The AL East is currently ruled by the Red Sox and, to some degree, the Yankees. The Rays have the talent to challenge both of them within the next three to five years… but will the organization ever step up and keep the players together long enough to win it all?
1. Wander Franco | SS | SS —> Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of the Blue Jays has seen a meteoric rise through pro ball and is on the cusp of reaching the Majors despite still being a teenager. Franco, another son of a former big leaguer, is just 17 but has also produced video-game-like numbers despite limited experience in pro ball. He showed an outstanding approach at the plate with a BB-K of 27-19 in 61 advanced rookie ball games. Franco also gets to more in-game power than most players his age. The sky is the limit for this young player but I also want to be a little cautious until I see him in full-season ball.
2. Brent Honeywell | RHP | INJ —> Honeywell appeared on a collision course with the big leagues in 2018 but Tommy John surgery derailed that hope. Now, he’ll hope to reach the Majors towards the end of 2019. The 23-year-old hurler has No. 2/3 starter potential with his potential above-average four-pitch mix, which includes a rare (plus) screwball. There are now some durability concerns with Honeywell, who is not a huge guy, but he’s also very athletic and a smart pitcher so those traits should help him as he moves forward.
3. Jesus Sanchez | OF | AA —> Sanchez, 21, flashes above-average tools across the board and really began to display his in-game pop more consistently in 2018. He spent much of the year in high-A ball but moved up to double-A for 27 games near the end of the season. At maturity, he should be able to top 20 homers while hitting for a solid average due to his ability to make good contact. He has some swing-and-miss to his game because he’s such a free swinger but the bat-to-ball skill is there and should continue to improve as he matures as a hitter and stops chasing so many pitcher’s pitches. Sanchez has good speed in the outfield and on the base paths but he’s not a great base runner so the stolen base value is limited for now.
4. Brendan McKay | LHP/1B | A+ —> McKay spent the 2018 season splitting time between pitching and hitting but it was fairly clear that his time on the mound was well spent. His future is likely as a left-handed starting pitcher. And abandoning the dual assignment could help him reach the Majors as quickly as late 2019. He has the ability to both miss bats and induce a good number of ground-ball outs. He allowed just three home runs in 78.1 innings in 2018 while playing at three levels. McKay, 22, also has the frame necessary to pile up innings. I see a No. 2/3 starter here with more value to a National League team given the need to hit two or three times a game.
5. Matthew Liberatore | LHP | R —> There was some first-overall chatter with Liberatore leading up to the 2018 amateur draft but his college commitment scared some teams away. He was an absolute steal with the 16th overall selection. The lefty has a chance for three or four above-average pitches when he full matures and he has room on his lanky frame to add velo as he fills out. Liberatore, 18, has all the makings of a top-of-the-rotation pitcher if he can stay healthy. He’s a special talent and could probably jump right to full-season ball in 2019 but the Rays are notoriously cautious with pitchers’ development so he might begin the year in extended spring training.
6. Ronaldo Hernandez | C | A —> You know, the Rays really needed another breakout prospect. Signed for less than a quarter million, which is chump change on the international market, Hernandez is now looking like one of the top catching prospects in all of baseball. He has excellent bat-to-ball skills and hits for excellent pop, going deep 21 times in a league that doesn’t generate a ton of power (Only three players in the Midwest League topped 20 homers and the other two had at least 135 strikeouts to Hernandez’s 69). Although he’s a converted infielder, the 20-year-old backstop has all the makings of a plus defender.
7. Shane McClanahan | LHP | R —> Like Matthew Liberatore, who was selected 16th overall by the Rays in 2018, McClanahan was a steal with the 31st overall pick. An inconsistent junior season in college cost him at Top 15 selection but he got paid ($2.2 million) and showed very well in his (limited) pro debut. If he can continue to throw strikes and command his pitches, McClanahan could move very quickly through the Rays system, although the organization is always cautious when developing pitchers (and he has durability concerns). If he can sharpen his breaking ball a little more to go with the plus fastball-changeup combo, McClanahan has top-of-the-rotation potential. The lefty can tickle triple-digits with his heater.
8. Shane Baz | RHP | SS —> Acquired from the Pirates at the trade deadline as part of the strong return for Chris Archer, Baz was originally acquired as the 12th overall selection in the 2017 so there is pedigree here. He’s been handled carefully and has yet to play in full season ball but he had a solid year in advanced rookie ball. The right-hander can work into the mid-90s and has the makings of three or four above-average offerings. He struggles with his command and control but has the athleticism, frame and delivery to eventually be better than average.
9. Vidal Brujan | 2B | A+ —> A huge steal as an international free agent that signed for just $15K, Brujan had an outstanding year and looks like one of the top middle infielders in the minors. The biggest knock on him is his lack of size and physical projection but he has an outstanding approach at the plate. The 20-year-old hitter batted .320 while showing a great eye with a BB-K of 63-68. And he’s not a complete limp noodle with the bat and can hit some balls into the gap and occasionally clear the outfield fences. He also has the wheels to be an impact player on the base paths with 30+ steals potential. Brujan should also be a solid defender at second base.
10. Brandon Lowe | 2B/OF | AAA —> Lowe’s inclusion on the list barely hung on as fell just one at-bat shy of graduating from prospect status to big leaguer. He opened the year in double-A but followed up his breakout 2017 season by playing at three levels — including the Majors. Lowe, 24, showed good pop in the minors with 22 homers and 31 doubles in 100 games, while displaying more pop in the Majors. He should develop into a solid offensive-minded second baseman, although he’s also seen time in both corner outfield spots.
Lucius Fox | SS | AA —> Like Vidal Brujan above, Fox possesses blazing speed and promising defensive skills but he’s much more raw with the bat. And while the Rays paid $15,000 for Brujan, the Giants handed Fox $6 million (and later traded him to Tampa Bay). Still just 21, Fox has room to improve but he’s also (perhaps unwisely) been pushed aggressively through the minors. He doesn’t hit for much pop but he’ll take a walk so the foundation is there for future improvements.
Nick Solak | 2B/OF | AA —> Another strong infield prospect, the Rays have started to give Solak time in the outfield to increase his versatility — and perhaps with an eye to making him a super-utility guy. Solak has an intriguing mix of pop and speed but he’ll need to trim the Ks to hit for a strong average. Even if he doesn’t, he produces a solid on-base average due to his willingness to take a walk.
Nathaniel Lowe | 1B | AAA —> A former 13th round pick, Lowe had a breakout year which saw him play at three levels and ultimately reach triple-A. Combined, he hit .330 while slugging 27 homers and producing a BB-K of 68-90, which is solid for a power-hitting prospect. I’m interested to see how he handles himself at triple-A in 2019 now that he’ll be playing against more age-appropriate prospects.
Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospects and fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.