The organization does not have nearly as much depth on the position player front. In the first post in a two-part series focusing on the top hitting prospects in the Rays' system, here are profiles on six of the most promising Tampa Bay position player prospects.
Tim Beckham, Shortstop—Beckham is a toolsy shortstop who emerged as one of the premier amateur prospects in the nation after an excellent summer on the showcase circuit in 2007. Although he was a more affordable option than more polished college players Pedro Alvarez and Buster Posey, the Rays truly felt that he was the best available talent in the 2008 draft. For these reasons, they made the Georgia high school product their second consecutive first overall pick in June.
Beckham is an athletic infielder with a plus arm and plenty of range. Although he is a bit raw, he has a good feel out there in the field. On the offensive side, he still has some mechanical issues in his swing. According to scouting reports, though, the ball jumps off his bat and he projects to hit for power in the future. He is also a plus runner who has been clocked as low as 6.33 in the 60-yard dash.
In terms of performance, there is not a lot to go by yet. Beckham struggled in Rookie ball in his pro debut, putting together a line of .243/.295/.345, with 12 doubles, two home runs and 14 RBIs, in the Appalachian League. He posted rates of 6.8 BB%, 24.3 K% and a .102 ISO and .639 OPS. Of course, it would be foolish to read too much into this at this point, especially considering that it was a relatively small sample size of 177 at-bats in 46 games. He also seemed to make progress in all facets of his game towards the end of the summer, finishing the year with a two-game stint in the New York Penn League.
Beckham, voted as the top prospect on the circuit by Baseball America, is a legitimate five-tool talent who is only going to improve. Although he did not set the world on fire in his debut, it is way too early to be concerned. He is at least three years away from making in impact for in the majors, but the future looks bright for what should be the Rays' final top overall pick for quite a while.
Desmond Jennings, Center Field—Jennings, 22, burst onto the scene with a breakout campaign in the South Atlantic League in 2007. He batted .315/.387/.465, with a 10.4 BB% rate, .852 OPS and 45 steals, to help lead the Columbus Catfish to the Sally League championship.
Injuries prevented Jennings from building on that performance in 2008, however. He was left behind in extended spring training with back issues, costing him the first two months. He then reported to High-A Vero Beach in June, but a shoulder injury cut short his season after just 24 games. While he has yet to remain on the field for a full season, he arguably has the highest upside of any position player in the Rays' system.
Jennings, a former football recruit at the University of Alabama, is one of the best pure athletes in the organization as well. He also has an advanced approach and his improved his routes to the ball in center field. For these reasons, he has often been referred to as a "Carl Crawford-type, but with more power." While he may never hit for the power that many scouts expect, there is no denying his talent. Baseball America has him penciled in as the Rays' starting center fielder in a projected 2012 lineup, which seems likely. Injuries aside, he is young enough to keep rising and remains one of the top five overall prospects in the Tampa Bay system.
Reid Brignac, Shortstop—Time changes everything. Only two years ago, Brignac was coming off a noteworthy M.V.P. performance in the California League. He had a breakout as a hitter—.326/.379/.557/.936 OPS, with 21 home runs, a .231 ISO and .394 wOBA—and quickly established his place among the premier middle infield prospects in the game. Scouts were unsure that his defense would play well enough at shortstop, however, and a move to third base seemed inevitable for the 2004 draft pick.
Two years later, it seems as if the opposite is true. Brignac has regressed severely as a hitter against more advanced pitching. His approach has left a lot to be desired, as his OBP totals have dropped significantly—.330 at Double-A in 2007, .300 at Triple-A in '08. While he still flashed signs of power potential and ranked among International League leaders in doubles when he was promoted to the Rays to fill in for an injured Jason Bartlett, he posted a discouraging line of .250/.300/.412. He struck out in more than a fourth of his plate appearances (26.4 %) as his walk rate fell to 6.6%, leaving him with a telling 93-to-25 K/BB ratio before a wrist injury cut short his season. Many scouts still feel that he can rebound and provide adequate offensive contributions at the major league level, especially for a shortstop.
Brignac, to his credit, has put to bed any talk about a position switch with his marked improvements defensively. A unanimous selection by the managers and coaches as the best defensive shortstop on the circuit, he nearly cut his errors in half and flashed solid range. Granted, major league managers and coaches screw up similar defensive awards every chance they get, so it is hard to read too much into that. Many scouts (and Baseball America) agreed, though, and there is seemingly a consensus within the industry that his glove is strong enough to enable him to stick in the majors for a long time even if the bat does not come around.
John Jaso, Catcher—Jaso has been a consistent offensive performer in the minors since being drafted out of Southwestern Community College back in 2003. Injuries to his throwing shoulder, however, forced him to split time at designated hitter for most of his minor league career. This hindered his development as a catcher, leading to questions about his work behind the dish. Concerns about his ability to remain at the position were the only real factor preventing him from being considered one of the best catching prospects in the minors.
Jaso made some strides in his defense in 2008, though he still has a lot of room left for improvement. He returned to Montgomery at the end of camp, as the organization wanted to see him make progress in his game-calling ability and work with top pitching prospects Wade Davis and Jake McGee. While this reportedly irked him a bit—as he batted .271/.408/.484 with the Biscuits in 2007—this indeed helped him out on the defensive end.
Jaso's best tool is by far his bat, which profiles a lot better at his current position; he does not project to hit for enough power to play first base full time. In particular, his excellent strike zone awareness, voted tops in the organization on this front by Baseball America, sets him apart. The left-handed hitting backstop continued to impress with his advanced approach—17.6 BB%, 9.4 K%, 1.88 BB/K, 62 BB, 32 Ks in 352 plate appearances in '08—while again showing off the ability to make consistent contact and put the ball in play.
Following a rough start, Jaso rebounded to post a decent stat line in his second stint with Montgomery: .270/.409/.406 in 281 at-bats. Although he hit only seven home runs—which caused his SLG and ISO to drop—he posted an .800-plus OPS (.815) for the fifth consecutive time. His BABIP was a bit below average, at .286, and—combined with a 19% line drive rate—indicates that his batting average would have been higher had he simply had more luck.
Jaso then earned a promotion to Durham, where he batted .278/.339/.481, with five homers, in 108 at-bats. More importantly, he had a decent showing defensively as well. While he has always had above average arm strength, his foot work and a poor release hurt his pop times down to second base. According to scouting reports, he improved in each facet while staying healthy enough to see significant time at catcher all summer.
Shawn Riggans, who is much better defensively, has the inside track on the Rays' backup catching job headed into spring training. But Jaso still has an outside chance to break camp with the parent club, though he will likely return to Durham. If he can continue to refine his catching skills, though, he could establish himself as one of the premier catching prospects in the game.
Jake Jefferies, Catcher—Jefferies came out of nowhere to rise up several draft charts with an excellent spring showing at UC Davis. He led the Aggies to the NCAA Division I regional in their inaugural season at the level, batting .394/.452/.535 while striking out only 11 times in 241 at-bats. One of the toughest hitters in the nation to strike out, he was elected as Big West Conference Co-Player of the Year while setting numerous school records. Although he did not hit for much power (four home runs), he sprayed line drives all over the place, consistently finding the gaps while producing an excellent contact rate. A Third Team All American, he finished with 95 hits, including 20 doubles, and 21 walks.
The Rays rewarded the performance by selecting Jefferies in the third round, 78th overall, in the June amateur draft. Once he signed, he reported to the New York Penn League to start at catcher for the Hudson Valley Renegades. He put together a nice performance in his debut, posting a line of .315/.371/.433/.803 OPS. The left-handed-hitting backstop struck out in only 9.2 percent of his plate appearances and continued to impress with his plate zone awareness; he drew 21 walks, with a 8.1 BB%, in 66 games. While he continued to find the gaps (20 doubles), though, he only hit two home runs. Some scouts feel that his compact, short swing with minimal load prevents him from hitting for the power that he is capable of. If he can add some strength to his 6-foot-3, 200-pound frame and make a few mechanical adjustments to his stroke, he could hit for some pop in the future.
Jefferies' value will ultimately be determined by whether or not he can remain at the catcher position. His arm is a bit fringy at this point, but he has drawn solid reviews on his game-calling abilities and has decent receiving skills. He is likely to consistently post high BA and OBP totals, and will be given every chance to fail if he stays behind the plate. If the power soon follows, he could turn into a capable major league backstop.
Reid Fronk, Left Field—Fronk, a seventh-round pick out of North Carolina in 2007, posted a line of .287/.398/.492, with 17 home runs, 83 RBIs and a .395 wOBA, in his first full professional season. One of the offensive stars for the Columbus Catfish, the left-handed-hitting outfielder finished fifth in the South Atlantic League with an .890 OPS and tied for 12th in homers. He has primarily played left field as a pro—he was an infielder during his days as a Tar Heel—but does not project to hit for enough power to remain at a corner outfield spot at the highest level. He showed off strong on-base skills in his Sally League debut, with a 14.7 BB% rate and a circuit-leading 74 walks, in 124 games. He will need to cut down on the strikeouts (103), though, and still has a limited skill set and lacks the prototypical big league body.
Fronk will also need to continue to post solid numbers to keep rising, but he is definitely a solid sleeper who gets the most out of his tools.
To reach Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.