Thursday, January 06, 2005

Prospects: Rays Vs. Pirates

I've been thinking about Kevin McClatchy's (and Paul Meyer's, and Jim Molony's) recent assertions that soon a wave of prospects will arrive to show the Pirates are on the right track. I hope to show here that close examination of a relatively minor acquisition by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays exposes the silliness of McClatchy's claims.

Yesterday, the Rays reached a one year agreement with Alex "The Crappier One" Gonzalez, who played shortstop for the Padres, Expos and Cubs last year. The terms of the deal (one year, $1.75 million) aren't noteworthy, and yet this acquisition is a bit strange. The addition of Gonzalez to the D-Rays could end up affecting just about everyone else in the lineup.

The D-Rays have this shortstop B.J. Upton. Perhaps you've heard of him - after the Pirates passed on him in the draft, he flew through the minors and finished up the year hitting well in the majors. His baseball age was just 19 at the time. He's a tremendous talent worth building a franchise around.

The D-Rays also have another very good young shortstop, Jorge Cantu, who hit very well in AAA Durham and in the majors last year at age 22.

On top of that, the Rays have a perfectly good veteran shortstop in Julio Lugo. The Rays' solution to this "problem" may be to play Cantu at second and Lugo at short, with Upton starting the year in AAA to learn how to play defense better. They'll play Gonzalez, the new guy, at third.

That's strange, because the Rays already have a very good third baseman in Aubrey Huff. Huff's defense isn't that great at the hot corner, but on offense, he's the Rays' equivalent of Brian Giles, putting up very good numbers year after year as the best hitter on a bad team. Huff will likely move to first base or DH as a result of the Gonzalez acquisition.

Now let's look at the outfield. The Rays' corner outfielders next year will be Jose Cruz, a veteran with a good bat and a very good glove, and Carl Crawford. Crawford has already played two and a half seasons in the majors, but he'll still only be 23 next year. He has formidable tools, is a major asset on the basepaths and put up his first good season in the majors in 2004.

The Rays' centerfielder will be former rookie phenom Rocco Baldelli, who's also still very young. Baldelli will be on the DL to start the year, so the Rays may move Crawford to center and start Joey Gathright in a corner. Gathright has no power whatsoever, but he steals bases like crazy and has been an on-base threat at every level. He'll only be 23 next year.

But hang on - the Rays also have Jonny Gomes, who will be 24 next year and hit 26 homers in less than 400 at bats at Durham. They probably should find a spot for him as well. So let's pencil him at DH.

But Gomes probably can't play DH, at least not every day, since we already decided that Huff would occupy one of the first/DH spots, and recently the Rays did something really smart: they acquired Josh Phelps. Phelps will be 27 next year, so he's not a prospect anymore, but he was very good after joining the Indians last year, he wasn't bad in his first full year with the Jays in 2003, and he's only two years removed from hitting 39 homers in AAA and the majors in 2002. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Phelps hit 30 or more homers next year.

An examination of the Gonzalez acquisition shows that the Rays have high-upside young talent at practically every position. I haven't even mentioned AAA slugger Matt Diaz or a trio of young hitters around the age of 20 - Delmon Young, Wes Bankston and Elijah Dukes - who are currently going nuts on minor league pitching.

Admittedly, the Rays' young pitchers aren't as exciting as their hitters. And Chuck Lamar and Cam Bonifay are still in charge, which means they'll probably find ways to screw things up. But the point remains: if you're going to make promises to your fans about your great prospects, this is what your franchise should look like. Meyer recently listed Chris Duffy as an example of the young talent about to change the Pirates. Duffy couldn't hold a candle to at least seven young outfielders in the Rays' system: Baldelli, Crawford, Gathright, Gomes, Bankston, Dukes and Young. The Pirates don't have any hitters in their system who would be among the Rays' top 5 hitting prospects. The Pirates need to improve their minor-league system a lot before they make any more promises about their prospects.


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