By Josh Vitale, SunCoast Sports
PORT CHARLOTTE — The Tampa Bay Rays’ farm system might be deeper than it has been in years.
The team released the full-season affiliate rosters for Triple-A Durham, Double-A Montgomery, High-A Charlotte, and Low-A Bowling Green on Tuesday, showing how much talent there is at all levels of the minor league system.
In Durham, the Bulls have the Rays’ top prospect in LHP Blake Snell and six players — OF Mikie Mahtook, UTIL Taylor Motter, 3B/OF Richie Shaffer, INF Nick Franklin, RHP Matt Andriese and RHP Andrew Bellatti — who could have legitimate gripes about not being on the major league roster.
In Montgomery, the Biscuits have the Rays’ No. 3 prospect in SS Willy Adames and eight more who rank in the system’s top 30 — 1B/OF Jake Bauers, RHP Taylor Guerrieri, 1B Casey Gillaspie, RHP Jacob Faria, RHP Chih-Wei Hu, RHP Ryne Stanek, SS Jake Hager and 2B Kean Wong.
In Charlotte, the Stone Crabs return six players who helped them win the 2015 Florida State League championship — RHP (and No. 2 prospect) Brent Honeywell, RHP Greg Harris, RHP Mike Franco, RHP Hunter Wood, INF Jace Conrad and OF Justin Williams — and add a lot of talent from below.
And in Bowling Green, the Hot Rods have No. 21 prospect 3B Kevin Padlo (acquired from Colorado in the Jake McGee trade), 2014 second-round draft pick RHP Cameron Varga and 2015 third-round pick 2B Brandon Lowe.
That depth has left some prospects back in levels they might feel they have already played their way out of. Like OF Johnny Field, who hit 16 home runs, drove in 66 RBIs and stole 18 bases for the Biscuits last year and will start in Montgomery again this season.
As they say, though: It’s a good problem to have.
- Health at the major league level has a huge effect on depth in the minors. Mahtook, Motter, Shaffer, Franklin, Andriese and Bellatti have shown enough ability that they could be on major league teams elsewhere. The Rays would have loved to have had that same depth last year.
- We’re going to have to wait a little longer to the Snell-Guerrieri-Faria-Jaime Schultz starting rotation we were all dreaming of when Rays manager Kevin Cash dubbed them “the big four” during spring training, but Snell-Andriese-Schultz-Austin Pruitt-Dylan Floro/Adam Wilk could be pretty good in its own right.
- Five of the 12 position players in Durham can play multiple positions: Shaffer (1B/3B/OF), Franklin (2B/SS), Daniel Robertson (SS/3B), Patrick Leonard (1B/3B/OF) and Motter (everywhere). Ryan Brett (2B/OF) will also be versatile when he returns from the disabled list.
- The Biscuits, for lack of a better term, are loaded. With a rotation led by Guerrieri, Faria, Hu and Stanek, they have four starting pitchers who finished last season of ERAs of 1.85, 1.92, 3.22 and 3.04. That doesn’t even include RHPs Buddy Borden (9-7, 2.97 ERA), Chris Kirsch (8-8, 4.07) and Jared Mortensen (9-5, 3.68), who showed flashes last year.
- The offense is talent-rich, too. Adames, Bauers and Gillaspie are some of the top-ranked hitters in the organization. Hager, a first-round pick in 2011, returns after injury cost him all of last season. Center fielder Braxton Lee has drawn defensive comparisons to Kevin Kiermaier, catcher Mike Marjama was arguably the Stone Crabs best hitter last year and Granden Goetzman has a lot of power in left field.
Here’s a breakdown of how the Stone Crabs look around the diamond:
- Charlotte has six pitchers who were starters last year: RHP Honeywell (9-6, 3.18 ERA, 129 strikeouts in 130 1/3 innings), RHP Harris (8-9, 2.57), RHP Wood (1-3, 2.79 ERA after joining Stone Crabs midseason), RHP Yonny Chirinos (5-5, 1.82 ERA for Bowling Green), RHP Chris Pike (10-7, 3.13 ERA for Bowling Green) and RHP Benton Moss (2-3, 2.93 ERA for Short-season Hudson Valley).
- Honeywell has the talent to make a Snell-like rise through the levels, but whether he does or not depends on how much room opens up above him. Snell’s rise last year was as much a product of his historically successful season as it was a product of the injuries of the major league level creating room for upward movement below.
- Every member of the bullpen brings with them pretty solid 2015 numbers: LHP Kyle Bird (2.54 ERA, nine saves), RHP Damion Carroll (3.64, two saves), RHP Edwin Fierro (1.85, three saves), RHP Franco (1.47, five saves), RHP Brandon Koch (3.06, six saves) and RHP Brian Miller (1.85, seven saves).
- The most interesting name in the bullpen is that of 33-year-old Jeff Howell, a 10th-round pick in 2005 who spent 10 years as a minor league catcher before converting to pitcher last year, going 3-2 with a 3.45 ERA.
- In the infield, the Stone Crabs will have former first-round pick Nick Ciuffo (.258, 1 HR, 32 RBI) at catcher with Mac James (.257, 3 HR, 32 RBI) behind him. Andrew Velazquez (.286, 5 SB in an injury shortened season for Charlotte) will get a chance to play shortstop full-time. Riley Unroe (.333, 4 HR, 35 RBI, 13 SB) should see the bulk of the playing time at second base, and Cristian Toribio (.239, 8 HR, 39 RBI, 12 SB), Conrad (.255, 11 HR, 43 RBI, 32 SB) and Grant Kay (.251, 1 HR, 31 RBI, 13 SB) should see time at third base and elsewhere around the infield.
- Alec Sole (.299, 1 HR, 29 RBI) is the only player on the team with first-base experience.
- In the outfield, Charlotte has Cade Gotta (.280, 2 HR, 23 RBI,15 SB), Bralin Jackson (.274, 3 HR, 41 RBI, 14 SB), Thomas Milone (.248, 3 HR, 28 RBI, 26 SB) and Williams (.277, 7 HR, 48 RBI).