Ranking The Corner Infielders

In the second article in a RaysDigest.com position-by-position prospect ranking series, Tyler Hissey breaks down the top seven corner infielders in the Tampa Bay system.

Teddy Mitrosilis kicked off the RaysDigest.com organizational position-by position breakdown last week. Teddy focused on the catchers, choosing five backstops who could potentially develop enough to add some value at the major league level.

The Tampa Bay organization is filled with promising pitching prospects, but is fairly thin on the position player front. This has made it difficult to determine which hitting prospects should merit inclusion in these articles, as the majority of players considered are simply minor league roster fillers who have a minimal chance of reaching the majors and making an impact. Which is the case with most organizations, of course. With that in mind, though, please do not get worked up on who is ranked where. The purpose of this exercise is really to provide information on the Tampa Bay prospects who have the chance to realistically make the jump to the highest level.

In the second part of the series, I have been assigned the corner infield spots. There are a few interesting follows here, though many of the players included have fairly limited ceilings. In fact, not a single player on the list below is likely to crack our Top 20 list for the organization as a whole.

Michael Sheridan, a left-handed hitter selected out of the College of William and Mary in June, takes the top spot on the list. Sheridan is ranked here for his breakout potential, though, and could quickly drop from this list depending on how he performs in full-season ball. He had an outstanding junior campaign in his final stint with the Tribe, batting .423/.474/.744 with 15 home runs and 72 RBIs while striking out only 11 times in 227 at-bats; he was the toughest hitter in the nation to strike out. In fact, during his three years in Williamsburg, he struck out only 27 times during his entire standout collegiate career. His ability to put the ball into play is one of the primary reasons for the Rays' decision to pick him in the fifth round. The organization also selected another collegiate hitter, catcher Jake Jefferies, with a similar ability to put the ball in play and excellent contact skills.

Sheridan then had a nice debut in the New York Penn League, producing an excellent contact rate while showing gap-to-gap power. He finished at .321/.354/.436, though he did not hit any homers and was hampered a bit by injuries.

As far as tools are concerned, Sheridan has excellent contact skills and strike zone judgment. His pure on-base skills are a bit lacking at this stage, however, which is evident by his low collegiate walk rates and the minimal gap between his high batting average and OBP during his record-setting performance in the CAA. Also, he does not project to hit for a ton of power with the wood in his hands presently, as he uses a compact stroke to produce line drives. If he grows into some pop, though, he could really emerge as a high-level hitting prospect with a bright future. He is a nice athlete who is a capable defender with soft hands and good foot work around the bag as well, but is limited to first base. How he develops—power will be key for him—will eventually determine his chances, but he is an intriguing bat in a system that lacks depth on the hitting front.

Rhyne Hughes, also a left-handed hitting first baseman, comes in at number two. While Hughes has put up some strong numbers throughout his minor league career, his performance needs to be looked at in the proper context. He batted .268/.356/.448 with 14 home runs in his first stint at Double-A Montgomery, as he continued to produce a consistent line around his career levels—he won the Florida State League batting crown a year earlier. At 25, though, he was again playing against younger competition, which has been the case through most of his development. He primarily served as a DH (splitting time at the position with Gabriel Martinez), though he has drawn strong reviews for his glove work.

Hughes then tore up the Arizona Fall League, which has his stock soaring right now. He batted .394/.432/.697/1.102 OPS in 109 at-bats with the Peoria Javelinas, ranking among AFL leaders in most offensive categories. This performance led some to believe that he would be selected in the Rule 5 Draft at the Winter Meetings since the Rays did not protect him on their 40-man roster. Not surprisingly, he was not picked up—without any at-bats about Double-A, it was unlikely that he could have remained on a big league 25-man roster.

Despite Hughes' success based off a fairly small sample size out in Arizona, he is a sleeper at best. Limited to first base, he will have to keep hitting—and with power—to ever emerge as a full-time player in the majors. This is a long shot in the Tampa Bay organization, though, as he does not project to hit for enough power to remain at the position at the highest level. Plus, Carlos Pena is still under team control through 2010. Regardless, he is a player to keep an eye and could surface if he can build off his recent Winter League success. Likely to begin the spring at Durham, 2009 will be make or break for his prospect status.

Chris Nowak is the first third baseman to crack the list. Nowak, who has put up consistently solid numbers since the Rays selected him out of South Carolina Upstate back in the 2004 draft, was a key offensive force for the second consecutive year at Double-A Montgomery. He led the Biscuits with an .857 OPS and finished second on the club with 15 homers and 77 RBIs while producing a solid line of .295/.381/.486. He then earned a late-summer promotion to Triple-A Durham, where he hit .315/.394/.352 in a brief 14-game sample.

Nowak does not have any tools that stand out, but he has excellent strike zone awareness; he posted rates of 10.7 BB% and 16.9 K% in 461 at-bats. He is a mediocre defender at third base, though, and it does not seem likely that he will be able to remain at the position full time at the highest level—at least not with the Rays, of course, as Evan Longoria has the position on lock down well into the next decade. While Nowak will likely surface in the majors at some point, he profiles as a role player. Look for him to begin '09 at Durham, where he is penciled in as the Bulls' everyday third baseman.

Martinez is similar to Hughes, as he has put up strong stat lines during his professional career while playing against younger competition. A 27th-round pick back in 2001, he has seemingly been in the organization forever at this point and has yet to receive an at-bat in Triple-A.

Martinez has had some success during his slow rise through the system, but he spent his fourth consecutive season at the Double-A level again in 2008. While he lead Montgomery with 20 homers, 93 RBIs and 230 total bases, his rate stats left a bit to be desired; he finished with a line of .276/.343/.450. His strike zone awareness is fairly poor as well, evident by his .06 BB/K ratio (107-to-49) and 8.6 BB%.

Martinez, getting up there in years, has a limited ceiling and will lose the prospect label sometime in the future. Once considered one of the most promising hitters in the organization, odds are against him from emerging with the Rays. He is slow, limited defensively and is a fairly one-dimensional player overall. He is a nice bat to have in the system, but it is unrealistic to expect a breakout at this point.

Burt Reynolds—no, this is not a joke that it is really his name—rounds out the top five. Reynolds, drafted by the Washington Nationals back in 2006, signed a minor league contract with the Rays in spring training after spending the last two seasons at Okaloosa-Walton Community College in Florida. A third baseman by trade, the Dominican native has a big-time arm, according to reports, and power potential.

Reynolds put up a solid line in his debut at Rookie Level Princeton, batting .289/.344/.444 with six home runs and 37 RBIs. His approach left a bit to be desired, though, as he produced rates of 6.8 BB% and 30.2 K% (70 Ks in 58 games). He is still raw at this point and it will be interesting to see how he handles more advanced pitching, but the 20-year-old infielder has some solid skills and is a prospect to watch as he continues to develop. It should not be all that difficult to remember his name, at least.

Greg Sexton is next up. Sexton, another William and Mary product, hit for a high average in his first test at full-season ball in the South Atlantic League. The Rays' 10th-round pick in the 2007 draft, he led the Columbus Catfish in several offensive categories, including batting average (.294), doubles (32), hits (144) and RBIs (87). A key offensive player who delivered several key hits for the Catfish, he batted .341/.373/.485 in 264 at-bats with men on base, with the mark rising to .346/.376/.503 with runners in scoring position.

Sexton left a bit to be desired with his approach, however, and finished with 71 strikeouts against 23 walks in a team-leading 490 at-bats. He produced only a 4.5 BB% rate, which is the reason for the minimal gap between his batting average and .331 OBP. He hit just seven home runs as well, registering a fairly low .120 ISO mark.

Sexton, who put up a line of .256/.318/.358/.676 OPS at Hudson Valley in his pro debut in '07, has some other weaknesses as well. Other knocks against him include his lack of foot speed—less-than-stellar 60-yard dash time, thrown out in seven out of 10 stolen base attempts—and below-average defense at third base. He made 20 errors at the position while showing limited range. He is a nice player who gets the most out of his tools, though it is imperative for him to become more patient and improve his on-base skills to keep rising in this organization. In addition, if the power does not come eventually, it is a long shot that he will be able to remain at a corner infield spot as he moves up the system.

Eli Sonoqui permanently etched his name in the Princeton Devil Rays' record books this summer. This is not necessarily a good thing, though. Sonoqui returned to Rookie Ball for the third time, which is a red flag on its own (though he has been bothered by injuries). He finished with a line of .269/.340/.365 with three home runs and 29 RBIs. The former ninth-rounder struck out in 33.3 percent of his plate appearances, however, while producing a 9.1 BB% rate. There is a long way to go in his development, but he has some power potential.

1. Mike Sheridan, 1B

2. Rhyne Hughes, 1B

3. Chris Nowak, 3B

4. Gabriel Martinez, 1B

5. Burt Reynolds, 3B

6. Greg Sexton, 3B

7. Eli Sonoqui, 1B

To reach Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.

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