Tampa Bay Rays 2021 MLB Prospects Chat

You can see Tampa Bay’s brand new Top 10 here, plus organization best tools and our projected 2024 starting lineup.

Logan Field (MI):

     Thanks for doing this JJ. I am very happy the top 10s are rolling out. Could you explain how you guys put the lists together? Who do you run them by? Mlb executives? How many names do you consider? Does the top 100 have influence on the lists? What preferences do you look at since there was no minor league season? Thanks in advance really looking forward to all of the top 10s.

J.J. Cooper: Hi Logan. Thanks for the thanks. We try to as best as possible reflect industry insights when we compile our Top 10s/Top 30s (in the Prospect Handbook) and Top 100. That means we talk/run our list by a wide variety of team’s scouts, front office executives and analysts. On a normal list, I’ll start my prep on a team list with 60-70 names of guys to ask about. During the calls, there will almost always be some additional names that surface during the reporting that I either didn’t really know much about going in or are better than I had heard in the past (which is why I didn’t include them in the initial 60-70 names). The Top 100 is always in the back of our mind when compiling our lists and we try nowadays to do a good job of going back-and-forth to make sure a team Top 10 doesn’t hamstring the way we want to line up the Top 100 later in the process. As far as this year, let’s start by acknowledging the reality that this is the hardest year we’ve ever had for putting together these rankings. Normally we collect a ton of insights, both from in-person looks at players, and from conversations with scouts/coaches/managers during the season. All of that was out the window this year. But our process remains the same. We’re talking to a lot of people, as many as we can, inside an organization about their prospects, but we also are trying to get as many cross-check on that info as we can from outside-of-the-organization sources. Thankfully there was some alt-site data/video sharing between orgs and there have been instructional leagues, so we have been able to talk to other orgs about a system’s players.

Logan Field (MI):

     Excited to have the top 10s rolling out! I’m curious on your thinking why to move Brendan McKay down so much. If I remember correctly he was a top 25 prospect in the MLB and now isn’t a top 5 prospect for a really good farm system. Does that also indicate he’ll move drastically down on the mlb top 100? Also, does Randy Arozarena move to #2 mostly because of his playoff performance? Sorry for the long question! Thank you in advance and I love all the hard work you guys put into these rankings.

J.J. Cooper: Sorry to go back to back on the same questioner here (I think) but these are good questions. With McKay, it’s the shoulder injury. The Rays are hopeful that McKay will be back in 2021, but the track record of even successful labrum surgeries often require several years before a pitcher returns to full effectiveness. Two of the more optimistic results I found in my research were Michael Pineda and Hyun-Jin Ryu. Both had labrum surgeries and returned to effectiveness, but in Pineda’s case, he had surgery in April 2012. He missed all of 2012, threw 41 innings in the minors in 2013 and was back to his pre-injury form in 2014. In Ryu’s case, he had surgery in May 2015. He missed all of 2015, returned to pitch in the minors late in 2016, and was back in the majors in 2017. Those are some of the successful recoveries from labrum surgery. He will move down in the top 100 because his risk factors have gone up significantly. The injury also likely reduces further his chances of being a two-way player in the majors to some extent. And there are pitchers who never fully make it back from labrum injuries, so we have to have some further caution. We’ll cover Arozarena in a later question.

Tyler S (Framingham, MA):

     Greg Jones is noted as the best athlete in the system and performed probably above expected in the NYPL in 2019, yet he doesn’t find a home in the Top 10 Prospects or 2024 Projected Lineup? What’s his ceiling and timeline?

J.J. Cooper: This is the Rays’ conundrum. Jones and Taylor Walls are two examples of guys who would easily make a normal Top 10, but the Rays prospect depth means they are on the outside looking in. Jones has one of the higher ceilings in the organization as an up-the-middle impact player with athleticism that could play at SS, 2B or CF. That said, I would not expect him to be on a particularly speedy timetable as he was a late addition to the alt-site (crowded roster) and the Rays have a lot of middle-infield depth ahead of him, which will slow his climb.

Rt (NC):

     McKay sliding down more indicative of others performing at MLB level/alternate site or injury related and McKay not seeing any time?

J.J. Cooper: As the question above notes, labrum surgeries are always a concern. The medical literature on return to play for labrum injuries isn’t always encouraging (here’s a study from 2014: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24674945/). But the Rays are hopeful that McKay will be able to pitch successfully in 2021.

Steve (Tampa):

     The Rays are a small-market team but don’t necessarily boast a ton of “homegrown” players. Do you think other small-market teams can mirror their ability to spot talent in other systems?

J.J. Cooper: The Rays have consistently had a productive farm system, but they use it in a particular way: they constantly turn over the roster, with very few players playing four-plus years at Tropicana. Look back at the 2017 Rays roster and Kevin Kiermaier is literally the only position player still around just four seasons later. Tampa Bay is constantly looking for players it likes more than most. And to get those players, they are quite willing to be aggressive in trading well-regarded talent to land players they really like. The Arozarena-Liberatore trade is a good example of that. It doesn’t always work for them, but it does work very well. As far as can other teams do so? It’s hard. The Rays have an excellent blend of scouting, analytics/analysis and development. And they are willing to take significant risks. Wily Adames was a long way from the majors when the Rays acquired him as a key piece in the Drew Smyly deal. Do that right and you land an everyday SS (who wouldn’t have been available if he had been in Triple-A rather than low Class A). Do that wrong and you traded one of your best trade pieces for a guy who never sniffs the majors.

Jeff (Clearwater):

     Without tipping your hand on the bottom third of their Top 30, would you take the Rays’ prospects ranked 21-30 over the Brewers’ top 10?

J.J. Cooper: It would be close. Josh Fleming who ranked 29th for the Rays last year will likely once again be in the 21-30 range in 2021. He would have a case to be in the back of the Brewers Top 10.

Craig (Oneonta, NY):

     How difficult was it to come up with a new a Top 10 (or 30) list this year without a minor league season to judge player’s stock? I would assume a great amount of confinement (thanks, COVID19!) here due to the limited amount of incoming scouting information compared to normal times.

J.J. Cooper: To quote Wash, it’s incredibly hard. We want to not overreact to the much more limited information we have this year. But at the same time, we want to make sure we absolutely take into account any and all info we can gather this year. These lists will not be carbon copies of last year’s Top 30s with draftees added in. We’re working very hard to make sure we gather as much info as possible to make it worth subscribing and reading these new Top 10s and the Top 30s in the Prospect Handbook. So players in the majors: lots of data/scouting info. But also easy to go overboard on reacting to 30 innings or 100 plate appearances. Players at the alt site: Some data/scouting info, but much more limited and much coming only from the club for whom they play (no opposing scouts allowed in) Players at instructs/winter ball: Useful data/scouting info, but don’t want to go overboard on what it means for a player who hadn’t played competitively throughout 2020. Players with none of the above: Really hard.

JD (AZ):

     Hi JJ, thanks for the chat. Can you tell us how BA is evaluating prospects this year given limited access to Alternate Training Sites. As a practical example what in your process drives decision to rank Goss ahead of Josh Lowe, when last year Lowe was a few spots ahead of Goss?

J.J. Cooper: Good question. These two were quite close together last year (Lowe was 11th, Goss was 13th). After getting feedback from a variety of sources (in and out of the org) on how Goss looked at instructs, we feel more confident that the potential that the Rays saw in Goss coming out of HS is coming to fruition. So we’re encouraged to be a little more bullish on him. It’s not a massive rankings change, but it is an example of how these reports/rankings can be altered by what happened in 2020, even without MiLB games.

Karl of Delaware (Georgetown, Delaware):

     Under minor league contraction Tampa has already lost Princeton to a wood bat league. They will have to lose another two teams from Durham/Montgomery/Charlotte/Bowling Green/Hudson Valley. Will this impede their player development more than the other major league teams, or will their reliance on analytics end up making contraction a positive for the Rays?

J.J. Cooper: I would stop thinking about it as far as them losing affiliates and look at it more as they will lose short-season and rookie ball outside of the complex. I have seen people view it by team who then think that this MLB team will lose 4 teams while someone else will lose two. Everyone will have four full season clubs (loA, hiA, AA and AAA) next year. I think the Rays will be more affected than most because they did an excellent job of developing high school pitchers and they did so by sending all (and I do mean ALL) of them to the Appy League or New York-Penn League first. That is no longer an option, which means that the Rays will either have to keep those pitchers at the complex for much longer (not good for development/sanity) or send them to low Class A more quickly.

Jeff (Idaho):

     Thanks for the chat. Is Ronaldo Hernandez still someone to watch for fantasy baseball purposes? Has his star faded some or is it more a product of a loaded Rays system? Will he get a shot in 2021?

J.J. Cooper: He’s not really what the Rays generally look for in catchers. Tampa Bay clearly values defense much more than offense in its catchers. Year after year, the Rays acquire veteran gloves to catch and pretty much write off their offensive contributions. Hernandez is a bat-first catcher whose glove is a little of a question. That makes me less confident he’ll be a Rays catcher than I am that he’ll be a big league catcher. Robo-umps could change that down the road and I do like the bat.

Kelly (USA):

     Thanks JJ — A bit off topic, but based of all your reporting (great work!!) on the minor leagues for 2021, when do you think a new agreement could be in place?

J.J. Cooper: Thanks Kelly. If I was going to speculate right now, I’d say Nov. 16. I keep hearing middle of this month as a likely timeframe and the middle is a Sunday (Nov. 15) so right after that. No guarantees though. Everything remains fluid.

Bill (Madison, WI):

     I see Baz listed as having the best slider and the best fastball in the organization; yet he is not listed in with the 2024 starters, nor is he listed as the closer. Do you see him as middle relief or trade bait or you don’t think that he gets it together to make it to the majors, or…. What is the deal with Baz?

J.J. Cooper: The 2024 lineup is an imperfect tool. Readers love it so we keep providing it, but it has massive limitations. I do not expect everyone we project for the Rays 2024 lineup will still be in the org in 2024, although I do not know which players will no longer be around. I think he’s one of the most promising pitchers in the Rays system. There is some significant reliever risk there, but there is also some outstanding stuff and he’s shown steady improvement in his consistency.

JD (AZ):

     JJ, complicated question I know but how do you think the lost year in minors impacts the timeline of prospects – without playing in 2020 does a player who would have started 2020 in low A who wasn’t in ATS start in low A? Did many of these prospects lose a season, or do they many of them skip to next level together, ultimately will it impact their MLB ETA?

J.J. Cooper: I keep asking that question and as of yet do not have clear answers because there is a lot of unknown remaining before that question can be answered. Let me help as best I can. 1) I think that different teams will treat it differently. Some will be aggressive and push players a level further than they were ticketed in 2020. Others will be more conservative and send players back to where they were slated to head in 2020. 2) It will depend on the individual. For a player who really embraced their weird covid-affected training in 2020 and comes into spring training clearly better and more advanced than they were coming into 2020, it becomes easier to send them up a further level. For a player who seems to be “catching up” to get back to where they were in spring training 2020, then sending them back to the same level makes more sense. 3) Some players ETAs will have to remain on the same schedule, shutdown or no shutdown. The Rule 5 draft and protection decisions are unchanged by the shutdown. So a player who has to be added to the 40-man roster will start burning options in 2021. A player who already is on the 40-man will have used an option in 2020 even if they never participated at the ATS. Other players have become MiLB FAs, even if they never got an at-bat or inning in 2020.

Not Evan (Georgia):

     Excited to get prospect season rolling! Here’s the most obvious question I can think of: who were the two or three toughest players to leave off the Rays Top 10? Thanks!

J.J. Cooper: Greg Jones, Taylor Walls and Josh Lowe would be the easy answers. Seth Johnson and Taj Bradley are two more easy ones. This remains an extremely deep system and the 11-20 range is where they really stand out as the top-end depth may not be as impressive as it was for the last year or two.

bill (madison):

     I thought McClanahan was headed to be a closer, but you have him listed as mid rotation guy. Is that how the organization sees him, and if so, what are his chances of succeeding in the rotation?

J.J. Cooper: Could be either. I think his speedy rise as a reliever this year may make it a little rougher to try to keep developing him as a starter, but he does continue to have a shot to do so and that could still provide more long-term value for the Rays and a more lucrative career for McClanahan.

Lee (SK):

     Strotman, Mercado and Franklin has came back from injuries and participated in the Instructional League. Did their pitching look good?

J.J. Cooper: Yes. All three were back and with the stuff they had pre-injury–in Mercado’s case he was throwing a little harder than he did before he went down.

Nolan (MI):

     Hey! I don’t know if you know yet or not but when do you expect the top 100 to come out? I’m anxiously awaiting to see who cracks it! Do you expect any drastic changes since there was no minor league season? Thanks bro really looking forward to it! Great work JJ!!

J.J. Cooper: We will roll out the Top 100 in January once we have finished all the Top 10s. It will have less movement than in a normal year, but still a lot, as we will be sitting on a massive stockpile of newly compiled info that we want to factor into our rankings.

Me. Ray (Tampa):

     Thanks for all your work. I love reading all your answers to our questions. Rays have a great system and players who aren’t highly ranked within the system might lose some excitement because of their lower ranking. We saw what arozarena just did. Are their any players who are ranked outside the top ten who you can see being a future all-star level major leaguer?

J.J. Cooper: All-star maybe too rich, but it would not surprise me at all if Taylor Walls ends up being a long-term MLB regular, even though he did not crack the Top 10.

Karl of Delaware (Georgetown, Delaware):

     Greg Jones is age 22 and has not advanced past short season Hudson Valley. However he has put up impressive hitting stats and was a 1st round choice. What are your thoughts on Greg?

J.J. Cooper: Covered Mr. Jones earlier, but I will also not that he would have easily advanced past short-season Hudson Valley if 2020 wasn’t 2020. Hate we didn’t get to see what he could do in full season ball this past season.

Chad (North Carolina):

     What are the odds that Shane Baz and Josh Lowe will get playing time in 2021? And given the Rays’ loaded infield, do you see Xavier Edwards as a likely trade piece?

J.J. Cooper: I give Lowe a higher shot than Baz. He was closer to the majors pre-covid. He’ll need to be added to the 40-man roster because of the Rule 5 draft and the Rays have more likely opportunities in the outfield in the short term and Baz has more work to do to be MLB ready. To early to say that with Edwards. Rays MLB roster is a constant churn. I think that the Rays will trade anyone and everyone in the right deal, but there’s no reason for them to not continue to develop Edwards and see how the log-jam resolves.

Dam (Lansing):

     With Arozerena jumping all the way to #2 in the Rays list and over Brujan can we expect to see him the 30-40 range on the top 100? And what do see as overall upside? Do you feel he has all-star potential or more average to above average potential? Love the BA top 10 lists and the chats! Thanks for doing this I look forward to it every year!

J.J. Cooper: What do we do with Randy Arozarena? That was the toughest question of this Top 10. The Rays clearly valued him more than most–they were willing to trade away Matthew Liberatore for him, which is a high price to pay in prospect capital. Let’s start by saying that we do not believe he can consistently do what he did in the postseason. Not a big stretch there, as no one other than Barry Bonds slugs .800. That said, there are plenty of attributes here that should carry over to make him at least a consistent regular and at best a regular all-star. He has bat speed and he hits the ball very hard. Do note that this wasn’t Arozarena having a great week and a half in the postseason. He was arguably the Rays best hitter in spring training. He was arguably their best hitter in September and then he was clearly their best hitter in the postseason. He showed he could hit fastballs. He showed he could hit breaking balls and some changeups. He showed the ability to recognize the different ways pitchers tried to attack him. This wasn’t a one-trick see-fastball, hit-fastball approach. In the postseason he had 14 extra-base hits. Three came on changeups, three came on sliders, three came on sinkers and five came against four-seam fastballs.

J.J. Cooper: Great questions everyone. Sorry to leave some in the queue but I need to get back to making calls on Cardinals and Reds Top 10s since those are coming soon. Thanks again for coming out and thank you for subscribing!

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