The Tampa Bay Rays currently have, by far, one of the best farm systems in all of baseball. They are simply loaded. Through draft picks, international signings, and trades, they have steadily built an incredibly deep Minor League system. With this system having so much depth, there are a bunch of names to remember. In this article, we, Jake Wiener (@GatorSosa) and Bailey Srebnik (@FsuBailey12), continue the Prospects1500 series and highlight 10 names that you need to know from the Tampa Bay Rays. This list will be a mix of their top prospects, as well as some other guys lower in the system you should keep an eye on. Make sure to also check out the other teams in this series, as there are plenty of great articles being published. Without further ado, here is the Rays edition! (JW) and (BS) prior to the player writeup designates which correspondent wrote that specific section.
Wander Franco, SS (’20 Pre-Season: #1)
Age: 19 (3/1/2001)
2019 Highest Level: A+ Charlotte
(JW) What do you get when you pair an 80-grade switch-hit tool with a picturesque swing, elite plate discipline and plus the power/speed combo to match? Sounds like a generational talent to me, and we haven’t even mentioned the fact that he excels up the middle defensively. Franco deserves little introduction and has rightfully earned the honors of being the sport’s premier prospect. He is the only prospect ever graded as 80/80 FV (Future Value) by FanGraphs, and the excitement surrounding his eventual major league debut is palpable. Franco aces every eye test and evaluation, and his high level of play is fully supported by his absurd career minor league slash line over his first two professional seasons (.336/.405/.523), including more walks than strikeouts at each stop. His production on the basepaths increased dramatically last season (4 SB in 2018, 18 SB in 2019), as he continues to improve his tantalizing upside from both a fantasy and real-life perspective. Franco’s sky-high value is derived from his otherworldly skills at the plate and bolstered by his ability to play up the middle defensively. His major league debut will likely be in 2021 given the Rays’ present middle infield depth and the constraints of a shortened season. However, some teams have shown the propensity to call up top prospects in the early going this season, and if the Rays are in contention as the calendar approaches playoff season, don’t be surprised to see baseball’s top prospect get promoted sooner than expected.
Vidal Brujan, 2B (’20 Pre-Season: #2)
Age: 22 (2/9/1998)
2019 Highest Level: AA Montgomery
(BS) Much like Franco, you may already be familiar with Vidal Brujan. He signed with Tampa Bay back in October of 2014 for just $15k. He has since worked hard into becoming one of baseball’s top prospects. Brujan is the definition of 80-grade speed. He had 55 stolen bases in 2018 and 48 in 2019. To complement his speed, he also has an impressive hit tool, as well as great plate discipline. He’s kept his K% under 15% in every level of his career. Brujan does not possess a ton of power, but he is also not completely lacking. He should be good for a few homers each season. Brujan is easily one of the best second baseman prospects in all of baseball. He is an excellent hitter, and will be a major threat on the base-paths for years to come.
Brendan McKay, LHP/DH (’20 Pre-Season: #3)
Age: 24 (12/18/1995)
2019 Highest Level: MLB
(JW) McKay made his highly-anticipated Major League debut last season and experienced mixed
results, ultimately compiling a 5.14 ERA and 1.48 WHIP across 49.0 IP (11 starts), paired with an attractive 10.3 K/9. He was drafted as a two-way prospect in the first round of the 2017 draft, but the team has clearly prioritized his development on the mound. McKay possesses the ability to throw four above-average pitches with impressive control of the strike zone, and that should serve well for him as he continues to progress as a starting pitcher in the upper ranks of the Rays organization. McKay has consistently performed at an elite level, pitching from Rookie ball to AAA during his brief professional career since being drafted, and I expect the same to happen when he gets his first extended Major League opportunity. It’s likely that happens towards the middle-end of this season or even in 2021, perhaps as a key cog in next season’s Opening Day rotation. McKay is currently at the alternate site as a member of the 60-man roster, and there are recent reports that he’s still building up his pitch workload, but I like his chances to reappear on the active roster sooner than later with the potential to make an impact on the mound.
Couldn’t imagine risking arrest to storm #Area51 when you could just watch this otherworldly pitcher throw.
— Sporting News MLB (@sn_mlb) July 13, 2019
Taylor Walls, SS (’20 Pre-Season: #14)
Age: 24 (7/10/1996)
2019 Highest Level: AA Montgomery
(BS) Now it is time to talk about Taylor Walls! Back in May, I wrote a deep-dive article about Walls where I typed up way more words than I could fit in this Top 10 list. I recommend you check it out and hope you enjoy. To summarize, Walls is by far one of the most underrated prospects in all of baseball. He has the makings of a Top 100 prospect, but gets overshadowed in Tampa Bay’s deep system. Walls has a very well-rounded profile. His best offensive tool is his speed, and his standout tool overall is his defense. After an elite college career at Florida State University, Walls was drafted in the 3rd Round by the Rays in the 2017 MLB Draft. In his first two full professional seasons, he was above average statistically in nearly every way. His weakest tool, for lack of a better term, has been his power. But even then, he started to breakout in the power department in 2019. His ISO and SLG skyrocketed, as he began to hit the ball in the air more than he ever had previously in his career. All the stats indicated a likely, true breakout for Walls in 2020, but there was unfortunately no Minor League Baseball this year. Walls was selected for the Rays 60-man pool in July 2020, and should be up with the big year club within the next year or two. Whether it’s with the Rays or some other team, he should find playing time somewhere because his talent simply warrants it.
Nick Bitsko, RHP (’20 Pre-Season: NR)
Age: 18 (6/16/2002)
2019 Highest Level: 2020 1st Round Draft Selection, 24th Overall
(JW) Bitsko is an uber-talented 6-foot-4 prep arm drafted 24th overall in the first round of this year’s MLB Draft. He was a two-way stud from Central Bucks High School East before his spring season was canceled and he decided to reclassify for the 2020 MLB Draft as a pitcher. He committed to University of Virginia out of high school, but was signed by the Rays for slightly above slot value in June. Bitsko is only 18 years old, but it is readily apparent that he has the present raw tools to become a bonafide big league ace in the future and has some of the highest projectable overall upside of any player selected in this year’s draft. One thing I’ve found particularly noteworthy about Bitsko is that he’s displayed an affinity for analytics at such a young stage. Since he had such a small sample size to scout before reclassifying into this year’s draft, it has become increasingly important for teams to obtain information on him through other avenues, such as video and data. Bitsko had been training remotely with Driveline Baseball prior to the draft, and submitted Rapsodo data to teams that displayed elite spin efficiency on a searing, high-90s four-seam fastball, while also flashing high spin rates and vertical drop on a 12-6 breaking ball. His propensity for data-driven development suggests that he will continue to improve and maximize his talents as he matures. He continues to work on developing his slider and changeup, and I expect the Rays organization to make the most of his arsenal.
17 years old
98.5 MPH 🔥 pic.twitter.com/Zjv9RbeYOg
— Tampa Bay Rays (@RaysBaseball) June 11, 2020
Joe Ryan, RHP (’20 Pre-Season: #8)
Age: 23 (6/5/1996)
2019 Highest Level: AA Montgomery
(BS) Ryan had the biggest breakout of any Rays prospect in 2019, his first full professional season. A seventh round pick in 2018, Ryan has quickly flown up the rankings. He pitched across three levels in 2019 (Low-A, A-Advanced, and Double A), and finished with a combined WHIP under 1.00, and an ERA under 2.00. Ryan especially made himself known for his ability to earn strikeouts often. He finished the season ranked 1st in the Minors in K/BB (32.4%), 1st in K% (38.0%), and 2nd in K/9 (13.32). One of the more interesting parts of Ryan’s game is his fastball. He used it 73% of the time in 2019, but it is not an inherently outstanding pitch. He tops it at 96 mph while sitting 92-94, with average spin and break. But still, he absolutely dominated hitters with this pitch. Ryan couples his fastball with a low-70s curveball and an occasional curveball or cutter. While the arsenal is seemingly just okay on paper, he was one of the top pitchers in all of Minor League Baseball last year. Ryan finished 2nd in all of Minor League Baseball in strikeouts in 2019, with 183, just 2 off the league lead. He already has an above average pitch command, so if he can build off his success in 2019 and fine-tune his pitch repertoire, he will cement himself as one of the Rays top pitching prospects.
Alejandro Pie, SS (’20 Pre-Season: #20)
Age: 17 (1/31/2002)
2019 Highest Level: Rookie DSL
(JW) Pie signed with the Rays during the 2018 J2 signing period and has quickly become one of the most intriguing prospects in a loaded system. He has an athletic build at 6-foot-4 and 175 pounds, with a ton of present physical projection remaining of his wiry frame. Pie displayed an already strong hit/speed combo in his professional debut, slashing .289/.361/.342 with 24 SB in 57 Dominican Summer League games last season, including a nod as the Co-MVP in last season’s DSL All-Star game. It is more than reasonable to expect Pie to add muscle, and power, as he matures into his body, making him a more complete prospect from a fantasy perspective. Pie is not currently on the Rays’ 60-man roster for this season, but I am fully expecting his stock to soar as he continues to mature and impress during a potential 2021 stateside debut.
Pete Fairbanks, RHP (’20 Pre-Season: #34)
Age: 26 (12/16/1994)
2019 Highest Level: MLB
(BS) Fairbanks is a very exciting player. If you are a fan of the Rays, you may already be familiar with the 6’6″ reliever. His journey to the Majors was a rollercoaster. Fairbanks was drafted in the 9th round of the 2015 MLB Draft by the Texas Rangers. He was a starting pitcher in A ball in 2015 and 2016, but wasn’t exactly impressive. His command was lacking, as he had a high walk rate and low strikeout rate. In 2017, he transitioned to the bullpen. Early in the season, while he was pitching in Class-A Advanced, he tore his UCL and underwent Tommy John surgery. This was his second time going under the knife, as he tore his UCL in high school as well. Fairbanks ended up missing the rest of the 2017 season, as well as the entire 2018 season due to his injury. At this point, Fairbanks was having strong doubts about his future as a professional baseball player. During his rehab though, Fairbanks made a much-needed change to his delivery, causing an uptick in his velocity. His fastball jumped from a low-90s pitch to an upper-90s one. He also altered his pitch grips, resulting in significantly better movement on his slider. When Fairbanks returned from his injury, he reported back to Class-A Advanced, where he then boasted an incredible 29.4% strikeout rate. The Rangers sped up his path to the Majors accordingly, as he made just 6 appearances in Double-A and 4 in Triple-A before being promoted to the Majors. Fairbanks’ newfound ability of high strikeout rates and electric velocity enticed the Rays. They acquired him in a somewhat controversial trade among Rays fans on July 13, 2019. In return, they sent Nick Solak, an infielder and fringe Top 100 prospect, to the Rangers. After spending some time in Durham to tuneup, Fairbanks finished with the Rays for all of September. He was dominant at times, while shaky at others. It was a small sample size, but there was definitely some room for improvement. His new strikeout potential was on display in the Majors though, as he had 12.00 K/9 over 21.0 innings. Another good sign for Fairbanks was that he ranked 9th among all MLB relievers in Driveline’s “Stuff” metric. He simply has the makings of a high-leverage reliever. If he can keep his momentum going that he built up in 2019, he will breakout and be an elite late-inning bullpen arm for years to come.
Jhon Diaz, OF (’20 Pre-Season: #22)
Age: 17 (10/1/2002)
2019 Highest Level: N/A
(JW) Diaz is an international signee to keep an eye on. He has yet to make his professional debut, but has been widely praised by international scouts for his makeup and history of performing against advanced levels of competition. He was linked to the Yankees before being signed by the Rays during last year’s J2 international signing period. Most of the information present on Diaz at this time can be accessed through scouting reports and film provided from international showcases, but I’ve been very impressed with everything out on the young outfielder. He has a compact swing and the natural ability to generate hard contact across the diamond. While there may not be much physical projection remaining for Diaz, it should not affect the strength of his overall skill set. Diaz was already graded with 50 Hit/50 Power/60 Run tools by MLB Pipeline — very promising marks that compare favorably to those given to many of the prospects currently in the Top 100.
Yoshi Tsutsugo, 3B/OF (’20 Pre-Season: #15)
Age: 28 (11/26/1991)
2019 Highest Level: NPB Yokohama
(BS) Tsutsugo is the third and final prospect on the list who has made their MLB debut. Back in December 2019, Tsutsugo signed a two-year, $12 million dollar contract with the Tampa Bay Rays. He has played the past 10 seasons in Japan with the Yokohama Bay Stars, where he slugged .284/.382/.525 and hit 205 HR. He averaged 34 homers over his last four seasons there, and had a 13% career walk rate in NPB. Tsutsugo had an average exit velocity of 92 mph (108 mph max) last year in Japan, which would rank in the Top 30 among Major Leaguers. His plate discipline and pitch recognition are elite as well. Tsutsugo is of course older than mosts prospects, but he can be a proven, everyday bat in a Rays lineup that is contending for a World Series. The team especially likes his positional flexibility, as he has experience at both corners, as well as in the outfield. He will also be valuable as a designated hitter. Tsutsugo was a leader and a fan favorite in Japan, as fans would chant a song for him during each AB. There is certainly a good chance that his skills translate to MLB, and the early signs are promising. He blasted a home run on Opening Day in his 2nd career AB. “Up high into the sky of Tampa Bay, hit a homerun…Go, Tsutsu, Go!”