Each offseason, MiLB.com goes position by position across each system and honors the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organization. Click here to locate your favorite club.
There's no other way to put it: The Rays system enjoyed one of the best Minor League seasons in recent memory in 2021.
Triple-A Durham (86-44), High-A Bowling Green (82-36) and Low-A Charleston (82-38) all won 80-plus games -- the only Minor League teams to do so -- before securing postseason titles. The FCL Rays raised their own trophy with the Florida Complex League's best record (42-15) while Montgomery (62-55) finished second in the Double-A South before falling in the best-of-5 Finals against Mississippi, preventing Tampa Bay of a clean Minor League domestic championship sweep.
The five Tampa Bay affiliates finished with a combined for a remarkable .653 winning percentage. To put that into context, only the Giants (.660) and Dodgers (.654) at the Major League level compiled a better individual winning percentage than the Rays had across their squads.
"I think it all starts very, very early in scouting," said Bowling Green manager Jeff Smith. "We get a lot of really talented players from our scouting side. The next step is -- from the pitching side of it to the position player side -- everybody's on the same page of development, of how we're going to develop these players and make them into the best players that we can for a Major League team. Being on the same page is in our DNA. The managers, the coaches, all the departments have an equal part in trying to make these guys the best they can be."
Rays Organization All-Stars
Catcher -- René Pinto, Montgomery (41 games), Durham (52 games): Pinto was technically a Minor League free agent last offseason for all of two weeks before he re-signed with Tampa Bay, the organization he'd been with since October 2013. One year later, he has not only played himself to within shouting distance of the Majors.
Pinto enjoyed a breakout season in which he batted .274/.325/.500 over 93 games at the Minors' top two levels. His 20 homers smashed his previous career high of eight and were tied for 12th-most among Minor League catchers in 2021. Twelve of the 20 came at Durham, proving that the 25-year-old had no issue carrying his improved pop higher up the chain.
Despite the improvement at the plate, the Venezuela native might still be best known for his defensive prowess. Pinto threw out 21 of 56 (37.5 percent) of attempted basestealers and was 12-for-23 on caught-stealings at Triple-A. His all-around play has him in the 40-man mix now, and a 2022 Major League debut appears likely.
First baseman -- Jonathan Aranda, Bowling Green (21 games), Montgomery (79 games): Signed out of Mexico in July 2015, Aranda’s breakout came in his second trip to a full-season level.
The 23-year-old infielder hit .351/.449/.554 over 21 games at High-A Bowling Green, prompting a quick move to Montgomery, where he was just as dominant. Aranda was named Double-A South MVP after hitting .325/.410/.540 with 10 homers over 322 plate appearances for the Biscuits. His 162 wRC+ was highest among all Double-A qualifiers, beating out prominent prospects like MJ Melendez (157), Adley Rutschman (145) and Riley Greene (145) in the category.
Combined between the two stops, Aranda led all Rays Minor League qualifiers in average (.330), OBP (.418), slugging percentage (.543), OPS (.962) and wRC+ (164). It’ll be necessary for him to produce offensively the closer he gets to St. Petersburg. Aranda got the vast majority of his Montgomery reps at first base after previously getting more looks at second and third.
Second baseman -- Brett Wisely, Charleston (69 games), Bowling Green (31 games): Wisely may have gotten overlooked a bit as a 2019 15th-rounder who signed for $125,000 out of a Florida junior college, but he certainly put himself on the map in his first full Minor League season.
With 19 homers and 31 steals, he fell one dinger shy of joining the elusive 20-20 club this season. Instead, he joined fellow Org All-Star Josh Lowe as the only Rays Minor Leaguers with at least 19 in each category. He hit .301/.376/.503 over 440 plate appearances and saved his best slash line (.321/.418/.589) for Bowling Green following an Aug. 10 promotion.
"The thing that really stuck out in our mind about Brett was just his bat-to-ball skills," Smith said. "He has very, very good bat control. There weren't too many pitches that he could not square up all over the zone, and he showed some real ability in all sorts of counts to really drive the baseball pull-side. The other thing was he makes himself an extremely tough out with two strikes."
In true Rays style, the 22-year-old also saw time at first and third base to help with versatility, but the bulk of his reps came at the keystone.
Third baseman -- Curtis Mead, Charleston (47 games), Bowling Green (53 games), Durham (four games): The Australia native catapulted from a minor piece in a November 2019 trade to a must-watch prospect in 2021.
Mead was a breakout star with the bat in his first taste of full-season ball. His .356 average for Charleston was second among Low-A hitters (minimum 200 plate appearances), while his .994 OPS placed fifth at the level. He hit .282/.348/.466 with seven homers in 53 games for Bowling Green following an early July promotion, and if that wasn't enough, he went 6-for-14 (.429) with a homer and two doubles during a four-game emergency callup to Triple-A in September. He achieved all this while showing solid raw power and striking out in only 15.5 percent of his plate appearances.
"One thing for a young kid that stuck out for me is he doesn't throw away any at-bats," Smith said. "If he has three at-bats in the game, if he has six at-bats in the game, it doesn't matter. He even wins pitches. I mean he wins every pitch. He doesn't just win at-bats. He's out there competing, and that's a really cool attribute for a young player. ... You're gonna see a lot more doubles turning into home runs these next few years the way the ball is jumping off his bat."
The 21-year-old saw time at the corner infield spots this summer, but it wouldn't be a shock to see him move around even more the closer he gets to St. Petersburg. Following yet another strong showing in the Arizona Fall League, it's clear that the Rays will want to do whatever they can to get Mead's promising right-handed bat in the lineup as much as possible.
Shortstop -- Greg Jones, Bowling Green (56 games), Montgomery (16 games): Tampa Bay's No. 5 prospect is known for his plus-plus speed, and he put that to good use by ranking second among Rays Minor Leaguers with 34 stolen bases. He was caught stealing only twice, and it was that efficiency that led the organization to name him as its Minor League Baserunner of the Year.
But Jones is more than just a burner, as he proved in 2021. The 2019 first-rounder hit .270/.366/.482 with 14 homers over his 72 games during the summer. His 128 wRC+ was highest among Rays Minor League shortstops with at least 300 plate appearances. With Wander Franco now graduated, Jones slides into the role of top shortstop prospect in the Tampa Bay system.
"People are going to talk about speed right away, but I think the other part that we get excited about too is just how hard he hits baseballs," Smith said. "He's in the upper echelon of exit velocity. He really, really hits balls hard. It's a different type of sound when it comes off his bat, and that gets exciting to see all the time."
Josh Lowe, Durham (111 games), Tampa Bay (two games): The 2016 13th overall pick enjoyed his best professional season yet -- and not just because he made his Major League debut.
With 22 homers and 26 steals, Lowe was one of 16 20-20 players in the Minor Leagues last summer and the only one in the Tampa Bay system to do so. He did more offensively than just show off his power and speed tools, as evidenced by a .291/.381/.535 line with Durham. All three slash-line stats represented career highs. The Rays tapped the 23-year-old as their Minor League Player of the Year, and Lowe was also named to the Triple-A East end-of-season All-Star team.
His range and arm in the outfield also draw raves, and even Tampa Bay had to admit that he may have gotten more Major League looks in another organization that didn’t have such a clogged outfield depth chart. Those extended opportunities in The Show should come in 2022.
Diego Infante, Charleston (101 games), Bowling Green (five games): An Appalachian League All-Star in 2019, Infante is now 2-for-2 when it comes to end-of-season honors at stateside non-complex circuits. The 22-year-old was honored by the Low-A East this season after he ranked second among the circuit's qualifiers with a .507 slugging percentage and .899 OPS. He also batted .296 with a .393 OBP and added 16 homers and 20 steals while with the RiverDogs.
Infante was called up to Bowling Green in time for the club's playoff push and showed no signs of struggle. He went 10-for-20 with a pair of doubles in that regular-season cameo.
Jordan Qsar, Bowling Green (98 games): The 2018 25th-rounder was named to the High-A East's end-of-season All-Star team after a dominant summer with the Hot Rods. His 23 homers, .903 OPS and 138 wRC+ all placed third among qualifiers in the circuit. Qsar hit .257/.366/.536 over 405 plate appearances and added 15 steals. Strikeouts (32.6 percent K rate) and age (26 as of Dec. 2) could be a concern, but the overall production from the Pepperdine product was noteworthy for seasonal awards.
"As he gets better with his pitch selection, the home runs and doubles just get to add up," Smith said.
Right-handed starting pitcher -- Taj Bradley, Charleston (15 games, 14 starts), Bowling Green (eight games, eight starts): There might not be a more loaded group of candidates among any Organization All-Star list this season. Yet when it comes down to it, it’s tough to argue against the Minor League ERA leader.
Not only was Bradley’s 1.83 ERA best among full-season qualifiers, it was the only mark below 2.10 in that group. The 20-year-old posted sub-2.00 ERAs at both of his stops and finished with 123 strikeouts and only 31 walks in 103 1/3 innings overall. He was honored back in November as the MiLBY winner for Top Starting Pitcher in 2021.
"Things that excited me about Taj was just his consistency and the life on his fastball," Smith said of the right-hander, who touched the upper-90s at times in 2021. "He goes to a whole new gear. His fastball gets stronger almost as the game gets on, and it's such a clean motion that when it gets to the plate it looks like it actually picks up velocity. Not many guys can do that."
Honorable mention: Shane Baz would be an easy call here in the vast majority of other systems. The 22-year-old posted a 2.06 ERA and 0.80 WHIP with 113 strikeouts and only 13 walks in 78 2/3 innings between Double-A and Triple-A prior to his Major League debut on Sept. 20. The difference in innings between him and Bradley made a difference here, but it's important to note that it was the result of Baz's Team USA participation during the Summer Olympics in Japan.
Left-handed starting pitcher -- John Doxakis, Charleston (seven games, seven starts), Bowling Green (16 games, 14 starts): Doxakis' successes in 2021 start with his ability to find the zone consistently. He walked only three batters in 29 2/3 innings at Low-A and only 16 in 72 1/3 frames at High-A. His 4.6 percent BB rate was lowest among Rays qualifiers and 16th-best among Minor Leaguers with at least 100 frames in 2021.
That led to a 3.97 ERA and 0.99 WHIP over his 23 appearances at both full-season stops. His 4.60 ERA with the Hot Rods may not have stood out, but a 3.79 FIP speaks more to his capabilities at the higher level. The 2019 second-rounder has the three-pitch mix to work in longer roles, and his strike-throwing should give his starting chances an even bigger boost.
Relief pitcher -- Colby White, Charleston (11 games), Bowling Green (15 games), Montgomery (eight games), Durham (nine games): It was a year of constant movement for the 2019 sixth-rounder -- and constant domination.
White played at all four full-season Rays affiliates this summer and didn't post an ERA above 2.31 or a WHIP above 1.03 at any of them. His 1.44 ERA, 2.09 FIP, 0.66 WHIP, 45.0 strikeout percentage and .123 batting average-against were all tops among the 743 Minor Leaguers with at least 60 innings pitched. (White finished with 62 1/3 frames across the four clubs.) Thirty-five of his 43 appearances were scoreless, and he didn't allow more than two runs in any of those outings.
The 6-foot right-hander, armed with a mid-90s fastball and above-average slider, was an easy selection as the MiLBY Top Reliever, and with the way the Rays were willing to push him in 2021, he could feature in the club's Major League relief plans early next summer.
"When you watch him pitch and you watch him on the mound, he reminds me a little bit of Craig Kimbrel," Smith said. "It's similar size, similar explosiveness. The best thing I can say is he's got three good pitches and he knows how to compete and knows how to get guys out with those three pitches."
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.