|Original Published Date: December 10, 2019|
For my money, the Rays have the best collection of prospects of any organization. If you side with Padres, I have no argument with that, but it’s hard to ignore the talent the Rays have developed. Of course, leading the list is Wander Franco, the best prospect in the game. He could very well see the Rays next season but it’s more likely he makes his debut in 2021. He’s a special player with an innate ability to hit with power and current speed. If you’re looking for a knock, he might eventually move off short. Brendan McKay is the Rays top pitcher and has already seen considerable time in the big leagues. While his time there was inconsistent, he still has number two starter upside.
Perhaps it’s recency bias, but I saw both Vidal Brujan and Josh Lowe in the Arizona Fall League and both look like future stars. Shane Baz didn’t look bad either hitting 100 multiple times at the Fall Stars Game.
With an excellent Major League club, the future is very bright for the Rays. Their window officially opened in 2019 but should start to widen in earnest in 2020 through much of the next decade.
Prospect Quick Shot
- Top Prospect: Wander Franco
- Biggest Mover: Josh Lowe
- Emerging Prospect: Gregg Jones
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1. Wander Franco (SS)
- Highest Level: High-A ETA: 2021 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 15 Fantasy Player
- Tools Summary: Impressive tools with an even more impressive ability to hit. Not much is slowing him down and he doesn’t turn 19 until March.
Is it me or is it weird to see professional athletes with a birth year of a 2-handle? I know time is marching on, but Wander Franco was born March 1, 2001, and is arguably the top prospect in the game; and I’m being conservative when I use the word…arguably.
Franco has done everything we thought he would do in 2019. He’s hit, showed excellent bat speed and raw power and solid, above-average foot speed. While it’s easy to call him a five-tool player, I think that’s being lazy. Instead, I see a player with one potential 80-grade tool in his ability to hit, a 70-grade power tool, a 50, maybe slightly less runner, and an average defender (arm and catch) at short but a possible plus defender at second. Is that a five-tool player. I dunno…but, he has the making of a superstar who should fly through the minor leagues given his ability to hit.
We need to remember that Franco plays for the Rays and they like to slow roast their players. However, even the Rays are moving him quickly as they split his time between Low and High-A in 2019. They should ideally start him in Double-A to begin the 2020 season. If they do, it should set him up to make his Major League debut in 2021. Could that be accelerated? Surely.
The fantasy impact should be significant. The potential is for a .300/.400/.550 slash line with 10 to 15 stolen bases early in his career. I do believe he’ll move to second base and if you want a comp., look no further than Robinson Cano’s big years in New York. Of course, add at least 10 home runs for the juiced ball.
2. Brendan McKay (LHP)
- Highest Level: Majors ETA: 2019 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 30 SP
- Tools Summary: Premium stuff from the left side. Strike thrower. I’m not sure how much hitting he will do.
It seemed like Brendan McKay was in Tampa for half the season, but he was going back and forth so much that he only logged 45 innings and less than 45 days of service time. Therefore, he is still eligible for our list.
McKay pitched very well this year. Yes, I know it was an ugly 4.80 ERA in the Majors, but he struck out over 10 per nine and kept his walks down. He did give up 49 hits in 45 innings, but if you look at what he did in the minor leagues, his stuff can be dominating. Perhaps, McKay is learning what 99% of the ballplayers playing in the Major Leagues find out. Those guys are really good!
McKay is still considered a two-way player, but his pitching is so far ahead of his hitting, I question how many plate appearances he will ultimately get. His fastball averaged 94 MPH in the big leagues, scrapping 96 with a better than league average spin rate and a top 20% ranking in movement. While each of his secondary pitches had a double-digit whiff rate with his curveball posting a 13.62% rate. Unfortunately, his curveball did not rate very well. It had a low spin rate and a well below-average movement. But, when you can throw it for strikes, it plays up.
I fully expect McKay to begin the 2020 season in the rotation for the Rays as they finally begin to ween themselves off the opener, the bulk guy (which is a 20-grade name…come on now..), etc… The upside is at least a number three with a chance to be a number two.
3. Vidal Brujan (SS)
- Highest Level: Double-A ETA: 2020-21 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 10 2B
- Tools Summary: Exciting player with double-plus speed. Makes excellent contact with a solid approach. I think there is star potential.
In all respect to Jo Adell, Vidal Brujan was the most exciting player I saw in the Arizona Fall League. He makes hard contact, is a plus runner with excellent bat speed. Plus, I saw him make some impressive plays in the field.
What impressed me the most was his ability to make contact. The swing is compact and short to the ball and while I don’t see a power hitter, there’s enough power and bat speed to hit low double-digit home runs. He hasn’t done that yet, but it’s in there. What he has done is steal bases. He stole 48 last season and I timed him as a 65 to 70 runner.
I ranked him 45 on our mid-season Top 100 list and I now think that was low. Given his speed and ability to make contact, he could be a classic top of the lineup force who steals 30 plus bases, scores 100 plus runs annually with a high average and OBP. That could make him a Top 50 overall fantasy player.
4. Matthew Liberatore (LHP)
- Highest Level: Low-A ETA: 2022-23 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 30 SP
- Tools Summary: Still developing but the chance for three-plus pitches is there. The Rays will take it slow and easy with their prized lefty.
The Rays held back Matthew Liberatore in Extended Spring Training to begin the 2019 season. On May 16th, he made his debut and threw five innings of shutout ball striking out four and walking one. While he’s had a few clinkers, he’s shown the stuff and control that made him the best high school pitching prospect in the 2018 MLB Draft.
At 6-foot-5, Liberatore is still primarily about projection. His fastball has taken a small step forward, but there is likely at least another grade in the tank. His signature pitch continues to be his hammer curve that is a true swing-and-miss pitch, particularly when he throws it for strikes.
I still see Liberatore’s ceiling as a number two starter, but it is going to take a while. First, the Rays move their pitching prospects slowly, but second, he needs the development time. Barring injury, his major league debut is likely 2022, perhaps even 2023.
5. Josh Lowe (OF)
- Highest Level: Double-A ETA: 2020-21 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 45 OF
- Tools Summary: 20-20 power-speed potential but with some swing and miss. He will walk though, so he could even help you in OBP-based leagues.
Part of the Tampa Bay Lowe brother trio, although only Josh and Nate are actually related and Brandon doesn’t even pronounce his name like the other two, but you know what I mean. Anyway, Josh Lowe is the last player of the three to make his Majors debut. However, he might have the highest ceiling of the three, particularly from a fantasy perspective.
In 121 games in Double-A, he hit 18 home runs and stole 30 bases while posting a .341 on-base percentage. It was a nice bounce-back season after slashing .238/.322/.361 in the Florida State League with only six home runs in 2018. At 6-foot-4, there is going to be strikeouts and Lowe has been consistent over his minor league career with a mid-20s strikeout rate. But, he’s also walked a lot, usually posting a double-digit walk rate.
In the end, I like the athleticism, the power-speed potential and will live with the .250 batting average he’ll likely produce. In an on-base percentage, he might even be an asset for that category, or at least neutral as he should post a .340 OBP.
6. Ronaldo Hernandez (C)
- Highest Level: High-A ETA: 2021 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 10 Catcher
- Tools Summary: Excellent contact skills with power. His approach is very aggressive and that should be an area of focus.
Entering the 2019 season, we considered Ronaldo Hernandez to be one of the best young catching prospects in the game, ranking number 83 on our pre-season Top 100 list. The Rays challenged the 21-year-old backstop by starting him off in Port Charlotte of the Florida State League where he got off to a very poor start. At the end of April, he was batting .196 in 14 games.
As the weather warmed and Hernandez got comfortable with the level, his natural bat-to-ball skills emerged. He didn’t show his plus power, but the FSL is a pitcher’s league, so there is no concern as the raw power is still there. As a former pitcher, he has a double-plus arm with his receiving skills a work-in-progress. It’s one reason why the Rays have been slow with his development.
The only offensive knock against Hernandez is that he is very aggressive at the plate. In 104 games, he only walked 16 times. Ultimately this could limit his upside, but the offensive bar is very low for catchers, so his plus power and solid contact skills continue to give him a Top 10 catcher upside.
7. Shane Baz (RHP)
- Highest Level: Low-A ETA: 2022 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 40 SP
- Tools Summary: Premium stuff with currently poor control. He is athletic with simple mechanics, so there is nothing stopping him from achieving at least average control.
How bad is that Chris Archer trade looking for the Pirates? With the success that Glasnow and Meadows have had, you forget they also gave up Shane Baz, a pretty good pitcher in his own right.
He spent the entire season pitching the Midwest League where he pitched to a 2.96 ERA striking out over a batter an inning but walking too many (4.3 BB/9 ratio). It’s still very much a work-in-progress but Baz has a fastball that can touch the upper 90’s with his secondary pitches starting to take shape. Sure, control is still an issue, but the talent is clear and assuming he continues to work on repeating his delivery, he has a mid-rotation starter ceiling or perhaps even more.
8. Brent Honeywell (RHP)
- Highest Level: DNP ETA: 2020-21 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 40 SP
- Tools Summary: He has not pitched in two years and turns 25 in March. Hopefully, 2020 will be the year that he proves his injuries are behind him.
I don’t know what to write about with Brent Honeywell. He last pitched in 2017 when he needed Tommy John surgery ending his season early. He was working his way back in 2019 when he fractured a bone in his elbow. It was obviously very unfortunate as it leaves us with no information to evaluate. Will he be 100% of what he was? 80%? I just don’t know.
Prior to his injury, he was one of the best pitching prospects in the minors with a number three, perhaps a number two starter ceiling. For now, we will not change that. Hopefully, he will get back pitching in 2020 and assuming it goes well, he could even see some starts in Tampa in the second half.
9. Shane McClanahan (LHP)
- Highest Level: Double-A ETA: 2021 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 45 SP
- Tools Summary: Excellent results in 2019 with great strikeout and walk rates. The delivery says he might be a reliever, but the Rays are developing him as a starter.
Drafted in the first round by the Rays in 2018, Shane McClanahan covered three levels in 2019 pitching very well at each spot. He started the year in Low-A and while he struggled with his control (5.26 BB/9 ratio), he showed great swing and miss stuff striking out over 12 per nine. The Rays promoted him in early June to High-A and he was even better.
In August, he was promoted to Double-A (very un-Rays like) and while he showed similar strikeout and walk rates, he gave up 30 hits in 18.1 innings and that blew up his ERA to 8.35. It was a .450 BABIP, so that’s not likely to continue, but what we don’t know is how much was bad luck and how much were players just getting a good look.
McClanahan is not a big kid at 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds but still touches the upper nineties with this fastball. He has solid secondary pitches that clearly can miss bats. The delivery is not great as he comes from a lower three-quarters delivery that suggests he could eventually move to the bullpen. But, the Rays believe he’s a starter and the stuff and improving control is starting to lean that way.
10. Joe Ryan (RHP)
- Highest Level: Double-A ETA: 2020 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 45 SP
- Tools Summary: Doesn’t have an elite arsenal but can run his fastball up to 95 to 96 MPH. He has excellent control and struck out an impressive 186 batters in 2019.
Joe Ryan was one of the best pitchers in 2019. He started the year in Low-A and in five starts, he posted a 2.66 ERA striking out 41 in 23.2 innings. The Rays quickly promoted him to the Florida State League where he continued to have no problems with the competition. In 16 games, he pitched to a 1.32 ERA striking out over 12 per nine and walking just a shade over one per nine. He finished the year in Double-A and in three starts, continued to strike out guys at a high rate while limiting his walks.
Ryan doesn’t have overwhelming stuff but can still run his fastball up to 96 MPH. His curveball is already a plus offering, and it plays up because he’s able to throw it for strikes. The change-up is not there yet but he is throwing it more and more to improve the offering. The ceiling is a number three starter but given the improvements he’s made this season, it could be even higher.
11. Gregg Jones (SS)
- Highest Level: Short-Season ETA: 2022-23 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 45 OF
- Tools Summary: He has 80-grade speed with some pop. His swing needs an overhaul. If he can improve his swing mechanics, he could be a premier leadoff batter. The odds are also high he moves to the outfield.
Gregg Jones was drafted in the first round of the 2019 MLB Draft (pick #22) and was sent to the New York Penn League where he played extremely well. In 49 games, he hit .330 with a .407 OBP but did strike out nearly 26% of the time. Since his game is based on his speed, getting on-base is the key to his success. He did have 19 stolen bases.
I had a chance to see Jones in college and he’s not just fast, he’s Billy Hamilton/Trea Turner fast. The problem is I’m not sure how much he’ll hit. It’s a noisy setup with a lot of moving parts in his swing. I can’t believe the Rays will let him keep the swing. He’s also not void of power. There is plenty of bat speed and at 6-foot-2 and 175 pounds, he has the size to drive pitches.
In summary, there are big-time tools with a swing that probably needs an overhaul. If it comes together, he could be a premier leadoff hitter with 40+ stolen base potential. On the other hand, he also might not hit enough to go beyond Double-A. If you like the high-risk high-reward player, Jones might be your guy.
12. JJ Goss (RHP)
- Highest Level: Rookie ETA: 2023-24 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 45 SP
- Tools Summary: Young, athletic, and projectable.
JJ Goss was drafted in the supplemental first round last June and signed for just over $2 million dollars. At 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, he’s an athletic, projectable right-hander that can already touch the mid 90’s with his fastball.
In his first taste of professional ball, he showed swing and miss stuff with good control as he struck out 19, walked three in 19 innings of action. He was hittable though as he gave up 21 hits which drove his ERA to 6.63.
Don’t worry about the peripheral stat though and focus on the athleticism, current arsenal and that he’ll like add more velocity as he fills-out. The ceiling is a mid-rotation starter with a chance to be more.
13. Moises Gomez (OF)
- Highest Level: High-A ETA: 2022 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 45 OF
- Tools Summary: Double-plus power with some speed, but struck out 33.5% of the time in High-A.
Moises Gomez continued to show his plus power in the Florida State League by hitting 16 home runs. His overall slugging was down, but much of that has to do with the pitching friendly parks that dot the league. In addition to his double-plus power, are the strikeouts. In 119 games, he struck out 33.5% of the time. He did temper those strikeouts by walking 10% of the time but his contact is a significant issue. Gomez is also a good runner although he is not stealing many bases.
The Rays will likely promote him to Double-A to begin the 2020 season but unless he shows contact improvement, he’s likely to struggle. While his swing can get long, he’s also expanding the strike zone and that is the biggest driver of the strikeouts. If the Rays can work with him on that aspect of the game, the ceiling is a Top 45 outfielder with big power and a low batting average.
14. Nick Schnell (OF)
- Highest Level: Low-A ETA: 2022-23 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 45 OF
- Tools Summary: Toolsy teenager but is striking out over 30% of the time.
Nick Schnell was selected in the first round of the 2018 MLB Draft as a toolsy high-school kid that was very raw at the plate. He didn’t get a chance to contribute much in his draft year as he was limited to 19 games due to injury. He’s healthy now and played well in the Appy League in 2019 slashing .285/.359/.503 with five home runs and five stolen bases. The effort got him an August promotion to Low-A.
He has plus bat speed but his current swing lacks loft, so he’s currently more a doubles-hitter. The concern continues to be his approach at the plate and his ability to make contact. In 152 plate appearance, he’s posted a 30.7% strikeout rate and if it weren’t for a .410 BABIP, his average would have been more .230 than .285. He’s not yet on my “own” list in Dynasty Leagues, but I am watching as I do like the combination of power and speed.
15. Riley O’Brien (RHP)
- Highest Level: Double-A ETA: 2020-21 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 60 SP or High-Leverage Reliever
- Tools Summary: Value pick by the Rays is panning out. Solid stuff but needs to improve his control.
Signed for only $7,500 as an eighth-round pick in 2017, Riley O’Brien had a terrific year splitting his time between High and Double-A. He still a work-in-progress as there is still some physical projection potential as he fills out his 6-foot-4, 175-pound frame. Although at 25, perhaps, that is all we will get. Regardless, he has a fastball that sits 92 to 93 MPH with a plus slider that misses plenty of bats. He cuts his delivery off and that’s causing some control problem, but it’s a quality arsenal and at worse, a potential reliever with closer or opener aspirations.
O’Brien could see the Rays at some point during 2020 and when he does, it will be a real testament to their ability to draft and develop players.
Jake Cronenworth (OF)
- Highest Level: Triple-A ETA: 2020 Fantasy Ceiling: Streaming OF
- Tools Summary: Will be 26 in January and a possible late bloomer.
On a balmy evening in early August, I made my way over to BB&T Stadium in Charlotte to watch the Charlotte Knights take on the Durham Bulls. I was excited to see Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal and they did not disappoint, well Madrigal did a little, but I left shaking my head about a kid I’d never heard of – Jake Cronenworth.
He hit leadoff for the Bulls and had a nice swing, made hard contact and I clocked him at 4.17 going down the first baseline (plus runner). Sure, he was 25-years-old, but this kid could play with good pop and some speed. When I dug into his stat line, he makes great contact and in 2019, improved his walk rate to 12%. Plus, he pitched a little bit earlier in the season showing a great fastball and decent control.
We see late bloomers all the time come up and contribute in a meaningful way in the Major Leagues. Could Cronenworth be one of those guys? Based on what I saw, it’s very possible. Tell your friends, you heard it here first…