Top Ten Prospects: Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Complete Index of Top 10s
By Bill Ballew
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, 2005.
Tampa Bay also ran off a franchise-best 12-game winning streak, and tied a major league record by reeling off 13 straight interleague triumphs. The Rays reached the 70-win mark and avoided last place in the American League East for the first time, thanks in part to the rich supply of talent developed in the farm system.
Top prospect B.J. Upton made the jump to the majors in August. While his defense and his ability to remain at shortstop remain uncertain, his talent is obvious. Upton became the first teenager to homer in the majors since Aramis Ramirez and Adrian Beltre in July 1998. Infielder Jorge Cantu and outfielder Joey Gathright also got their first taste of the majors and should be lineup mainstays along with Upton and young veterans Rocco Baldelli, Carl Crawford and Aubrey Huff.
Tampa Bay further bolstered its youth movement when it robbed the Mets of lefthander Scott Kazmir in a July trade for Victor Zambrano, whose command and pending price tag weren't to the Rays' liking. Kazmir shut out the Mariners for five innings in his big league debut and later beat the eventual champion Red Sox with six scoreless innings and nine strikeouts.
More help is on the way. The Devil Rays had another solid draft, though first-rounder Jeff Niemann had yet to come to terms. A righthander selected fourth overall, he's expected to sign before spring training. Soon afterward, he should team with Kazmir to give Tampa Bay two formidable starters at the front of the rotation. Shortstop Reid Brignac (second round) is yet another promising young position player, while righthanders Wade Davis (third), Matt Walker (10th) and Andy Sonnanstine (13th) and lefty Jacob McGee (fifth) add some much-needed pitching depth.
The strength of the organization remains its outfielders, both at the major and minor league levels. Delmon Young, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 draft, had an impressive pro debut and should be on the same fast track to Tampa Bay that Baldelli, Crawford and Upton rode. The Rays have so many outfield options that they've had to move some of their prospects to other positions, most notably Wes Bankston from right field to first base. The logjam makes the continuing disappointment of Josh Hamilton easier to take. The top pick in the 1999 draft, Hamilton was suspended for all of 2004 after violating Major League Baseball's drug policy.
The Devil Rays continued to make baby steps in 2004. Larger leaps are a distinct possibility if the ongoing influx of young players can live up to high expectations at the major league level. Tampa Bay still is a long ways from doing battle with the likes of the Red Sox and Yankees, whose nine-figure payrolls dwarf the Rays', but at long last there's reason for optimism.