Devil Rays Top 10 Prospects
By Bill Ballew
But the franchise reaffirmed its plans to stick with developing talent, while trying to escape from the last of the crippling contracts from an ill-advised spending spree on the free-agent market four years ago. General manager Chuck LaMar still takes a wait-and-see approach.
"It will be a year or two before you see a tremendous turn in wins and losses," LaMar said. "Over the next two years, it will be a building process."
Heading that building process at the major league level will be manager Lou Piniella, who returns to his hometown after a 10-year stint in Seattle. After taking the Mariners from mediocrity to consistent success, Piniella faces the daunting task in Tampa Bay of trying to build a winner while several young players receive on-the-job training.
The trend was obvious last spring when three players picked up from the major league Rule 5 draft made the Opening Day roster. Rookie catcher Toby Hall and outfielder Jason Tyner were deemed not ready for prime time and returned to Triple-A before bouncing back. Outfielder Carl Crawford debuted last July and stayed afloat, and righthander Dewon Brazelton received his first cup of coffee in September. Outfielder Rocco Baldelli leads the next wave.
In addition to Piniellas arrival, there were other bright spots. Triple-A Durham won the International League title, and the farm system is stocked with several intriguing pitchers and outfielders with both power and speed.
Prior to his departure to become Marlins vice president for player personnel, former scouting director Dan Jennings left the Rays in strong shape with one of the best drafts of 2002, headed by second overall pick B.J. Upton. Tampa Bay also has the first pick in 2003, which will be made by former Pirates GM Cam Bonifay, who added player development and scouting responsibilities to his title of director of player personnel after Jennings departure.
One other glimmer of hope comes from history. Tampa Bay played its 800th game in the 2002 season. While the franchises .395 winning percentage is dismal, it is better than the Blue Jays, Mariners, Mets, Padres and Rangers at the same point in their existence.
Age: 21. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-4. Wt.: 187. Drafted: HSWarwick, R.I., 2000 (1st round). Signed by: Matt Dodd.
Background: Few players made more progress in 2002 than Baldelli, the sixth overall pick in the 2000 draft and the recipient of a $2.25 million bonus. A career .237 hitter in his first two pro seasons, he opened at high Class A Bakersfield and closed by helping Triple-A Durham win the International League championship. Baldelli was Baseball Americas Minor League Player of the Year and the top prospect in the California League. He was one of the youngest players in the Southern League during his three weeks at Double-A Orlando, where he batted .371 and hit safely in 14 of his 17 games. After jumping to Durham, Baldelli served as the Bulls center fielder and leadoff hitter during their run to the title.
Strengths: Baldelli is the total package and getting better. Considered the top athlete in the 2000 draft, he was a standout volleyball and basketball player in high school in addition to starring in baseball. Baldelli has excellent bat speed and uses his hands well to produce line drives. He can hit and hit for power, and he wasnt overmatched against veteran pitchers. A natural center fielder, he has plus speed and is an effortless runner who glides to the ball with a long stride. Coaches and scouts rave about his makeup and desire to become the best player he can be. Despite his natural athleticism, Baldelli isnt just a pure tools guy.
Weaknesses: The biggest question about Baldellis readiness for Tampa Bay is his plate discipline, shown by his dearth of walks last season. He didnt draw a single walk in Triple-A, though he made strides in the Arizona Fall League. Baldelli also needs to work on the art of stealing bases. Somewhat inexperienced because he hails from a cold-weather state, Baldelli should continue to improve with time. His arm is his weakest tool, though most scouts think it will be close to major league average because of the accuracy of his throws.
The Future: After promoting a 20-year-old Carl Crawford last year, the Devil Rays will give Baldelli every opportunity in spring training to prove that he belongs in center field. Though he played well during the AFL, the consensus is that Baldelli needs a little more Triple-A seasoning.
Click here for prospects 2-10.
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