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Gillaspie, Adames shine brightly for Rays
Infielders enjoy career years; hurler Honeywell continues his ascent
12/14/2016 10:00 AM ET
Former first-rounder Casey Gillaspie collected a career-high 64 RBIs across two levels this season. (Chris Baird)

This offseason, MiLB.com will be honoring the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organizations. We're taking a look at each team to determine the outstanding seasons in Minor League baseball.

As the organization continues to develop, the Rays are starting to put themselves in good position.

"We're known for pitching. We need to get better with positional players, and I think we're getting better with the likes of Daniel Robertson, Willy Adames, Jake Bauers, Casey Gillaspie," said Tampa Bay director of Minor League operations Mitch Lukevics, taking time out during the Winter Meetings to review the 2016 system. "We're happy with the influx of Latin players. We look forward to more kids coming to the United States because our Latin program has really stepped up."

Seven prospects made their Major League debuts, while Rookie-level Princeton, Class A Short Season Hudson Valley and Class A Bowling Green all posted winning percentages above .500.

Rays Organization All-Stars

Catcher -- Brett Sullivan, Bowling Green (118 games): This year not only represented Sullivan's first full season as a pro, but also his first behind the plate since high school. The 22-year-old handled both milestones well, leading the organization with 81 RBIs and throwing out 38 percent of would-be basestealers for the Class A Hot Rods. The University of the Pacific product also slugged 13 homers and posted a .283 average.



"He needs to work behind the plate, but he has the ability to really impact the baseball. You can see by home runs and RBIs that this young guy is a run producer," said Lukevics. "In his young journey, he's going to have to pick up the pace a little bit behind the plate, but we're happy where he's at and his journey looks promising."

First baseman -- Casey Gillaspie, Montgomery (85 games), Durham (47 games): After an injury limited the 2014 first-round pick to 79 games in his first full season, he took advantage of his playing time in 2016. Gillaspie topped the system with 18 homers while notching career highs with a .284 average and a .388 on-base percentage en route to be named the Rays' Minor League Player of the Year.

Gillaspie proved he was ready for Triple-A Durham, advancing to his fifth level in just three seasons. The switch-hitter finished the year with a .307 average for the Bulls. Lukevics is pleased with Gillaspie's fielding, but said "it's all about the bat."

"We jumped him to Triple-A, where he responded very well. We thought he was ready for it mentally -- he was certainly ready for it physically. How do you know if you've made the right move? How they perform. And we're happy about that for him," said Lukevics. "We're happy where the bat is, both right-handed and left-handed."

Second baseman -- Robbie Tenerowicz, Princeton (58 games): Selected in the 27th round of the June Draft out of the University of California, Tenerowicz surprised many during his pro debut. The 21-year-old led Rookie-level Princeton with 38 RBIs while hitting .291, swatting six homers and working 15 walks. Tenerowicz was nearly perfect at second base with just one error all season.

"Robbie came in here really uncelebrated and really played well for our Princeton club," Lukevics said. "Some of these guys come in a little more celebrated, but most of them all get an opportunity to play. Robbie's a hard-nosed player and did a heck of a job."

Third baseman -- Kean Wong, Montgomery (117 games): In his fourth season, the brother of Major Leaguer Kolten Wong made a name for himself. The 21-year-old set career highs with five long balls, 56 RBIs, 31 walks and 22 doubles for the Double-A Biscuits.

"What Kean offers is that bat-ball ability; he really puts the ball in play," Lukevics said. "He's a line-drive gap hitter that can hit the ball out of the ballpark, but he really puts the bat on the ball."

Wong showed off his versatility this season by moving to the hot corner, but he continues to be a strong option for the Rays at second.

Shortstop -- Willy Adames, Montgomery (132 games): Adames continued to prove why he's the Rays' top prospect, achieving personal bests with a .274 average, 11 homers, 74 walks and 13 stolen bases in Double-A during his age-20 season. (He turned 21 on Sept. 2.)

While his defense continues to have room for improvement -- he made 22 errors this year -- Adames is on track to reach his fifth level in five seasons.

"Willy has 'it.' He has great intangibles, and he has very good skill at a very young age," Lukevics said. "We still have to have some patience with Willy, but he's on the right track to be with our Durham club certainly next year. He's very capable."

Outfielders

Jesus Sanchez, GCL Rays (42 games), Princeton (14 games): Although Sanchez only turned 19 in October, he proved to have one of the best bats in the system. The left-handed hitter led all Rays Minor Leaguers with a .329 average in 213 at-bats across two levels. As Sanchez ventured away from the complex leagues, his defense remained an asset -- he committed just two errors all year.

"His future's bright. Very few kids who come over from the Dominican get off the plane and hit the way that he has," Lukevics said. "We're happy for him -- he has a great smile, he has a great personality, works hard, but what really stood out was his ability to impact the baseball. It was profound."

Jake Bauers, Montgomery (135 games): Following a breakout second half the previous season, Bauers kept it going with a strong 2016. With good bat speed and "ice in his veins," the 21-year-old collected career highs with 14 homers and 78 RBIs to rank among the top four hitters in the organization.

"Jake is a very mature 21-year-old," Lukevics said, "and I think that really helps him to be a good hitter. He has a really good idea at the plate and because of who he is, it helps him be the type of hitter he is.

"Some handle failure better, and some can't handle failure, so with all that, Jake's maturation stands out to me."

Joe McCarthy, Bowling Green (43 games), Charlotte (61 games): In his first full season, McCarthy found his groove, ranking eighth in the system with a .285 average. The University of Virginia product also showed off some power, belting eight homers across two levels after not leaving the yard in 49 games the previous year.

"It's truly hard to hit home runs in the Florida State League, but here's another guy who has a good average, a good bat-ball ratio and he has good contact and some pop," Lukevics said. "And he's a big kid who can run and he gives us some versatility between first base and the outfield."

Honorable mention: Jake Fraley led the system with 33 stolen bases for Class A Short Season Hudson Valley.

Utility player -- Michael Russell, Bowling Green (109 games): Russell sped through his first full season with 29 stolen bases to tie for second in the organization. The University of North Carolina product hit .293 with 41 extra-base hits and 48 RBIs for the Hot Rods. After spending his entire first season at shortstop, Russell moved around this year, seeing time all around the horn and in left and right.

"He played a lot of different positions. He's versatile, he's a good athlete and with being a good athlete and being a gamer and [having] hustle, you see a lot of stolen bases," Lukevics said. "He's a guy who can turn a single into a double, he can go first to home, he has that aggressiveness. He's just a [darn] good player."

Right-handed starter -- Brent Honeywell, Charlotte (10 games), Montgomery (10 games): With lefty Blake Snell graduating to the Majors, Honeywell took his place atop the Rays' pitching prospects. The right-hander led the organization with a 2.34 ERA en route to being named the Rays' Minor League Pitcher of the Year. With his signature screwball, Honeywell sported a 7-3 record with 17 strikeouts and 25 walks over 115 1/3 innings.

"He has a repeatable delivery with very good stuff -- his pitching IQ is something not too many have," Lukevics said.

Honorable mention: Jaime Schultz led the system with 163 strikeouts in 130 2/3 innings for Durham.

Left-handed starter -- Travis Ott, Hudson Valley (13 games): While the Rays were cautious with Ott, keeping him at Short-Season Hudson Valley for a second straight season, he proved he's ready for the next level. After adjusting his arm angle, the 6-foot-4 lefty posted a 1.06 ERA with 61 punchouts and 18 walks in 59 1/3 innings for the Renegades.

"Travis dominated the New York-Penn League," Lukevics said. "He dominated statistically and he's going to move to the next level next year for sure."

More Organization All-Stars

Relief pitcher -- Mike Franco, Charlotte (33 games): As the season went on, Franco proved himself more and more valuable for the Class A Advanced Stone Crabs. The right-hander notched a 1.89 ERA with 73 strikeouts and 35 walks in 71 1/3 innings.

Toward the end of the campaign, injuries and promotions created holes in the Charlotte rotation, and Franco stepped up in a long relief role. He collected four saves while also making three starts in the final month of the season.

"He showed great versatility. It's really good that in the different roles he pitched in, he responded well," Lukevics said. "He did well, and that really bodes well for him."

Kelsie Heneghan is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @Kelsie_Heneghan. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.
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