Rays outfield depth reaches far beyond vaunted Baldelli-Crawford-Hamilton trio
Compiled by Josh Boyd
While the Devil Rays have struggled on the field and at the gate in St. Petersburg, Jennings and the organization stayed true to a philosophy of drafting high school athletes with intriguing power and speed.
With the No. 1 overall pick in the 1999 draft, the Rays used the philosophy to take outfielder Josh Hamilton. Drafted out of Athens Drive High in Raleigh, N.C., Hamilton combines outstanding power potential with a cannon arm, above-average speed and a classic lefthanded stroke. He emerged as the top prospect in baseball after 2000, when he hit .302-13-61 for low Class A Charleston in his first full season.
While Hamilton still could become a prototypical major league right fielder, a rash of injuries starting in 2000 knocked him off the fast track. The 21-year-old was in a car accident a year later, and related back pain bothered him throughout last season.
Hamilton was limited to just 27 games between Double-A Orlando and Charleston, and his attempt to make up time in the Arizona Fall League was cut short by recurrence of the back injury.
Doctors treated him with a combination of rest and cortisone shots in preparation for the 2002 season, but he started the season on the disabled list. He was off and on the DL three times before his season finally came to an end in June with shoulder surgery.
The injuries have raised serious questions about his future, but Hamiltons tools remain unmistakable.
"Everything we drafted is still there," Jennings said after seeing Hamilton at Bakersfield earlier this season. "Hes been snake-bitten since that damn car wreck, though. His running speed was still plus, he was hitting balls 450 feet and hes a plus outfielder."
Tampa Bay also took Carl Crawford in the second round in 1999 after it got Hamilton. Nobody expected Crawford, an all-around athlete in high school in Houston who had scholarship offers to play college football, to reach the big leagues before Hamilton.
But the 21-year-old Crawford made his debut in July, and was hitting .255-2-19 in his first 188 at-bats.
While Hamilton battled injuries, Bakersfield teammate Rocco Baldelli blossomed into one of the best prospects in baseball. The sixth overall pick in 2000 hit .333-14-51 with 21 steals before a promotion to Double-A Orlando in July. Three weeks later, he hit his way into a promotion to Triple-A Durham.
Though Baldellis tools have always attracted scouts attention, his performance in 1999-2000 was short of expectations. He brought a .237 career average into the 2002 season.
"Probably the biggest thing was his consistency through at-bats and the opportunity," Jennings said. "He was so many at-bats behind the other kids."
Even with Baldelli in the system, Jonny Gomes bat speed might be unsurpassed. Discovered by scout Hank King at Santa Rosa (Calif.) Junior College, the Devil Rays took Gomes in the 18th round of the 2001 draft. He stepped into the Rookie-level Appalachian League last summer, blasted a league-best 16 home runs and was the league MVP.
Jennings called Gomes, who finished second in the California League this season with 30 home runs and a .572 slugging percentage, a throwback player.
"Hes one of those kids you could throw into any era of baseball," Jennings said.
Gomes also finished second in on-base percentage (.431) by drawing 91 walks, but he led the league with 173 strikeouts.
"He has a very aggressive approach to hitting," Jennings said. "Hes up there with a mission, looking to knock guys in. He understands the strike zone and works counts. He just has the mindset of a power hitter.
"He has one of those bats that you hear going through the zone."
That mindset apparently runs in the family because the Devil Rays drafted Gomes older brother Joey in the eighth round in June after his All-America season at Santa Clara. Joey Gomes led the short-season New York-Penn League with 15 home runs this season.
"He has the same mental approach," Jennings said. "Hes very aggressive. He just lets the bat fly. Joey has a little more raw power, a little more of that lofting power. Hes not quite the runner Jonny is, but he has the edge defensively."
The 2002 draft also yielded Wes Bankston and Jason Pridie, who tore up the Appy League. Bankston paced the circuit with 18 homers, while Pridie became the sixth player in league history to collect more than 100 hits.
Joey Gathrights 80 speed (on the 20-to-80 scouting scale) is second to none in baseball, and though hes raw hes further along at the plate than the Devil Rays expected. A separated shoulder cut into his first pro season as Gathright, 20, hit .264 with 22 steals for Charleston.
While more and more teams are shying away from drafting high school talent, the Devil Rays have stockpiled exciting young players with tremendous upside.
"We havent targeted outfielders," Jennings said. "We put an emphasis on athletic ability and as far as outfielders are concerned, we place a great value on speed and power."
More Rebuilding For House
PITTSBURGHJ.R. House, ranked as the Pirates top prospect each of the past two years, is going to have to fight through another career setback.
House had Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, which will not only knock him out of the Arizona Fall League this year but will also keep him out for at least the first half of the 2003 season.
House wanted to make up for a tough 2002 season by playing in the AFL. He had been limited to 30 games this year at Double-A Altoona after two abdominal surgeries, one in May and the other in June, to repair a hernia and subsequent scar tissue.
"What a year," House said. "Ive had four cortisone shots and now three surgeries. Its disappointing, just a year to forget."
House hit .264-2-11 in 91 at-bats with Altoona this season. He said his elbow has been bothering him since midway through 2001.
"I was really looking at Arizona as my season for this year," House said. "I thought it would be a chance to put all the injuries and frustration of the regular season behind me, finish up on a good note and get ready for next season."
House believed he had a bone spur on the elbow, which could be removed by arthroscopic surgery so he could be ready for spring training. Pirates doctor Pat DeMeo diagnosed a torn ligament, however, and the diagnosis was confirmed by Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham.
"Everyone says Im young and not to get down about whats happened," said House, 22. "But Im not as young as I used to be. I need to make my move pretty soon and I need to get healthy."
House was the South Atlantic League MVP in 2000 when he hit .348-23-90 for Class A Hickory, but he slipped to .258-11-56 at Altoona in 2001.
"J.R. is still a very interesting player with a lot of ability," Altoona manager Dale Sveum said. "This was going to be an important year in his development, but circumstances kept him from playing much. I still consider him a good prospect and hopefully his luck will change next year."
Dodgers first-round pick James Loney broke his left wrist after being hit by a pitch just 17 games after his promotion to high Class A Vero Beach. The injury will take four to six weeks to heal and ended his debut summer.
Loney, who was hitting .299-0-5 in 67 at-bats for Vero Beach after batting .371-5-30 in 170 at-bats for Rookie-level Great Falls, will miss instructional league.
Marlins lefthander Nate Robertson got a surprise callup to the big leagues and made his major league debut in a spot start against the Pirates. The 25-year-old went 10-9, 3.42 for Double-A Portland. Robertson returned from Tommy John surgery in 2000 to go 11-4, 2.88 for Class A Brevard County last season. He works with an average fastball, curveball and plus changeup.
Though the Marlins traded Antonio Alfonseca this spring, they have a potential closer in the same mold developing at low Class A Kane County: Ronald Belizario. His fastball has been clocked as high as 98 mph, and he features outstanding late sinking and running movement similar to Alfonseca. Belizario, 19, hasnt mastered a breaking pitch yet, leading scouts to believe his future is in the bullpen. As a starter for Kane County this year, however, he went 6-5, 3.46 with 98 strikeouts in 140 innings. The Venezuelan righty gave up 131 hits and 56 walks.
Contributing: Will Kimmey
With Rocco Baldelli now leading the way, the Devil Rays have a wealth of talent in the outfield. You could even make a top 10 list made up solely of the organizations outfieldersso we did.
Copyright 2002 Baseball America. All rights reserved.|
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.