Standout Rays prospects from the '21 season

October 18th, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays got a lot of attention for their success during the regular season. They won 100 games, captured their second straight American League East title and entered the postseason as the AL’s top seed. Their flourishing farm system was just as successful.

The Rays finished the year with baseball’s top organizational winning percentage. Triple-A Durham finished with the best record in Triple-A, then went 9-1 in the 10-game “Final Stretch” tournament. Double-A Montgomery finished second in the Double-A South.

High-A Bowling Green went 82-36, the best full-season winning percentage in the Minors, and won the High-A East championship. Low-A Charleston was the Minors’ only other 80-win team, at 82-38, and won the Low-A East title. And the Rookie-level FCL Rays had by far the best winning percentage (.737) in the Florida Complex League, a league with no postseason, to claim another championship.

For the Rays, Minor League success is a product of quality player development. The latter showed up plenty at Tropicana Field, too, in the form of top prospects-turned-big leaguers like Wander Franco, Shane McClanahan, Randy Arozarena, Shane Baz, Luis Patiño, Josh Fleming, Taylor Walls, Vidal Bruján, Brent Honeywell Jr. and, for a two-game preview, Josh Lowe. It even showed up in Nelson Cruz, who came via trade from the Twins at the cost of top pitching prospects Joe Ryan and Drew Strotman.

Additionally, the Rays saw many prospects break out in their return to the field after sitting out 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Tampa Bay may have fallen a bit in the latest farm rankings, but it still boasts arguably the deepest and most respected player development system in the game -- one the Rays are counting on to keep churning out talent.

Let’s take a countdown-style look at the Rays’ Minor League system: three players who forced their way onto the radar this year, two possible breakout players to watch in 2022 and one big question for next season.

Three players who forced their way onto the radar in 2021

INF Curtis Mead
There are some folks with the Rays who are as excited about the 20-year-old Mead as anyone in their system. Originally signed by the Phillies out of Australia, Mead spent two seasons in Philadelphia’s system before coming to Tampa Bay in exchange for lefty reliever Cristopher Sánchez in a November 2019 trade. All the right-handed hitter did in his organizational debut this season was slash .321/.378/.533 with 15 homers, 38 doubles, 34 walks and only 71 strikeouts in 458 plate appearances between Charleston, Bowling Green and, for four impressive games, Durham. The Rays’ No. 14 prospect is more of a corner bat than anything, but it’s easy to see the upside in a performer like that who will be 21 all of next season.

RHP Taj Bradley
The Rays were high enough on Bradley to take him out of high school in the fifth round in the 2018 Draft, and he was on their Top 30 Prospects list entering this season. But the 20-year-old broke through in a big way in ‘21, going 12-3 with a 1.83 ERA, an 0.93 WHIP, 123 strikeouts and only 31 walks in 103 1/3 innings over 23 appearances (22 starts) between Charleston and Bowling Green. He throws hard (in the mid-90s) with an athletic and efficient delivery, and he’s already shown two solid breaking balls in his slider and curveball. Bradley jumped all the way to the No. 6 spot on the Rays’ Top 30 list, and he’ll be in the mix for MLB Pipeline’s next Top 100 Prospects list.

INF Jonathan Aranda
The 23-year-old hadn’t necessarily distinguished himself in the Rays’ deep system from 2016-19, although he displayed some intriguing skills at the plate. But he made the most of his time in the Mexican Pacific Winter League after not having a season last year, and he hit for much more power this season. Between Bowling Green and Montgomery, the lefty-hitting infielder -- who played first, second, third and a handful of innings at shortstop -- slashed .330/.418/.543 with 14 homers, 22 doubles, 65 RBIs, 42 walks and only 76 strikeouts in 411 plate appearances over 100 games. He hit his way into becoming Montgomery’s team MVP and gaining more prospect recognition.

Two possible breakout players to watch in 2022

RHP Sandy Gaston
This was already somewhat of a breakout year for the 19-year-old Gaston, who was flinging triple-digit fastballs by everyone he saw in the Rookie-level Florida Complex League. His early-season success helped him earn the No. 21 spot on the Rays’ Top 30 prospects list, and he held his own -- albeit with some control issues -- against older hitters in Low-A. Overall, Gaston put together a 3.60 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP while striking out 70 and walking 35 in 50 innings over 14 outings (10 starts). If he can continue to refine his command and improve his breaking stuff, watch out. He has the upside to make it all work.

RHP Seth Johnson: The Rays already believed in Johnson’s high-upside arm, which is why they took him out of Campbell University with the 40th overall pick in the 2019 Draft despite his relative lack of pitching experience. His professional debut was encouraging as well, as he posted a 2.12 ERA and 1.18 WHIP with 16 strikeouts and only three walks in 17 innings over nine starts in Rookie-level ball two years ago. Johnson backed that up this season by recording a 2.88 ERA and 1.27 WHIP with 115 strikeouts in 93 2/3 innings over 23 outings for Low-A Charleston. They were especially encouraged by what they saw from the 23-year-old down the stretch. In his final 11 outings, he put together a 1.63 ERA while holding opponents to a .603 OPS with 66 strikeouts and 14 walks in 49 2/3 innings. And he finished especially strong, with a 1.35 ERA, .516 opponents’ OPS and 30 strikeouts compared to only four walks in 20 innings over his final four starts, all of them five innings. If he can carry those adjustments and that momentum into next season, the Rays will have yet another top starting pitching prospect in their system.

One big question for next year: Can they keep churning out contributors?

Put another way: Will arguably the deepest farm system in baseball ever see that depth dry up?
The Rays already pushed a lot of prospects into the Majors this season. Looking at their current Top 30 list, it’s fair to expect we could see Baz, Bruján, Lowe, Brendan McKay, Honeywell, Tommy Romero, Tobias Myers and Xavier Edwards -- and possibly more -- reach The Show next year. That’s a lot of talent leaving the system, even if it’s just graduating to the next level. But the Rays set out to be a self-sustaining contender, so they’ll always need more.

They’ll need more breakout players in 2022. They’ll need to see their recent Draft picks thrive. They’ll have to make their usual array of smart pickups and savvy trades. They’ll need a lot of things to go right in order to maintain their highly rated system with all those likely graduations. They’ve done it all in the past, obviously, but will it ever catch up to them?