The Tampa Bay Rays have always been a team that has been built upon the strength of their prospects. Given the fact that they are one of the lowest budget franchises in the MLB, they must rely on their scouts and minor league coaches to find and develop young players that will eventually make an impact on the big league level. These are the top three prospects that I believe have a chance to make a difference this season.
Kirby Yates, RP, Durham Bulls:
Yates has been an extremely reliable closer for the Bulls this season. The young right-hander has thirteen saves in thirteen opportunities so far this year. He has allowed only one run in 21 innings of work, and has already recorded 30 strikeouts. One of the most important aspects of a good major league baseball team is having a reliable closer that can finish games in high-pressure situations. There is nothing more heartbreaking for a team than being up in the last inning, and letting the game slip out of their hands.
Grant Balfour was expected to be the man for the job this season. After two outstanding seasons as the ninth inning man for the Oakland Athletics, the 36-year-old closer was signed to a two-year deal by the Rays this offseason. He has so far proved to be a disappointment, saving 9 games in 11 opportunities, and surrendering 12 earned runs in 19.2 innings of work.
If Balfour continues to struggle, and the Rays are willing to take a chance, Yates could prove to be an effective major league closer. Although minor league success does not always translate into major league effectiveness, it may be worth giving him a shot at the job.
Jerry Sands, LF, Durham Bulls:
Sands has been one of the most dangerous hitters for the Bulls over the course of the season. He is batting .279 with 8 homers and 33 RBIs, proving to be a force to be reckoned with in Durham’s lineup. The left fielder is 26 years old, and is reaching his prime years as a hitter.
The Rays have struggled to find consistent offensive production this season, and could perhaps use somebody young to shake thing up. Wil Myers and Evan Longoria have been disappointing so far, leaving James Loney as the most consistent hitter on the team. Sands could potentially take some playing time away from outfielder Desmond Jennings, who has had a lackluster first quarter of the season. Jennings is batting .237 with 4 home runs and 11 RBIs on the season.
Merrill Kelly, SP, Durham Bulls:
The struggling Rays’ starting rotation has without a doubt been the story of their season. They have suffered everything from an underperforming David Price to Matt Moore going through season-ending Tommy John surgery in the first month of the season. Joe Maddon has been forced to piece together a makeshift starting rotation, which has been far from the talented crew that the Rays were expecting at the end of Spring Training.
Kelly has been solid for Durham in his eight starts this season. The right-hander is 4-1 with a 2.52 ERA and 50 strikeouts on the season. Although he may not be quite good enough to take time away from the current starters in the Rays’ rotation at this point, there are a few scenarios in which the Rays could need the young pitcher’s services. If one of the starters at the end of the rotation were to hit a slump at some point in the season, we could see Joe Maddon look to Kelly as a potential replacement. The same could be said if David Price is dealt in the middle of the season, which is a real possibility given the team’s struggles. Even if Maddon decides that Kelly is not quite ready to start in the majors, we could see him given time as a long reliever to gain some major league experience.
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