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Few players have lived up to the hype, both before and after being the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, better than Price. The Rays targeted the Vanderbilt ace in the fall of 2006 and never had reason to alter their decision to go with the lefthander on draft day in June 2007. He won Baseball America's College Player of the Year and the Golden Spikes awards as a junior after going 11-1, 2.63 and leading NCAA Division I with 194 strikeouts in 133 innings. Price signed at the Aug. 15 deadline, getting an $8.5 million big league contract that included a backloaded $5.6 million bonus, which pushed his pro debut back to 2008. Elbow tenderness in spring training further delayed his first outing until May 22, but he showed no ill effects by going 12-1, 2.30 between three minor league levels. After helping Triple-A Durham reach the International League playoffs, Price joined the Rays in September. He dazzled the Yankees in relief in his first appearance and held the Orioles hitless for five innings in his first start, but the best was yet to come. Added to the playoff roster, he won Game Two and saved Game Seven in the American League Championship Series, then recorded the final seven outs in Tampa Bay's victory in the second game of the World Series. Price rates off the charts with his stuff, athleticism and disposition, a package that should make him one of the premier pitchers in the majors. He has two plus-plus pitches with a mid-90s fastball and a biting slider. His fastball has outstanding movement with late armside run. His slider is reminiscent of John Smoltz's with its depth and 87-88 mph velocity. He blew away the Red Sox with both pitches in the ALCS clincher, generating several awkward swings. His changeup also can be an above-average offering with impressive deception and fade. Price has the ability to add and subtract velocity from his pitches, and he uses the entire strike zone to his advantage. He receives as much praise for his makeup and humility as he does for his pitching, which is saying a lot. He was unfazed when asked to pitch in pressure situations in the playoffs. Price lacks full confidence in his changeup. He didn't need that third pitch in college and the minors, but must trust it more and improve its depth to succeed as a big league ace. He never has encountered failure, so he has yet to show he can make the necessary adjustments when the inevitable occurs, but he should be up to the challenge. Extremely goal-oriented, Price wants to join the Rays rotation to open the 2009 season. He has the talent and work ethic to make that happen. Even if he falls short, it won't be long before he's part of Tampa Bay's rotation for good, and he eventually should become the No. 1 starter on the talented staff. It would be no surprise if he moved to the forefront of the game's elite pitchers at a pace similar to that of Tim Lincecum.
Beckham emerged on the showcase circuit during the summer of 2007 and was MVP of the Aflac Classic. He carried that momentum into his senior season of high school and emerged as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft. After signing quickly for $6.15 million, he rated as the Rookie-level Appalachian League's top prospect while playing alongside his brother Jeremy (a 17th-round pick) in the Princeton infield. An outstanding athlete with easy actions and great instincts, Beckham has all the tools to be a stellar shortstop. He has strong, quick wrists and hands, and good plate discipline. The Rays believe he'll develop 20-homer power with his plus bat speed and the leverage in his swing. Defensively, he has fluid actions, good range, soft hands and a strong arm. His speed is good but not great, though he runs the bases very well. Beckham should make more consistent contact once he irons out some mechanical issues in his swing. His arm slot and footwook need more consistency, particularly so he can get behind the ball on throws. Beckham's a complete package at shortstop, yet has a chance to improve as he smoothes out his rough spots. The Rays' long-term answer at shortstop, Beckham will begin 2009 at their new low Class A Bowling Green affiliate.
The Rays' 2007 minor league pitcher of the year, Davis returned to Double-A Montgomery last spring and was a bit inconsistent before finding his rhythm and earning a promotion in mid-July. He threw seven shutout innings in his first Triple-A start and turned in seven quality starts in nine outings with Durham. Davis is one of the premier power pitching prospects in the game. His four-seam fastball sits in the low- to mid-90s, and he can dial it up to 95-96 mph when needed. He throws his hard 11-to-5 curveball with plus control, and it's filthy when he produces two-plane break. Davis also has a straight changeup and showed an improved cut fastball in Triple-A. Davis simply needs to refine the consistency of his overall feel and his delivery, particularly with his release point. Polishing those two aspects will improve his control and command. He'll need to pitch inside more often in the majors. Davis' stuff and competitiveness have him knocking on the door to the big leagues, though he probably won't bump any of Tampa Bay's established starters out of the rotation in 2009. Another half-season in Triple-A should prove beneficial in his development as a frontline starter.
Brignac has struggled at times with his hitting since winning MVP honors in the California League in 2006. Nevertheless, he received his first big league callup in July and earned International League all-star honors despite missing most of August after an errant pitch broke his wrist. Brignac has made impressive strides with his defense over the past two years. One of the premier glovemen in Triple-A, he has a solid arm and good quickness. He also has shown plus power for a middle infielder and the ability to use the entire field. A good athlete, he possesses above-average speed and an excellent feel for the game. After going 0-for-10 in the big leagues, Brignac hit only .188 the rest of the way because he started trying to do too much at the plate. He has struggled with his patience in the past and needs to improve his approach so he can reduce his high strikeout totals and increase his on-base percentage. He tends not to trust his hands at the plate and becomes pull-happy. His range to his right is fringy. Caught in between big league starter Jason Bartlett and Tim Beckham, Brignac has little opportunity to be the Rays' shortstop of the present or future. Unless he's used as trade bait, he's probably destined to repeat Triple-A in 2009.
Jennings had a wasted 2008 season after ranking as the top prospect in the South Atlantic League in 2007. The former juco all-America wide receiver homered in his first at-bat after missing the first two months with a back injury, but played just 24 games before needing surgery on his left shoulder that shelved him until the Arizona Fall League. Jennings has the exceptional speed and the discerning eye to become a prototypical leadoff hitter and center fielder. His strike-zone judgment rates among the best in the system. While he has some pop and the ability to drive the ball in the gaps, he knows his role and focuses on getting on base. He covers a wide swath in center and has an average arm. Jennings' biggest need is to stay healthy. In addition to his injury woes in 2008, he missed the final month in 2007 after having arthroscopic knee surgery. He needs game action to improve his reads and jumps in center field. With only a month in high Class A under his belt, Jennings is expected to open 2009 at the Rays' new Charlotte affiliate. A midseason promotion is a strong possibility, and if he can avoid injury, he could be pushing for a role in Tampa Bay at some point in 2010.
The Rays have excelled at finding quality arms in the middle rounds, with Moore serving as the latest example. An eighth-round pick in 2007 who signed for $115,000, he repeated the Appalachian League in 2008 and rated as the circuit's top pitching prospect. He fell one-third of an inning shy of qualifying for the league ERA title (1.66) and led all starters in short-season leagues in strikeouts per nine innings (12.8) and opponent batting average (.154). Moore's easy delivery produces a 92-95 mph fastball that has added velocity in the past year. He also throws a tight, late-breaking curveball that was virtually unhittable in the Appy League. Control was an issue in his debut, but he did a much better job of throwing strikes in 2008. His competitiveness gives him another advantage. After Moore improved his control, there isn't much not to like. His changeup has almost a screwball effect in the way it runs away from righthanders, but it still lacks consistency. He still needs to prove himself against much more advanced hitters. The Rays may be loaded with starters in the majors, but Moore has the upside to eventually fit in near the top of the rotation. At least three years away from Tampa Bay, he'll headline a young Bowling Green staff in 2009.
After missing his high school junior season due to a team suspension, Barnese emerged as a third-round pick in 2007. Barnese has earned Top 10 Prospect recognition in the Appalachian and short-season New York-Penn leagues in his two pro seasons. At Hudson Valley in 2008, he allowed one earned run or less in nine of his 13 starts while averaging 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings overall. Barnese pounds the lower half of the strike zone with a low-90s fastball that features excellent late life. His three-quarters breaking ball also has late action with good depth. He has good control and command, and he mixes his pitches well. He has a loose arm and some projection remaining. Barnese competes hard and relishes pitching inside. Barnese worked on his changeup during the summer. It still has a ways to go, but it shows the promise of developing into at least an average pitch. He'll need to throw more strikes against more experienced hitters. Barnese will move up to Bowling Green in 2009 and pitch in a full-season rotation for the first time in his career. While he has the ability to advance quickly, chances are he'll spend the entire year in low Class A. He has a ceiling as a No. 2 starter, though developing into a No. 3 is more realistic.
The Rays have moved Hellickson slowly because he didn't pitch many innings as an Iowa high schooler. He reported to spring training in great shape in 2008, and proceeded to lead the system in ERA (2.96) and strikeouts (162) while reaching Double-A at age 21. Hellickson has the best overall stuff of anyone in the system not named Price. He has a lively low-90s fastball that touches 95 mph, a curveball he'll throw in any count and a solid changeup. He also creates deception by using the same arm angle for his offspeed pitches. He throws inside consistently and rarely gets rattled. Better location, particularly in the strike zone, is Hellickson's greatest need. When his command slips, he's hittable, as evidenced when he surrendered five homers in his first Double-A start. While he's poised, the high Class A Vero Beach coaching staff felt he became a bit lackadaisical prior to his midseason promotion. Though he spent a half-season at Montgomery, Hellickson is likely to open 2009 back in Double-A. In the long term, he's another future candidate for the middle of Tampa Bay's rotation.
After ranking fourth in the minors with 175 strikeouts in 2007, McGee returned to Double-A and was inconsistent prior to tearing the ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow on June 22. He underwent Tommy John surgery in July and is expected to be sidelined for at least a year. Few lefthanders have better stuff than a healthy McGee, who has a fastball that resides in the mid-90s and touches 98. He also throws a power threequarters breaking ball with good tilt. He has improved his changeup to where it shows signs of becoming a plus pitch when he trusts it. Aside from getting healthy, McGee must pitch down in the strike zone with more consistency. He struggled with his release point and control early in 2008, and he battles his fastball command when he tries to reach back for something extra. The feel for his changeup comes and goes, which detracts from his confidence in the pitch. McGee isn't expected to be ready to begin pitching until after midseason. The Rays have no need to rush him, though they hope to get him on the mound in 2008 because pitchers usually make their greatest strides in their second year after Tommy John surgery.
The fourth overall pick in the 2004 draft, Niemann has yet to find a role in Tampa Bay but had another solid season in the minors. He limited the Orioles to one run over six innings in his big league debut on April 13, yet was sidelined two weeks with shoulder stiffness upon returning to the minors. He rejoined the Rays as a reliever in September but didn't make the postseason roster. Niemann possesses two above-average pitches, a fastball that sits in the low 90s and tops out at 95 mph and a hard curveball that acts much like a slider on occasion. He has developed a splitter to use as a changeup and looked more comfortable throwing it in 2008. He's an intimidating presence with his size and extended delivery toward the plate. Niemann gets in trouble when he leaves his pitches up in the strike zone. Getting ahead in the count with his fastball and maintaining its command down in the zone would make his secondary stuff play up. He's easy to run on and requires more time than most pitchers to get loose, both of which could preclude using him as a reliever. Niemann will enter the 2009 season with little left to prove in the minors. If the Rays don't have an opening for him, he figures to become a prime trade candidate.
The Rays entered the spring with Lobstein on their short list of potential players for the first overall pick in 2008. His stock dropped when his fastball velocity fell to 87-88 mph in the weeks leading up to the draft, but scouting director R.J. Harrison was thrilled when Lobstein was still on the board with the first pick of the second round. Harrison, who lives in Arizona, had followed Lobstein throughout his high school career and fell in love with his easy delivery, smooth arm action and big league body years ago. He had committed to Arizona as a twoway player but bypassed college for a $1.5 million bonus. Lobstein's fastball has been clocked as high as 92, and his athleticism and projectability give reason to believe that he'll grow into plus velocity. He's not worried about the radar gun, telling area scout Jason Durocher that he just throws hard enough to get batters out. Lobstein does a good job of mixing his fastball with a promising curveball and a solid-average changeup. He had the best command among high school pitchers in the 2008 draft, a tribute to his feel, mechanics and athleticism. He didn't pitch professionally after signing on the Aug. 15 deadline, but he showed Tampa Bay everything it hoped to see during instructional league. The Rays usually bring their high school pitchers along very slowly, so he'll probably make his pro debut in Rookie ball. At the same time, he's more polished than most prepsters and could move quickly once he gets going.
Signed as a 16-year-old in 2006, Suarez worked out at the Rays' new academy in his native Venezuela before making his pro debut in 2008. He ranked as the No. 9 prospect in the Appalachian League, attracting favorable comparisons to fellow Venezuelan Freddy Garcia. Suarez has a fluid delivery that he repeats very well and easy arm action that produces a 93-94 mph fastball. Though not a giant at 6-foot-2, he throws on a steep downhill plane that causes his plus fastball to jump on hitters. He also has shown promise with his secondary pitches. His curveball has a good break and the potential to be an above-average pitch, but he's still seeking consistency with the offering. He also began working on a changeup during extended spring training but hesitated to throw it at times at Princeton. Both pitches need work, but the Rays believe he has a chance to have three plus pitches. Suarez has shown plus command of his fastball and has good overall control. He also impressed with his overall maturity and the way he adapted to a new culture at the age of 18. He likely will open the 2009 season at Hudson Valley, but could make it to low Class A if he progresses at the same rate as last year.
After earning a spot on Baseball America's year-end Double-A all-star team in 2007, Jaso returned to Montgomery last spring and remained there until mid-July. After finishing second in the Southern League with a .316 average the previous year, he uncharacteristically struggled with the bat at times in the first two months before hitting .298 the rest of the way, including six weeks in Triple-A and his first big league callup. Hitting has been Jaso's calling card despite his rather unconventional swing. He has excellent plate discipline and enough pop to hit 15 homers on an annual basis in the majors. The knock on Jaso early in his career was his inability to stay healthy, but he has overcome a history of shoulder injuries to set career highs in games in each of the last two seasons. His arm strength continues to rank a tick below average and he threw out just 25 percent of basestealers in 2008, though he continues to show better footwork and shorter arm action. His ability to block balls in the dirt also has improved, making him more than serviceable behind the dish. He's no speedster, but he's more athletic and faster than most catchers. A lefthanded-hitting, offensive-minded backstop, Jaso is a leading candidate to serve as Dioner Navarro's backup in Tampa Bay this year.
A September callup, Perez saw considerable activity during the pennant race while B.J. Upton nursed a strained left quadriceps. A member of the Rays' postseason roster in all three series, Perez was a hero in the pivotal Game Two of the American League Championship Series, racing home from third on a short sacrifice fly with the winning run in the bottom of the 11th. One of the fastest players in baseball with incredible first-step explosion, he has game-changing speed on the bases and in center field. He took up switch-hitting in 2006 in order to better utilize his quickness. He has worked diligently on getting better leads, which enabled him to improve his stolen-base success rate to 80 percent last year. Perez, who remains the highest-drafted player ever out of Columbia (seventh round), is on the verge of sticking with Tampa Bay. The key will be how much consistency he can show at the plate. He has quick hands and occasional power, but his strikeout totals (156 in Triple-A) are unacceptable for his profile. He needs to shorten his swing, especially with two strikes, and become a better bunter in order to put more pressure on the defense. If he can't reduce his whiffs, he could resume batting solely righthanded because he makes much more contact from that side of the plate. There's nothing to quibble about Perez defensively, as he has an average arm to go with his exceptional range. He won't take Upton's job, but if Tampa Bay can't find a right fielder, Perez could handle center field with Upton moving to right.
Rollins continued to develop somewhat under the radar in 2008 and is beginning to attract comparisons to Andy Sonnastine from within the organization. After manning the outfield at Winthrop in addition to starting as a pitcher on Fridays and closing on Sundays, Rollins tied for the minor league lead and set a system record with 17 wins in 2007. His record fell to a misleading 6-12, but he ranked fifth in the Florida State League in strikeouts (115 in 136 innings) and sixth in ERA (3.30). A focused pitcher with above-average command, Rollins pitches at 89-90 mph and can touch 92 with his fastball. He maintains a good angle on his fastball with his solid mechanics and does an excellent job of mixing in a plus slider and an improving changeup. With his slider and his willingness to pitch inside, Rollins limited righthanders to a .205 average last year. His feel for pitching leads the Rays to believe he'll continue to succeed at higher levels, and he pitched well in four Double-A starts at the end of 2008. His primary weakness is his tendency to give up the longball, as his 15 homers allowed in the FSL were the fifth-most in the league. While he has good athleticism for a pitcher, there's little or no projection remaining in his frame. Rollins probably will open 2009 back in Double-A, but he could be in line for a midseason promotion.
After an up-and-down 2007 season with Durham, during which he struggled with his control, Talbot was the Bulls' best pitcher last year. He ranked third in the International League in strikeouts (141 in 161 innings) and fifth in wins (13) before receiving his first big league promotion. Acquired with Ben Zobrist from the Astros for Aubrey Huff at the all-star break in 2006, Talbot has an 89-91 mph fastball with good movement, a hard slider with impressive late cutting action and a changeup that continues to show better fade and depth. His control improved immensely compared to 2007, and while his strikeout total was the second-highest in the system, he's not afraid to pitch to contact and let his fielders do their jobs. Talbot has developed a knack for competing without his best stuff. With no foreseen vacancies in the Tampa Bay rotation, his future could be as a middle reliever or as trade bait. A return to Triple-A could be in the offing for 2009, though it's hard to see how that will benefit either Talbot or the organization.
The South Atlantic League was loaded with young prospects in 2008, which led to Cobb flying under the radar. He won nine games and could have easily registered several more, receiving a loss or no decision on seven occasions while yielding one earned run or less. Cobb's best pitch is an 11-to-5 curveball that he throws at any time in the count. His fastball tops out in the low-90s and is sneaky fast with the way it jumps in on hitters at the last instant, thereby limiting the number of hard-hit balls against him. He focused on improving his changeup, which is akin to a splitter, during the 2008 campaign by throwing it more often, and the initial results were promising. He does a nice job of mixing his pitches and keeping hitters off balance. Cobb has excellent control but can be too fine in the strike zone at times. He also tends to depend on his curve too much. A solid athlete who had offers to play quarterback in college, Cobb isn't overpowering but has the pitching know-how and the stuff to become a starter in the back of a major league rotation. His next stop will be high Class A.
Jefferies wasn't well known in scouting circles prior to his junior season, which coincided with UC Davis' first year with full-fledged NCAA Division I status. He set a school record with 96 hits, was one of college baseball's toughest hitters to strike out (11 whiffs in 248 at-bats) and was named Big West Conference co-player of the year. A third-round pick who signed for $515,000, Jefferies doesn't have an overwhelming tool. But his total package is greater than the sum of his individual parts. He's a contact hitter who bats out of a slight crouch from the left side. He puts the barrel of the bat on the ball with impressive consistency, though he has yet to hit for significant home run power. He uses the entire field and has the frame to drive the ball as he continues to make adjustments to wood bats. Behind the plate, Jefferies has fringe-average arm strength and good accuracy on his throws. He erased just 17 percent of basestealers in his pro debut. He has a quiet set-up and solid footwork, and he receives and blocks the ball well. Jefferies also runs well for a catcher and is a smart baserunner, though his overall speed rates a tick or two below average. With his solid athleticism and plus hand-eye coordination, Jefferies has a chance to be at least a backup catcher at the major league level. He'll open his first full pro season in low Class A.
The make-or-break point in a player's career often comes when he has to respond to adversity for the first time. That's what Royster faced during a 2008 campaign after a string of impressive performances earlier in his career. He was Princeton's MVP in 2004 and Hudson Valley's in 2006, then won the Rays' minor league player of the year award in 2007 after leading the South Atlantic League with 30 homers. He did earn Vero Beach's MVP award last season, but that had much to do with the club's overall lack of production. Much of Royster's home run power was compromised by the Florida State League's larger ballparks, and he was hitting just .201 at the end of May. His concentration lapsed at times and he took poor at-bats with him to the field. However, Royster was able to make adjustments at the plate and cope with his frustration with balls dying on the warning track, hitting .307 in the final three months. He has the strength and bat speed to produce at the plate at higher levels, though better plate discipline is a must. He moves well for his size and has good baserunning instincts, though his speed is below-average. Defensively, he struggled with his lateral movement while having to cover more ground in the spacious FSL outfields. His arm strength is average and he fits best in left field. Tampa Bay would like to see Royster make more strides with his mental approach in Double-A this year.
Fronk's first full year in pro ball was a tale of two seasons. He hit .237/.333/.425 during the first half, followed by a .338/.461/.563 performance afterward. His red-hot finish allowed him to rank third in the South Atlantic League in on-base percentage (.398) and sixth in slugging (.492), as well as fourth in the system in RBIs (83), earning Columbus MVP honors. His perseverance was no surprise given his hard-nosed approach. Fronk shows good power and could produce bigger numbers if he added some loft to his swing. He also could hit for a higher average should he flatten his bat's path to the ball. Right now he's a tweener in several aspects of the game, including his defense. A shortstop in high school who played third base at North Carolina, Fronk moved to left field as a junior with the Tar Heels. The Rays gave him a look at both second and third base during instructional league but decided to leave him in left field. He has fringy speed and range to go with average arm strength. His outfield instincts could use some fine-tuning, particularly with his routes on flyballs. Some club officials believe Fronk could excel as a Ryan Freel type, playing a variety of positions in the infield and outfield. Tampa Bay wants him to continue to produce and develop at high Class A in 2009.
Sheridan had a monster junior season at William & Mary, leading the Colonial Athletic Association in hitting (.423) while setting school records for runs (76), hits (96), doubles (26) and RBIs (72). The Rays made him a fifth-round pick in June and signed him for $195,000. Sheridan went 4-for-5 in his first pro game but hurt his wrist shortly thereafter and missed five weeks. He possesses a smooth lefthanded swing and solid-average power. Sheridan has an advanced approach and easily makes contact. As a sophomore, he was the toughest batter to strike out in NCAA Division I, fanning just five times in 209 at-bats. Sheridan shows defensive promise as a first baseman but still needs to upgrade his footwork. He's a below-average runner but not a baseclogger. Relatively young for a college draftee, Sheridan didn't turn 21 until August. He'll open 2009 in low Class A but could push for a promotion by midseason.
Princeton pitching coach Marty DeMerritt has an excellent track record when it comes to pegging potential major league pitchers, even at the Rookie league level. And DeMerritt, who has coached in the major leagues with the Giants and Cubs, believes that Luck has everything necessary to reach that ultimate destination. He has spent his first two years in pro ball as an Appalachian League reliever, but the Rays believe he has the strength and the stamina to become a starter. He has grown an inch and added 20 pounds since signing, and his fastball has moved up to 90-93 mph. He had a curveball when he signed, but he since has turned his breaking pitch into a hard 81-83 mph slider. He also has made steady progress on a changeup with DeMerritt, and it's possible that Luck one day could own three above-average pitches. He throws strikes with a smooth, easy delivery. He also stands out with his maturity, his willingness to battle and his serious approach to the game. Luck should move into the rotation this year in low Class A.
The Rays selected Cruz late in the 2007 draft and watched him pitch over the summer before signing him for $100,000 near the Aug. 15 deadline. After making three late-season appearances that summer as a reliever with Princeton, he returned to the Appalachian League in 2008 as a starter and demonstrated a live arm with above-average control. Cruz has an ideal pitcher's body with a smooth delivery and easy arm action. The ball jumps out of his hand, and his fastball sits in the low-90s and reaches 94 mph. He gets good extension out front, making his heater seem even quicker. His secondary pitches also have potential, with his curveball featuring sharp break and his changeup displaying decent depth. He lacks consistency with his curveball, one reason he was more effective against lefties than righties in 2008. Cruz keeps the ball down in the strike zone, generating a lot of groundballs. There's still projectability remaining in his lanky frame, too. Cruz should move up to low Class A to start 2009.
No one on this Top 30 list is more of a project than Colome, whose cousin Jesus pitched six seasons with the Rays. Colome has a 1-11 pro record and was shelled in his U.S. debut last year, but he has an electric arm that just needs to be harnessed. His inconsistency was evident in his last three outings of 2008, in which he surrendered a pair of scoreless four-inning starts around a relief appearance where he was touched for nine runs in 2 1/3 innings. Colome's fastball has great life and sits at 94-95 mph. He also throws a hard, slurvy breaking ball with plus tilt and a late, sharp bite. Developing a changeup will be imperative for him to remain a starter, though his fastball and breaking ball would be enough to play an important role in a big league bullpen. The key for Colome will be developing his control and command. He walks too many batters and gets hit hard when he takes something off his pitches while trying to find the strike zone. Colome will continue his bid to refine his arsenal at either Hudson Valley or Bowling Green in 2009.
Acosta made one of the biggest jumps of any player in the system last year. Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2006, he looked more like an organizational player than a prospect in his 2007 pro debut. A logjam at higher levels forced Acosta to return to the Appalachian League last season, and he used the opportunity to improve every facet of his game. Acosta has raw power and makes solid contact, though he needs to refine his approach and turn in quality at-bats on a more consistent basis. He has plus arm strength and threw out 48 percent of basestealers in 2008, ranking second in the Appy League. He also moves well behind the plate and blocks balls well. Acosta showed added maturity last year and has worked hard to become fluent in English, which has improved his ability to work with pitchers. He doesn't run well, which is to be expected of a catcher. The Rays believe Acosta is a sleeper and will promote him to low Class A this year.
In his second year after converting from third base, McCormick discovered that a catcher's time commitments honing his skills behind the plate and working with a pitching staff leave little opportunity for him to improve his ability with the lumber. He made significant strides in his catch-and-throw abilities while displaying an aboveaverage arm, good footwork and soft, consistent hands. He threw out 33 percent of basestealers, showed solid athleticism in terms of blocking balls and received raves from Rays coaches for his work ethic. He still needs to improve his game-calling skills and remember not to hurry his throws. All of McCormick's defensive progress came at the expense of his bat. He bottomed out in June, when he hit .131, and struggled to keep his average above the Mendoza Line afterward. He also had surprising difficulty against lefthanders, batting .178/.229/.299 against them. McCormick does have plus bat speed, and scouts believe he will hit for either power or average--if not both--once he makes the adjustments to catching on a full-time basis. While he has below-average speed, he moves better than most catchers. The Rays are confident McCormick will continue to develop because he has the drive to get the most of out of his ability. He should be their everyday catcher in high Class A this year.
Kang became the first South Korean to enter professional baseball via the amateur draft when the Rays signed him for $75,000 as a draft-and-follow. They took him in the 30th round out of an Atlanta-area high school in 2006 after he had moved to Georgia from his native country two years earlier. He improved in all phases of the game in 2008, earning Hudson Valley's MVP award. Kang is strong and the ball jumps off his bat. While he has above-average power, he's still figuring out nuances of hitting, such as solving lefthanders and tightening his strike zone. He has plus speed and good baserunning instincts, though he's not yet much of a threat to steal. Kang's biggest improvements last year came on defense. He went from a below-average outfielder to one capable of manning center field on occasion for Hudson Valley. His arm strength is fringe-average, and he'll probably wind up in left field. Kang remains raw but is making progress. He'll advance to low Class A in 2009.
The Rays spent $500,000 to lure Morrison, a fourth-round pick in 2008, from becoming part of Oregon's born-again baseball program as a member of the Ducks' first recruiting class. He began his high school career in Virginia as a teammate of Justin Upton before moving to Oregon, where he ranked as the state's top prospect last spring. He's a greyhound with impressive tools, though the Rays will need to show patience with his offensive development. Morrison shows some pop during batting practice, but his ability to drive the ball rarely was evident during high school or his brief pro debut. Tampa Bay believes his thin frame possesses raw power, but he needs to add weight and strength in order for that to become a reality. A fast-twitch athlete with plus-plus speed, Morrison can steal bases and has the potential to become a standout defender in center field. He needs work on his jumps and routes on flyballs, though his quickness makes up for a lot of his mistakes. His arm is playable in center. The Rays won't rush Morrison, and he'll almost certainly open 2009 in extended spring training.
One of the youngest players drafted in 2008, McEachern is a late bloomer who should continue to get better. He showed excellent pitchability during his high school career, but he didn't attract scouts until his fastball took off from 82-84 mph in the summer before his senior year to 88-92 mph last spring. The Rays drafted him in the 13th round, and a $90,000 bonus enticed him away from a scholarship from Wingate (N.C.), an NCAA Division II program. McEachern's fastball improved as he added 15 pounds to his 6-foot-2 frame, and there's room for him to add more strength and velocity. He had a strong pro debut, limiting opponents to a .193 average while mixing his fastball with a good curveball and a developing changeup. McEachern has a loose arm with a good delivery and command of all his pitches. He has a strong idea of what he's trying to accomplish on the hill, and he refuses to let difficult situations rattle him. The Rays are conservative with promoting high school pitchers early in their careers, so McEachern probably won't move past Hudson Valley in 2009.
O'Malley has developed slowly since being drafted out of a Washington high school in the fifth round in 2006. His biggest assets are his strong arm and relatively soft hands at shortstop, along with his above-average speed, which helped him rank third in the organization last year with 28 steals. Those tools should play in the major leagues . . . provided he hits enough. O'Malley has struggled offensively, never hitting above .242 in any of his three seasons and slugging .298 for his career. He has shown flashes of potential with the bat, particularly with his ability to work the count, but he hasn't displayed any consistency and very little power. His poor performance doesn't come from a lack of effort, as he's a gritty performer who plays the game hard every day. O'Malley has the defensive skills to be an everyday shortstop as well as the athleticism and versatility to become a utilityman. In order for either scenario to become a reality, he must get stronger and make more consistent contact. No. 1 overall pick Tim Beckham is ticketed for low Class A and O'Malley's bat hasn't merited a promotion, leaving his status for 2009 unclear.
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