Once David Price officially graduates to the Majors, the club will need another player to step up to be the No. 1 prospect, as the organization has a lot of interesting sleepers but is short on surefire impact talent. The pitching depth is much deeper than the hitting.
David Price is up there with Baltimore’s Matt Wieters for the No. 1 prospect in all of baseball. If not for an eyebrow-raising decision to have Price begin the season in the minors, he would probably have had a great shot at winning the Rookie of the Year award. The choice could also come back to haunt the club if it struggles early on and loses too much ground to Boston and/or New York. Price pitched at four levels in the minors in 2008 and allowed 92 hits in 113 cumulative innings.
Jeff Niemann, a former No. 1 draft pick, is out of options so he’ll open the year with the Rays – or be traded. The right-hander has immense talent but he struggles with his control and command. With Price pitching in the minors, Niemann’s biggest competition for the No. 5 spot in the rotation is Jason Hammel. Niemann’s best role may be as a closer. At Triple-A in 2008, he allowed 101 hits in 133 innings and posted rates of 3.38 BB/9 and 8.66 K/9.
Wade Davis (third round) and Jacob McGee (fifth) were both drafted out of high school in 2004 and moved up through the minors together. McGee, though, had his ascent derailed by Tommy John surgery in mid-2007. He won’t pitch again until at least July. A healthy Davis made 19 starts in Double-A and then moved up to Triple-A where he allowed just 39 hits in 53 innings. However, he struggled with his control and saw his rates rise from 3.51 in Double-A to 4.08 BB/9. Davis could be ready for the MLB rotation by mid-2009.
Jeremy Hellickson, who will turn 22 in the first month of the season, split 2008 between High-A and Double-A. He posted a 2.00 ERA (2.57 FIP) in 14 starts before moving up to Double-A, where he allowed 84 hits in 75.1 innings. Despite being too hittable at the senior level, Hellickson showed good control and posted rates of 1.79 BB/9 and 9.44 K/9. He works in the low-90s with his fastball but can touch 95 mph. The right-hander also has a solid curveball and change-up.
Reid Brignac was moving up through the minors at a pretty good clip before hitting the wall in Triple-A in 2008. The shortstop prospect managed a line of just .250/.299/.412 and needs to show that he can hit for average above A-ball after batting just .260 in Double-A in 2007. His willingness to take a walk has also dried up. His home run total dropped from 17 in 2007 to nine last year, and his steals went from 15 to five.
Matt Moore opened some eyes in his 2007 debut and he continued to impressive in 2008 during a repeat performance in rookie ball. He posted a 1.64 FIP with 30 hits allowed in 54.1 innings. Moore also showed excellent rates with 3.15 BB/9 and 12.75 K/9. He should get a chance to open 2009 in A-ball. The southpaw’s repertoire includes an 89-95 mph fastball, curveball and change-up.
Right-hander Nick Barnese should join together with Moore to lead the A-ball rotation in 2009. Last season, in short-season ball, he allowed 52 hits in 66 innings of work. Barnese, 20, also posted rates of 3.27 BB/9 and 11.45 K/9. He has an 88-93 mph fastball, curveball and change-up.
Desmond Jennings had a breakout season in 2007 only to miss most of last year due to injury. The outfielder hit .259/.360/.412 in just 85 High-A at-bats, but he is expected to be 100% healthy in 2009 when he repeats the level. The outfield depth in Tampa Bay is not nearly as deep as it once was, so the athletic Jennings could make an impact in the Majors as soon as 2010.
Kyle Lobstein, a high school left-handed pitcher, was taken with the first pick of the second round in the 2008 draft. He was swayed away from signing with his hometown college of Arizona with an above-slot contract. He signed too late to play in 2008 and should begin 2009 in extended spring training before heading to rookie ball in June.
Tim Beckham’s prospect status is built very much on reputation at this point, as he has only been on the field for half a season. He was drafted first overall in the 2008 draft out of a Georgia high school and the shortstop signed much quicker than most first round draft picks. Beckham hit .243/.297/.345 with two homers and five stolen bases in 177 rookie at-bats. He also received a two-game promotion to short-season ball and could open 2009 in A-ball with a strong spring.
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