From a team perspective the Rays prospects who played in the Arizona Fall League can all pat themselves on the back for a job well done. The squad they played for, the Surprise Saguaros, came within one win of setting the all-time AFL record for winning percentage.
The team finished with a record of 26-10 and finished 9.5 games ahead of the second place Peoria Javelinas in the West Division. The loss to Salt River in the Championship game might sting a little, but to outdistance the rest of the league the way they did is a huge accomplishment considering the vast amount of talent that permeates the league.
Rays' prospects made key contributions to the success of the Saguaros, and as a unit they were all excellent representatives for the franchise. Some players performed better than others though, and today I am passing out grades to the three position players that participated in the league._________________________________________________________________
OF Mikie Mahtook---Grade: A- There were several questions regarding the 21 year old from LSU going into the season. Would he be able to perform at a high level after not playing baseball all Summer? And would he be able to hit top notch professional pitching consistently?
Mahtook answered these questions in the affirmative with fine all-around play and a selection to the AFL Rising Stars Game. He is a player that Rays' fans should immediately put at the top of their watch list, because after his performance in the AFL, I am now more convinced than ever that we will be seeing him play at Tropicana Field sooner rather than later
For the season Mahtook hit .338 and had a .410 on base percentage. He had 7 extra base hits including 3 home runs, and drove in 14. He also flashed some of his speed swiping five bags and was perfect in the outfield committing no errors.
His batting average was 12th best in the AFL, while his .954 on base plus slugging percentage ranked 14th. He initially got off to a slow start, presumably from the long layoff form baseball, but over the last two weeks of play he was one of the hottest hitters in Arizona. He accomplished all this after missing a week of time with some hamstring tightness. In fact he ended the season on a strong note with a nine game hitting streak, including 6 multi-hit games
Others have taken notice of Mahtook's great play as well. Scout.com's National Baseball Expert Frankie Piliere named him the 17th best prospect in the AFL and said:
"Mahtook erased a lot of doubts about his bat already, and he consistently drove the ball with authority in the AFL.".
Piliere who spent significant time in Arizona during the beginning of the season, also had this to say about Mahtook on the Rays Digest message boards:
"Mahtook answered a lot of questions about his bat in the AFL. Liked him in college but saw him have some trouble with wood. But, he looked outstanding in AZ.".
MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo also had praise for Mahtook and rated him as the 12th best prospect in the league.
I'm a big believer in Mahtook, and if I could best describe him in a word as a prospect it would be as "toolsy". My word invention aside, it is a good description of Mahtook. He has a very athletic body and an array of baseball skills. This is a guy that was highly recruited as a football player in college, and has demonstrated in his brief professional career that he can do a lot on the baseball field. His hitting is underrated and he certainly possesses a lot of speed and quickness on the diamond. In that regard he is the prototypical Rays player. He can do a little bit of everything, and has a high baseball acumen.
Given his play in the AFL and his experience playing for a top college program at LSU, Mahtook is a highly developed prospect. I wouldn't be surprised to see him start the season in AA Montomery and be on the fast track to the Major Leagues. He is currently not on the Rays 40 Man Roster, but he should be added soon, possibly even before Spring Training.
2B Tyler Bortnick---Grade: B- I had originally wanted to give Bortnick an incomplete grade, but that would be a disservice to the young infielder as he showed some good things in the AFL. His season was cut short on Nov. 9th when he left a game after one at bat. Try as I might, I have been unable to ascertain if he suffered an injury, or was removed by the Rays organization from further play because of their organizational own time-table.
The highlight of Bortnick's season was his selection as an AFL Rising Star. Due to the hamstring injury to Mahtook, Bortnick was the only Rays player to actually play in the game. His selection to the game is notable because there is a very high success rate of players making their Major League debut the following season who played in the showcase.
Bortnick may be a little bit further away from the Majors then most, but he is a player that is beginning to make noise as a prospect in the Rays farm system. He had an impressive year for the High A Stone Crabs in 2011, and that seemed to carry over well into the AFL.
In 13 games and 45 at bats, Bortnick hit .267 and had an base percentage of .353. He primarily hit in the 9th slot in the order, but showed a consistent all-around game by getting on base consistently and showcasing his base running skills. He ended play with 8 runs scored and two stolen bases after scoring 96 and swiping 43 respectively for Charlotte during the Minor League season.
Perhaps the most notable thing about Bortnick's AFL season is where he played. He started at first base in several contests, and this could be a preview of what the Rays plan to do with him going forward. Many have opined that his future in the Majors is as a utility player. So it is certainly notable that he played positions other than second base for the Saguaros.
The best scouting report I have seen on Bortnick was actually given by his own father who doesn't agree with the sentiment that his son is merely a utility player. In the comment section of a profile on Bortnick on RaysProspects.com, Daniel Bortnick had this to say about his son's tools as a baseball player:
Kevin - thanks for your analysis and recognition of Tyler. On one hand, it is nice that Aaron Fitt sees a future as a utility man in the big leagues which is high praise indeed for any ballplayer. I argue that there is more upside in his game than just a utility player however even though I am thrilled someone might think he could find his name on a big league roster someday - in any capacity.
Couple things to consider about the five tools...
"The league he played in this year was one of the toughest pitching leagues in all of minor league baseball (see your own reports on the subject). The division he played in had two of the top pitching teams in Staten Island and Brooklyn. Thus, to hit .300 in that league and division was no small feat. His batting average was also about .300 from both sides of the plate. Obviously, time will tell but he has the potential to project above average major league hitting in my opinion."
"His stolen bases was fourth in that league. He clocked a 6.7 60 time in college which is above major league average speed."
"As a 17 year old, he was radar-gunned from shorstop at 86 mph which is about major league average. I am guessing he throws much harder than that as a 22 year old. Most that have seen him play for any length of time will atest to a strong throwing arm. I suggest this tool projects above major league average."
"Fielding - he fielded around .950 which was one of the top percentages in that league. There is also a range factor that baseball-reference.com tracks that he performed very well with compared to other players. Obviously, major leaguers field in the .970's and above. I think this tool will improve with the every day repetition in the long season of pro ball."
"Power - He was in the top 10 in slugging percentage in that league and OPS. He also was fifth in the league in weighted on base average (wOBA). His game is more in getting on base and scoring runs. He has pop in his bat and can turn on the inside pitch however. His plate coverage improved by learning to take the outside pitch the other way. I think he would be an ideal #2 hitter someday given his ability to move runners, get on base, and score runs."
"Intagibles - I am not sure the average fan realizes how good of a program he came out of at Coastal Carolina. All the coaches down there are former pro players and run a pro-style system down there. They were two wins shy of playing in Omaha and Tyler was right in the mix of all that. He is one of the all-time leading run scorers in the history of that program and finished in the top 10 or higher in numerous offensive categories. He also holds the all-time single season assist record for a shortstop at 214. For comparison, Adam Everitt holds the all-time assist mark at South Carolina with 218."
"Also, it seems analysts hold Tyler's age and slot he was drafted in against him. Mycal Jones was a Braves 4th rounder this year and is older than Tyler. Baseball America had no problem projecting Jones as a top 20 prospect in the Appalacian League (one level below the NY Penn) yet Tyler had better numbers (offensively and defensively) across the board than Jones."
"I guess time will tell where his tools will shake out but you put it all together in one ballplayer and at least in this father's estimate, it adds up to more than a utility player. I am willing to wait and see what happens however. Thanks again for recognizing him."
I wouldn't be quick to cast aside the analysis of Bortnick's father as that of a proud parent. He makes some very good points and his overall assessment of his son seems pretty spot on to me.
As mentioned before, Bortnick was terrific in High A ball this season. He had an on base percentage of .428 and for his Minor League career he has reached base at a .409 clip. He has also been extremely successful on the base paths and in his three year pro career has swiped 108 bases in 134 attempts for a success rate of 81 percent. He was also named the best base runner in the farm system by the Rays Player Development staff in 2011.
A good defensive player, who can get on base, has a little bit of pop, and is exceptional at base running? These are skills that the Rays place a premium on. Anyone who watches the team on a regular basis knows that the franchise places an emphasis on players who can play great defense and do the little things to help a team win. In that regard, there may not be a better player in the system than Bortnick.
I am not sure what his ceiling is as a player, but like Mahtook I think he is on the fast track to the Majors. He will likely start the season at AA Montgomery, but if he continues to play at a high level, we may see Bortnick soon at Tropicana Field as well.
SS Tim Beckham---Grade: C+ Whenever Tim Beckham's name comes up in conversation among Rays fans and pundits there are two very divided camps. There seems to be no middle ground when discussing the number one overall pick in the 2008 June Amateur Draft. There are people that are convinced that he is a bust as a prospect, and there are those that still consider him to be on track to make an impact at the Major League level. Allow me to be perhaps the first and only representative of the middle ground camp.
The reason I am still on the fence about Beckham is because like his 2011 Minor League season he showed a lot of progress in the AFL, but also showed signs of being over matched at times. During the first few weeks of play he was among the league's best hitters with an OPS over 1.000. He cooled off considerably in the season's last two weeks ending the campaign by getting only nine hits in his last 40 at bats.
He also led the Saguaros with five errors, although to be fair, only Rangers 3B Mike Olt appeared in more games in the infield than Beckham. A well known hole in his game reared it's ugly head in Arizona as well. After making consistent contact early in the season, strike outs became an issue for Beckham and he whiffed 25 times in 90 at bats, a rate of 28 percent.
His season totals weren't bad however, and there was a lot to like from Beckham's stint in Arizona. For the season he hit .244 with a .364 on base percentage. He also showed a fair amount of pop getting 10 extra base hits in his 90 at bats including five home runs. He also scored 18 times and drove in 15 runners. His walk rate was encouraging as well, as Beckham routinely got on base via the free pass and ended play with 15 total.Piliere talking about Beckham on our message boards had good things to say about Beckham's progress as a prospect though:
".... but I can say now I still have a lot of faith in this guy. Shows some big things in BP and his athleticism stands out among a lot of plus athletes in the fall league. I hadn't seen him live since '09 and he's made a ton of progress IMO. Sometimes when you have a layoff from seeing a guy his improvements stand out."
Beckham is still not on the organization's 40 Man roster, although I expect that to change this off-season. He will likely begin the season at AAA Durham where he ended 2011, and it will be interesting to see if he begins to learn other positions.
I am of the opinion that Beckham's future is not at shortstop for the Rays. This is not based on poor play by him at the position, but rather because of the presence of Hak-Ju Lee in the organization who's biggest tool is his Gold Glove-caliber defense at the position.
I could very easily see Beckham making a B. J. Upton-like transition to the outfield, or perhaps become a super-utility player for the Rays in the mold of Ben Zobrist or Sean Rodriguez earlier in their careers. Other Rays bloggers I have spoken to feel the same way as well, so it is a situation that is worth monitoring.
The jury is still very much out on Beckham, but it is important to remember that he is still only 21, and is far too young to cast aside as a prospect. There is still tremendous upside, and he has a lot of tools and athleticism.
He also has a tremendous work ethic and passion for the game, and teammate Mikie Mahtook had glowing things to say about Beckham in an interview I conducted with him earlier this month:
"Tim is a great, great player, and he is a great, great teammate. He loves the game of baseball, and he plays the game hard. He works his butt off. He is always in the cage, and he is always trying to get better. He is always working to be the best he can be. I think that he is a great player. He's played really well for us out here. I think he's a great investment by the Rays to be honest with you. He's a good player, and he's impressed me. In the short time that I've been with him, I've been impressed by him. He's a great guy, and I've enjoyed my time with him."
A player who works hard at his game deserves a lot of credit and a certain amount of leeway. I don't think we have seen the best from Tim Beckham yet, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him take another step forward in 2012.
John Gregg is Publisher and Senior Editor of Rays Digest. You can follow him on Twitter at @RaysDigest. He can also be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.