The shortstop section of the depth chart is loaded.
Willy Adames sits at the top as a key cog of a team that just reached the World Series. Just below him happens to be the game's top overall prospect in Wander Franco. But Franco isn't alone at shortstop on his team's alternate-site roster. Not by a long shot. Taylor Walls might be the best defender at the six in the whole system and shows his own promise as a switch-hitter. Though he's spent a decent amount of time at second base in recent years, Vidal Bruján came up as a shortstop and has game-changing plus-plus speed that make him a Top 50 overall prospect in his own right.
What is the organization to do with the glut in the middle of the infield? Wait, this is the Rays we're talking about.
"If you watch our big league team, it's something where positional versatility is really valued," said Tampa Bay director of Minor League operations Jeff McLerran.
He could say that again. The Rays used 59 different defensive lineups during the 2020 regular season. That was over the course of a 60-game campaign. Put another way, there was only one lineup the club used twice from July to September.
There is very little about manager Kevin Cash's roster use at the top level that should make Minor Leaguers believe they will stick to one position whenever they reach St. Petersburg, and that makes it easy for the player-development staff to preach the gospel of playing multiple spots.
"I think our guys recognize that when their name is written into the lineup at a spot other than shortstop or even if they start doing work in another position, it doesn't mean that we don't believe they can play shortstop," McLerran said. "It's more about trying to open up their options to find a way to help out the big league club whenever they get there."
That's an important note to consider with Franco as Tampa Bay's top overall prospect comes close to beating down the door to the Majors in the first half of the season.
The 20-year-old's scouting report is well-known but worth repeating. He's the only prospect in the game with 80-grade potential for his overall hit tool. In 2019, he hit .327 across two Class A levels and finished with 56 walks and only 35 strikeouts over 114 games during his age-18 season. He also packs plus power as a switch-hitter, which he showed off some in Spring Training last month, and he could be an above-average runner.
Simply put, Franco is someone the Rays should want in the lineup every day, and they're working on making that happen by giving him time at third base as well as second during his work at the alternate training site in Port Charlotte.
For the time being, it helps keep things from being awkward between Franco and his fellow shortstops.
"He and Willy have a pretty strong mutual respect for each other, and so I think they understand that there are only shortstop reps for one of them at a time," McLerran said. "Similarly, I think down here, there's a recognition from Wander that Taylor is a really good shortstop as well. So I think it hasn't been as difficult as you would think to have guys buy into the understanding that they should be doing whatever they can to just get their name in the lineup."
Similarly, Walls has also been seeing time at third and second when he isn't on Tampa Bay's taxi squad, and Bruján has been utilizing his wheels in all three outfield spots, including center where he has the ability to cover lots of ground.
The Rays have thrived in recent years on plugging whatever holes they have with internal options. Having the trio just a step away at Triple-A Durham to open 2021 could be just another reason why the defending AL champs can't be ruled out in the season ahead.
"Players that we just named, we think that they all have the ability to hit in the big leagues and be part of an everyday lineup," McLerran said. "If they can be defenders at either a premium spot or premium defenders at a corner spot too, that all adds up to real value for us."
Patiño averaged 96.7 mph on his fastball and showcased a plus slider capable of getting Major League outs, despite having only two starts above High-A coming into last year. McClanahan -- a 2018 Draft pick with only one full season under his belt -- threw even harder with a heater that topped out at 101.2 mph and had a plus breaking ball of his own.
Utilizing both in shorter spurts made sense for a pair of top-level clubs with big aspirations in 2020. But the Rays are still developing both as if they will have much lengthier roles in 2021 and beyond. Patiño threw four innings in his most recent alternate-site outing, while McClanahan is scheduled for four frames himself in his next outing.
"They've been on a little bit of a slower build to line up with being ready for Triple-A Opening Day," McLerran said. "So while they both came out of the bullpen in the big leagues last year, we're looking at them as bulk options for our big league club this season and moving forward."
By saying "bulk options" instead of traditional starters, McLerran left open the possibility that Patiño and McClanahan could piggyback off an opener in Tampa Bay's innovative pitching setup or provide other multi-inning options in other ways. The main takeaway: the Rays like both hurlers enough to focus on making them more than one-inning firebreathers at the top level.
One other alternate-site update: Brendan McKay has still yet to appear on the mound in spring games but is throwing off to the side as part of his recovery from last year's shoulder surgery. The former Louisville star is, however, getting at-bats in alternate-site games and even featured at first base to continue his development as a two-way player.
Ford Proctor didn't take 2020 sitting down by any means. The 2018 third-round pick played 28 games in the independent Constellation Energy League and hit .346/.500/.679 with 16 extra-base hits (including four homers). That prompted the Rays to bring him to their alternate site and get more looks at him in instructional-league play. The left-handed slugger continued to make up for lost time with Perth in the Australian Baseball League and brought his hot bat with him Down Under as he hit .324/.452/.544 in 21 games there.
Oh, while all that was happening, he also picked up a new position by moving from the infield to behind the plate at catcher.
Insofar as any Minor Leaguer could have an impressive 2020, Proctor accomplished that, and that level of performance hasn't stopped with the 24-year-old's move back to Port Charlotte for Minor League camp this spring.
"I think we're all really excited with how far along [his catching defense] has come, and it hasn't really seemed to affect his offense at all," McLerran said. "The guy that basically led that independent league last year in all offensive categories is the guy that we've seen so far in the spring, so we're pretty excited to see what Ford can do when the lights turn on."
Prospect we'll be talking about in 2022
Speaking of catchers with positional versatility, No. 14 Rays prospect Heriberto Hernandez is out to make a first impression on Tampa Bay this spring, having come over from the Rangers in a December swap for Nate Lowe. Hernandez, who signed for only $10,000 as an 18-year-old out of the Dominican Republic in December 2017, played first base, catcher and right field during his days in the Texas system, but this spring, his early point of emphasis has been behind the plate.
"He's probably spent more of his time catching early on because we feel like that's one where it takes a little bit longer to get a better feel on where he is [defensively]," McLerran said. "He's focused there while also getting some time in the outfield and a little bit of time at first base, but yeah, I think catching and outfield will probably be his primary focus early on in the year."
The reason why it's so important to keep the 21-year-old's options open is because his bat has shown such promise at the lower levels. Hernandez hit .344/.433/.646 with 11 homers in 50 games in the complex-level Arizona League in 2019, leading evaluators to believe the right-handed slugger will have an above-average hit tool and plus power going forward. If he can be even an average backstop in his first full season in 2021, his offensive ceiling would be enough to make him a big piece at a prime position.
In the Dominican
Like so many other teams early in 2021, the Rays have brought players to their Dominican Republic complex in four-week waves early on in order to keep distancing measures in place.
The first group at the facility was made up of international players who would eventually come stateside for Major League Spring Training. Once that group moved on, it was replaced by prospects preparing for Minor League camp. Currently, the complex is being used to train younger players that will jump to Florida for extended spring training next month as well as the latest group of international signees who are just dipping their toes into the professional waters.
Among those that have been at the Rays complex is No. 17 prospect Carlos Colmenarez, a left-handed-hitting shortstop who signed for $3 million back in January. The Venezuela native has above-average potential in all five of his tools and could be the next big name at the six to come through the Tampa Bay ranks.