Before the 2007 season began, MLB.com took an in-depth look at every big league team's Minor League system. Now, it's time to recap all 30 organizations, from top prospects to the recent draft class.
In our season preview, the big question for the Rays was: How on earth are they going to find room in the Majors for all the great talent they have on the way up? At the time, the biggest logjam was in the infield.
B.J. Upton, who had been playing mostly third base, split his time between second base and the outfield with the Rays. He finally established himself, hitting for average and power. Japanese rookie Akinori Iwamura lived up to his billing at the hot corner, despite missing a month with a strained oblique muscle.
On the downside, second baseman Jorge Cantu flopped and was sent down to the Minors and eventually traded. Shortstop Ben Zobrist struggled with his second taste of big-league pitching and also returned to the Minors. Prospect Joel Guzman, acquired last summer from the Los Angeles Dodgers, has probably played himself into a utility role at best.
On the offensive side in the Minors, the Rays' two most elite prospects, third baseman Evan Longoria and shortstop Reid Brignac, continued to show tremendous promise. Longoria emerged as a contender to start 2008 in the big leagues.
All four of the organization's full-season clubs boast stellar starting pitching, and how they stack up will be the big question to be answered when the 2008 preview rolls around.
While there is always spirited debate concerning how much winning actually means in the Minors, the Triple-A Durham Bulls, Double-A Montgomery Biscuits and Class A Columbus Catfish all made it to their respective league finals.
The Biscuits and Catfish won titles in the Southern and South Atlantic Leagues, respectively. Despite placing just 12th in overall Minor League winning percentage (.510), Tampa Bay won when it counted as the only Major League organization to place three teams in full-season league finals. The only other organization with more than one was Milwaukee, which saw both of its finals entries lose to Rays affiliates -- Huntsville fell to Montgomery and West Virginia was eliminated by Columbus.
Organizational Players of the Year
Evan Longoria, 3B: The Long Beach State product and third pick overall in the 2006 Draft did nothing to diminish his status as a top prospect. He began the year at Double-A Montgomery, where he finished 2006, and he reached Triple-A Durham by season's end. Longoria combined to hit .299 with 26 homers and 95 RBIs. In many organizations that would have been enough to win our Player of the Year Award. But a slightly more stellar showing from Columbus outfielder Ryan Royster kept Longoria from receiving the honor, though he was very much in the mix.
Jacob McGee, LHP: Like Longoria, McGee was in the mix for postseason honors but was edged out by the pitcher with whom his name is most frequently linked, Wade Davis. McGee repeated his feat of leading the organization in strikeouts, fanning 175 after striking out 171 in 2006. His 3.15 ERA between Class A Advanced Vero Beach and Double-A Montgomery was good for sixth in the organization.
Ryan Royster, OF: We singled him out as the one to watch at Columbus this year, and he proved us right. The 2004 sixth-round pick finally lived up to his power-hitter billing in his full-season debut, winning the organization's Triple Crown by batting .329 with 30 homers and 98 RBIs. His .601 slugging percentage ranked fourth among all full-season Minor League players.
Wade Davis, RHP: Davis led all Rays farmhands with a 2.50 ERA between Class A Advanced Vero Beach and Double-A Montgomery. He had a 1.84 ERA in 13 starts with Vero Beach before going 7-3 with a 3.15 ERA after his promotion. The 2004 third-round pick struck out 169 in 158 1/3 innings, second in the system behind McGee and seventh overall in the Minors.
Climbed the Ladder
Ryan Royster, OF: After three Short-Season campaigns in which he tantalized the Rays with his power potential to all fields without actually putting up big numbers, Royster made up for lost time by leading the Catfish to the South Atlantic League title. He finished in the top three in the league in batting average, homers and RBIs. Royster hit .329 with a league-best 30 homers and 98 RBIs, and he added 31 doubles and 17 steals.
John Jaso, C: Coming into the 2007 season, the question was whether or not Jaso had recovered sufficiently from rotator cuff surgery to catch on a regular basis. The answer remained unclear, but the left-handed power prospect
hit .316 with 12 homers and 71 RBIs while catching 70 games for Double-A Montgomery.
Chris Mason, RHP: A second-round pick in 2005 out of UNC-Greensboro, Mason had posted a 1.87 ERA in his first pro season, but struggled in the California League in 2006 with a 5.02 ERA. We predicted he could rebound this year, and we were right as his 15-4 record and 2.57 ERA at Montgomery earned him Southern League Pitcher of the Year honors.
Justin Ruggiano, OF: Acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers midway through the 2006 season, Ruggiano's first full season with Tampa Bay finished in Cinderella fashion as the 2004 25th-round pick was promoted to the big leagues in September to replace injured outfielder Carl Crawford. On the way, the 25-year-old led Triple-A Durham in several offensive categories, hitting .309 with 20 homers, 73 RBIs and 26 steals. He finished sixth in the International League batting race.
Kept Their Footing
Evan Longoria, 3B: Longoria, like all four players in this category, are elite prospects who did nothing to dim that status. In fact, the only reason they are listed as "Kept Their Footing" rather than "Climbed the Ladder" is that they were all so highly regarded to start 2007 that there wasn't much to climb short of making it to the Majors. With Joel Guzman falling short of expectations, the Rays have to be thinking about Longoria as the heir apparent at third base, Iwamura's fine rookie season notwithstanding. He hit .375 for Durham in the playoffs and his .528 slugging percentage led the Southern League prior to his promotion.
Reid Brignac, SS: Brignac nabbed top prospect status in 2006 when he hit .321 with 24 homers and 99 RBIs at Class A Advanced Visalia to earn California League MVP and Rookie of the Year honors. Upon his promotion to Montgomery in 2007, Brignac's average dipped to .260, but he continued to post fine power numbers with 17 homers, 30 doubles, 81 RBIs and 15 steals. Though he may not project as a .300 hitter, Brignac should be a solid power-hitting shortstop down the road.
Wade Davis, RHP: Our pick for the organization's Pitcher of the Year, Davis dominated hitters wherever he went, leading the system with a combined 2.50 ERA and finishing a close second to Jacob McGee with 169 strikeouts. The 2004 third-round pick led the New York-Penn League in strikeouts in 2005, throwing a fastball in the low-to-mid 90s to go with a curve and a slider.
Jacob McGee, LHP: The 21-year-old southpaw continued to be the strikeout king of the Rays system. Though his ERA rose from 2.96 to 3.15 upon his promotion, McGee still baffled hitters with his fastball in the mid-90s, curve and change. He limited hitters to a .207 average and finished third among Minor League starters in strikeouts per nine innings with 11.25. We said, "We'll take a guess that he will continue to enjoy marked success." We guessed right.
Slipped a Rung
Elijah Dukes, OF: Was there a bigger disappointment in 2007? One of the best all-around athletes in the Minors, Dukes' climb to the Majors has been plagued by off-the-field issues since he signed with the organization. Despite breaking camp with the big-league club, Dukes' problems continued to dog him. Whether they contributed to his .191 average in 52 games is anyone's guess, but he ended up indefinitely suspended by late June and has not played since. One can only assume his once-promising career may be done.
Wes Bankston, 1B: The Rays were not ready to give up on their fourth-round pick from 2002, moving him from right field to first base. We wondered, "Is the window of opportunity starting to close for the oft-injured prospect?" The answer, finally, was yes. After hitting just .238 in 104 games at Durham, Bankston was designated for assignment when the club called up Ruggiano. He was claimed by Kansas City.
Mitch Talbot, RHP: Acquired from Houston in the 2006 deal for Aubrey Huff, Talbot has been inconsistent in the Rays organization. Immediately following the trade, he posted a 1.90 ERA in 10 starts for Montgomery before tossing 18 shutout innings in the Southern League playoffs. He opened the 2007 season at Durham with six innings of no-hit ball, but followed that with a game in which he allowed 10 runs without recording an out. With the Bulls, he had 12 starts where he allowed one earned run or fewer. He had five more outings where he allowed six or more earned runs. Overall, he went 13-9 with a 4.53 ERA.
Juan Salas, RHP: MiLB.com's Minor League Reliever of the Year in 2006, when he limited hitters to a .128 average between Montgomery and Durham, Salas appeared primed for a prominent role in the Tampa Bay bullpen. That was before a 50-game suspension for steroids. Overall, he posted a 3.89 ERA in 33 games with the Rays. He was suspended in early May and returned in late July. Interestingly, the 29-year-old right-hander's numbers were much better when he came back.
Joel Guzman, 3B: The 6-foot-5, 250-pounder literally grew out of the shortstop's role. Dealt to the Rays from the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2006 along with Sergio Pedroza, Guzman has been given a chance in the outfield, first and third base in an attempt to find a defensive home. He has great raw power potential, a strong arm and good athleticism, but can't seem to put it all together. He hit .242 at Durham before a callup to the bigs, but his future at this point probably points to more of a utility role.
On the Radar
Sergio Pedroza, OF/C: The 2005 third-round pick out of Cal-Fullerton continued to put up the power numbers he posted in 2006, when he combined to hit .277 with 28 homers and 93 RBIs at three Minor League stops. Pedroza saw some time at catcher during instructional ball, and in 2007. He also continued to play games at his original outfield spot, which has only added to his value. Pedroza spent all of the 2007 season at Vero Beach, where he hit .286 with 22 homers and 70 RBIs before moving up to Montgomery for the playoffs. He hit a game-winning homer to give the Biscuits the Southern League title.
Chris Nowak, 1B: We predicted that despite the Rays' insistence on holding on to Wes Bankston, Nowak could emerge as the Rays' top first-base prospect. We were right. The 6-foot-5, 225-pounder continued to rack up the numbers, hitting .304 with seven homers, 55 RBIs and 18 steals at Montgomery after batting .308 with 11 homers and 103 RBIs at Visalia in 2006.
Heath Rollins, RHP: Rollins gets by more on finesse than pure stuff, but that was enough to get him 17 wins for a share of the Minor League lead. He finished at 17-4 with a 2.54 ERA for the Columbus Catfish, scattering 132 hits over 159 1/3 innings and striking out 149 while limiting Sally League hitters to a .223 average. The 2006 11th-round pick out of Winthrop put together a 43-inning scoreless streak over six starts. He did not allow an earned run in 12 of his 27 outings. Rollins was also dominant in the postseason, picking up wins in the openers of both playoff series.
Rhyne Hughes, 1B: An eighth-round pick in 2004, Hughes came out of nowhere after hitting .233 at Southwest Michigan in 2006. He won the Florida State League batting crown at Vero Beach after going .329 with 12 homers and 57 RBIs. He was hitting .295 with two homers and 15 RBIs with Montgomery when he was hit in the mouth by a pitch, which cost him four teeth and the remainder of the season.
2007 Draft Recap
1. David Price, LHP: Sometimes there are questions as to who will be the No. 1 pick. Not this year. The Rays got their man with minimal suspense, and the Vanderbilt ace signed with days to spare before the deadline. Price, 22, will make his pro debut in 2008, and he should move up quickly as the potential ace of the Tampa Bay rotation. He throws a fastball in the mid-90s, an outstanding slider and a plus-changeup.
2. Will Kline, RHP: The 23-year-old out of Mississippi was the lone Rays draft pick to make his pro debut at a full-season level, going 0-4 with a 4.97 ERA for Class A Columbus. He struck out 27 in 29 innings. Kline has a bulldog mentality and brings a solid mix of three average pitches.
3. Nick Barnese, RHP: The 18-year-old out of Simi Valley (Cal.) High School was impressive in his debut at short-season Princeton, posting a 3.22 ERA in nine games and walking just four while fanning 37 in 36 1/3 innings. He limited Appalachian League hitters to a .216 average with his live fastball and plus changeup.
Others of Note: LHP David Newmann (4) signed too late to pitch this year. The Texas A&M product was coming off of Tommy John surgery in '06. ... CF Emeel Salem (6) was a New York-Penn League All-Star at Short-Season Hudson Valley, hitting .311 with 28 steals. ... OF Reid Fronk (7) batted .311 with five homers and 27 RBIs for Hudson Valley. He's yet another prospect out of the loaded North Carolina program. ... 2B Cody Cipriano (9) was taken out of UC Irvine and hit .271 with six homers, 29 RBIs and 10 steals at Hudson Valley. ... OF Stephen Vogt (12) finished fifth in the New York-Penn League with 48 RBIs, hitting .300 for Hudson Valley in his debut out of Azusa Pacific. ... RHP Michael Southern (15) had a 2.45 ERA and six saves for Short-Season Princeton. ... RHP Joshua Johnson (16) went 8-2 with a 3.38 ERA at Hudson Valley. The Mississippi State product struck out 45 and walked 18 in 64 innings. ... RHP Kevin Boggan (19) posted a 1.33 ERA and seven saves in as many opportunities for Hudson Valley.
Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.