Winter Report: AFL

In the first part of a Winter League update series, let us look at how Tampa Bay prospects performed in the Arizona Fall League.

Several players in the Tampa Bay organization are competing (and already wrapped-up action) in Winter League ball this offseason. The sample size is fairly small, of course, but it is worth checking in on how some Rays prospects and even players at the major league level have participated to this point.

In the first part of a series, let us look at how Tampa Bay prospects performed in the Arizona Fall League.

Arizona Fall League:

The Rays sent nine prospects out to the recently completed Arizona this fall, five pitchers and four position players.

Nobody did more to improve their prospect status than Rhyne Hughes, who batted .394/.432/.697 with five home runs and 27 RBIs in 109 at-bats. Hughes is a nice organizational bat who has performed consistently throughout his minor league career, though he has generally played against younger competition. The 25-year-old left-handed-hitting first baseman ranked among circuit leaders (including sixth in batting average and OPS) while facing premier minor league pitching, a performance which certainly caught the attention of many within the industry.

Desmond Jennings, one of the top position player prospects in the Rays' system, was also sent out West. Jennings broke out with an incredible run in the Sally League in 2007, helping the Columbus Catfish to a league championship. He was not able to stay on the field this year, though, as injuries cost him almost a full year of development. The back and shoulder injuries that limited him to 24 games at Vero Beach have apparently healed, enabling him to participate this winter.

Jennings, though a bit rusty, again showed off his tremendous athleticism during 12 AFL games. He finished at .231/.326/.359 in 44-at-bats, but, more importantly, quelled some concerns (to an extent) about his back. In fact, he even swiped three bags and ran the bases without any hiccups. The former Alabama football recruit has all the tools to turn into a star, with an advanced approach at the plate, power potential, plus speed and excellent range in center field. For these reasons, it is not all that difficult to see him rising up to the highest level sooner than later.

However, Jennings needs to show that he can stay on the field. Whether he is injury prone or has just had a poor run of bad luck remains to be seen, but his injury history is a legitimate concern at this point. With that said, the future looks bright for Jennings, who should begin 2009 starting in center for the Charlotte Stone Crabs.

Outfielder J.T. Hall, who combined to hit.269/.355/.425 between Vero Beach and Montgomery, also participated. Hall, 24, was a bit old relative to the competition, though, which has been the case since he signed with the Rays as an undrafted free agent out of Southwest JC in 2004. A physical specimen with raw power potential—he won the Home Run Derby at the Florida State League All-Star game this summer—the Rays were intrigued enough by his performance to send him out to Arizona. The 6'3'', 210-pound left-handed hitter struggled a bit in the Desert, though, as he batted .237 (18-for-76) with a .314 OBP and .425 slugging percentage. He seemed overmatched at times, striking out 22 times while drawing nine walks.

The sample size is too small to read all that much into it, but Hall, given his age and other factors, will have to improve his plate discipline and keep hitting for power to move up and keep his prospect status. He is a sleeper, though, with some solid tools.

Matt Spring also earned an invitation to the prestigious fall league. Spring, the Rays' fourth-round selection back in 2004, is a sleeper catching prospect with some decent skills. He saw significant action at Montgomery in '08, earning regular playing time when top catching prospect John Jaso was promoted to Durham. His performance left a lot to be desired, though, as he produced a line of .248/.314/.431 with rates of 8.2 BB% and 27.6 K%. While he did show decent pop, hitting nine homers in 246 at-bats, he is hardly a serious prospect.

Spring is an adequate defender, but has a limited ceiling; he projects as nothing more than a backup catcher at the major league level. In a limited role for Peoria in the AFL, he struck out 17 times while collecting only 10 hits, including a pair of homers, in 57 at-bats. He held his own with his work behind the plate, but pretty much only served as a useful catcher to have on the roster.

On the pitching front, Tampa Bay sent four decent-but-not-great arms to represent the organization on the Peoria team—Chris Mason, Ryan Reid, Wade Townsend and Mike Wlodarczyk.

Mason was looking to end the year on a high note after struggling at Durham. Following his brilliant run at Montgomery in 2007—he set a franchise record with 17 wins—many scouts were curious to see how he would make the jump, but his stock plummeted quickly. The 24-year-old right-hander was demoted to the bullpen after a terrible first few months, and will now remain in a relief role from here on out. His K/9 and BB/9 rates did not fluctuate all that much from his career norms, but he was hit—hard! Opponents batted .320 against him, in fact, which was the primary reason for his 6.21 ERA in 108.2 innings pitched.

The woes continued for Mason out of the Javelinas' bullpen, as he allowed 15 earned runs while striking out only four in 13.0 innings pitched. While his stuff has always been a bit fringy, his fastball velocity was down while he had some difficulty commanding his off-speed pitches. There is a chance that he could rebound and provide some value out of a major league bullpen, but, with the pitching depth in the organization, odds are against him from ever making a real impact with the Rays.

Reid is an interesting relief pitching prospect. He was excellent in the Florida State League this spring, but struggled a bit upon a promotion to Double-A Montgomery. He has a lot of things working against him—age, size, minimal stuff, unorthodox delivery—but uses different arm angles to fool hitters.

Drafted out of James Madison University in 2006, Reid began his professional career as a starter. After going 1-9 with a 6.24 ERA at Hudson Valley, he was quickly turned into a reliever. In his new role, he had some success at Columbus in his second professional stint, striking out 11.52 batters per nine innings while posting a 2.97 ERA. He then continued to miss bats at Vero Beach, posting a 0.29 ERA and an outstanding 15.0 K/BB ratio (rates of 13.06 K/9, 0.87 BB/9) in 31.0 innings pitched. As was the case in the New York Penn League, though, he was facing much younger hitters. The right-hander did not maintain such a high level of performance in the Southern League, as he lost confidence in his stuff, it seems, while his BB% rate jumped to 6.02. He continued to miss bats, but his 4.55 ERA was consistent with his command issues (1.55 WHIP) while he nibbled around the plate.

Reid, who will likely return to Montgomery, struck out 18 in 14.0 innings out in Arizona. He was hit pretty hard, however, and finished his AFL experience with a 6.43 ERA. Many scouts in attendance were concerned about his mechanics as well, but he is a kid who could surprise.

Townsend got hurt. Again. The former first-rounder—on two different occasions, in fact—injured his shoulder after making three starts in Arizona. The latest injury will require surgery, which will keep him out for most of '09 and potentially could end his days with the Rays. The right-hander, a member of the infamous Rice trio, seems to be a rare miss in the first round in a poor 2005 draft for the organization.

Townsend, who posted an 8.44 ERA before getting hurt, finally made it to Double-A this spring. Unfortunately—and it really is sad—the door is closing fast for the once-promising pitching prospect.

Wlodarczyk is a big left-hander selected out of Boston College back in 2005. He was effective out of the Vero Beach bullpen this spring, posting a 2.70 ERA in 46.2 innings pitched. Like Reid, though, he was old for the league (just turned 26), and then struggled in a starting role when he was promoted to Montgomery down the stretch. He posted a .412 opponents batting average while walking 20 against 15 strikeouts in 10 appearances, including six starts.

Wlodarczyk then posted a 7.62 ERA (18 runs in 13.0 innings pitched) in 12 appearances for Peoria.

Recent Rule 5 pick-up Derek Rodriguez also pitched in the AFL. Rodriguez, selected from the Chicago White Sox, posted 4.26 ERA in 13 appearances. The 25-year-old right-hander, who throws from three different arm angles and is surprisingly effective against left-handed hitters, has a chance to stick in the Rays' bullpen.

A Dominican Winter League update will run later this week.

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