At the conclusion of the 2017 season, I got a chance to catch up with Neil Solondz of Rays Radio to discuss the 2017 season and preview the 2018 Charlotte Stone Crabs. Neil has covered the Rays organization as a broadcaster since 2004, and joined the Major League club's radio booth in 2012. Here is what he had to say:
JV: Despite a solid increase in wins from 2016 for the Rays, it still feels like a disappointing season because of how they finished. When you take a step back, how would you assess the way things played out overall?
NS: Your goal every year is to make the playoffs, and they fell short of that. I really thought they were in a good spot. And then for whatever reason, the offense really disappeared. That and not enough consistent starting pitching, for me, is why this team is going to fall short.
JV: You've covered the Rays' farm system closely. It seems to be not only improving, but thriving. Is this as well-stocked as you've seen it in a while?
NS: It's been as strong as it's been in a while. Maybe since right before things turned in 2008. Because then you had impact players like Longo and Price, and guys like Matt Moore and Alex Cobb who turned in to be more impactful players. It's as good as it's been in a long time. It was the fifth-best winning percentage in Minor League Baseball. So it wasn't number one, but it certainly was way up there in the top third.
JV: The Rays are known for developing pitching. Even though the Stone Crabs' pitching struggled in 2017, the top of the system seems to have plenty of promising arms.
NS: The upper level pitching and the lower level pitching is the strength. There's probably a gap. I was told that the Hudson Valley group was the best that they had, maybe ever.
JV: Looking ahead to the 2018 Stone Crabs season, the roster seems like it should be full of young, talented position players. Who should Stone Crabs fans be most excited about?
NS: There's two that play the outfield that jump right off the page. Jesus Sanchez, who I heard was an extremely mature 19-year-old in the Midwest League. It was a league that had Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and the Siri from Dayton and really stood on a level playing field with all of them. I would also put Josh Lowe up there, too. Josh made a position change and I'm told matured a great deal, moving from third base to center field. There are a lot of other guys that have a chance to impress. You'll probably see a lot of guys from the Hudson Valley team that won a championship, too.
JV: Brendan McKay is one of the most intriguing prospects in all of baseball and there's a decent chance he ends up in a Stone Crabs uniform in 2018. What are the chances the organization allows him to remain a two-way player throughout his pro career?
NS: I think they're going to give him all of 2018. You guys can look at Ryan Boldt, who didn't really put up great numbers in Hudson Valley, coming off a long college season, and they had a terrific year the following year. Brendan's offensive numbers are probably not as good as he wanted. His pitching numbers are really good. I think they really believe he has a chance to be impactful on both ends. The longer you let it play out, the better you get a good idea. The Rays have been known to push college players, especially their top picks, into High-A early. It's a question how Brendan does in the offseason and how ready he is when the season begins.
JV: There are many talented Rays prospects that are eligible for the Rule 5 Draft this December, many of whom played in Port Charlotte in the last 2-3 years. Which of those guys do you think could find themselves on the Rays' 40-man roster heading into Spring Training?
NS: Decision time is in November. The guys that I would think would be almost locks would be Jake Bauers and the top three pitchers in Durham - Yonny Chirinos, Brent Honeywell, Ryan Yarbrough, and then probably Diego Castillo. After that, there are a lot of guys that I think they're going to have to consider. They're going to have a lot of free agents and then a lot of decisions to make after that. I think there are going to be some others too. I wouldn't be surprised if they protected seven or eight guys, which would be the most they've had to do in a long time.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.