Every Spring Training, prospects get a chance to show what they can do as they prepare for the season ahead. Some are competing for jobs in big league camps, others are prepping for the season as they vie for spots at Minor League affiliates up and down a team's system.
Every Spring Training, prospects get a chance to show what they can do as they prepare for the season ahead. Some are competing for jobs in big league camps, others are prepping for the season as they vie for spots at Minor League affiliates up and down a team's system. MLBPipeline.com is visiting all 30 camps this spring. Today we check in on the Tampa Bay Rays.
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- There was a time, not long ago, when the Tampa Bay Rays boasted one of the best farm systems, if not the best, in all of baseball. It was that system that helped the smaller market team build a Major League roster that reached the World Series in 2008 and the playoffs four times from '08 through 2013.
• Rays' Top 30 Prospects list
:: MLB Pipeline Spring Training reports ::
Then there were some leaner years in the system, with a number of contributing factors, including later Draft slots, more conservative drafting and some trades made that sent young players away as the Rays tried to contend. The good news is there appears to be a renaissance on the farm here, with the Rays once again boasting a Top 10 farm system according to MLBPipeline.com.
"You have peaks and valleys and there are a lot of different reasons why we might have been in a valley," said Mitch Lukevics, who has been the Rays' director of Minor League operations since 2006. "We're working towards a peak now. There've been a lot of trades that have helped our Minor League system. Our Latin American program is starting to flourish. Our Drafts are where they're at. As you look at the combination of them, that's where we come into it from the player development standpoint."
Recent trades have given the Rays players like Willy Adames, Jose De Leon and Jake Bauers, three of the system's top four prospects. More aggressive drafting has provided high school bats like Garrett Whitley and Joshua Lowe. Stronger efforts in Latin America have yielded Jesus Sanchez and Adrian Rondon, to name two who are in the top 15. In many ways, it's getting back to the way the Rays drafted and developed players when they were a homegrown juggernaut.
"As you see over the course of history in the game, these young high school players or young Latino players, they are high-upside, high-risk possibly, but there's skill," Lukevics said. "What it takes is time for these players to develop mentally and physically. We have not been an organization to rush players. I keep saying it: Only geniuses go from first grade to fifth grade to 12th grade. We like patience with high-ceiling, high-risk/reward kids. In the end, you've seen some pretty good results."
Draft yielding lucky 13s for Rays
The Rays have had the No. 13 overall pick in back-to-back years and took high school hitters both times. In 2015, they took Whitley out of upstate New York. And while things haven't gone smoothly for the Rays' No. 11 prospect, struggling out the gate then getting hurt in the spring last year, he just turned 20 and is preparing for a season with the Bowling Green Hot Rods. In other words, he's right on schedule.
"Garrett's right where he needs to be, getting ready for a full-season club," Lukevics said. "He was a young high school player, coming from upstate New York, where there's baseball in cold weather. I don't want to be negative about the competition, but now he signs and comes into a level where there are players from around the world, there's a learning curve to that. Then he had the leg injuries that set him behind a little bit, but in Hudson Valley, he didn't start out great, but he finished really well to get him to the next level.
"The one thing you can count on with Garrett is he has a good mind. He has a really good approach to things. And he has good bat speed. You're counting on the good mind, the good approach and the natural skill to all catch up in the Midwest League.
He's prepping for that while also working with fellow No. 13 pick Lowe, taken one year later. An infielder in high school, Lowe first tried out the outfield last fall during instructional play and he's a center fielder full-time now, getting reps with Whitley this spring.
• Q&A with Garrett Whitley
"Lowe is very gifted, physically and mentally," Lukevics said. "A young player who has the mental wherewithal fascinates me. The skills for his size, the speed, that's why we moved him from the infield to center field because he profiles well there. He has that long, 6-4, 190 pound body, he has great strides, he has a really good swing. But his mental capability at his young age is really good for us to see."
Lukevics surveys his farm system and sees a lot of diamonds in the rough behind the plate. Some have already started to shine. David Rodriguez, the No. 22 prospect in the organization, combined with Brett Sullivan to drive in 143 runs (both saw considerable time at DH). Then Rodriguez had a huge Australian Baseball League showing over the winter and looks poised to have a huge 2017.
Nick Ciuffo was breaking out a year ago when he landed on the disabled list with a hand injury, though he made up for lost time in the Arizona Fall League. And the Rays haven't forgotten about former first-rounder Justin O'Conner, who played in just 20 games last year and has dropped completely off the radar.
"You talk about the lack of catching, Rodriguez and Sullivan had a pretty good year," Lukevics said. "We're looking for the two of them to continue on. We're looking for Justin O'Conner to be healthy so we can get him out and play; Nick Ciuffo to have a full season underneath his belt. We have some catchers on the horizon, as long as they stay healthy."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLBPipeline.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanMayo and Facebook, and listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.