It was a tough year for the Tampa Bay Rays at the Major League level, as the club finished last in the American League East with a 68-94 overall record, the second-worst mark in the AL, and 25 games back of the division-winning Red Sox.Down on the farm, however, there
It was a tough year for the Tampa Bay Rays at the Major League level, as the club finished last in the American League East with a 68-94 overall record, the second-worst mark in the AL, and 25 games back of the division-winning Red Sox.
Down on the farm, however, there were plenty of positives to take away from the season, and that trend has continued this fall in the Rays' instructional league, held annually in Port Charlotte, Fla., where the organization has been able to get a look at many of its top prospects under the same roof.
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Headlining the Rays' crop of talent in instructs this year is Josh Lowe, who was considered by many scouts to be the top two-way player in the 2016 Draft class, standing out as much for his potential on the mound as at the plate and third base. The Rays preferred him in the latter role and made him their first-round pick in June, selecting him with the No. 13 overall pick and then giving him $2.6 million to pass on a commitment to Florida State.
Rays Top 30 Prospects at instructs
The natural hitting ability Lowe showed as a Georgia prep carried over into his summer professional debut, as the 18-year-old posted a solid .249/.374/.405 slash line with 14 extra-base hits and a 37-59 walk-to-strikeout ratio over 54 games between the Rookie-level Gulf Coast and Appalachian Leagues.
But after spending his entire debut manning the hot corner, the Rays have had Lowe, the club's No. 4 prospect, working out in center field during instructional league, a position which the organization believes can be his long-term home.
"He's 6-foot-4, but also a wonderful athlete with 4.1-second speed and strides like a center fielder should," Rays director of Minor League operation Mitch Lukevics said. "And after reviewing with our staff internally, we decided that we would take advantage of his gift, his speed, and shift him to center field. He'll go through a learning curve out there, but Josh stands out on the baseball field regardless of what he's doing."
Joining Lowe in instructional league this fall are fellow 2016 draftees Ryan Boldt and Jake Fraley, who became teammates on Short Season Hudson Valley after the Rays selected them with the Nos. 55 and 77 overall picks. While a knee injury limited Boldt to a .218 average and just 43 games, Fraley made the most of his pro debut by posting a .703 OPS with 17 extra-base hits and 33 steals in 55 games.
"They're both good athletes with good speed," said Lukevics. "They're college guys who, because they're mentally and physically mature, are well equipped to move quickly. It's great to have that infusion of college outfielders into our system."
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Projectable arms on display
After targeting hitters early in the 2016 Draft, the Rays shifted their focus to projectable arms on Day 2, nabbing prep right-handers Austin Franklin and Easton McGee in the third and fourth rounds.
Both hurlers impressed in their own right during their pro debuts in the Gulf Coast League, with Franklin (Rays' No. 23 prospect) posting a 2.70 ERA in 43 1/3 innings and McGee (Rays' No. 24) a 3.09 ERA over 23 1/3 frames, and their performances offered the organization a taste of what could be down the road.
"Austin has some pretty good "now" stuff, and that stuff is going to enable him to compete. His fastball, curveball and changeup are pretty darn good," Lukevics said.
"McGee may not have the same "now" stuff as [Franklin]," added Lukevics, "but he has the same type of upside because he has that good body type and arm speed with room to grow."
Rondon making strides
After signing for $2.95 million in July 2014 as a 16-year-old out of the Dominican Republic, big things were expected from Adrian Rondon during his 2015 professional debut in the Gulf Coast League. But the young shortstop struggled mightily with a .166 average, zero home runs and 57 strikeouts in 43 games.
Flash forward one year and Rondon, the club's No. 14 prospect, is arguably the most improved player in the Rays' system, fresh off of an impressive campaign in the Rookie-level Appalachian League that saw him hit .249/.301/.430 with seven home runs and 36 RBIs in 43 games.
"It's all about maturation, physical and mental, and Rondon probably made more strides in that regard this year than any player we have," Lukevics said. "He made it clear to us that he's not just a 16-year-old "kid" anymore.
"Any time he swings the bat you don't turn your head, because he can impact the baseball. We're starting to see now what we were hoping to see a couple years ago."
Prospects on the rise
Rays No. 22 prospect Genesis Cabrera may be the top left-handed pitching prospect in the organization. Signed out of the Dominican Republic in November 2013, Cabrera, 19, built on his impressive U.S. debut last season with an equally strong showing this year in his full-season debut for Class A Bowling Green. A mid-season Midwest League All-Star, the 6-foot-1, 170-pound southpaw pitched to a 3.88 ERA with 96 strikeouts in 116 innings across 23 outings (22 starts).
"[Cabrera] has wiry strength and a really quick arm," said Lukevics. "He's another young guy who's starting to mature and get stronger, and it showed this year with him spending the entire season in the Midwest League. He's only going to get better."
Also flying under the radar this year was No. 26 prospect Brett Sullivan, who, after spending his entire pro debut as a third baseman, was moved behind the plate ahead of the season. The 22-year-old made a relatively smooth transition and did so without a dip in production, as he had a .283/.314/.438 batting line, 13 home runs and 34 doubles, as well as 17 stolen bases, in 118 games.
"He's still a work-in-progress behind the plate, but as his numbers from this year suggest, there's some whack in his bat," noted Lukevics. "The bat will be the primary tool, and if he can be adequate defensively, then we'll have an offensive-oriented catcher on our hands. Beyond the physical skills, he has a toughness to him that just fits behind the plate."
Mike Rosenbaum is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GoldenSombrero.