Wednesday, May 29, 2024
AL EastAmerican LeagueAnalysisMLBTampa Bay Rays

Rays Top Prospects: 1-10

Many consider the Rays to have the best farm system in baseball the best team in baseball. The Rays’ system is headlined by high upside pitchers and position players with overwhelming levels of speed and plate discipline. This article is part one of a three part series of my top 30 Rays prospects.

For numbers 11-20, click here. For numbers 21-30, click here.

1: Wander Franco (SS)

Franco is not just the best prospect in the Rays’ system, but the best in all of baseball. A switch-hitting shortstop with all five tools at or above 50 on the 20-80 scale, according to MLB.com. The first prospect ever to be given an 80 Future Value grade by Fangraphs, Franco has a rare combination of top tier plate discipline and bat-to-ball skills, resulting in more walks than strikeouts at every level of his professional career. For more, read my full article on Wander Franco here.

2: Brendan McKay (LHP/DH)

A special talent, McKay has the ability to be a productive pitcher and hitter at the big league level. To start with his pitching, which is his main source of success, he has great control of his four pitches, which are a fastball, cutter, curveball, and changeup. His fastball is thrown in the mid 90s with an overall velocity range of about 15 mph in his arsenal. After Blake Snell’s injury in 2019, McKay was used at the big league level when fatigued due to the amount of innings pitched, so his stellar control was not seen much past his first three Major League starts.

McKay’s bat tends to go overlooked because of how well he pitches, but it could prove to be a real asset in Tampa Bay. In 2019, McKay had an extremely high average exit velocity of 93 mph in the minors. Pair that with a consistent walk rate over 10%, and McKay becomes much more than a pitcher who can hit: he is selective in the box and hits the ball hard. At nearly every level of his career, McKay’s power produced a wRC+ over 100. McKay’s hit for average tool is not great, as he usually usually between .200 and .250; however, he has the ability to post a high OBP with a low batting average. In the special case of a two-way player, the three other tools, speed, arm, and defense, are of very little relevance, as McKay’s value doesn’t depend on these nearly as highly as a traditional position player prospect. He has expressed interest in returning to first base in order to hit more; whether he and Kevin Cash can find a way to do it or not, his pitching is worthy enough of a top five ranking on its own.

3: Brent Honeywell (RHP)

Honeywell hasn’t pitched since 2018 due to Tommy John surgery and a subsequent elbow fracture. Formerly a top 20 prospect, Honeywell has five pitches, most of which (all except the curve) are above average; none of his pitches are less than a tick below average. He has a fastball that reached mid 90s before the injuries, plus a healthy variety of offspeed pitches in the slider, changeup, curveball, and his trademark screwball. Proved by a floor of a 3.17 FIP and 3.56 xFIP while also having a consistently low WHIP and a BABIP under .300, Honeywell’s stuff translates into in-game success.

Before getting hurt, Honeywell could skillfully command his pitches. In an interview this offseason with Neil Solondz of Rays Radio, he deeply stressed a pitcher’s success coming from their control, so it’s comforting that he sees regaining this skill as a priority in his recovery. The velocity may take some time to return, but for a resilient athlete with an unmatched work ethic and excellent training and coaching staffs around him, Honeywell has as good a chance as anybody of overcoming this pair of injuries.

4: Vidal Brujan (2B/SS)

Brujan’s best tool is his speed: according to MLB.com, he’s the fastest prospect in the Rays’ organization. Over the last two years, he has had a Speed Score (Spd) over eight, where seven is considered excellent, according to Fangraphs. An above average second baseman, Brujan expanded his horizons in 2019, getting some time at shortstop. In addition to his speed, his hitting is above average despite the lack of power. Since 2017, Brujan’s range of wRC+ (min. 40 games) is from 113 to 141. The key to separating himself at the plate without much power is plate discipline: his BB% is always over 8.5 since A ball, and his K% is consistently between 11 and 13. As a contact-oriented hitter who puts pressure on the defense with his speed and on the pitcher with his plate discipline, Brujan is not to be underestimated at the plate

5: Joe Ryan (RHP)

Joe Ryan is a prospect that many don’t know about: he doesn’t appear on many top 100 lists, but he earned recognition on Baseball America’s list and by the Rays, who named him Organizational Pitcher of the Year after a breakout 2019 season. Armed mainly with a high-spin, deceptive fastball (similar to Colin Poche’s) that can reach the mid 90’s and an above average curveball that sits in the low 70’s, Ryan is able to consistently strike out more than a third of opposing batters. Also in his arsenal is a changeup with room for improvement; however, the Rays have a strong track record of developing changeups, which bodes well for Ryan. In High-A, where he spent most of 2019, he had an impressive BB% of just 3.9.

Opposing hitters have only been able to muster a batting average of .220 or less off Ryan, which should be a trait he continues to possess across his career — Colin Poche, a comparable pitcher based on fastball effects, was in the 100th percentile in xBA last season. With a K+IFFB% of 66.1, nearly two thirds of batters faced are absolute outs. 3.9% walked (in High-A), so only 30% of hitters put the ball in play with a realistic chance to get a hit off him. Considering a version of FIP weights IFFB equal to K, Ryan has most of the opposition under control without luck or any type of random activity factoring in. The excellent stuff translates into FIPs between 1.69 and 3.15 and xFIPs between 1.42 and 2.73. Ryan is one of the most underrated prospects, and the 2018 draftee could be a true staple in the Rays’ rotation for years to come.

6: Shane McClanahan (LHP)

A left handed starting pitcher with a fastball that has touched 100, there’s a lot to like about McClanahan. He usually sits in the low-to-mid 90s with an effective slider and a progressing changeup. Having learned a new changeup grip that he believes will increase consistency, a potential boost in results is something to keep an eye on going into 2020. McClanahan had a cumulative 30.6 K% over three levels in 2019, ending at AA Montgomery. Additionally, he had a 2.45 FIP in total last year, by my calculations, using a 3.1 FIP constant. What’s even more promising for this electric prospect is that despite an 8.35 ERA and 4.12 FIP in only four AA starts, he still had a 2.91 xFIP. Therefore, the quality of contact was still relatively weak despite the overall run production of opposing hitters.

In his freshman year of college, McClanahan suffered a torn UCL. After undergoing Tommy John surgery, he struggled to regain his control, but it looks like he found it in the second half of 2019. With a consistently low batting average against, he significantly improved his walk rate, becoming a high-strikeout starter who doesn’t allow many baserunners. After only one full season in the minors, this top prospect received an invite to Spring Training. McClanahan is a truly promising pitcher who should reach the major leagues in the next couple years.

7: Taylor Walls (2B/SS)

Taylor Walls was the Rays’ Organizational Defensive Player of the Year in 2019, but he’s much more than a glove-first middle infielder. Walls boasts remarkable plate discipline and consistently great offensive production. With a walk rate always in double digits, he only strikes out about 15-20% of the time. The power has been questionable, but that’s not a problem: similar to Brujan, he consistently has a wRC+ well above average: since 2018, Walls sat around 135 with a slight dip to 123 in High-A. An intriguing development is that in his transition to Double-A in the second half of 2019, the power started to show. At AA Montgomery, Walls posted a .479 slugging percentage, over 50 points higher than his previous career high, and he reached an ISO over .200. His ISO has also been increasing since single-A, likely indicating a physical maturation. As if defense and hitting isn’t enough, Walls is among the best runners in the organization: his Spd was 6.9 in A and High-A, and it reached an incredible 8.2 in AA. With an arm that also rates at least average, Walls really is the complete package.

8: Greg Jones (SS)

The first round pick in last year’s draft, Jones had an excellent showing in Hudson Valley. His speed is his most defining characteristic, an 80 grade by MLB.com’s standards. The 21-year-old was drafted in his sophomore year of college, in which he posted an outlandish 1.034 OPS. In Short Season A ball, he hit .335/.413/.461 with a .411 wOBA and a 163 wRC+. The most telling offensive number, however, is none of these. It’s his BABIP, unbelievably high at .467. Something to watch for as he progresses through the minors is if he keeps a high BABIP; a consistently high exit velocity could be the reason almost half of his batted balls land as hits. Defensively, however, there are some questions. Jones is a shortstop, but there is speculation of moving him to the outfield, most likely center, because his reactions off the bat have limited him so far in the infield. Of course, his 80 grade speed and strong arm wouldn’t be wasted out there. Even considering the state of the Rays’ farm system, Jones is my fourth ranked switch-hitting middle infielder, but he would be the top ranked outfield prospect if he were to switch to center.

9: Shane Baz (RHP)

Baz features a powerful fastball-slider combo while steadily improving control his problems. Since being acquired from the Pirates in the Chris Archer trade, Baz has changed his two-seam fastball to a four-seam and eliminated his curveball, which too closely resembled his slider. Now, his pitches consist of a fastball capable of hitting triple digits, a slider in the mid-to-high 80s, and a changeup that isn’t yet at the level of his other pitches. From rookie ball with the Pirates in 2017 to single-A in 2019, Baz lowered his BB/9 from 4.57 to 4.09 and his WHIP from 1.50 to 1.23. Some project the fireballing right hander as a reliever in the future, but the Rays remain confident in his abilities as a starter. It’s unlikely that the always open-minded Baz would stop tinkering with his pitching in the low minors, so a third above average off-speed pitch and better control could be in his future as he climbs the minors.

10: Xavier Edwards (2B/SS)

The prize of the Tommy Pham trade, it shouldn’t be a surprise at this point on the list what Edwards profiles as: a switch-hitting middle infielder with great speed and plate discipline. That seems to be the theme here in the mold of potential high-impact position player prospects for the Rays.

Edwards typically has a BB% around nine or better and a K% below 15. His wRC+ is usually around 135, but he struggled in 46 games in High-A in 2019, ending with league average offensive production. Aside from High-A, Edwards has had a wOBA of at least .375 each season. Speed has no effect on wRC+ or wOBA, besides the possibility of stretching a hit into extra bases. He has shown a floor of average offense plus his 34 stolen bases in 2019, and, to add to his skillset, Edwards is an above average defender with a serviceable arm. He is a player to follow in 2020 as he attempts a bounceback in his goal of reaching the upper minors this year.

Nicholas Lobraico

High school student, former baseball player. Pitching enthusiast. Rays man in a Yankees land. Follow me on Twitter @LobraicoNick