The young Rays

In the last few years the Rays have graduated a flock of exciting young players to the majors. David Price and Evan Longoria headline the list, but Reid Brignac, Wade Davis, and Jeff Neimann are also recent graduates of the system. Most teams’ farm systems would be left barren after such graduations, but thanks to many high draft picks and good scouting, the Rays system is still teeming with impact prospects.

Two of those prospets, Jeremy Hellickson and Desmond Jennings, are slotted to have a more of a major role with the big league club in 2011. Both Hellickson and Jennings got their first taste of the majors; Hellickson left a great first impression with four dominant starts resulting in three wins while Jennings 24 plate appearances were much less memorable.

Let’s look at the fantasy impact of these two players for 2001, shall we?

Desmond Jennings

Jennings most prominent asset is his speed, which is fitting considering the man he is replacing in the Rays outfield, Carl Crawford.

+------+-------+-----+-----+----+----+------+------+------+-----+----+ | Year | Level | Age | PA | HR | SB | AVG | wOBA | ISO | BB% | K% | +------+-------+-----+-----+----+----+------+------+------+-----+----+ | 2007 | A | 20 | 448 | 9 | 45 | .294 | .399 | .150 | 10 | 14 | | 2008 | A+ | 21 | 102 | 2 | 5 | .259 | .360 | .153 | 14 | 19 | | 2009 | AA | 22 | 440 | 8 | 37 | .316 | .415 | .170 | 11 | 14 | | 2009 | AAA | 22 | 137 | 3 | 15 | .325 | .426 | .167 | 14 | 13 | | 2010 | AAA | 23 | 458 | 3 | 37 | .278 | .355 | .115 | 10 | 17 | +------+-------+-----+-----+----+----+------+------+------+-----+----+

In 100 games at Single-A in 2007 he swiped 45 bases, for most of 2008 he was out with back and should injuries, and then in 2009 he burst back onto the scene in Double-A. In 100 games there he batted .316 with eight home runs and 37 steals, and in 34 Triple-A games he continued to shine, batting .325 and adding another 15 steals. The 2009 season was certainly an impressive bounceback year for Jennings and it vaulted him near the top of most prospect lists.

With their outfield set for 2010 the Rays felt no need to rush Jennings to the majors, though he also did not force their hand to call him up midseason with his play. The speed remained as Jennings swiped another 37 bags, but some of the power he displayed with his combined .169 Iso from Double and Triple-A vanished, resulting in a 55-point drop in Isolated Slugging to .115.

From a fantasy perspective the drop is power is not overly concerning, since Jennings will provide most of his value in the batting average, steals and runs categories anyway. Plus if we want to use the Crawford comparison, Jennings is putting up similar power numbers to Crawford in their same-age seasons—albeit Crawford was already in the majors. The biggest concern with Jennings for most people is his durability, which has not been much of a problem the past two seasons.

The man simply exudes confidence, evident here. (Icon/SMI)

Jennings has great plate discipline and reportedly plays solid defense, meaning his job security is fairly stable. The 35+ steals he should easily accrue and .270s-.280s batting average he is capable of make him worth his current Mock Draft Central 217 ADP. If that number starts to creep up, then we’ll have to revisit whether his promise is worth the investment.

Jeremy Hellickson

Hellickson has never impressed scouts with his build or stuff; regardless he consistently produces results wherever he pitches. I’m not going to reproduce his stats here, but throughout the minors he struck out at least a batter an inning and posted ERAs and FIPs in the twos. Later in the season you may remember Hellickson made four starts and was solid in all four—going at least six innings, allowing no more than three runs, and striking out at least five in every start. Although his performance did not justify it, he was soon bumped from the rotation and finished the season making relief appearances.

Prospect maven John Sickels calls him the “best right-handed pitching prospect in baseball” the title of which used to belong to Stephen Strasburg. Hopefully Hellickson won’t follow in Strasburg’s footsteps and will enjoy a healthy season of pitching—the question is simply where, the rotation or bullpen.

The Rays enjoy a surplus of quality starters, already owning a rotation consisting of David Price, James Shields, Matt Garza, Jeff Niemann, and Wade Davis. Many people will argue that Hellickson would be more effective than Niemann and Davis, but both are talented in their own right. Despite rumors Garza mgiht be traded for a bat, the Rays seem content with their pitching surplus. As a result Hellickson is currently the odd man out, but all it will take is one injury to one of the Rays unusually healthy starting staffers to force Hellickson back into the rotation where there is little doubt he can put up great strikeout totals while limiting walks and earn a mid-threes ERA, even in the AL East.

My feeling is Hellickson will earn a rotation spot sooner rather than later and with his mature pitching approach will succeed immediately. It will be interesting to see how the battle for the fifth rotation spot pans out during spring training, but even if your draft is before then, Hellickson is a good late round target with upside.

Final thoughts

The Rays prospect pipeline—particularly for pitching—does not appear to be drying up anytime soon since in addition to Jennings and Hellickson, future closer Jake McGee will also hold a bigger role with the team in 2011. Whether he has a chance to get saves or not depends on how the Rays spend to complete their bullpen.

Top prospect Matthew Moore is still a couple years away from the majors but this lefty starter can make a big statement if he limits the walks in his first yeear in Double-A. Laughably, the Rays can receive up to 11 first or supplemental round picks in this year’s draft. Watch out for those young Rays.

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