Willy Aybar is the most notable hitter from the Rays organization in winter ball this year. Aybar is currently playing for the Tigres del Licey of the Dominican Winter League. As of right now, he has posted a line of.286/.355/.357 in 56 at-bats while working at third base. Aybar spent much of 2008 with the big league club, filling in for a variety of roles. When Evan Longoria went down in August, the former Atlanta Braves farm hand picked up the slack, delivering several big hits as the Rays marched towards the postseason. If the Rays do not address the need for a DH bat on the free-agent market this winter, Aybar is a candidate to serve as the club's designated hitter.
The most exciting Rays prospect playing this winter is newly acquired outfielder Matt Joyce. Joyce came to Tampa Bay from the Detroit Tigers as part of the Edwin Jackson trade, and the Rays are expecting him to compete for the starting right field job in spring training. The Florida Southern product is playing for the Aguilas de Mexicali of the Mexican Pacific League, for whom he leads the team with a .944 OPS. Joyce has posted an overall line of .295/.362/.582 to go along with eight home runs in 122 at-bats. The Rays continue to be in the market for a corner outfield/DH bat, and Joyce could find himself in a platoon role if the Rays sign one. He also has minor league options left, meaning he could begin the season at Triple-A Durham for more seasoning. But Joyce will get his shot to impress during spring training, and there is a chance that he convinces manager Joe Maddon that he is ready for a full-time role. Under team control for six years, he is expected to play a major role for Tampa Bay for many years.
Top catching prospect John Jaso has seen some action this winter while playing for the Leones del Caracas of the Venezuelan Winter League. Jaso has seen 48 at-bats in 16 games, posting a line of .271/.444/.375. It's an anomaly to find a guy of Jaso's size and strength post an on-base percentage higher than his slugging percentage, and the Rays certainly would like to see Jaso drive the ball more, but don't be discouraged because Jaso offers a great skill set for a young player. He has twice as many walk as he does strikeouts (15/7) and will work a count as well as anyone, hence the ridiculous OBP. Power is typically the last tool to come, but even if Jaso never hits more than 12-15 homers in a season, the Rays will gladly take his on-base skills from the behind the plate. He will be competing for a back up job with the Rays during spring training. The biggest concern with him at this point is his defense, but he has made tremendous strides on this front.
Center fielder Desmond Jennings took the field for the Peoria Javelinas of the Arizona Fall League this winter, hitting .231/.326/.359 with three stolen bases in 39 at-bats. The numbers aren't all that important for Jennings as his main priority was simply getting work in after missing significant time in 2008 with back and shoulder injuries. Jennings is an exceptional athlete with plus speed – he signed a letter of intent to play football for Alabama out of high school – and has shown solid plate discipline and on-base skills to go along with his wheels. Jennings just turned 22, so there's no rush with him. The Rays will probably begin him in High-A in 2009 with an early promotion to Double-A lined up if he starts the season off well.
First baseman Rhyne Hughes also played for the Peoria Javelinas, and had one of the best seasons of any player in the prestigious Arizona Fall League. Hughes led the stacked Peoria club in batting average (.394) and OPS (1.129) and tied with two others for the team lead in home runs (5). His .432 OBP and .697 SLG were also stellar and ranked in the top-3 on the club. The big first baseman had a solid year in Double-A in 2008 and should be moved up Triple-A to begin 2009. Hughes, 25, could have a September call up in the cards if he takes his AFL performance to Durham next summer.
Fernando Perez is playing with Jaso for the Leones del Caracas in Venezuela, and is hitting .301/.338/.521 through 73 at-bats. Perez has struck out 19 times compared to his three walks, which is concerning given the fact that Perez is a speedy outfielder who needs to get on base and run. The Columbia product played in 23 games with Tampa Bay last year and surprised some by hitting three homers in 60 at-bats. Don't be fooled. If given 600 at-bats, Perez won't hit 30 homers; he doesn't have that kind of pop (he hit 5 HR in 511 at-bats with Durham). Perez will turn 26 in April and should earn a job with the Rays as a fourth outfielder, though his high strikeout totals (156 at Triple-A Durham) are concerning. He still will have a fair chance to break spring training with the big league club.
On the mound, Derek Rodriguez, who Tampa Bay recently acquired from the Chicago White Sox organization in the Rule V draft, participated in the Arizona Fall League as well. Rodriguez posted a 4.26 ERA in 13 games for the Peoria Saguaros, averaging more than one strikeout per inning. The side-arming right-hander has to spend all of 2009 on the major league club or else the Rays have to offer him back to the White Sox for $25,000. His propensity for missing bats coupled with some deception in his delivery give us enough reason to believe that he could make a solid middle relief arm for Tampa Bay.
Ryan Reid pitched out of the bullpen for the Peoria Javelinas, posting a 6.43 ERA in 14 innings with 18 strikeouts. Reid does not have overpowering stuff and he walks far too many hitters for a reliever, but he is an intriguing guy because he misses so many bats. He struck out 98 in 77 1/3 innings in 2008, splitting time between Single-A and Double-A. Reid, who will turn 24 in April, will most likely begin 2009 back in Montgomery but could earn a midseason promotion to Triple-A Durham if he cuts down the walks and comes out attacking hitters. His size is also working against him.
Reliever Juan Salas played for the Aguilas Cibaenas of the Dominican Winter League, but was used sparingly, appearing in nine games and pitching only 6 1/3 innings. Salas has struck out a batter per inning, but posted a 5.68 ERA and six walks. Salas, who missed most of spring training after being held up in the Dominican with visa issues, posted a 2.62 ERA in approximately 44 innings last season for Triple-A Durham before sporting a 7.11 ERA in five games with Tampa Bay. The former third baseman will miss bats, but he will never provide any value for a big league club if he doesn't divorce his tantalizing spouse, Mrs. Ball Four. If Salas can be more aggressive in the zone, he will have a chance to compete for a middle relief role in spring training.
Dale Thayer, an outside candidate for a relief role in Tampa Bay, played for the Naranjeros de Hermosillo of the Mexican Pacific League. Thayer has eight saves in 17 appearances in Mexico, but has walked seven and posted a 6.23 ERA. The 28-year-old is too old to be considered a prospect, but after producing a 2.77 ERA and striking out 76 batters in 68 1/3 innings at Triple-A Durham, he impressed the Rays enough to give him a spot on the 40-man roster. Thayer's time is running out as a prospect, though, and he will be among a list of many competing for a roster spot with the big club in spring training.