One of baseball’s biggest surprises in 2019, the Rays won 96 games (96-66) for just the third time in the franchise’s 22 seasons to claim the American League’s second Wild Card spot and their first postseason berth since 2013. And while the club was eliminated by Houston in a decisive Game 5 in the AL Division Series, the Rays, with their blend of young big league talent and potential impact prospects, made a statement regarding their ability to compete amidst MLB’s evolving landscape.
The Rays’ ALDS roster featured more acquired talent than any other playoff team. Players such as Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows, two former Top 100 prospects with Pirates, put it all together in their first full year with the club, and they both figure to be main cogs going forward in the organization’s winning formula. Former acquisitions Willy Adames (Tigers, 2014) and Tommy Pham (Cardinals, 2018) emerged as two of the club’s more valuable position players, while Charlie Morton, the Rays’ major offseason signing, headlined the team’s rotation en route to a third-place finish in the AL Cy Young Award voting.
In terms of homegrown talent, Brandon Lowe, a former third-round pick (2015), garnered All-Star honors before finishing third in the AL Rookie of the Year Award voting, and Brendan McKay, whom Tampa Bay selected with the No. 4 pick in the 2017 Draft, rose through the Minors to log 49 innings while making 11 starts.
Meanwhile, the Rays’ farm system continues to be one of the best in baseball -- it checked in at No. 2 on MLB Pipeline’s list of the Top 15 farm systems in August after holding the same ranking in our preseason Top 10 list. The Rays’ steady ranking over the course of the season accurately reflects the club’s wealth of talent on the farm, as they boast a deep crop of high-ceiling impact prospects as well as those who realistically should contribute in the Major Leagues.
Phenom Wander Franco gives Tampa Bay’s system some star power up top as MLB Pipeline’s No. 1 prospect, and, overall, the organization has six Top 100 prospects on its loaded Top 30 Prospects list.
TOP 5 PROSPECTS
HITTING & PITCHING PROSPECTS OF THE YEAR
Wander Franco, SS: MLB Pipeline’s No. 1 overall prospect split his first full season (also his age-18 season) between Class A Bowling Green and Class A Advanced Charlotte, slashing .327/.398/.487 with nine homers, 43 extra-base hits and 18 steals in 114 games across the two levels. Franco’s plate discipline was particularly impressive, as the switch-hitting shortstop recorded more walks (56) than strikeouts (35) in 495 plate appearances. Along the way, Franco represented the Rays in the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game.
Joe Ryan, RHP: The 2018 seventh-round pick from Division II Cal State Stanislaus had a remarkable breakout campaign, climbing three levels up to Double-A Montgomery. The 23-year-old righty finished among the Minor League leaders (100 IP min.) with a 1.96 ERA (fifth), 0.84 WHIP (second) and 183 strikeouts (second) in 123 2/3 innings. Ryan also ranked among the best with a 32.4 percent strike-to-walk rate (first), a 38 percent strikeout rate (second) and a .172 BAA (seventh).
Jake Cronenworth, SS/RHP (No. 17): A seventh-round pick in 2015 out of the University of Michigan, where he served as a two-way player, Cronenworth returned to a two-way role last season at Triple-A Durham. The 25-year-old made obvious gains from the left side of the plate, showing some newfound power (career-high 10 home runs) while batting .329/.422/.511. On the mound, Cronenworth showed a 94-96 mph fastball and a swing-and-miss breaking ball en route to completing 7 1/3 scoreless frames (seven appearances).
Lucius Fox, SS (No. 19): Acquired from the Giants in the 2016 Matt Moore trade, Fox struggled during his first Double-A exposure in ’18 and once again during his return to the level this past season, when he produced a .230/.340/.342 line across 104 games at Montgomery. The 22-year-old also reached Triple-A for the first time in July, only to be demoted back to Double-A after batting .143 in 15 games. Despite his offensive struggles, Fox still managed to swipe a career-high 39 bases and continued to earn high marks for his defense.
Draft: Greg Jones, SS, 1st round (No. 8 on Top 30); JJ Goss, RHP, Competitive Balance Round A (No. 10); Seth Johnson, RHP, CBA (No. 14); John Doxakis, LHP, 2nd round (No. 20); Graeme Stinson, LHP, 4th round; Ben Brecht, LHP, 5th round (No. 28). Complete Draft list »
International: Jose Pena, CF; Willmer De La Cruz, SS; Odalys Peguero, SS
Trade: Peter Fairbanks, RHP (No. 23; from Rangers); Ruben Cardenas, OF (from Indians); Niko Hulsizer, OF (from Dodgers)
The Rays went for pure upside with their first two picks in the 2019 Draft, selecting Jones, one of the top athletes available in the class, in the first round and Goss, a highly touted prep hurler, in the second. Then they targeted undervalued college arms in subsequent rounds and landed pitchers with strong strikeout tendencies such as Johnson, Doxakis and Stinson. The Rays took a similar approach when they acquired Fairbanks, a hard-throwing reliever with late-inning potential, from the Rangers, and the organization also added a pair of older-but-toolsy outfielders in Cardenas and Hulsizer. Pena was the club’s top international addition, signing for $750,000 out of the Dominican Republic, while De La Cruz and Peguero singed for $675,000 and $400,000, respectively.
2020 IMPACT PROSPECT
Brendan McKay, LHP/DH: McKay’s dominance on the mound between Double-A and Triple-A -- 1.10 ERA, 0.81 WHIP, 102/18 K/BB in 73 2/3 IP -- earned him his first big league callup in June, and the former No. 4 overall pick (2017) made the Rays’ postseason roster after tossing 49 innings (11 starts) of 5.14-ERA ball. As a candidate to crack the club’s Opening Day rotation next season, McKay will be a popular preseason pick for the 2020 AL Rookie of the Year Award.
Hit: Wander Franco
Power: Moises Gomez
Run: Vidal Brujan
Arm: Ronaldo Hernandez
Field: Josh Lowe
Best athlete: Greg Jones
Fastball: Shane Baz
Curveball: Matthew Liberatore
Slider: Shane Baz Baz
Changeup: Brent Honeywell
Control: Brendan McKay
HOW THE TOP 30 WAS BUILT
Whereas players acquired via trades comprised most of the Rays’ postseason roster, the club’s farm system stands out for its homegrown talent, with Draft picks and international signings comprising 25 spots on their Top 30 list. Seven of the club’s 19 Draft picks on the list are former first-round picks, and nearly half of the club’s Top 30 (14) was drafted in or above the third round.
TOP 30 BY POSITION
After the Rays’ pitcher-heavy 2019 Draft, it shouldn’t be surprising that the club’s system is teeming with arms. In total, 18 spots on Tampa Bay’s Top 30 Prospects list are occupied by pitchers. That group includes a trio of Top 100 prospects, as well as eight hurlers who already have experience at or above the Double-A level. The Rays’ system is loaded up the middle, too, as Franco and Vidal Brujan gives the organization perhaps the best middle-infield prospect tandem in baseball. They both could contribute for the Rays in 2020, and the same goes for upper-level hitters such as Josh Lowe and Jake Cronenworth.