Tampa Bay Devil Rays: Top 10 Prospects With Scouting Reports

Tampa Bay Devil Rays: Scouting Reports

Baseball America's Top 10 Prospects lists are based on projections of a player's long-term worth after discussions with scouting and player-development personnel. All players who haven't exceeded the major league rookie standards of 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched (without regard to service time) are eligible. Ages are as of April 1, 2007.

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Tampa Bay Devil Rays

The Devil Rays had to keep telling themselves that it's always darkest before the dawn. Otherwise, the team’s revamped ownership and front office never would have kept its sanity in 2006.

Tampa Bay entered the season trying to change the tone of a franchise that has struggled on most fronts since it started play in 1998. Despite the best of intentions, trouble reared its head, with many of the problems occurring at Triple-A Durham. Delmon Young, the 2005 Minor League Player of the Year, received a 50-game suspension for tossing his bat and striking an umpire in April. Elijah Dukes was sent home twice after altercations with teammates, the coaching staff and an umpire. Bulls manager John Tamargo was suspended for 10 games by the International League for a run-in with an umpire in May, while B.J. Upton was charged with driving while impaired in June.

Dukes, Upton and Young are three of the most talented young players in baseball, and they all were critical of the organization in interviews with USA Today in July. Upton and Young concluded the campaign in the majors. Dukes, who didn't play after July 26, contemplated giving up the game. The Rays fired Tamargo and the rest of his Durham staff after the season ended.

All the turmoil in Durham overshadowed the Devil Rays' efforts in building what has become the strongest system in baseball. Though Upton no longer qualifies for this prospect list, Young remains among the game's elite prospects and has been joined by Evan Longoria and Reid Brignac, who should take over the left side of Tampa Bay's infield in short order. The Rays finally are having some success developing pitching, with Jacob McGee, Wade Davis, Matt Walker and Jeremy Hellickson showing off quality arms in the lower minors.

Tampa Bay had good depth to begin with and supplemented it with a series of trades. The Rays used big leaguers Joey Gathright, Mark Hendrickson, Aubrey Huff and Julio Lugo to add players such as J.P. Howell, Dioner Navarro and Ben Zobrist to their big league club and prospects such as Joel Guzman, Sergio Pedroza and Mitch Talbot to their system.

First-year scouting director R.J. Harrison not only nabbed Longoria with the third overall pick in the draft, but also added talents such as righthander Josh Butler (second round), catcher Nevin Ashley (sixth) and outfielder Desmond Jennings (10th). Given the problems with several high-profile prospects, Harrison pushed his staff to find players with strong character and makeup to match their physical promise. The Rays also are trying to make a more concerted effort to find talent in Latin America.

Perhaps the most troubled prospect in franchise history, outfielder Josh Hamilton returned to the diamond after spending more than two seasons on Major League Baseball’s suspended list because of drug problems. The first overall pick in the 1999 draft appeared to be in excellent physical condition before a knee injury led to arthroscopic surgery. If Hamilton, now 25, can overcome his demons and live a productive life, his comeback will be considered a success regardless of how well he progresses in baseball.

Tampa Bay won one minor league championship (Double-A Montgomery in the Southern League) and narrowly missed another (high Class A Visalia lost in the California League finals), and hopes that core of players eventually will enjoy similar success at the big league level. For a team that has yet to break the 70-win plateau in the majors, anything positive must be considered a step in the right direction.

1. Delmon Young, of   Born: Sept. 14, 1985B-T: R-RHt: 6-3Wt: 205
 Drafted: HS--Camarillo, Calif., 2003 (1st round)Signed by: Rich Aude
Delmon YoungBackground: The first overall pick in the 2003 draft and BA's 2005 Minor League Player of the Year, Young made national headlines in late April. He threw his bat after being called out on strikes and it hit a replacement umpire, earning Young a 50-game suspension, the longest in the history of the Triple-A International League. After returning, he kept hitting but also created more controversy in late July, when he criticized the Devil Rays for not having promoted him. Young, who voiced similar displeasure at the end of the 2005 season, proved ready for the majors when he finally got the call in late August. After Freddy Garcia delivered a message by hitting the rookie in his first major league at-bat, Young became the first player to stroke eight hits in his first three games since Hall of Famer Willie McCovey in 1959. His older brother Dmitri had a difficult year as well, checking into a rehabilitation center for depression and alcohol abuse, getting released by the Tigers in September and drawing a year's probation for assaulting a former girlfriend.

Strengths: Young has been well ahead of the curve in terms of polish since he signed. That continued to be the case during his big league debut, as he showed solid fundamentals with an aggressive approach in all phases of the game. Young possesses a smooth and consistent righthanded swing that produces line drives and the occasional cannon shot. He has an excellent approach, trying to drive every pitch back up the middle, which allows him to use the entire field and drive the ball consistently from gap to gap. He has the potential to contend for batting titles with at least 25-30 homers per season. His baseball instincts also are obvious on the basepaths as well as in the outfield. Young has above-average speed and arm strength, along with plus accuracy on his throws from right field.

Weaknesses: Young comes across as aloof and standoffish, which only added fuel to the fire regarding his character after his incidents in 2006. The Rays believe added maturity will smooth some the rough spots. Several observers noted Young’s progress once he reached the big leagues, pointing to his lack of retaliation after Garcia drilled him. On the field, his plate discipline is lacking, particularly against veteran pitchers who know how to set up an overaggressive hitter. While he has above-average power potential, he has bashed just 14 homers in 570 Triple-A at-bats. Learning to get himself into better hitter's counts will make him more of a home run threat. He's still young, so he has plenty of time to develop.

The Future: The Devil Rays held Young out of a game in the season's final week so he'd retain his rookie eligibility for 2007, when he should be a leading candidate for American League rookie of the year. By waiting so long to promote him, Tampa Bay's front office got its wish by ensuring that he won't be arbitration-eligible until after the 2009 season. He still reached the majors before he turned 21. As long as he stops being his own worst enemy, he should become a star.
Durham (AAA).316.341.47434250108224859156522
Tampa Bay.317.336.4761261640913101242
2. Evan Longoria, ss   Born: Oct. 7, 1985B-T: R-RHt: 6-2Wt: 213
 Drafted: Long Beach State, 2006 (1st round)Signed by: Fred Repke
Evan LongoriaBackground: The Devil Rays planned on taking a pitcher with the third overall pick in the June draft, but changed their plans when Longoria unexpectedly fell to them. The 2005 Cape Cod League MVP signed for $3 million on draft day after batting .353/.468/.602 as a junior at Long Beach State. Known for his bat, he hit even more than expected in his pro debut, whacking 21 homers (counting the playoffs) and reaching Double-A Montgomery.

Strengths: Longoria had no problem adjusting to wood bats in pro ball. His quick hands generate plenty of bat speed, allowing him to hit for average and power. He projects as a .300 hitter with 30 or more homers annually. He played some shortstop in college and shows soft hands and a solid arm at third base. His competitiveness and makeup are considered major pluses.

Weaknesses: Longoria has no glaring shortcomings. He just needs to be more consistent in all phases of his game, something that should come easily with experience. His worst tool is his speed but even that is average.

The Future: Easily the most advanced hitter in the 2006 draft, Longoria may reach Tampa Bay sooner than initially expected. He could push for a big league job in mid-2007 and has the talent to become an all-star at third base.
Hudson Valley (SS).424.487.8793351411411551
Visalia (Hi A).327.402.61811022368082813191
Montgomery (AA).267.266.4861051428506191202
3. Reid Brignac, ss   Born: Jna. 16, 1986B-T: L-RHt: 6-3Wt: 200
 Drafted: HS-St. Amant, La., 2004 (2nd round)Signed by: Benny Latino
Reid BrignacBackground: Brignac grew two inches and added 15 pounds of muscle last offseason, and his increased strength and stamina resulted in one of the biggest breakout performances in the minors. He was named MVP and rated as the No. 1 prospect in the high Class A California League, hit well after a promotion to Double-A and won the Rays' minor league player of the year award.

Strengths: Brignac has strong hands and good bat speed. He stays through the ball at the plate and drive pitches to all fields, and also has natural loft in his swing. He should be good for 25-plus homers on an annual basis. There were concerns that he might outgrow shortstop, but he eased them in 2006 and continued to show plus arm strength. His makeup is exceptional.

Weaknesses: After committing 70 errors over the last two seasons, Brignac needs more consistency with his defense, particularly his throwing. While he has solid-average speed and quickness, he has yet to parlay that into his baserunning. At the plate, he needs to reduce his strikeouts and improve his knowledge of what pitchers are trying to do to get him out.

The Future: Brignac has the talent and the intangibles to be Tampa Bay's starting shortstop within the next two years. He's likely to return to Double-A to start the season with a promotion to Triple-A Durham at midseason a possibility.
Visalia (Hi A).326.382.557411821342632183358212
Montgomery (AA).300.355.4731101833623167313
4. Jeff Niemann, rhp   Born: Feb. 28, 1983B-T: R-RHt: 6-9Wt: 281
 Drafted: Rice, 2004 (1st round)Signed by: Jonathan Bonifay
Jeff NiemannBackground: Niemann might have gone No. 1 overall in 2004 if he hadn't been recovering from arthroscopic elbow surgery and battling a groin strain, and he has fought physical problems since signing a $5.2 million big league contract. He pitched just 31 innings in his 2005 pro debut because of shoulder tenderness and more groin problems, and spent the first half of 2006 in extended spring training after surgery to shave the joint between his collarbone and shoulder.

Strengths: Niemann is a monster on the mound with a 92-96 mph fastball and an intimidating presence. He mixes the heater with a low-80s slider and does a good job of working both sides of the plate with both offerings. His curveball and changeup showed improvement in 2006, and they give hitters a different look.

Weaknesses: All five pitchers drafted in the first round out of Rice this decade have needed surgery, and health is the biggest concern with Niemann. Physical setbacks have limited him to 108 pro innings, yet he dominated at times in Double-A and isn't far from being big league-ready. His top priority on the mound is to command the strike zone better with all of his pitches.

The Future: Niemann has all the stuff and intangibles to be a top-of-the-rotation pitcher. The Rays want him to spend at least part of 2007 in Triple-A, though an impressive spring could accelerate his timetable.
Montgomery (AA)552.68141400775662984.202
5. Jacob McGee, lhp   Born: Aug. 6, 1986B-T: L-LHt: 6-3Wt: 190
 Drafted: HS--Sparks, Nev., 2004 (5th round)Signed by: Fred Repke
Jacob McGeeBackground: McGee's 2006 breakout was nearly as impressive as Reid Brignac's. In his first taste of full-season ball, he was the most impressive member of a talented low Class A Southwest Michigan staff that also included Wade Davis and Matt Walker. Managers rated McGee's fastball as the best in the Midwest League, and he led both the MWL and Rays farmhands in strikeouts.

Strengths: McGee has an advanced feel for pitching, particularly for a lefthander who spent most of 2006 as a teenager. He has added velocity to his fastball, now popping 90-94 mph consistently and touching 96 with above-average life. His curveball and changeup have a chance to become plus offerings. His curve has good tilt and movement, while his changeup has depth and fade. He also shows good poise on the mound.

Weaknesses: McGee tends to battle with the command of his fastball when he tries to reach peak velocity, and he has yet to fully harness his lively stuff. He has worked hard to stay on top of his three-quarters delivery in order to keep his pitches down in the strike zone. He also needs to refine his secondary pitches.

The Future: Signed as a wiry, projectable lefty with an electric arm, McGee is developing as hoped as he continues to mature physically. He'll spend the 2007 at high Class A Vero Beach and could blossom into a No. 2 starter.
Southwest Michigan (Lo A)792.96262600134103765171.211
6. Elijah Dukes, of   Born: June 26, 1984B-T: B-RHt: 6-2Wt: 240
 Drafted: HS--Tampa, Fla., 2002 (3rd round)Signed by: Kevin Elfering
Elijah DukesBackground: Dukes got off to a strong start in big league camp when he hit .400 in 20 at-bats. Already the owner of a dubious track record of on- and off-field behavior, he continued to self-destruct once the season began, however, getting sent home on two occasions after run-ins with his manager, teammates and an umpire. He finished the season on a 30-game suspension but returned to the field in the Arizona Fall League.

Strengths: A phenomenal athlete who was a top college football prospect as a linebacker, Dukes has made progress honing his skills and improving his overall knowledge of the game. He's one of the strongest players in baseball and also has the ability to control the strike zone. He combines his above-average speed and an aggressive approach to shine on the basepaths and in the outfield. He also has a strong arm, adding to his right-field profile.

Weaknesses: Dukes’ ceiling is limited only by his outbursts, a major shortcoming that has led to problems on and off the diamond dating back to high school. Though parts of his game are still somewhat rough around the edges, he can make up for small deficiencies with sheer talent. His biggest problem at the plate comes when he tries too hard to hit for power.

The Future: Dukes is at a crossroads. A change of scenery may be in order, and Tampa Bay is loaded with outfielders, precipitating Dukes getting some work at first base in the AFL. If he can stay focused and control himself, he could develop into an impact player.
Durham (AAA).293.401.4882835883155105044479
7. Wade Davis, rhp   Born: Sept. 7, 1985B-T: R-RHt: 6-5Wt: 220
 Drafted: HS--Lake Wales, Fla., 2004 (3rd round)Signed by: Kevin Elfering
Wade DavisBackground: Davis did not begin pitching until his sophomore season in high school and turned down a scholarship to Florida in exchange for a $475,000 signing bonus. He led the short-season New York-Penn League in strikeouts in 2005 and ranked second in the Midwest League behind Jacob McGee in 2006. He slumped for two months at midseason before finishing strong in August, throwing a seven-inning no-hitter (and taking a 1-0 loss) in his final start.

Strengths: Davis throws his 92-95 mph fastball on an excellent downhill plane and has touched 98 mph. Both his 11-to-5 curveball and his slider are tight breaking balls with sharp movement, and he also has an effective changeup. He's a tough competitor and a good all-around athlete who fields his position as well as any pitcher in the system.

Weaknesses: Improved command of all his pitches within the strike zone and more confidence in his changeup would help Davis take the next step. While his fastball has above-average velocity, it tends to flatten out. All these issues are related to his inability to repeat his delivery on a straight line to the plate.

The Future: While he can be inconsistent, Davis has the potential to have three plus pitches. The Rays project him in the middle of a major league rotation and will send him to high Class A in 2007.
Southwest Michigan (Lo A)7123.02272710143124564165.234
8. Matt Walker, rhp   Born: Aug. 16, 1986B-T: R-RHt: 6-3Wt: 193
 Drafted: HS--Baton Rouge, La. 2004 (10th round)Signed by: Benny Latino
Matt WalkerBackground: As they do with most of their high school pitching prospects, the Devil Rays kept Walker in extended spring training to begin his first full pro season. Once he got to low Class A, he gave up two earned runs or less in 13 of his 15 starts. A highly regarded prep quarterback, he signed for second-round money ($600,000) as a 10th-round pick in 2004.

Strengths: Walker’s overhand 12-to-6 curveball rated as the best breaking ball in the MWL and is the best in the Rays system. His fastball has increased in velocity since he signed and also features heavy sink. He sits at 92-94 mph and touches 96 with the ability to maintain his velocity throughout games. His changeup can become a plus pitch with good depth and fade. Scouts love the consistency and ease of his arm action, which creates impressive deception.

Weaknesses: Walker is working on refining his control and command. He tries to overpower hitters on occasion instead of using his secondary pitches. He also needs to improve his mechanics in order to repeat his delivery more consistently.

The Future: Scouts are mixed on whether Walker will be a solid mid-rotation or a power reliever, but the Rays will continue to develop him in the rotation for now. He'll move up to high Class A in 2007.
Southwest Michigan (Lo A)553.18151500826654168.223
9. Jeremy Hellickson, rhp   Born: April 8, 1987B-T: R-RHt: 6-1Wt: 185
 Drafted: HS-Des Moines, 2005 (4th round)Signed by: Tom Couston
Jeremy HellicksonBackground: Hellickson fell to the fourth round in 2005 because teams worried about his signability, but he turned pro for $500,000. He pitched just six innings that summer and started 2006 in extended spring training to work with pitching coach Dick Bosman on his delivery and location. When Hellickson got on the mound, he led the New York-Penn league in strikeouts, never allowed more than three runs in a start and rated as the loop's top prospect.

Strengths: Hellickson has learned to work off his low-90s fastball and commands the pitch with impressive accuracy. He works effortlessly with smooth mechanics and a clean arm action. His sharp curveball has the promise to be a plus pitch with true downer bite, and his changeup showed improvement in 2006. His competitiveness is also a plus.

Weaknesses: Hellickson needs to upgrade the command of his curveball and fine-tune his changeup. With his deliberate delivery, he could be easy prey for basestealers at higher levels.

The Future: The Rays want Hellickson to establish a strong foundation at every level and expect to keep him in low Class A for the entire 2007 season. He's very polished for a 19-year-old and could be poised for a breakout like Jacob McGee had in the Midwest League.
Hudson Valley (SS)432.43151400785531696.193
10. Joel Guzman, of/1b/3b   Born: Nov. 24, 1984B-T: R-RHt: 6-5Wt: 250
 Signed: Dominican Republic, 2001Signed by: Pablo Peguero (Dodgers)
Jose GuzmanBackground: The Dodgers signed Guzman for a Dominican-record $2.25 million in 2001, and he rated as their top prospect after batting .297 with 23 homers in 2004. He leveled off for the next two seasons before Los Angeles traded him and outfield prospect Sergio Pedroza to the Rays for Julio Lugo at the trade deadline. Primarily a shortstop before 2006, Guzman split time between the outfield, first and third base in Triple-A.

Strengths: Few minor leaguers can match Guzman’s raw power. His hands work well and stay inside of the ball, and he's particularly adept at hitting low pitches a long way. He remains very athletic after filling out his 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame, agile in the field and on the basepaths. His arm strength is above average and more than enough for right field.

Weaknesses: For all his strength, Guzman has hit just 31 homers over the last two seasons. His best chance at playing time with Tampa Bay is at first base, and he'll have to unleash his power to stick there. He struggles with inside pitches and never has been very selective. He seemed to grow frustrated at the lack of big league opportunity with the Dodgers.

The Future: Though his stock has slipped since 2004, Guzman is still just 22. Conventional wisdom suggests another half-season in Triple-A would be in his immediate future, but the Rays will use spring training to determine where he fits best.
Las Vegas (AAA).297.353.4643174494162115526729
Los Angeles.211.348.21119240003320
Durham (AAA).193.228.3868871750494230

Photo Credits:
Young: Carl Kline
Longoria: Mickey Weinstein
Brignac: Larry Goren
McGee, Davis: Paul Gierhart
Dukes: Sports On Film
Hellickson: Mike Janes