With 10 first-round picks, the Tampa Bay Rays 2011 draft was supposed to transform the franchise. Instead, the Rays have seen very little return from their haul from that season. Only outfielder Mikie Mahtook has reached the big leagues, although uber-prospect Blake Snell is set to join Mahtook as a big leaguer soon. Only those two have reached as high as Triple-A for the Rays, and several are no longer with the organization.
One of those 10 is outfielder James Harris, who was the Rays' 10th and final first-round pick that season. Harris came to the Rays out of Oakland Technical High School, alma matter of the great Rickey Henderson. Harris was considered a raw talent, but one the Rays hoped to mold into a force at the top of the line-up.
Harris was kept on a slow path with the Rays, spending his first two seasons in Rookie ball and his third season in short-season A ball in the New York-Penn League. In 2014, Harris made his full-season debut, suiting up for the Bowling Green Hot Rods of the Midwest League. He hit .230/.299/.348 with the Hot Rods. He also played a few games in Rookie ball, collecting four hits in 15 at-bats. The Rays released Harris the following spring, and the A's signed him to a minor league deal shortly after the end of spring training.
Harris spent his first few weeks in the A's organization in extended spring training getting his feet wet. He joined the Low-A Beloit Snappers on May 8 and would spend most of the rest of the season in the Midwest League. Harris fared significantly better during his second turn in the MWL. In 302 at-bats, Harris hit .255/.359/.377 with 48 walks. He homered five times, tripled four times and collected 14 doubles. Harris also played an excellent centerfield. The A's liked what they saw from Harris and rewarded him with a late-season promotion to Triple-A when the A's called up players to the big leagues after roster expansion.
This spring, Harris has continued to build on the progress that he made last season. Harris has played very well in minor league camp, according to sources, and that has earned him some time in big league camp. He had six plate appearances in big league camp and walked in three of them. He also stole two bases in two chances.
Harris' improved plate discipline is a big reason why he looks poised for a breakout season. He nearly doubled his walk rate from 2014 to 2015 while cutting his strike-out rate by nearly 5%. Harris will need to continue to whittle down that K-rate to be an effective lead-off hitter, but the 5% decrease was an excellent start.
Harris is an outstanding athlete with plus speed and a muscular build that allows him to hit for power when he squares a ball up. He won't likely ever be a 20-homer hitter, but Harris could reach double-digits. He is still learning the nuances of how to steal a base, but his speed should make him a threat in that area. After going only 4-for-11 in stolen base attempts the first half of last season, Harris went 10-for-16 during the second half of the year.
Even though Harris has been in professional baseball for five seasons, he is still only 22 and won't turn 23 until early August. That puts him in-line age-wise with most players who are entering High-A for the first time. It may have taken him some time, but Harris may finally be realizing the potential the Rays saw in him in 2011.