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, 2004.
If the future will ever come—and for many residents of St. Petersburg, the possibility is bleak—the Devil Rays could be on the verge of respectability, if not overwhelming success. While the franchise still seeks its first 70-win season, most of the moves the Rays have made after abandoning their ill-advised spending spree in the 1999-2000 offseason have been steps in the right direction.
Bringing Lou Piniella back home as manager gave the Rays a much-needed dose of credibility. Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli and Aubrey Huff have survived on-the-job training in the major leagues to form the game’s best young outfield. Despite being strapped for cash, Tampa Bay has signed the best prospect out of each of the last two drafts. In August, they made a huge addition to their front office by hiring former Blue Jays vice president of baseball operations Tim Wilken as a special assistant.
All the while, the team’s administration has remained patient, laying the groundwork for future success even as last-place finishes continue to pile up. Losing at the major league level has had its rewards. Undaunted by high price tags, the Devil Rays used the No. 2 overall pick in 2002 on shortstop B.J. Upton and the No. 1 choice in 2003 on outfielder Delmon Young. Scouts ranked them the two best prospects in the Arizona Fall League, and they’re among the best in the game right now. Baldelli was the sixth overall selection in 2000, while righthander Dewon Brazelton (No. 3 in 2001) seemed to have turned the corner at the end of the season and in the AFL.
As of late, the Rays have returned to the player-development roots that general manager Chuck LaMar pledged to plant nearly a decade ago. Tampa Bay already has developed at least one major league starter from every draft from 1997-2000 (Toby Hall, Huff, Crawford, Baldelli), a trend that should continue through each of the next three drafts (outfielders Joey Gathright, Jonny Gomes, Upton, Young). The result is a stocked organization that should continue to feed the big league club for the foreseeable future. The Rays are deeper in hitters than pitchers, however, and will need to find more arms to have a chance in baseball’s toughest division.
Though it remains to be seen if Tampa Bay will be able to put it all together and compete with the Blue Jays, Orioles, Red Sox and Yankees, their future is as bright as it has ever been. The Devil Rays no longer are living in the past, as they got rid of all their bad contracts by the end of the 2003 season.
And while Tampa Bay has yet to taste any big league success, its Triple-A Durham affiliate became the first International League team since 1991-92 to repeat as champions. That accomplishment, and those of Upton, Young and Co., helped make up for the disappointments of outfielder Josh Hamilton and righthander Matt White.
Hamilton, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1999 draft ahead of Josh Beckett, missed the entire season while on personal leave. White, whose $10.2 million bonus in 1996 remains a baseball record for an amateur, had shoulder surgery for the second time in as many years and has yet to reach the majors.
Top Prospect: B.J. Upton, ss
Age: 19 Ht.: 6-3 Wt.: 170 Bats: R Throws: R
Background: The No. 2 overall pick in the 2002 draft, Upton may not even end up as the highest-drafted player in his family. Younger brother Justin, a high school junior, is a candidate to go first in the 2005 draft. By then, B.J. likely will be starting for the Devil Rays at shortstop—at age 20. After signing for a $4.6 million bonus in September 2002, Upton made his pro debut last year at low Class A Charleston. After looking overmatched in April, Upton made adjustments and hit .411 in July to earn a two-step promotion to Double-A Orlando. He showed the Devil Rays everything they could have hoped for and was named the top prospect in the low Class A South Atlantic League as well as the Arizona Fall League. You could make a case for Upton as the top prospect in the minor leagues.
Strengths: Upton is one of the few players who truly possesses five plus tools. His arm strength and speed grade close to 80 on the 20-80 scouting scale, and his bat speed is easily a 70. He’s a poised hitter with an excellent idea of what he wants to accomplish at the plate, and he’s capable of driving the ball to all fields. He showed the ability to work counts, even after his jump to Double-A, drawing an organization-high 73 walks. Considering his wiry frame, he has surprising raw power. Upton has enough pop to eventually hit 30 homers on an annual basis. Within the organization, only blazer Joey Gathright can top his baserunning talents. Defensively, Upton’s range and quickness are unparalleled, and his footwork is outstanding. He’s aggressive in the field and on the basepaths, and considers virtually any ball he can reach to be an out.
Weaknesses: Upton led the minors with 56 errors. Many came when he either sat back too long on grounders or tried to make difficult plays with his cannon arm. He worked on his footwork and double-play feeds to the second baseman in the AFL. By charging more balls, Upton should improve his defense and become an all-around star. The only other thing he needs is experience. Upton should continue to improve because of his athleticism and work ethic.
The Future: Upton is cruising along the fast track to the majors. The Rays have been looking for a cornerstone shortstop since day one—remember when they traded Bobby Abreu for Kevin Stocker?—and haven’t found one. Their wait should end in the near future with Upton. Tampa Bay hasn’t been shy about giving such players as Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli jobs in the big leagues before they were completely ready, and that could be the case with Upton as well. Unless he struggles at Double-A or Triple-A Durham, he should make his debut at Tropicana Field at some point in 2004. It’s not unrealistic to pencil him in as the Rays’ starting shortstop on Opening Day 2005.