired of being asked that question.
Perfect World Projection: An All-Star caliber corner infielder, who is also an MVP candidate at times.
Timetable: One side effect of the Delmon Young trade was the addition of permanency to B.J. Upton as a center fielder, and Akinori Iwamura as a second baseman. That leaves third base to Longoria on Opening Day, and he’s a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year honors.
Year In Review: The big left-hander entered the season as the top pick in the draft, and did nothing to change that with an outstanding junior year at Vanderbilt. Extended negotiations prevented him from making his pro debut.
The Good: The first college lefty to go No. 1 overall in over 30 years, Price is the complete package. He’s a big, intimidating presence on the mound and pounds the strike zone with 92-94 mph fastballs that can touch 96. His slider is absolutely devastating at time, and his changeup gives him a third plus pitch. He’s an excellent athlete with smooth mechanics who maintained top-flight stuff late into games with Vanderbilt, where his pitch count often exceeded 120.
The Bad: Price really just needs innings and experience to make the necessary adjustments to the pro game. Because he has plus, but not lights-out velocity, some see him as an easy-to-project star, but not a true ace.
Fun Fact: Price’s only loss of the season also came in his final college appearance, when he give up a home run in relief while pitching on two days’ rest in the postseason.
Perfect World Projection: It depends on who you talk to–at the high end, an annual Cy Young Award candidate, and at the low end, a consistent All-Star.
Timetable: Price will likely get his pro feet wet in the Florida State League while moving up to Double-A in short order. A 2008 big-league debut is in the realm of possibility.
Year In Review: The top right-hander in the system cruised into Double-A and earned glowing scouting reports at both levels.
The Good: Some scouts rated Davis’ power arsenal as among the best in the minor leagues. His mid-90s fastball touches 98 at times and has a little bite on it while also coming to hitters on a heavy downward plane due to Davis’ height and arm angle. He also throws a power curve than breaks late and hard, and he spots it well, giving opposing hitters no chance to sit on his fastball.
The Bad: Davis’ changeup is a below-average pitch, but it is also definitely improving. The same can be said about his command. He clearly ran out of gas by the end of the 2007 season, bringing up some durability questions.
Fun Fact: During his two months in the Florida State League, right-handed hitters hit just .124 against Davis–with just 18 hits in 145 at-bats.
Perfect World Projection: A frontline power starter.
Timetable: Depending on how the numbers game works out in spring training, Davis will begin 2008 in either Double- or Triple-A. He’ll likely make his major league debut at some point in 2008, and is lined up to be a major contributor by the following year.
Year In Review: Entering the season as toolsy yet raw, Jennings made the transformation from athlete to ballplayer in near-record speed before his season ended early due to minor knee surgery.
The Good: Other than his arm, which is at least average, all of Jennings’ tools rate as plus. Combining the ability to work the count, make consistent hard contact, and steal bases at will with projectable power, Jennings profiles as a dynamic power/speed player who can hit at the top or in the middle of the lineup. He also knows how to use his speed defensively, showing great range into both gaps.
The Bad: If anything, Jennings’ performance is so out-of-nowhere that people want to see him repeat it. He crowds the plate, and some feel he’ll be susceptible to inside pitching as he moves up. His instincts on the basepaths and in the field could also use improvement.
Fun Fact: In the eighth and ninth innings of games, Jennings managed just .161 (9-for-56). Otherwise, he hit .341.
Perfect World Projection: The sky is the limit, but some are already putting him down as a plus center fielder capable of seasons with 20-25 home runs and 50 stolen bases.
Timetable: With a young, talented outfield at the big league level, there is no reason to push Jennings, and he’ll begin 2008 in High-A.
Year In Review: The 2006 California League MVP hardly flopped at Double-A, but nonetheless had a season well below expectations.
The Good: As a shortstop with plus power, Brignac is still an excellent prospect. He’s big and strong without it costing him much in the way of athleticism, and Rays officials are convinced that his .260 batting average represent the low-end of his spectrum. The most positive thing to come out of his 2007 season was his defense, which made great strides in terms of both instincts and fundamentals, changing the minds of many scouts who earlier predicted an eventual move to third base.
The Bad: Brignac still needs to make some improvement on his approach–nothing specifically, just in terms of consistency. He’s prone to streaks and slumps due to being over or under aggressive for long periods of time, and needs to find a safe middle ground. He needs to trust his hands more to hit for a higher average, and understand that he doesn’t need to jack up his swing to hit the ball out of the park.
Fun Fact: St. Amant’s most famous alumni is Milwaukee ace Ben Sheets.
Perfect World Projection: A star-level performer at shortstop with average defense.
Timetable: Brignac will begin 2008 at Triple-A and could reduce Jason Bartlett to a utility man the following season.
Year In Review: The powerful left-hander continued to team with Wade Davis, nearly matching him pitch for pitch before encountering a few bumps in the road at Double-A.
The Good: McGee has the best fastball of any lefty in the system–including David Price–with a heater that sits at 92-96 mph every time out. He works inside effectively with the pitch, and tries to set up his curveball and changeup as chase pitches outside. He’s big and durable, and the ball comes out of his hand with clean, easy arm action.
The Bad: The fastball is McGee’s only plus offering. His curveball tends to flatten and he telegraphs his changeup with poor arm action. His command goes south at times, which is compounded by the fact that he tends to work up in the zone.
Fun Fact: In his five starts for Double-A Montgomery, McGee didn’t allow any runs after the second inning, firing 13 shutout frames while allowing five hits and striking out 18.
Perfect World Projection: A power left-hander, one who could be an All-Star starter with a more complete arsenal.
Timetable: McGee can easily handle a rotation workload, and will continue to do so until his other pitches improve or their deficiencies catch up with him. He’ll begin the year at Double-A.
Year In Review: Moved permanently to the bullpen, Morlan thrived in the closer role, averaging 12.8 strikeouts per nine innings and reaching Double-A at the end of the season. He then moved from Minnesota to Tampa Bay in the Delmon Young/Matt Garza deal.
The Good: Morlan has both the stuff and command to be an effective late-innings power reliever. He pounds the strike zone with a mid-90s fastball that can touch 98 mph, and his slider is a hard-biting pitch with plenty of tilt. He showed a lot more comfort as a reliever, where he could just grip it and rip it as opposed to the more pace-based approach needed as a starter.
The Bad: At times, Morlan was prone to giving up big innings; he needs to do a better job of keeping his emotions in check. When he got into trouble, he sometimes would overthrow, which led into him elevating his pitches, which led to more trouble. His mechanics aren’t dreadful, but they are better suited to short stints.
Fun Fact: During his two Double-A appearances, Morlan faced 11 right-handed batters and struck out six of them.
Perfect World Projection: With a bit of refinement, Morlan could be a future big league closer.
Timetable: Minnesota planned on opening up the 2008 season with Morlan closing at Double-A before the trade, and that same assignment, with an expectation that he’ll be ready the following year, is the likely outcome with Tampa.
Year In Review: The gigantic right-hander stayed healthy for the majority of the season, but didn’t exactly pitch really well.
The Good: Built more like a defensive end than a pitcher, Niemann comes at hitters with a low-90s fastball that touches 95 at times, as well as a solid slider and changeup. His mechanics are a bit funky, but repeatable, so his release point is consistent and his command is good for a big man.
The Bad: Since signing his first pro contract, Niemann has had persistent shoulder issues, including a short trip to the DL in 2007 for soreness. Everything about his arsenal, from the velocity on his fastball, to the snap on his breaking ball, to his overall command and control, is well off since his sophomore year at Rice, when he went 17-0.
Fun Fact: If you’re ever in a bar, and someone asks you to name two pitchers who went to Lamar High School in Houston, starred at Rice, and were first-round picks, one is Jeff Niemann, and the other is Philadelphia lefty Joe Savery.
Perfect World Projection: It used to be “ace,” now it’s more of a third or fourth starter; there are some thoughts that he could be better in short stints out of the bullpen.
Timetable: There’s no immediate opening in the Rays rotation per se, but it’s not like Niemann’s performance demanded room to be made for him either. He’ll return to Durham to begin the season.
Year In Review: A raw Iowa product who needed two years of short-season play to prepare for full-season debut, but finished sixth in the Sally League in ERA while limiting hitters to a .214 average.
The Good: Hellickson has a highly advanced approach to the game, and lives off a low-90s fastball that he locates with extreme precision, painting the corners effortlessly. He shows some feel for a curveball and changeup and mixed them in effectively, gaining confidence in both pitches as the season wore on.
The Bad: Scouts have wide-ranging views on Hellickson. Some see him as a highly-polished young pitcher with good stuff. Neither his curveball nor his change get especially good reviews, however, leaving him in the minds of some as little more than a short righty with nice velocity and outstanding location–the kind of combination that is enough to dominate the Sally League, but not more advanced levels.
Fun Fact: Hellickson did not allow a single run during a day game last year. OK, that’s only two games and nine innings, but still…
Perfect World Projection: Your classic back-of-the-rotation starter.
Timetable: There’s no need to rush him in a system full of young arms, so he’ll follow the normal path and head to High-A.
Year In Review: The heady center fielder passed his Double-A test with flying colors, finishing second in on-base percentage in the circuit.
The Good: Perez has a classic center field/leadoff man profile. He’s a plus-plus runner who can beat you in several ways. Offensively, he has a quick, quiet swing, gap power, and a very patient approach; in the field he effortlessly glides from gap to gap to chase down fly balls. Makeup-wise he’s a coach’s dream, constantly striving to improve, and applying his Ivy League intellectual approach to polishing his baseball skills.
The Bad: Professional baseball has been his first exposure to high-level, quality competition, so Perez still has some rough areas to his game. He needs to work on his routes in center and his work on the base paths, where he currently gets by on speed alone. He turns 25 early next season, so his projection isn’t the same as others at his level.
Fun Fact: While Lou Gehrig is obviously Columbia University’s most famous baseball alumni, only two players ever drafted out of Columbia have reached the majors–Gene Larkin and Frank Seminara.
Perfect World Projection: A classic leadoff hitter and center fielder.
Timetable: Perez will begin 2008 at Triple-A Durham. There’s no opening for him in Tampa for the time being, and he could soon be officially classified as blocked.
Year In Review: A fairly obscure pick, Royster didn’t make his full-season debut until three years after signing, but made up for lost time by leading the Sally League in slugging percentage and finishing in the top three of all three Triple Crown categories.
The Good: Royster is big and strong, and has what scouts refer to as “easy power,” as he focuses more on making hard contact than yanking balls out. He’s also a surprisingly adept hitter for a power guy, with excellent hand-eye coordination and plate coverage.
The Bad: Royster’s bat is his only plus tool and needs to be his ticket to the big leagues. He’s an average runner with fringy range in left and a poor arm. He’s aggressive early in the count, looking to mash fastballs, and will need to develop a more patient approach as he moves up.
Fun Fact: In the last 26 games of the season, Royster hit .385 (37-for-96) with 14 home runs and 32 RBI.
Perfect World Projection: A classic offense-oriented corner outfielder.
Timetable: The Florida State League is a far different offensive environment than the South Atlantic League, so Royster will need to make some adjustments this year at Vero Beach.
The Sleeper: Given third-round money as an 11th-round selection in June, outfielder D.J. Jones is cut from the same mold as Desmond Jennings–a long, wiry, extremely raw player with tons of athleticism.
The Big Picture: Rankings Combined With Non-Rookies Under 25 (As Of Opening Day 2008)
1. Scott Kazmir, LHP
2. Evan Longoria, 3B
3. David Price, LHP
4. B.J. Upton, CF
5. Matt Garza, RHP
6. Wade Davis, RHP
7. Desmond Jennings, CF
8. Reid Brignac, SS
9. Dioner Navarro, C
10. Jacob McGee, LHP
That, folks, is a borderline obnoxious collection of excellent young talent. Kazmir began to pitch like an ace last year, and the fact that he’s still young enough to quality for this list makes that fact all the more terrifying. I won’t remind Mets fans of the trade that…oh wait, I just did. Upton finally found his groove in 2007, and the Delmon Young trade opens up center field for him permanently. It’s hard to see him hitting .300 consistently with that kind of strikeout rate, but everything else–the power, the walks, the speed–is very, very real. Garza has the pressure of proving that he was worth one of the more talented young hitters in the game, and scouts are mixed on his ability to do so. Navarro’s second half of 2007, during which he hit .285/.340/.475, has people believing in his bat again.
The Tampa Bay system goes further than just the 11 listed here. It’s deep and talented, among the best in baseball, if not simply the best. The naysayer can point out that with the team consistently finishing so poorly in the standings and drafting so high, there’s no reason for the system not to be loaded, but at the same time, there are many perennial losers in the same situation who will still be perennial losers when the Rays (no more Devil) begin to compete for playoff spots within the next two years.
Next: The Texas Rangers.