Who could follow Wander in next Rays wave?

June 23rd, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG -- Wander Franco has arrived. On Tuesday night, baseball’s best prospect became a big leaguer with a dazzling debut that showcased all his skills. It was a performance worth savoring from a player who notified the sport that the hype is real.

When you see the 20-year-old Franco in action, it’s almost impossible to avoid thinking about the future. Now that the Rays have pushed their top prospect up from the Minors and into The Show, what comes next for the game’s top-ranked farm system?

First, don’t lose sight of the talent already on the Rays’ roster. Even though Franco’s debut was their seventh straight loss, it’s still mostly -- minus the loss of ace Tyler Glasnow -- the same group that stormed through May as the best team in baseball. Tampa Bay remains committed to those players, the core of last year’s American League champions, and isn’t in any sort of hurry to turn over the tables (or nameplates) in the clubhouse.

But the Rays always operate with one eye on the future, and the future looks bright given the number of top prospects already performing well at the highest level of the Minor Leagues.

“Not just for this season, but beyond, we have to have those waves of talent coming up through our system and ascending to be impactful contributors for our Major League team,” Rays general manager Erik Neander said. “And [we] do believe that not just for this year, but beyond, we're well-positioned with what's in our system, certainly in Triple-A, but even below that, to continue to have players that will graduate to our Major League club and to help us continue to win games up here.”

The strength of the Rays’ system is not just its star power, but its depth, with potential contributors at every level. The Triple-A Durham roster that Neander referenced is particularly loaded with future contributors even after sending up a pair of switch-hitting shortstops: Taylor Walls and Franco.

Remember Drew Rasmussen, the reliever who came up in Seattle, threw flames for two innings then went back to Durham to make room for Franco? He’ll be back -- he’d probably already be pitching at the back end of the bullpen for a lot of teams -- and there’s more where that came from.

Even after Franco’s promotion, the Bulls now have seven of the Rays’ Top 30 prospects on their active roster. They also have 21-year-old right-hander Luis Patiño, their No. 2 prospect to begin the season, in the rotation.

Part of the Rays’ return for Blake Snell, Patiño seems the most likely to make the biggest impact later this season. He already played a part earlier this year, posting a 3.60 ERA with 19 strikeouts and four walks in 15 innings over five outings while graduating from official prospect status.

Patiño is being built up to start in Durham, and he’s given up five hits and two walks with 12 strikeouts in 10 scoreless innings over his last two outings. He’ll be back at some point, and with his electric arsenal, could play an important role in a rotation looking to make up for the loss of Glasnow.

Let’s look at some prospects who could be part of the Rays’ next wave.

The 40-man roster position player prospects

Vidal Bruján, the Rays’ No. 2 prospect, is the definition of dynamic. The switch-hitting 23-year-old is a top-of-the-order contact hitter, with rare speed on the bases, who’s shown surprising home run power to start the season. He can play six defensive positions. He does a lot of things well, and his versatility -- assuming he polishes his outfield play -- should allow him to fill just about any need that arises in the Majors.

Outfielder Josh Lowe (No. 10) is thriving in Durham, hitting .314/.368/.613 with nine homers and eight steals in 152 plate appearances. There’s still swing-and-miss in his game, but he’s found a balanced approach that hasn’t diminished his raw power. Lowe’s path is blocked right now by a crowded outfield -- Kevin Kiermaier, Randy Arozarena, Manuel Margot, Austin Meadows and Brett Phillips -- but like Bruján, he’ll be ready if there’s a need.

Kevin Padlo (No. 21) had one hit and eight strikeouts in nine games for the Rays earlier this season. Padlo is a capable corner infield option, though he’s hitting just .204 with a .708 OPS in 31 games for Durham this year.

The 40-man roster pitching prospects

The Rays already called upon right-hander Brent Honeywell Jr., as their No. 17 prospect made his long-awaited MLB debut on April 11. He’s been doing what manager Kevin Cash calls “sprint work” since returning to Durham, recording three outs in six appearances and more than that in five outings, but never pitching more than two innings. The most important thing? He’s pitching well, recording a 1.17 ERA while holding opponents to a .401 OPS. He could help out of the bullpen, if there’s a need.

Left-hander Brendan McKay, the Rays’ No. 3 prospect who began the season as a hitter in Durham, is currently working his way back to the mound after undergoing season-ending left shoulder surgery last August. The left-hander has pitched in extended spring camp games, but he’ll likely need to prove his health and test himself against higher-level competition before he’s deemed ready.

Right-hander Drew Strotman (No. 18) is likely further away, having never pitched above Class A ball before this season, and he’s paired impressive strikeout numbers (41 in 34 1/3 innings) with a high walk rate (5.5 per nine innings) and a 4.46 ERA in eight outings, including seven starts.

The non-roster pitching prospects

Two names to keep in mind here: Joe Ryan and Shane Baz.

Ryan, the club’s No. 11 prospect, has 40 strikeouts and eight walks to go along with a 4.11 ERA and 0.98 WHIP in his first 30 2/3 innings at Triple-A. Ryan was on the fast track after posting a 1.96 ERA over three levels of the Minors in 2020, featuring a dominant fastball that could make him a late-season weapon for Tampa Bay.

Baz, MLB Pipeline’s No. 72 prospect, earned a quick promotion to Triple-A this season after eviscerating hitters in Double-A. In two starts for the Bulls, he’s allowed two runs on seven hits and three walks while striking out 10 in nine innings. If he keeps pitching like this, matching his high-end stuff with improved command, the Rays might almost have to consider bringing him up to bolster the staff in September.