PHILADELPHIA -- For more than a year, the Rays owned baseball’s top-ranked farm system. Tampa Bay stood atop three consecutive lists released by MLB Pipeline: before last season, at midseason last year and before this season. They finally ceded that title this week, when MLB Pipeline ranked the Orioles’ farm system first overall and the Rays’ system sixth, but the drop came for all the right reasons.
Wander Franco owns the Majors’ longest active on-base streak at 20 years old. Randy Arozarena is a strong candidate for the AL Rookie of the Year Award. Shane McClanahan and Luis Patiño have been a big part of their rotation and will play even bigger roles down the stretch. Taylor Walls was one of the Majors’ best defensive shortstops during his time with Tampa Bay earlier this season. Josh Fleming has pitched important innings for their injury-plagued staff. The Rays also sent highly regarded pitching prospects Joe Ryan and Drew Strotman to Minnesota to acquire Nelson Cruz on July 22.
And yet, Tampa Bay’s system remains loaded with talent and depth. The Rays still boast one of the deepest groups of prospects in the league. Four of their Minor League affiliates led their respective divisions entering play Wednesday, and no other club matched their overall organizational winning percentage of .622 (296-180).
So don’t let the slip down MLB Pipeline’s rankings fool you: This has been another tremendous year for the Rays’ system, one reflected in the Majors and their sixth-place ranking.
“Overall, I think we’re very pleased with how the 2021 season has gone so far,” director of Minor League operations Jeff McLerran said. “Coming off of last year, there was a lot of uncertainty about what the state of the game would look like -- not just our players. We had hopes that the efforts that we put in during the pandemic would pay off, and I think so far, we’ve seen the fruits of that labor last year from both our staff and players with the progress that we’ve been able to make.”
Tampa Bay still has five prospects ranked in MLB Pipeline’s recently released Top 100 list: right-hander Shane Baz (No. 20), infielder/outfielder Vidal Bruján (No. 22), infielder Xavier Edwards (No. 76), outfielder Josh Lowe (No. 79) and shortstop Greg Jones (No. 91). Left-hander Brendan McKay fell off the list and down to No. 9 in the Rays’ system; after recovering from shoulder surgery earlier this year, he is expected to miss the rest of the season due to a left forearm/elbow injury that recently required a platelet-rich plasma injection.
Baz has developed into one of the best pitching prospects in the game, pairing his excellent stuff with dramatically improved command while posting a 2.30 ERA, a 0.81 WHIP and a 9.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio between Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham. That was reflected in his big jump up the Top 100 list and his ascension to the No. 1 spot within Tampa Bay’s system.
“With the type of stuff that he has, when you land it in the zone as often as he has this year, it becomes really tough to hit against,” McLerran said. “Those steps forward in those areas have really allowed for him to make the leaps that he has.”
Lowe has also been a bright spot, and he’d likely already be in the Majors for a team that isn’t already overflowing with outfield options like the Rays have. The 23-year-old center fielder entered Wednesday hitting .270/.354/.540 with 20 homers and 20 steals to go along with 21 doubles and 66 RBIs.
“He’s got an incredible disposition to go about every day in a similar fashion. He’s going to work as hard as he can,” McLerran said. “He can affect a game in so many ways, whether it’s in the field [or] on the bases, so you know that even if one thing happens to be struggling, he can help you out a different way. … I think he’s going to be a guy that’s going to make an impact for our big league team in the near future.”
The Rays have also seen several prospects take significant steps forward, including notable breakouts from pitcher Taj Bradley (No. 6 in their system) and infielder Curtis Mead (No. 14). Among the others who have boosted their stock this year: pitchers Tommy Romero, Sandy Gaston, Jacob Lopez, Jayden Murray and Colby White, infielder Jonathan Aranda and outfielder Ruben Cardenas.
And the Rays are excited about the prospects they’ve added this season through the Draft (headlined by infielders Carson Williams, Cooper Kinney, Kyle Manzardo and Ryan Spikes) and other avenues (including infielder Austin Shenton, their No. 19 prospect, acquired from Seattle in the Diego Castillo deal).
The way Tampa Bay has built up its system over the past few years, there’s seemingly always another wave of young talent on the way.
“One of the things that we spend a lot of time talking about is that we can’t ever take our foot off the gas. We have to continue to produce Major League-caliber players, because you never know when we’re going to have an opening,” McLerran said. “The other thing that depth creates is competition within your system, and that can be really invaluable as a motivator, as a way for guys to push each other because they see the guys around them. That only helps to reinforce all the messages that we’re trying to push and continues to get guys to take advantage of it every day.”