Around the MinorsMay 26, 2007
Pitching Drought in Tampa... It's About to End
By Marc Hulet
Tampa Bay Rays
1. Scott Kazmir     1st round, 2002 (Mets)     1/84  
2. James Shields   16th round, 2000           12/81  
3. _____________     _____________            ______
4. _____________     _____________            ______
5. _____________     _____________            ______

With three members of the Tampa Bay Ray's starting rotation with ERAs above 7.50 as recently as this past Wednesday, you can imagine General Manager (Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations, actually) Andrew Friedman has had a few restless nights. Fear not, young Friedman, Scott Kazmir, 23, and James Shields, 25, will soon have competent company in the starting rotation. And the likes of Casey Fossum, Edwin Jackson and Jae Seo will be distant memories.

2004: The Draft of the Decade

As perennial losers, the Rays have had more than a couple of shots at injecting life into the organization through the amateur baseball draft. And while they have had some great early round picks (Delmon Young, Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli), 2004 was by far the best all-around draft for the club.

In the first 13 rounds, the club picked up Jeff Niemann, Reid Brignac, Wade Davis, Jacob McGee, Matt Walker, Fernando Perez and Andy Sonnanstine. Was this the best single draft by one team in the history of baseball? No, certainly not. But what this draft did was inject one top shortstop prospect and five pitching prospects, three of whom could one day become No. 2 starters if they reach their ceiling.

Thanks to that 2004 draft, and others, Tampa has some solid studs advancing through the system, as well as enviable depth.

Triple-A Durham
       Name                  Draft                   Age
1. Jeff Niemann            1st, 2004                 2/83
2. Andy Sonnanstine       13th, 2004                 3/83 
3. Jason Hammel           10th, 2002                 9/82
4. Mitch Talbot            2nd, 2002 (Astros)       10/83 

Friday night's pitching prospect match-up between Niemann and Kevin Slowey was a perfect example of stuff vs smarts. Slowey came out on top by allowing no runs over eight innings, while Niemann allowed three runs over six to take the loss. This outing showed that Niemann still has some work to do before succeeding at the Major League level, but he's not far away. In 10 Triple-A starts this season, Niemann has posted a 4.02 ERA. In 53.2 innings of work, the 6'9'' 280-pound right-hander has allowed 54 hits and 20 walks. He has struck out 57 batters. Health is the big key for Niemann, as he has pitched a total of 25 games in his first two full pro seasons since signing out of Rice University. If his shoulder holds up, he could see the Tampa rotation by September. With a four-pitch repertoire - including a 96-mph fastball - Niemann could become a top starter in the American League.

Sonnanstine is one of those pitchers who doesn't impress you with his stuff (87-91 mph fastball) but he just keeps putting up respectable numbers and deserves a shot. Drafted in the 13th round out of Kent State University in 2004, Sonnanstine had a career ERA of 2.55 in 424 innings coming into the 2007 season. In Triple-A this year, he has pitched excellent and has posted a 2.30 ERA in nine starts (58.2 innings). Sonnanstine has allowed only 42 hits and 12 walks, for a WHIP below 1.00. He has also struck out 60 batters, which is impressive given his average stuff. Scouts say Sonnanstine has to be "on" to win but he has struggled in only one outing this season, which came on April 13 in Toledo when he allowed five runs in six innings. He has struck out more than 10 batters in a game on two occasions this season. His lone plus pitch is a change-up that Shields taught to him.

Jason Hammel, 24, is often the overlooked prospect because he's not flashy and wasn't a high draft pick, but he has the ceiling of a No. 4 starter or a solid middle reliever. At 6'6'' and 220 pounds, Hammel has a great pitcher's body and has done well so far this season in Triple-A. He has allowed only 42 hits in 57.1 innings of work. He has struck out 55 and walked only 22. He has also induced almost 1.5 ground balls for every flyball. Hammels is due for a shot at the major leagues again and should greatly improve upon his career ERA of 7.77 from 44 innings of work in the majors last year. Hammel has a low-90s fastball and a plus curve. The consistency of his change-up will likely determine his Major League future.

Mitch Talbot came to Tampa Bay last year in the Aubrey Huff deal, which also netted recently-demoted shortstop Ben Zobrist. Prior to the 2006 season, Talbot's ceiling was estimated to be a No. 5 starter or reliever. However, last season the 23-year-old had a 3.39 ERA in Double-A for Houston (90.1 innings) and then a 1.90 ERA in Double-A for Tampa (66.1 innings). This season has been a different story for Talbot, though, as he has struggled in Triple-A and has a 7.20 ERA in 40 innings. He has allowed too many hits (50) as well as too many walks (20). On the plus side, he has induced two ground balls for every one fly ball. Talbot's worst outing of the year came on May 5 against Richmond, when he recorded no outs and was charged with 10 earned runs. Without the one terrible outing, his ERA would be 4.95. Since that time, Talbot has allowed only four earned runs in three starts (15 innings). His biggest downside is the lack of a consistent breaking ball to go with his low-90s fastball and change-up.

Double-A Montgomery
        Name                Draft              Age
1. Chris Mason           2nd, 2005            7/84
2. James Houser          2nd, 2003           12/84
3. Jonathan Barratt      5th, 2003            3/85
4. Chuck Tiffany         2nd, 2003 (Dodgers)  1/85

Less than three years after being drafted in the second round out of UNC-Greensboro, Chris Mason is having a solid season at Double-A Montgomery. He has a 2.68 ERA through 10 starts and has allowed 52 hits in 57 innings. Mason has walked only 14 and struck out 52. The right-hander was promoted aggressively by Tampa Bay even after he struggled in Advanced A-Ball last year and posted a 5.02 ERA in 152.1 innings of work. He struck out only 111 and walked 44. Mason was extremely hittable and allowed 177 hits. He possesses a low 90s fastball, slurve and change. The latter two pitches need work. Mason, who was a two-way player in college, now projects as a solid No. 4 starter and could realize that potential as early as 2008.

At 5'10'' and 155 pounds, Jonathan Barratt doesn't look like a professional baseball player, but don't let that fool you; he has talent. After signing late out of high school in 2003, Barratt made his pro debut the next season in the short-season New York Penn League and posted a 2.74 ERA in 10 starts. The next season, Tampa Bay inexplicably rushed Barratt to Advanced A-Ball in Visalia. They also threw him into the bullpen, as they were concerned about his long-term health due to his size. Barratt posted a miserable 6.59 ERA in 71 innings. He was returned to the rotation the next season while repeating the level and posted a respectable 2.93 ERA in 21 games. This season, Barratt has struggled with injuries and did not pitch in April. In May, though, Barratt has started four Double-A games and has allowed 20 hits and 13 walks in 19.1 innings. The right-hander has struggled against righties, who are hitting .304 against him, compared to lefties at .158. If his health holds up, Barratt could be a solid No. 4 or 5 starter. His best pitch right now is his curveball, which he uses along with a low-90s fastball and developing change-up.

James Houser is only 22 but has advanced to Double-A in his fifth minor league season. His ascent was slowed by some injuries problems in 2004. Three years later, Houser appears to have left his serious injury woes behind him. The 6'4'' lefty is having a nice season so far with a 2.48 ERA in 32.2 innings. Batters are hitting only .168 against Houser and he has allowed 19 hits in total. Lefty batters have only one hit against him this year. He has also issued only eight walks, along with 22 strikeouts. Between his two starts on May 15 and 20, Houser did not allow an earned run and allowed only four hits in 11.1 innings. One negative is his GO/AO ration (ground outs to air outs), which is at 0.95.

Chuck Tiffany is probably one of the most frustrating pitchers in the system right now. He is extremely talented but he cannot seem to stay healthy. Drafted out of high school in the second round of the 2003 draft by the Dodgers, Tiffany was obtained with the disappointing Edwin Jackson for Danys Baez and Lance Carter in January of 2006. Since that time, Tiffany has appeared in only four regular season games due to injuries. When healthy, the 22-year-old lefty spins a plus curveball and has the potential to be a No. 3 starter.

Advanced Single-A Vero Beach
        Name              Draft             Age
1. Wade Davis           3rd, 2004          9/85
2. Jacob McGee          5th, 2004          8/86
3. Matt Walker         10th, 2004          8/86

Davis has shown significant progress since posting a 6.09 ERA in his debut season in Rookie Ball in 2004. Last season, he posted a 3.02 ERA in A-Ball while striking out 165 in 146 innings. This season, in Advanced A-Ball, Davis is also sending batters back to the dugout shaking their heads. His best game of the year came on May 4 against Jupiter when he threw a seven inning no-hitter. For the season, he has struck out 50 in 52.2 innings and has posted only 37 hits and 15 walks. Davis has allowed only four earned runs in his last six starts (37.1 innings). Like many Rays' pitching prospects, Davis has good size at 6'5'' 220 pounds. He needs to learn to combat lefties a little better as they have hit .285 against him this year, compared to righties at .122. Davis, who has a four-pitch repertoire and can touch 98 mph with his fastball, has taken a huge step forward and now projects as a solid No. 3 starter. Not bad for a kid who did not start pitching until his sophomore season in high school.

McGee is something special. The 20-year-old left-hander currently has a 1.84 ERA in 10 starts in the Florida State League. In 53.2 innings, McGee has allowed only 23 hits (.178 average) and has walked 21. He has also struck out 61. One of the knocks on McGee right now is that he is too much of a flyball pitcher, having posted a 0.85 GO/AO ratio. Despite that, he has yet to allow a home run this season. McGee is extremely tough on lefties, who have hit only .049 against him this year. Last season, managers voted McGee's fastball the best in the Midwest League. He throws it around 90-94 mph with good movement and can touch 96. He also has a curveball and change-up.

Walker, 20, has struggled more this year than other top pitchers in the system, aside from Talbot. The 20-year-old has had his best run of the year in his last three starts by allowing only six runs in 15 innings. His worst outing came on April 26 when he was charged with eight earned runs in 1.1 innings of work against Palm Beach (Cardinals). Walker's biggest problem this season has been walks. In 38.2 innings, he has allowed 30 walks, while striking out 32. Throw in another 42 base runners via hits and that has been far too many players reaching base. His last outing on March 23 was encouraging as Walker limited Lakeland to two hits over five innings, although he walked three. He has the best breaking ball in the Rays' system, along with a solid change-up and a fastball that can touch 96 mph.

Single-A Columbus
        Name                  Draft             Age
1. Josh Butler              2nd, 2006          12/84
2. Wade Townsend            1st, 2005           2/83
3. Jeremy Hellickson,       4th, 2005           4/87
4. Lewis (Heath) Rollins   11th, 2006           5/85

Although Tampa has had a lot success with high school pitchers (McGee, Walker, Hellickson, Davis, and so on), they have not shied away from taking the odd college pitcher early in the draft. The acquisition of Josh Butler in the second round last year out of the University of San Diego has looked smart so far, as he has had a solid season for Columbus. However, the Rays have not challenged him, as many college pitchers taken early in the 2006 draft are already in Advanced A-Ball. In 49 innings this season, Butler, 22, has allowed only 40 hits, while walking 15. He has struck out 36. Opponents have had troubles getting the ball in the air against Butler, who has held opponents to one fly ball for every 2.2 ground balls. Both his curveball and slider are plus pitches. His fastball is between 90-95 mph and his change-up is a work-in-progress.

The tale of Wade Townsend is a long and complicated one despite the fact the former college standout has failed to rise above A-Ball after being drafted in the first round (for the second time) by Tampa Bay in 2005. He was originally taken eighth overall in 2004 by the Baltimore organization, which allegedly tried to low-ball him with its contract offer. Townsend returned to Rice University for his senior year, although he was ineligible to play baseball. After Tampa Bay drafted and signed him, Townsend posted a 5.49 ERA in 39.1 innings in the New York Penn League. He then missed all of 2006 due to Tommy John surgery. Townsend, 24, has already spent time on the disabled list this season, but he has also posted a 2.59 ERA in seven starts (31.1 innings). He has allowed 21 hits and walked 10, while striking out 40. Some believe Townsend is better suited for the pen because of his mentality on the mound. His fastball has been inconsistent, but when he's at his best he has a spike curve and change-up, both of which are plus pitches.

Jeremy Hellickson has had a solid start to his first year of full-season ball. Despite not making his first start of the year until April 24, Hellickson has an impressive 1.80 ERA in 25 innings. In 2007, he has allowed 17 hits and 10 walks. Hellickson has held batters to a .191 average overall. Lefties have hit only .150 against the 6'1'' right-hander. His best game of the year came against Rome on May 15 when he allowed only one hit in five innings and struck out 10 baby Braves. He needs to improve his secondary pitches (curve and change) to take his game to the next level.

One of the lesser known Rays' pitching prospects, Heath Rollins was a two-way player at Winthrop and scouts were split on whether he should play the outfield or toe the rubber as a pro. So far Tampa Bay appears to have made the correct decision, as Rollins has a 1.12 ERA, albeit in A-Ball. He has struck out more than one batter per inning, but the most impressive thing is that he has induced 2.31 ground balls for every one flyball. Rollins works most comfortably around 87-90 mph but can touch 93 mph and has a slider, curve and change-up in his repertoire.

Overall, the minor league system is in excellent shape after four years of work by the Tampa Bay organization - specifically the scouting department. Just imagine how good the system would be if the Rays had been able to sign picks such as Andrew Miller, Wade LeBlanc, Adam Ottavino, David Bush, Bryan Morris and Mike Pelfrey.


No mention of JP Howell whatsoever? I know he doesn't have the ceiling of a #3 starter, but he has been solid throughout his minor league career and isn't any older than the rest of the Durham staff.

I thought about discussing Howell, but he has 115 innings of MLB experience so he's no longer a rookie. I also think his stuff is a little short for the AL East and he's going to have to combat right-handed batters better.

This team will never go anywhere without me!


Well, stuff wise, Howell can't be worse than the like of Gustavo Chacin. Lefties doesn't need that great of a stuff to "survive" in the majors. But I do understand the point on having 100+ mlb innings. The way the DRays' pitching staff is going, they should consider giving some top prospect time in the pen sometime soon if 1 or 2 of the AAA staff starts to pay off and there's no rotation spot for the younger/other guys. Their pen is brutal.