PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- At various times in the Rays' two decades of existence, they have had a reputation of having a strong farm system, with most of their success coming from homegrown talent over the years. The farm system has produced players like Evan Longoria, David Price, Carl Crawford
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- At various times in the Rays' two decades of existence, they have had a reputation of having a strong farm system, with most of their success coming from homegrown talent over the years. The farm system has produced players like Evan Longoria, David Price, Carl Crawford and James Shields.
Farm director Mitch Lukevics has been here for all of it, part of the original crew when the organization was founded. And when he looks around at what is currently the No. 2-ranked farm system in baseball, he does not shy away from superlatives.
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“We’ve had some really good prospects come through our farm system, but this farm system that we have now rates far higher than any year or group of players we’ve had, because we have numbers, we have depth,” Lukevics said. “We’ve had a lot of really good players ... you can name them and name them, but the pure depth of what we have now surpasses anything we’ve had here with the Rays in the past.”
It isn’t common to have such a well-regarded system and be competitive at the big league level, but the Rays surprised many by winning 90 games last year. Tampa Bay played the role of both buyer and seller at the non-waiver Trade Deadline, using prospects to bring in Tommy Pham, but then trading Chris Archer to bring in young players in Austin Meadows, Tyler Glasnow and prospect Shane Baz from Pittsburgh.
“It wasn’t in our model, and now it is,” Lukevics said about using prospects to bring in big leaguers a la the Pham deal. “We got Chris Archer in a trade, we got Ben Zobrist in a trade. Now, we get Austin Meadows in a trade, we get Shane Baz, who has a fine arm, and ironically for Chris Archer. That’s a change, that’s what baseball is all about. You’re trying to get the most competitive team at the big league level and not sacrifice your entire farm system. It’s that balance that our front office does a wonderful job with.”
The Rays have managed to bring in players via trades, via the Draft and through international signings at all levels. Many are getting to St. Petersburg now to help the Rays take on the Red Sox and Yankees in the American League East, and there are many more coming. And it’s made for a heck of a good time in camp this spring.
“We’re starting to get guys to come up and make an impact, and now you have guys who are on the horizon to come and make an impact at some point,” Lukevics said. “I always give credit where credit is due: amateur scouting, Rob Metzler, international scouting, Carlos Rodriguez, pro scouting with Kevin Ibach. They’re bringing in the talent that gives us the opportunity to work with these finely skilled players, but not only that, good quality people. We have a lot of fun here because these kids like to play, with the right attitudes and effort. You don’t have to get on them about anything like that.”
Franco prepares for 2019
Rays top prospect Wander Franco, ranked No. 13 on the Top 100 Prospects list, has about as much buzz as any super-young prospect in baseball. He just turned 18 at the beginning of March and is coming off a scintillating pro, and United States, debut that led to him winning the Appalachian League Most Valuable Player Award. People are talking about Franco in reverential tones, much like discussions about Vladimir Guerrero Jr. started after his Appalachian League showing.
“There’s good reason,” Lukevics said. “He can hit, he can really hit. Unless something strange or odd happens, he’s a pure hitter. You don’t see that type of bat-to-ball combination for a young kid. He might impact it a little bit, miss, miss, then impact, but the consistency that he makes contact with is phenomenal.”
Lukevics described an at-bat Franco had in a Minor League game this past Thursday that served as a microcosm of that approach. The switch-hitting shortstop was down 0-2, a time when most young hitters get overly defensive and simply just try to make contact. But Franco, Lukevics said, trusts his ability and his hands so much that he worked a walk. This spring, Rays staff is working with the immensely talented infielder on his overall feel for the game.
“We have to have him understand the game a little more,” Lukevics said. “Sometimes, when you get these high-profile kids from Latin America, they’re geared for the tryouts. They want to throw 100 [mph], they want to show home run power, but can they play the game? Wander can hit, Wander has skills and now we’re teaching him how to play the game.”
This system is so deep, it’s hard to single out one or two players for excelling this spring. Matthew Liberatore, the club’s first-round pick last June, and Baz, acquired in the Archer trade, have looked good, both pitching well recently against Team Canada. Players like outfielder Josh Lowe have shown considerable tools.
But let’s focus on someone a bit further down on the Rays’ very deep Top 30 list. Taylor Walls was the organization’s third-round pick in 2017 out of Florida State. After a pedestrian pro debut in the New York-Penn League that summer, the shortstop had a fine first full season in the Midwest League in 2018, hitting .304/.393/.428 with 31 steals, while showing outstanding defensive skills at a premium position.
“He’s an exceptional shortstop, and he’ll be on our Florida State League team this year,” Lukevics said. “He’s one of many here who really like to play. He’s a gym rat, he’s a switch-hitter with an accurate arm. He could be a really good player.”
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLBPipeline.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanMayo and Facebook, and listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.