Rays Minor League awards a promising look ahead

September 23rd, 2022

This story was excerpted from Adam Berry's Rays Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Rays prospect Kyle Manzardo couldn’t be at Tropicana Field on Thursday night to personally accept his Minor League Player of the Year award. Nor could Mason Montgomery make it to shake hands with Jeff McLerran and Carlos Rodriguez as he was named the Rays’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year.

They were a little busy playing for Double-A Montgomery, which is trying to become the third Rays affiliate to win a league title this season. The Biscuits continued their best-of-three Southern League Championship Series on Thursday night, dropping Game 2 to Pensacola, 6-5, in the South Division Series.

A second-round pick out of Washington State in last year’s Draft, Manzardo -- Montgomery’s No. 3 hitter on Thursday night -- hit .327/.426/.617 with 22 homers, 26 doubles, 81 RBIs and nearly as many walks (59) as strikeouts (65) in 93 games between High-A Bowling Green and Double-A Montgomery.

Manzardo’s Aug. 9 promotion might have seemed a little aggressive for the Rays, but he was clearly ready.

“He's got a really good feel for the strike zone, first and foremost. He's a good self-evaluator and knows the pitches that he can do damage on,” said McLerran, the Rays’ director of Minor League operations. “He's able to find those pitches, hunt those pitches and then execute when that pitch comes.”

The left-handed-hitting first baseman, Tampa Bay’s No. 6 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, led the entire system in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS. He was tied for third in homers and ranked fourth in RBIs, fifth in extra-base hits and sixth in walks.

Not bad for his first full professional season, right? But he’s more than just a talented hitter, the Rays say. He’s a well-rounded prospect.

“I think one of the things that really stands out to us about him is, as good as he's been, the desire to continue to get better,” McLerran said. “He took a lot of pride in getting better defensively on top of putting up the numbers that he did at the plate, and that is a lot of the reason that he's in the spot that he's in.”

It’s been a similar story for Montgomery, the Rays’ No. 7 prospect. Drafted four rounds after Manzardo out of Texas Tech, Montgomery only threw 10 2/3 innings in the Florida Complex League during his professional debut last season. The Rays saw good signs during that stint, but this year McLerran said Montgomery “opened some eyes, really from the get-go, as a guy that had several different weapons that he could use to get hitters out.”

The lefty appeared so advanced that the Rays matched him up against upper-level hitters during Spring Training, and even they looked uncomfortable facing him. At that point, McLerran said, the Rays realized, “He’s a guy that probably needs to be challenged sooner rather than later and kind of progress that way.”

Montgomery went 6-3 with a 2.10 ERA in 124 innings (27 starts) between High-A and Double-A, where he was promoted on July 12. He led the system in ERA, strikeouts and and opponents’ average (.196), and was tied for first with 27 starts. His 124 innings pitched ranked second in the system, and his 1.06 WHIP ranked third. He ranked fourth in the Minors this year with 171 strikeouts, tied for the ninth-most by a Rays Minor Leaguer in franchise history.

“Especially as he's gotten used to facing upper-level hitters, he knows that he can't just rely on the fastball or, depending on what secondary [pitch] is working, he's got to use all of them,” McLerran said. “That has been some of the growth that he's had the second half of the season in Double-A.”

With radio extraordinaire Neil Solondz hosting, the Rays also handed out the following Minor League awards before Thursday’s game at Tropicana Field:

Relief Pitcher of the Year: Javy Guerra, Durham

Defensive Player of the Year: SS Carson Williams, Charleston (Rays’ No. 3 prospect)

Baserunner of the Year: OF Mason Auer, Charleston/Bowling Green (No. 13)

Erik Walker Community Champion: 1B Bobby Seymour, Charleston 

Triple-A Durham MVP: INF Jonathan Aranda (No. 4)

Double-A Montgomery MVP: INF Brett Wisely (No. 28)

High-A Bowling Green MVP: OF Heriberto Hernández (No. 18)

Single-A Charleston MVP: OF Shane Sasaki 

Rookie-level FCL Rays MVP: INF Junior Caminero (No. 19)

Rookie-level Tampa Bay MVP: OF Ángel Mateo 

Rookie-level Rays MVP: 1B/OF Elias Petiyan