Hellickson, Vogt among Rays' brightest

Tampa Bay organization looks rich with power, speed, pitching

Jeremy Hellickson led all Triple-A starters with a 2.45 ERA this year. (Carl Kline/MiLB.com)

By Josh Jackson / Special to MLB.com | December 13, 2010 5:00 AM

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

Since the Rays elbowed their way to the top of the hyper-competitive American League East Division in 2008, winning has become an expectation in the Tampa Bay system. This year, that culture was evident throughout the organization.

Five of the seven stateside affiliates -- including the three at the highest Minor League levels -- finished the season with winning records, and three teams (the Triple-A Durham Bulls, the Class A Advanced Charlotte Stone Crabs and the Rookie-level GCL Rays) made it to the Finals in their league playoffs.

The system that produced Carl Crawford, David Price and B.J. Upton boasts a new wave of potential Major League All-Stars such as Jeremy Hellickson, Tyler Bortnick and Leslie Anderson, each of whom put together a standout 2010 campaign.

Rays organizational All-Stars

Catcher -- Mayobanex Acosta, Bowling Green (32 games), Hudson Valley (51 games): Acosta had a .992 fielding percentage in the Midwest League, and he threw out an incredible .578 percent of would-be base stealers (he caught 26 thieves in 45 chances) in the New York-Penn League.

The 23-year-old Dominican also wielded a potent stick in his first season of more than 55 games. He hit .258 with a .313 on-base percentage and 24 extra-base hits in 83 games. He really found his groove as the season wound down, opening the final nine games by homering in two straight and collecting nine RBIs over that stretch. He was 4-for-4 with a double, two runs scored and two RBIs in the last contest of the summer.

Mark Thomas, who hit .264 with 21 doubles as the backstop for the Class A Bowling Green Hot Rods, also deserves a nod. Thomas was hitless with a walk in one Florida State League game.

First base -- Chris Richard, Durham (117 games): Richard, who played 82 games at first base and 11 in the outfield, belted 20 home runs while batting .300 in Triple-A ball for the first time in five seasons of at least 100 games at the Minors' highest level.

While Richard, who turned 36 in the middle of the season, isn't exactly a young prospect with an unknown ceiling, Durham Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo praises Richard's work ethic and talent.

"That guy's a true professional," he said. "He just plays the game the right way. Even though he was 35 [when the season started], he had a great season. I've had him for four straight years in Triple-A. He's one of my favorites. He knows how to play the game."

Richard banged out 39 doubles to lead the International League in that category, and his .300 average was sixth-highest among Rays Minor Leaguers.

"I think he was thinking of retiring, but the year he had... I'm hoping we can sign him back. He can still play," said Montoyo, the IL's Manager of the Year. "Of course he's not really a prospect anymore, because he's [36] years old, but he can still play. He showed that this year -- he's a guy who can really play."

Phillip Wunderlich, a 12th-round pick in this year's Draft, also impressed, hitting .350 and posting a .478 slugging percentage over 52 games with Hudson Valley.

Second base -- Tyler Bortnick, Bowling Green (113 games), Charlotte (12 games): Bortnick, a 16th-rounder out of the 2009 Draft, enjoyed a solid first full season. He hit .295 with a .400 on-base percentage and a .445 slugging percentage while stealing 41 bases across Class A and Class A Advanced ball. His theft total ties him for second among Rays Minor Leaguers.

The 23-year-old Mentor, Ohio native spent the vast majority of the season at second base, but he also filled in at shortstop and DH.

In the New York-Penn League, 2010 13th-round Draft pick Robby Price stole 13 bases and was caught just once, and he also led the loop with a .437 on-base percentage and 15 hit-by-pitches while posting a .423 slugging percentage.

Third base -- Dan Johnson, Durham (98 games): The International League MVP, Johnson feasted on Triple-A pitching from the second game of the season -- in which he was 3-for-4 with the first of 30 IL leading home runs -- through July 31 -- when he clubbed No. 30 and earned his seventh RBI in six games. The next game he played was in the big leagues, where he stayed until the end of the season.

"He was the best hitter in that league, hands down," said Montoyo. "He was one of the reasons we had a great year. The funny thing about him is, he can play good defense now. He plays the game hard, everything is hard with him -- plays defense hard, he swings hard, he runs hard."

Montoyo said that Johnson's 30 longballs and 95 RBIs in just 98 games highlight the one downside to his promotion to the Majors.

"If he didn't get called up, he would have broken some records, I bet."

Johnson, who first cracked a Triple-A roster in 2004, hit .303 while drawing 75 walks and striking out 71 times this season.

Henry Wrigley belted 21 home runs between Class A Advanced and Double-A ball, and Nicholas Schwaner, a 30th-round pick in this year's Draft, hit .280 with 53 RBIs and 36 runs for Short-Season Hudson Valley Renegades.

Shortstop -- Elliot Johnson, Durham (109 games): Durham's other Johnson infielder, Elliot, led the team with a .319 average while stealing 30 bases in 36 attempts and scoring 72 runs. Johnson was also strong on defense, making 13 errors all season long.

"Elliot Johnson, he's played for me [for] like six years. This was his best season yet," his skipper said. "He became a very good player. He can play shortstop really well.

"The best thing I can say about him is, I can have him playing in right field all game and bring him in to play shortstop in the ninth inning with the game on the line. That's a pretty big compliment, to be able to say that about a guy."

Johnson, who debuted as a pro in 2002, has played in seven Major League games, all of them coming during an April 2008 cup of coffee.

"He should have a good chance to make the big leagues next year," Montoyo said.


Justin Ruggiano, Durham (117 games): Ruggiano matched his 2009 IL homer total of 15 while hitting .287 compared to last year's .253 mark. Add to that 24 stolen bases and you've got one well-rounded outfielder.

"Justin, he's a complete player," Montoyo said. "He's a good player, he's a good outfielder, he's a good base runner, and he hits for average. He's just waiting for his opportunity. I'm hoping he's going to get it next year, because he doesn't have anything else to do in Triple-A."

Going back to 2007, Ruggiano has amassed 480 hits, 61 homers and 93 stolen bases in a Bulls uniform.

Leslie Anderson, Charlotte (21 games), Montgomery (48 games), Durham (30 games): Anderson, a Cuban defector who signed with the Rays in March, made steady progress throughout the summer.

The Tampa Bay front office started Anderson in Class A Advanced Charlotte, but he proved ready for Double-A after just three weeks in the Florida State League. Having hit .304 with 11 doubles, a triple and six homers over 48 games with Montgomery, Anderson was even more consistent in Triple-A ball. He hit .328 over 30 games with the Bulls.

"He could hit. He's a big hitter. I didn't know what to expect," admitted Montoyo. He was pleasantly surprised. "He plays the game the right way, and he's a good hitter. He had no problems at the plate at that league. No problems at all at the plate. We just have to find out where he works best in the field, if that's left field or first base."

Desmond Jennings, Durham (109 games): Jennings, who was named MLB.com's No. 6 Top Prospect coming into the season, saw his hopes of making the Rays roster dashed by a Spring Training wrist injury. Although he was plagued by pain all season long and stayed with Durham for all but 17 Major League games, he played through the discomfort. He totaled 111 hits, 25 doubles, six triples, three homers and 37 stolen bases over 109 IL games.

If he can put up those numbers hurt at Triple-A, he may be able to alleviate Rays fans' post-Carl Crawford blues when he's healthy.

"He battled injuries the whole year. He still did OK, but [it was] not the year that we hoped he would have," said Montoyo. "He couldn't play 100 percent -- he wasn't at 100 percent [throughout] the year -- but he still had a good year. That's to his credit. And he's a very good outfielder too. If he can do what he did and not be 100 percent..."

Honorable mention must go to three young speedsters who also proved to be capable hitters: Isaias Velasquez (.289 in 127 games at Charlotte), Ty Morrison (65 runs, 56 RBIs, 21 doubles and 13 triples at Bowling Green) and Kevin Kiermaier (.303 and 44 runs in 57 games at Rookie-level Princeton). Velasquez, the oldest, is 22.

Designated hitter -- Stephen Vogt, Charlotte (106 games): Vogt was a major part of the Stone Crabs' outstanding season. They won more regular season games (80) than any other Florida State League club but lost the title series to Tampa, 3-1. The 26-year-old DH occasionally spelled as first baseman, outfielder and catcher while leading the league and the entire Rays system with a .345 batting average.

Vogt also showed power, leading the circuit with a .511 slugging percentage and slapping out 31 doubles in the thick Florida air.

Right-handed starting pitcher -- Jeremy Hellickson, Durham (21 games), Charlotte (one game): Hellickson was named the International League's Most Valuable Pitcher after leading all Triple-A starters with a 2.45 ERA and leading the IL with 9.41 punchouts per nine innings pitched, and he also placed second in fan voting for Triple-A's best starter.

His manager thinks the 23-year-old righty deserves those accolades and more.

"That kid, he deserves all the credit for just doing his job in Triple-A and not worrying about getting called up or anything," despite the ever-present possibility that he would be jumping into the Rays rotation, said Montoyo. "He just did his job and never complained and that's why he had the year he had."

Hellickson was strong over 10 big league games -- four starts -- too. He went 4-0 with a 3.47 ERA and 33 strikeouts while walking only eight.

"[Durham pitching coach] Xavier Hernandez should get some credit too -- he worked with Jeremy a lot, and made sure he was where the organization needed him to be," Montoyo said.

"The joke in the clubhouse was, 'Is Jeremy gonna work today or is he gonna pitch?' because they always had him working on this pitch or that pitch instead of just pitching a game, and he still had a really good year."

Left-handed starting pitcher -- Matthew Moore, Charlotte (26 games): Moore was named Florida State League Pitcher of the Week four times this season, and his 208 strikeouts amounted to 35 more than any other Class A Advanced hurler piled up.

Moore walked just 61, and his 6-11 record belies just how successful he was this year. He notched a 3.36 ERA and held opposing hitters to a .210 batting average and recorded double-digit strikeouts in 10 separate starts.

The southpaw, who turned 21 this summer, came to the Rays in the eighth round of the 2007 Draft and was 8-5 with a 3.15 ERA in the South Atlantic League in 2009, his first full season.

Relief pitcher -- Zachary Quate, Charlotte (49 games): Quate led the Rays Minor League system with 25 saves, which he picked up in 27 opportunities. He was third in the Florida State League in that category.

The right-hander was 2-2 with a 1.49 ERA, striking out 90 and walking 18 over 72 1/3 innings. Quate, a 14th-rounder from last year's Draft, gave up just two home runs all season long.

Opposing hitters managed just a .199 batting average against Quate, who fanned 11.20 batters per nine innings pitched.

Winston Abreu, the 2009 MiLBY Award winner for Best Triple-A Reliever, turned in another incredible season at the same level; he went 0-4 with 23 saves and a 2.28 ERA. Matt Gorgen, whom the Rays sent to the D-backs in September to complete a July deal for Chad Qualls, was dazzling for Double-A Montgomery, going 3-2 with a 1.65 ERA and 22 saves.

Josh Jackson is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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