|Original Published Date: December 11, 2018|
During the year, I write a weekly article about the Hot Prospects of the Week. I knew that the Rays were developing nicely, but until I sat down to rank the players in their organization, I didn’t realize how good and deep the system is.
Wander Franco is one of the best prospects in the game. Sure, he’s 17 and has yet to play in full-season ball, but what he did last season was off-the-chart impressive. Most importantly, the scouting report matched the results. While Franco is several years away (maybe closer if you think Juan Soto), Brent Honeywell should help the Rays next season. He is recovering from Tommy John Surgery, but assuming he’s healthy, he should be an impact performer.
With Wander and Honeywell leading the way, the rest of the system is full of high round draft picks and Latin players that could be impact performers at the highest level. While I only listed 15 names, I could have easily have gone to 25 players who could one day make it the majors.
Enjoy the list and please click on the baseball card to visit our partner amazon.com to explore additional information on each player.
1. Wander Franco (SS)
Highest Level: Short-Season ETA: 2021-22 Fantasy Ceiling: First Round Pick
17-year-olds are not supposed to post a 1.000 plus OPS in professional baseball. That’s what Wander Franco did in 61 games in the Appy League. In fact, the stat line is more impressive than that. He hit 11 home runs, struck out only 7% of the time while walking 10% of the time. Did I mention he is only 17-years-old?
From a tools standpoint, they are all above-average. He’s a plus runner and while he only stole four bases last season, it’s easy to project 20 stolen bases annually. Of course, he’ll fill out as he gets older but in the foreseeable future, he could steal bases in bunches. He has great bat speed and is more physical than his 5-10 frame would suggest. While I was surprised with his .587 SLG and 11 home runs, I think he’ll hit 20 or more home runs as he fills out. He’s a strong defender but might outgrow shortstop at some point.
The hit tool is what has me so excited. Again, he was 17-years-old playing with guys much older than him last summer. He outplayed Nolan Gorman, Jarred Kelenic, and Trevor Larnach; all first-round picks. He did it because of a surprisingly mature approach who rarely strikes out. It was indeed impressive.
How fast does he move? Could he pull a Vlad Jr or a Juan Soto? Absolutely. But, he plays for the Rays who have historically been very conservative with their prospects. But, Franco will challenge that philosophy. Expect him to start in Low-A in 2019 with a chance to finish the year in Charlotte of the Florida State League.
2. Brent Honeywell (RHP)
Highest Level: DNP ETA: 2019 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 30 SP
Coming into the 2018 season, it appeared that right-hander Brent Honeywell would see significant time in the Rays starting rotation. After an impressive 2017 where he dominated Triple-A by posting a 3.64 ERA striking out over 11 per inning while walking 2.2 per nine, he left a bullpen session in mid-February only to have Tommy John reconstructive surgery shortly afterward. It was a bunch in the gut for Rays fans and fantasy owners and a reminder of the fragility of starting pitching.
The surgery was deemed a success and he’s been rehabbing all year long. The timeframe for a return to the mound should be June with a chance to see Tampa later in the summer. He was one of the best pitching prospects in the game before the injury and while there is a risk, assuming he comes back healthy, there is every reason to believe he can hit his ceiling of a number two starter.
3. Brendan McKay (LHP)
Highest Level: High-A ETA: 2020-21 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 40 SP
Shohei Ohtani did it, well until he hurt his arm. Matt Davidson says he wants to do it and has the blessing of the White Sox. So, why can’t Brendan McKay do it? Of course the “do it” is to be a two-way player.
First, he pitched well last season. In 19 games, primarily in Low and High-A, he pitched to a 2.41 ERA striking out nearly 12 per nine while walking less than two. The stuff matched the performance as he has three above-average pitches and pounds the strikes zone with each. His fastball which sits in the Low 90’s but can scrape 95, is a very good pitch that lefties don’t pick up well at all.
As a hitter, he wasn’t as dominant but showed a very patient approach but did strikeout too much in High-A (27% K/9). He did slug .403 with five home runs which aren’t bad for the Florida State League.
I believe McKay should focus on pitching but there is probably enough skill on both sides to be effective. We have his ETA at 2020-21 assuming he splits time between High and Double-A next season.
4. Jesus Sanchez (OF)
Highest Level: Double-A ETA: 2020-21 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 40 OF
Jesus Sanchez started the year in the Florida State League and at 20-years-old, had little problems. He slashed .301/.331/.462 in 90 games which prompted the Rays to promote him to Double-A to finish up the season. He found the sledding more difficult and really struggled in the final 27 games.
Sanchez has serious raw power that is starting to show up in-game. He’s only an average runner but will steal a base when the opportunity is there. His approach at the plate is where the work remains. While he makes very good contact, he’s very aggressive and rarely walks. But, he’s very young and there is a ton to work with.
The Rays will likely reassign him to Double-A to begin the 2019 season and he’ll likely stay there for the entire year. The upside is a .260/.320 hitter with 25 to 30 home run power and a handful of stolen bases. If it all works, that’s an impact fantasy contributor.
5. Ronaldo Hernandez (C)
Highest Level: Low-A ETA: 2021 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 10 catcher
The Rays have a Top five system in baseball and it’s not just because of Wander Franco. It’s also because of the payoff of some of their other Latin investments. To that end, Ronaldo Hernandez has a chance to be a star. Never heard of him…read on.
Signed in 2014 for only $225,000, Hernandez showed significant power last season in the Sally League when he hit 21 home runs and slugged .494. The power was accompanied by great contactability. In 449 plate appearances, he only struck out 15% of the time. He was pretty aggressive, but that should improve as he matures as a hitter.
As a former pitcher, he has a cannon for an arm but is still learning some of the fine art of the catching game. But, if you add it all up, he has the upside of a Top 10 catcher in fantasy.
6. Matthew Liberatore (LHP)
Highest Level: Short-Season ETA: 2022-23 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 30 SP
I think the Rays got a steal when Matthew Liberatore dropped to them at pick 16 last June. He’s a 6-foot-5, 200-pound lefty with some physical projection remaining who already has good control a pretty good arsenal. Part of the reason he fell was he doesn’t have that big fastball…at least yet.
For me, it’s about projection with Liberatore. While his fastball sits at 90 MPH, once he puts on weight and gets stronger, I think he adds 2 to 3 MPH on the fastball. Once that happens, you will be looking at a different pitcher. It’s conceivable that he can be sitting 92 to 94 MPH and touching 95 with what already looks like a plus curveball and a feel for a change-up.
Remember, he’s a pitcher, so his range of possible outcomes is varied. For me, the ceiling could be as high as a number two starter. However, even if he settles into a number four starter, I think he’ll help a fantasy team. I would be buying in Dynasty League Rookie drafts next spring.
7. Brandon Lowe (2B)
Highest Level: Majors ETA: 2018 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 15 3B
Brandon Lowe had a very un-Tampa Bay ascent to the Major Leagues. He started the year in Double-A and finished the year as the starting second baseman and sometime outfielder in Tampa. He makes our list by having one at-bat shy of the cut-off for minor league eligibility.
It was a true breakout season for the Maryland grad as he got off to a fast start in Double-A and kept hitting. He has always shown great plate patience but the improvement in his contact rate was enough to allow him to get to his power. He hit 22 home runs in the minor leagues and another six in the Majors. While his .233 batting average wasn’t good in Tampa, if you consider that he didn’t get his first hit until game seven (19 at-bats), it was a great recovery
Even if Lowe never hits more than .250, his plate patience will give him a .350 OBP. Throw-in 20 home run potential with a chance to steal 8 to 10 stolen bases annually, and he could be a nice low-end starting second baseman on your fantasy team.
8. Vidal Brujan (2B)
Highest Level: High-A ETA: 2020-21 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 15 2B
Not many players in the minor leagues can match what Vidal Brujan did last season. Across Low and High-A, he hit .320/.403 with nine home runs and 55 stolen bases. He also walked nearly as much as he struck out with a strikeout rate of only 11.4%.
He’s only 5-foot-9 and 155 pounds, but he’s got a great compact swing with excellent bat speed. While I doubt he ever has plus power, I do believe he’ll hit 10 to 15 annually. As a 70-runner, he’s going to steal bases in bunches. I think the ceiling is a 15-40 hitter with a potential well above-average hit-tool. That’s not just a good player, that’s a star. I think you just might see him on my pre-season Top 100 list.
9. Shane Baz (RHP)
Highest Level: Short-Season ETA: 2022 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 30 SP
The Pirates gave up a lot to bring Chris Archer to the fold last July. While Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow were the headliners, Shane Baz was a first round pick that the Pirates invested over $4 million dollars at the draft table. He has talent with a fastball that can touch the mid to upper 90s and several off-speed pitches that he is sorting out.
The “sorting out” is primarily coming in the form of not throwing strikes. In his 12 starts last year, he walked 29 batters in 52.1 innings or over five per nine. Did the Pirates give up on him? Not likely as you don’t give up on a first-round draft pick after 69 innings. More likely, the Rays really wanted the talent and believe they can sort out his control problems.
At 6-foot-3, he’s got the size that teams like, and with his arsenal, he just needs time to put it together. There is always an injury risk, but the Rays got a potential number two starter in the deal; not to mention two young major leaguers. By the way, what did Archer do when he got to Pittsburgh?
10. Nate Lowe (1B)
Highest Level: Triple-A ETA: 2019 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 20 1B
Since being drafted out of Mississippi State in 2016, Nate Lowe has proven he could hit. Over his three-year minor league career, he’s hit .303 with a .393 OBP. While he’s also posted a .476 SLG, his swing mechanics lacks loft and most of the power has been doubles-power. Since he’s a first baseman and not a plus defender at that, I’ve been worried whether he would have enough power to profile as a full-time player.
Last season, he finally started to show more home run power in Double-A. In fact, he was all-world. He hit .340 with nearly as many walks as strikeouts with 13 home runs in 51 games. The Rays gave him a taste of Triple-A late in the year and the home run power did not stick, but it was only 100 at-bats.
So, I’m still torn. He should definitely be owned in Dynasty League that roster 200 or more minor leaguers, but the power has still not been proven. But remember, 15 home runs does turn into 20 plus home runs when players get to the big leagues. The question, is that good enough at first, even with a .280/.360 average? For some, it will be, but others will be looking for more.
11. Lucius Fox (SS)
Highest Level: Double-A ETA: 2020-21 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 20 SS
Lucius Fox continues to show strong defensive prowess at shortstop with excellent speed but has yet to show any power. In the end, that could make him a utility player at the highest level. It’s important when I say power, I’m not just talking about home run power, but also the strength to handle elite velocity and fight off pitches thrown inside. It is a big separator with many players and why Fox just needs to get stronger.
His speed is what continues to intrigue fantasy owners as there is 30 stolen base potential. He’s a plus runner, bordering on double-plus with excellent instincts on the basepaths. He should start 2019 back in Double-A and could likely stay the entire season there.
12. Shane McClanahan (LHP)
Highest Level: Rookie ETA: 2021 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 45 SP
With two picks in the first round last June, the Rays went with two high school left-handed pitchers. Matthew Liberatore and Shane McClanahan. While Liberatore was the more famous of the two, McClanahan throws harder and is a quality talent himself.
In college, McClanahan routinely ran his fastball up to the upper 90s but did it with an all-out delivery. The Rays need to spend the time to calm the delivery down as he loses his balance on the landing. This will make it difficult for him to repeat his delivery. In his seven minor league innings, he had no trouble as he struck out 13 while only walking one.
The Rays have a long history of developing pitchers and I would not rule out McClanahan shooting past the ceiling I have provided. He’s a talent that I would consider in the mid to late round of a Dynasty League rookie draft.
13. Nick Solak (2B)
Highest Level: Double-A ETA: 2019-20 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 15 2B
While many people have heard of the more famous players in the Rays organization, fantasy owners need to start familiarizing themselves with the “second tier” players. Perhaps leading that list is Nick Solak. He’s done nothing but hit since being drafted in the second round by the Yankees in the 2016 MLB Draft. This year, the power has developed and he stole 21 bases. Throw in a 19% strikeout rate and a 12% walk rate and it’s easy to get excited. He spent the entire season in Double-A and should be ready for Triple-A next season. If it all goes well, don’t be surprised to see him in St. Petersburg in the second half.
14. Moises Gomez (OF)
Highest Level: Low-A ETA: 2021-22 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 45 OF
It took four years for Moises Gomez to make it to full-season ball, but he made the most of his opportunity. In 122 games, he hit .280 with 19 home runs. He also struck out 27% of the time while walking just 6.6% of the time but controlling the strike zone at 19-years-old is rarely present.
Gomez has plus raw power that is starting to translate into in-game power. The upside could be 25 plus home runs once he fully matures. The hit tool is the wild card and there is a lot of work left. If it comes together, he could be a middle of the order bat in what should be a very good Rays lineup in a few years. If it doesn’t, he likely will not make it out of Double-A. I’m betting on the former at the moment and if I have room, will be trying to add him to my Dynasty Leagues.
15. Nick Schnell (OF)
Highest Level: Rookie ETA: 2022-23 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 45 OF
If you are reading these capsules in order, by now, you must have a sense for just how deep the Rays system is. To illustrate, one of my favorite high-upside draftees last June was the 32nd overall pick, Nick Schnell. At 6-foot-3 180 pounds, he’s got the great athletic body with good bat speed with well above-average speed.
At 18-years-old, the question is always…can he hit. While it was only 19 games, his performance in the GCL was encouraging. He showed very good plate patience but he also struck out way too much. Don’t worry about the .239 batting average, but instead, look at the .378 OBP. I think there’s something there and he’s a kid I want to monitor over the next couple of years.