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Top Ten Prospects: Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Complete Index of Top 10s

By Bill Ballew
January 11, 2006

Chat Wrap: Bill Ballew took your Devil Rays questions
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, 2006.

During what proved to be his final season as general manager of the Devil Rays, Chuck LaMar actually said, “The only thing that keeps this organization from being recognized as one of the finest in baseball is wins and losses at the major league level.”

Yet most Baseball America readers understood what LaMar was getting at. After all, the only area Tampa Bay can consider a success while failing to top 70 wins in each of its first eight years of existence is its development of position players. While the Rays were at times forced to operate with a big league payroll only slightly higher than Alex Rodriguez’ annual salary, they have produced Rocco Baldelli, Jorge Cantu, Carl Crawford, Jonny Gomes, Toby Hall and Aubrey Huff.

After finishing in last place for the seventh time in eight seasons, Tampa Bay went for a full makeover at the end of the season. Stuart Sternberg, who purchased 48 percent of the franchise in 2004, replaced Vince Naimoli as managing partner. Sternberg immediately fired LaMar, the only GM in club history, along with a significant chunk of his front office, including assistant GM Scott Proefrock, director of player personnel Cam Bonifay and director of international scouting Rudy Santin. Manager Lou Piniella, who criticized Sternberg’s ownership for being more concerned about the future than the present during the season, was bought out of the final year of his contract.

To replace LaMar, Sternberg promoted Andrew Friedman. Friedman, 28, worked on Wall Street before joining the team in 2004 as an assistant for baseball development. He hired former Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker as his second-in-command and Angels bench coach Joe Maddon as manager.

Since taking over, Sternberg has worked hard to change the Devil Rays’ image, trying to win over fans with lower ticket prices and free parking. He also is playing up the nucleus of homegrown players with an “under construction” advertising campaign centered on a theme of “rebuilding the dream.” But while Tampa Bay has impressive young talent in the majors and more on the way, it will be a tall order to contend in the American League East.

The Devil Rays may have had the two best position players in the minors last year in shortstop B.J. Upton (who no longer qualifies for BA’s prospect list) and outfielder Delmon Young, Baseball America’s 2005 Minor League Player of the Year. LaMar’s regime antagonized both players by declining to promote them in September in order to delay their eligibility for arbitration and free agency.

Beyond that pair, the farm system may be deeper than ever. Special assistant Tim Wilken, who left to become Cubs scouting director in December, played a major role in the club’s 2004 draft and ran the 2005 effort, both of which have yielded several promising prospects. Last year’s crop could get even stronger with the eventual signing of third-round righthander Bryan Morris, who is at Motlow State (Tenn.) Community College and can negotiate again once his juco season ends.

1. DELMON YOUNG, of      Born: September 14, 1985 B-T: R-R Ht: 6-3 Wt: 205
Drafted: HS—Camarillo, Calif., 2003 (1st round)   Signed by: Rich Aude

Background: Young did nothing in 2005 to argue against the predominant belief that he’s the top prospect in the minor leagues. After signing a major league contract with a $3.7 million bonus as the first overall pick in the 2003 draft, Young led the low Class A South Atlantic League in hits and RBIs while making his pro debut in 2004. Last season, he would have had a solid shot at capturing the Double-A Southern League crown as a teenager had he not been promoted to Triple-A Durham in mid-July. He had to settle for Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year award. Young was at times a man among boys at the Double-A level, and won the Southern League MVP award despite his early departure. He ranked fourth in the minors in hits and total bases (294) and finished four home runs short of a 30-30 season. He and his brother, Tigers DH Dmitri Young (the fourth choice in 1991), were the highest-drafted siblings ever until 2005. When Arizona took Justin Upton No. 1 overall, he and Devil Rays shortstop B.J. Upton (No. 2 in 2002) passed the Youngs.

Strengths: Young packs a punch from the right side of the plate with a powerful and consistent stroke. His knowledge of the strike zone is advanced for his age, and coupled with his bat control allows him to make repeated hard contact. He’s strong enough that he doesn’t have to pull balls to drive them out of the park. He has average speed but makes things happen in terms of stealing bags and taking the extra base. Defensively, Young has above-average range for right field, plus the arm strength and accuracy to play the position at the major league level. With virtually no chinks in his armor, it’s easy to see why managers tabbed him the Southern League’s best batting prospect, best power hitter, best outfield arm and most exciting player. Because he’s close to his brother, he grew up around the game and honed his instincts at a young age.

Weaknesses: Young has few faults on the field. He occasionally takes bad routes on fly balls and sometimes gets overaggressive at the plate. He could use some more patience at the plate after walking four times in 52 Triple-A games and 29 times overall last year. Though there are no questions about his makeup, he crossed the line twice in 2005. He drew a three-game suspension after chest-bumping Southern League umpire Jeff Latter in late April. When the Devil Rays declined to promote him in September, he ripped the organization (though he later recanted).

The Future: Young has all the tools to be an all-star for years to come. Tampa Bay believes he’ll channel his desire in the right direction instead of holding a grudge over what he felt was a slap in the face last fall. The Devil Rays are loaded with outfielders, but they’ll hand him their right-field job when he’s ready. He has little left to prove in the minors and could force his way into the lineup in spring training. It’s also possible he could spend the first half in Triple-A refining his plate discipline and getting a little more prepared.

2005 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS
Montgomery (AA) .336 .386 .582 330 59 111 13 4 20 71 25 66 25 8
Durham (AAA) .285 .303 .447 228 33 65 13 3 6 28 4 33 7 4

2. JEFF NIEMANN, rhp        Born: February 28, 1983 B-T: R-R Ht: 6-9 Wt: 260
Drafted: Rice, 2004 (1st round)   Signed by: Jonathan Bonifay

Background: Niemann might have gone No. 1 in the 2004 draft had he not been coming off arthroscopic elbow surgery and a groin strain. He went fourth overall and held out until last January, when he signed a $5.2 million major league deal. A tender shoulder and more groin problems limited him in his pro debut, and he had minor surgery to shave the joint between his collarbone and shoulder in October.

Niemann has great size and mound presence. He’s learning how to work off his 92-96 mph fastball. His slider has sharp, cutting action and was deemed the best breaking pitch in the 2004 draft. He has an excellent feel for pitching and good body control.


Niemann needs innings and will have to avoid the injuries that have plagued his young career. His changeup and spike curveball need more consistency to give him a complete repertoire.


The Future:
Provided he stays healthy, Niemann should move fast. He may open the season back in Double-A Montgomery, but could receive his first taste of the big leagues later in the year. The Rays envision Niemann joining Scott Kazmir as a potent 1-2 punch.

2005 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Visalia (Hi A) 0 1 3.98 5 5 0 0 20 12 3 10 28 .167
Montgomery (AA) 0 1 4.35 6 3 0 0 10 7 0 5 14 .184

3. JASON HAMMEL, rhp    Born: September 2, 1982 B-T: R-R Ht: 6-6 Wt: 200
Drafted: Treasure Valley (Ore.) CC, 2002 (10th round)  Signed by: Paul Kirsch

Background: Tampa Bay failed to sign Hammel as a 19th-round draft-and-follow in 2001, then drafted him again and signed him in 2002. After breaking through in the second half of 2004, he was shelved for the first month of last season with a strained elbow. He didn’t miss a start the rest of the way and could have been called up in September, but the Devil Rays didn’t want to start his service-time clock ticking.

Hammel’s lively fastball sits in the 91-94 mph range and gets on hitters quickly thanks to his tremendous extension. He also throws a hard curveball in the 75-79 mph range, and he has shown considerable improvement with his changeup. He has the best command in the system.


Hammel’s curveball is inconsistent. While his fastball has good life down in the zone, it straightens out when he leaves it up. His projectable frame is filling out, but he still needs to add strength.


The Future:
Hammel will get a shot at earning a job on the major league club in spring training. He should be a significant building block as a middle-of-the-rotation starter in the Rays’ building project.

2005 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Montgomery (AA) 8 2 2.66 12 12 3 0 81 70 5 19 76 .235
Durham (AAA) 3 2 4.12 10 10 0 0 55 57 8 27 48 .264

4. REID BRIGNAC, ss        Born: January 16, 1986 B-T: L-R Ht: 6-1 Wt: 185
Drafted: HS—St. Amant, La., 2004 (2nd round)   Signed by: Benny Latino

Background: Brignac’s first full season wasn’t as spectacular as his 2004 pro debut, but he more than held his own against older competition in the low Class A Midwest League. The Devil Rays believe he answered any questions about his ability to play shortstop with a strong showing in all phases of the game.

Brignac has a live bat with a sweet, smooth swing from the left side. Balls jump off his bat and he has natural loft in his stroke. He could produce 25-plus homers annually down the road. Brignac uses the entire field and has a plan at the plate. His speed, arm, hands and footwork are solid. He showed the mental toughness to handle a challenging assignment last year.


Some scouts think Brignac lacks the athleticism to stay at shortstop, though Tampa Bay will give him every chance to prove otherwise. He’s discovering plate discipline. He gives away too many at-bats, which led to 131 strikeouts in 2005. While his baserunning is improving, it still needs work.


The Future:
Brignac has made impressive progress at a young age. Plans call for a promotion to high Class A Visalia this year.

2005 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS
Southwest Michigan (Lo A) .264 .319 .416 512 77 135 29 2 15 61 40 131 5 5

5. ELIJAH DUKES, of        Born: June 26, 1984 B-T: B-R Ht: 6-2 Wt: 225
Drafted: HS—Tampa, 2002 (3rd round)  Signed by: Kevin Elfering

Background: Dukes continues to move through the minors and have disciplinary problems along the way. He set career highs in several categories in 2005 but was suspended twice and ejected from five games. He also had legal problems in Tampa, declined an invitation to the Southern League all-star game because he wasn’t selected to start and missed the Arizona Fall League in order to complete anger-management classes.

Dukes is an incredible athlete with all-star ability. He makes solid contact, has at least 20-homer power and plays with all-out aggression. He has plus speed and range, as well as one of the strongest arms in the organization. He has demonstrated improved control of the strike zone.


If he can’t accept authority and develop discipline, Dukes will fall short of his potential. That said, he’s dedicated to the game. His average suffers when he tries too hard to hit for power.


The Future:
From a tools standpoint, everything is in place for Dukes to be a prototype right fielder. The Devil Rays are working with him to help him reach that potential. On the field, Delmon Young will be a formidable roadblock to Dukes playing right field in Tampa Bay.

2005 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS
Montgomery (AA) .287 .355 .478 446 73 128 21 5 18 73 45 83 19 9

6. WADE DAVIS, rhp      Born: September 7, 1985 B-T: R-R Ht: 6-5 Wt: 220
Drafted: HS—Lake Wales, Fla., 2004 (3rd round)    Signed by: Kevin Elfering

Background: Most teams thought Davis was headed to the University of Florida, but area scout Kevin Elfering did his homework and persuaded the Devil Rays to take him in 2004’s third round. Davis signed quickly for $475,000 and showed first-round ability in 2005, when he led the short-season New York-Penn League in strikeouts.

Davis is a big, power pitcher with a smooth delivery and easy arm action. He throws on a downward plane. He drives his fastball low in the zone at 92-98 mph. His hard curveball became more consistent last year, and his slider is a solid-average pitch. He has had no problem throwing strikes as a pro.


He still could use an offspeed pitch, and Davis is working on a changeup that needs more consistent fade and depth. He can fall into lapses of concentration on the mound, though that should decrease with maturity.


The Future:
Davis looks more like the total pitching package every time he takes the mound. The Rays are confident he will develop into a frontline starter. His next stop is low Class A Southwest Michigan, and he could move quickly.

2005 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Hudson Valley (SS) 7 4 2.72 15 15 0 0 86 75 5 23 97 .234

7. WES BANKSTON, 1b/of       Born: November 23, 1983 B-T: R-R Ht: 6-4 Wt: 210
Drafted: HS—Plano, Texas, 2002 (4th round)  Signed by: Milt Hill

Background: Bankston continues his methodical climb through the organization. After ranking among the South Atlantic League leaders in homers, RBIs and extra-base hits in 2004, he received a midseason promotion to Double-A last year and helped pick up the slack in Montgomery after Delmon Young’s departure.

Bankston shows as much raw power as anyone in the organization. He’s learning how to harness that pop in game action. He has made impressive strides in hitting to the opposite field with authority. His pitch selection and plate discipline should get better with experience.


Injuries have plagued Bankston, including a knee injury that cost him six weeks at the start of 2005. A right fielder until mid-2004, he has improved at first base but remains merely adequate there. His lower body has gotten thicker in the past two years, reducing his speed and overall athleticism.


The Future:
Bankston reminds some scouts of former all-star Glenn Davis. He’ll move up to Triple-A in 2006 and should get his first taste of the big leagues by September.

2005 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS
Visalia (Hi A) .387 .513 .629 62 15 24 4 1 3 23 15 17 0 2
Montgomery (AA) .292 .362 .482 301 42 88 17 2 12 47 30 64 3 3

8. CHAD ORVELLA, rhp      Born: October 1, 1980 B-T: R-R Ht: 5-11 Wt: 190
Drafted: North Carolina State, 2003 (13th round)   Signed by: Hank King

Background: Mainly a shortstop in college, Orvella made it to the majors as a pitcher less than two years after he turned pro. He was unhittable in the minors, posting a 1.22 ERA, .159 opponent average and 160-17 K-BB ratio in 111 innings. He assumed a late-inning set-up role with the Devil Rays, though he didn’t pitch after Sept. 16 because of a sore shoulder.

When he was a shortstop, Orvella’s best tool was his arm, which now delivers consistent 92-94 mph fastballs with late life. Hitters can’t sit on his heater because he has a plus changeup, which is a nifty weapon against lefthanders. His numbers testify to his ability to locate the ball where he wants.


Orvella’s slider can be a plus pitch at times, but it lacks consistency and is significantly behind his fastball and changeup. While his shoulder problem was diagnosed as mild irritation, he’s not big and never has worked more than 75 innings in a season.


The Future:
Orvella and Lance Carter once again should serve as Danys Baez’ primary set-up men. Baez continually gets mentioned in trade talks, and Orvella is his likely successor should Baez get dealt.

2005 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Montgomery (AA) 0 0 0.36 16 0 0 9 25 15 0 6 29 .169
Tampa Bay 3 3 3.60 27 0 0 1 50 47 4 23 43 .246

9. MATT WALKER, rhp       Born: August 16, 1986 B-T: R-R Ht: 6-3 Wt: 193
Drafted: HS—Baton Rouge, La., 2004 (10th round)   Signed by: Benny Latino

Background: Walker seemed to have more potential as a quarterback entering his senior season of high school. His baseball stock surged in the spring of 2004, but he tailed off late and dropped to the 10th round. Still, the Devil Rays coughed up $600,000 to sign him. He made his pro debut in 2005 and while his numbers weren’t pretty, Rookie-level Appalachian League observers were impressed.

Walker is a power pitcher who has added 15 pounds since signing. His fastball ranges from 89-96 mph with good life. His overhand power curveball has a sharp break and is the best in the system. He’s mentally tough and battles well on the mound.


He has a ways to go to become a true pitcher. Walker is ironing out his mechanics. He overthrows at times, trying to overpower hitters instead of using his head to get the out. A more consistent changeup and added maturity will take him a long way.


The Future:
Yet another high-ceiling pitcher in the system, Walker will pitch in low Class A this year at age 19. While the Devil Rays are grooming him as a starter, he also profiles well as a reliever.

2005 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Princeton (R) 2 3 5.31 13 12 0 1 58 63 2 22 71 .274
Hudson Valley (SS) 0 0 10.80 1 1 0 0 3 5 0 4 5 .357

10. CHRIS MASON, rhp       Born: July 1, 1984 B-T: R-R Ht: 6-0 Wt: 185
Drafted: UNC Greensboro, 2005 (2nd round)    Signed by: Brad Matthews

Background: Mason broke Kevin Millwood’s Bessemer City (N.C.) High strikeout record, then set another mark with 135 whiffs at UNC Greenboro last spring. An excellent two-way player in college, Mason displayed above-average defensive skills at third base while showing electricity in his bat.

Though he’s just 6 feet tall, Mason generates 91-95 mph velocity and plus movement on his fastball thanks to a lightning-quick arm. He has a power curveball and started to develop a good changeup during instructional league. His pickoff move and defense are among the best in the organization, and his aggressiveness is unmatched.


Mason’s curveball can get slurvy, though he usually locates it so well that it’s not a huge issue. The Rays were cautious with him last season, limiting him to 40 pitches per outing because he worked hard and played both ways in college, but he has been durable.


The Future:
The Devil Rays will give Mason the opportunity to jump into their Double-A rotation in 2006. He relishes the chance to hit as a pro, but he’s too talented a pitcher for Tampa Bay to consider it.

2005 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Hudson Valley (SS) 1 1 2.40 9 0 0 2 15 11 0 8 14 .220
Southwest Michigan (Lo A) 1 0 1.45 10 0 0 0 19 17 0 5 16 .246

Photo Credits:
Hammel: Rich Abel
Young: Dan Arnold
Bankston: Larry Goren
Walker: Robert Gurganus
Dukes: Mike Janes
Niemann: Steve Moore
Davis: Mickey Weinstein
Mason: Rodger Wood

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