2023 Tampa Bay Rays Top 10 Prospects Chat

J.J. Cooper answered questions regarding the Rays system today. You can read the transcript here.

Adam (Tennessee):

     With the surprising selection of Xavier Isaac, has he shown any early indications of why the Rays valued him so highly?

J.J. Cooper: Hey everyone. Glad to be talking with BA subscribers. Thank you all for subscribing. The Rays are big believers in Isaac’s bat and his offensive potential. It is definitely not a consensus pick, but the Rays’ spread some of that risk by taking Brock Jones with their next pick, a relatively safer college performer. When we were doing our reporting for the draft, Isaac was very much a split-camp player where some scouts really liked him but most were less enamored because of the profile. He’s going to have to really hit, but there are the building blocks there to be that kind of hitter.

Homin (Korea):

     In the past, there were many good pitching prospects in the Rays farm. But now it seems hitter-heavy farm. Pitchers injuries might be the main cause, but I think there may also be other strategic changes by the team. What do you think about this?

J.J. Cooper: It’s definitely as hitter heavy as it has been in quite a while, even if the top of the list is still lead by pitchers (Baz and Bradley). Part of that is how the Rays have drafted in recent year. In 2022, five of the top six picks were hitters. In 2021, the top five picks were all hitters. The Rays did go pitching heavy in 2020, but those pitchers have been hurt and because of that don’t rank highly. I haven’t talked to anyone with the Rays who says they intentionally shifted away from drafting pitchers high, and Shane McClanahan was a first-round pick in 2018, so it’s not like the team hasn’t had success drafting pitchers high. But in recent years, the Rays have loaded up on hitters, and the prospect rankings reflect that. It is true that injuries do play a big role in this. If JJ Goss, Nick Bitsko, Ian Seymour and Cole Wilcox hadn’t dealt with injuries, the Top 10 may look different.

TB (China):

     Will Marzardo be next Freeman or Bellinger?

J.J. Cooper: That’s asking a lot. I’m going to say no, because in Freeman’s case, you’re talking about a top 5 1B of the past decade. That’s an extremely lofty level.

Evan (New York):

     Nick Bitsko finally made it back on the mound last year but struggled significantly with control. Is he still someone seen as a potential riser in the Rays system? Have you heard anything about his stuff coming back post injury? Will he be in the top 30?

J.J. Cooper: The stuff as of yet hasn’t made it all the way back and he’s really struggling to throw strikes. In 2022 he was pitching with a below-average fastball and having to battle. I don’t anticipate he will make the Top 30 although I haven’t finalized everything yet. The hope is everything will improve the further he gets away from his surgery, but pitching injuries can derail careers.

Justin (Tucson, AZ):

     If Curtis Mead has a 70 bat with 60 power would that put him as a top 10-15 offensive player in all of baseball? What is the probability that he plays over 100 games at 3B for TB in 2023?

J.J. Cooper: I think his chances of playing 100 games for Tampa Bay in 2023 are way better than his chances of playing 100 games at 3B. As the report notes, that’s probably not his best position long term.

Karl of Delaware (Georgetown, Delaware):

     So Mason Auer has an 80 arm – any chance we might see him on the mound in the future? An 80 rating on any skill aspect is really rare. Does any other Devil Ray prospect get an 80 in any of the rated skills in the entire Tampa minor league system?

J.J. Cooper: Probably not because he’s performing as a hitter. Auer was a two-way player in college, but he’s always preferred to hit. It’s hard to argue against that inclination when he’s showing the speed and power he’s demonstrated so far. Other 80s…Chandler Simpson has 80 speed IMO.

Bob (Nebraska):

     Baseball America sang praises for Willy Vasquez last year as a big up and coming name in the Rays system. Do the Rays still view him as a major piece up the middle, or is he just one of many in the system now?

J.J. Cooper: This year was a step back, but he’s still a very solid prospect and not far from the top 10. He actually finished the season on a tear with a 1.000 OPS (roughly) in July/August. The other thing we learned in 2022 is Vasquez is more likely a 3B than a SS. He was already a good-sized prospect, but playing with Carson Williams made it clear who is the better shortstop defensively. Vasquez should have the bat to fit at 3B and his defense there should be above-average or better.

John (NJ):

     How close was Willy Vasquez from making the list? His first half numbers were not good, but man…did he torch it in the second half. Is his likely position 3B or is an outfield spot more likely? Thanks!

J.J. Cooper: To just add this to what I just wrote, I think he fits best at third base. The arm and hands play pretty well there.

Ken (Lakewood CA):

     Thanks JJ. Doesn’t sound very hopeful that Aranda can become an everyday big leaguer with his defensive limitations. Am I reading that correctly? Is that it or is there hope for sufficient improvement to change it?

J.J. Cooper: It’s just always going to be a hurdle. There are worse defenders in the majors who are everyday regulars, but if you’re thinking it’s time to write Aranda’s name in at say 2B, know that the defensive limitations are a true concern. I think he could be fine at first base, but then he’s facing a lot of competition. I think the realistic hope is that Aranda is such a good hitter that his defensive limitations are just something you live with to get that bat in the lineup.

Tom (Medfield, MA):

     Putting aside position / fielding / baserunning – does Kyle Manzardo have the best bat in the minors?

J.J. Cooper: No. I don’t think he has the best bat in his own organization. Mead is a better hitter in my opinion. Hits the ball harder with similar contact abilities and has done it at higher levels at a slightly younger age.

Ksk315 (Las Vegas):

     What kind of arm do the Rays have in Evan Reifert? Elite closer? Saw him in the Fall League and he really stood out.

J.J. Cooper: Useful relief arm candidate who the Rays have done a good job of helping to throw more consistent strikes. I don’t think he’s their best relief prospect though. That would be Colby White (who was just added to the 40-man roster as you probably saw).

Warren (New London):

     Osleivis Basabe played half a season of AA ball at 21 and had almost as many doubles (23) as strikeouts (25). How close was he to the top 10? What position or positions do you see him playing in the next several years?

J.J. Cooper: Close. Let’s just say that as you flip past the Top 10 in the Rays chapter of the Prospect Handbook, you won’t be at risk of many paper cuts before you get to Basabe’s writeup. I think he’s best at 2B or 3B, but he can play either depending on what the team need is. Shortstop is more of a stretch, but he’s solid defensively with a good understanding of how to use his feet and good anticipation as well as a quick release.

Danny Ocean (Vegas):

     Luis Patiño slotted in as future closer – is that a reflection of (A) the other five, (B) revised expectations, or (C) health concerns for durability?

J.J. Cooper: The future lineup exercise is one that is fraught with difficult decisions. So I started off by thinking that McClanahan, Baz and Rasmussen had to be in the rotation. OK, then I thought there were three candidates for the other 3 spots we use: 2 more SPs and a closer. Of the three candidates, Mason Montgomery is the least likely to me to end up as a closer, so let’s making him the No. 5 SP. Between Taj Bradley and Luis Patiño. Well, that’s tougher. I think either of them could close. But Bradley has been more durable than Patiño and Patiño has a little more hair on his fastball, so I went with him closing and Bradley as the No. 4 SP.

Mat (Yarmouth):

     Ronny Simon wasn’t protected from R5 by Rays. Is he as good as gone as a result?

J.J. Cooper: He may get picked, but he’s not as good as gone, especially as he’d have to stick if picked. Simon is intriguing, but he also posted a sub-.300 OBP in High-A last year. The jump from High-A/150ish PAs in AA to the majors is a steep one, especially for someone who doesn’t control the strike zone all that well currently. That’s a calculated risk, but a less risky non-protection than say floating Brett Wisely or Xavier Edwards off the 40-man roster, which is why those guys were traded and Simon was not.

Trent (Springfield):

     Is there any update on Cooper Kinney? If I remember right, last winter he was being thought of as maybe there best player from the 2021 draft but has since got hurt.

J.J. Cooper: From all of my reporting Kinney should be ready to go in spring training 2023. He’ll have to make up for lost time and has to hope the shoulder returns to full strength, but he should be good to go next year.

Ryan (Detroit):

     Greg Jones- Not in the top 10. Assuming he’s in the 11-15 range. At this point, realistically, what do you see in his future? INF/OF Utility guy? Starter?

J.J. Cooper: This is still a deep system. I’m not sure he’s going to be in the top 15. He has to hit to have an MLB role, that’s the starting point. As impressive as his tools and his defensive potential are, he didn’t hit for average or a lot of power in a return to Double-A. I actually thought the Rays might leave Jones unprotected. It’s possible a team would have taken a chance on his speed/power potential/defense, but there aren’t a ton of Rule 5 picks who stick after posting a .700-ish OPS in Double-A. As far as where he plays, I do wonder what he’d look like in CF, but so far, he’s only played SS for the Rays.

Tristan Gray (Rays System):

     I led Rays affiliates in HR, can pay 4 infield positions effectively & at least average level – if not better, and I can run fairly well….so why am I being ignored? Does another team pick me up?

J.J. Cooper: Gray did have an excellent season as far as power, but there are concerns about how much he’s going to hit. This was the second time in the past three seasons that Gray has hit .225 on the dot. He’s a career .236 minor league hitter, and his walk-rate has dipped as he’s climbed the ladder, so he’s now a sub-.300 OBP guy as well. The power is impressive, but there are worried about how well that will translate to the majors with the plate discipline concerns.

Scott (Boston):

     Not a prospect question, but one on your projected 2026 roster. Do you think Wander Franco will eventually have to move to 2B?

J.J. Cooper: I think it’s possible because Carson Williams should be a better defender than Franco. Now that doesn’t always mean that the veteran slides over to make room for the better defender, but when I was doing that exercise, it was hard to say that Williams should slide over to another spot when he has a better arm and more range than Franco.

Michael (Rochester NY):

     Is Mason Auer considered the CF of future for TB? What level will he start at this season and how far away till he makes MLB debut? Looks like a dynamic top of order stud. Thanks for ths chat!

J.J. Cooper: Center field for the Rays is a really tough job to fill. In another org, yes, I’d say he’s the CF of the future, but the Rays like to play three outfielders who are all center field capable, so I feel more comfortable saying he should fit into the Rays outfield in some role. Between Kiermaier, Phillips and Siri, the Rays center fielders have been 7s or 8s defensively. The guys they stick in the corners (Arozarena, Margot, Lowe, etc.) are guys who could play CF for some other teams.

Mark (San Antonio):

     What are your thoughts on Carlos Colmenarez?

J.J. Cooper: He came in with very lofty expectations as a top international signee. So far, I’d say he hasn’t jumped out as a player who projects as a high-ceiling, fast-moving impact prospect. Now that doesn’t mean he can’t get there, and he’s still on a path to a potentially useful big league career. But I’ll put it this way, he wasn’t a consideration for the top 10, and I don’t think he’ll crack the top 15.

Warren (New London):

     Xavier Isaac was rather a surprising first round pick, and his first pro season doesn’t provide a lot of data. Has the industry’s view of him — or your perception of it — changed at all since the draft?

J.J. Cooper: I don’t think enough has happened to change that perception before next year at the earliest. I think it would be dangerous to put a whole lot of weight on 19 at-bats and some on-field work. If you really liked him before the draft, you still do. If you didn’t, you still don’t. If you’re like me, you try to hedge it all and include in the writeup that it’s really hard to make a definitive evaluation of Isaac yet.

Mike Elias (Baltimore):

     I recently acquired Seth Johnson from the Rays. Would he have cracked their top 10 list?

J.J. Cooper: OK not Mike Elias. No, and that’s probably one of the reasons the Rays were willing to trade him. The Rays have a crowded 40-man roster, and Johnson’s Tommy John surgery was going to mean they would need to carry him for two offseasons on the 40-man while knowing he wouldn’t play for them until 2024. Johnson’s talent is good enough to make it worth carrying him like that, but it made it a little easier to deal him. Btw, quirk of fate. I was in Bowling Green on what was supposed to be Seth Johnson’s start day. He was scratched right before the game and has yet to pitch again. Bummed for him obviously, as you hate to see a player get hurt, but also bummed I didn’t get to see him pitch.

JD (AZ):

     Hi JJ, Thanks for the chat. What do you think is a realistic 2023 MLB AB projection for Aranda and Mead? And how much will be at 1B after the Choi deal?

J.J. Cooper: It’s really hard to make any accurate projection on this in mid-November. I don’t think even the Rays front office knows that yet, as it depends a whole lot on how the offseason shakes out. Remember when the Rays were supposedly kicking the tires on Freddie Freeman a year ago? The Rays are a very transactional organization, so if you told me they ended up adding a free agent 1B or traded for one, it wouldn’t surprise me. If you told me that they ended up splitting 1B between 5 guys next year it also wouldn’t surprise me.

Timothy (Albany):

     Since he signed as an international free agent, I’ve heard very little about Jhonny Piron. Obviously he’s very young, but is there any update as to how he’s progressing? Is he still considered an interesting name by the Rays?

J.J. Cooper: As you noted he’s quite young, but at the same time, he’s not one of the main guys I’m hearing about from last year in the DSL or this year’s Rays FCL team. He has to hit the ball harder than he is right now to be a significant prospect.

Scott (Boston):

     Evan Reifert dominated the AFL. Does he have closer potential?

J.J. Cooper: One more Reifert question as I should add something I didn’t mention in the last Reifert question. To Evan’s credit, he turned his season completely around. He was sent to Montgomery to start the year, and he was shelled. 5 appearances, just 3.1 innings, 4 hits, 8 runs, 8 earned, 5 HBPs (!), 7 BB, 5 SO. 21.60 ERA. So they had to send him back to the Florida complex to get his control and command into a playable form. He pitched significantly better at Bowling Green after he left the complex, and obviously he was sensational in the AFL. The breaking ball gives him two legit weapons.

James (Raleigh):

     What do you think the plan is for the Rays in trading for Marcus Johnson as far as his future role? Developmentally, how much of a boost is it to his value, if any, going to the Rays?

J.J. Cooper: More than anything for the Rays, it’s about moving the date of decision on a Rule 5 pick down the road. Tampa Bay does that time after time and it often works out for them (see Curtis Mead). Johnson is a good arm with a promising slider. If the Rays can help him throw more strikes with his fastball (something they are good at doing) it may make the slider more effective.

J.J. Cooper: Hey everyone. Thanks for all the questions. Sorry I need to run, but the Baseball America Almanac won’t produce itself. I tried to make it a power-packed hour and once again, thank you to all our subscribers. I cannot express enough how appreciative I am of the fact that you all pay your money to read our content. You all ensure I have my dream job, so thank you.

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