Speedy stingers lead Tampa Bay farm

Rays prospects are fast -- on the bases, through organization

Richie Shaffer led Class A Advanced Charlotte with 73 RBIs in 2013. (Mark LoMoglio/MiLB.com)

By Kelsie Heneghan / MiLB.com | December 12, 2013 5:00 AM

This offseason, MiLB.com is 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. Select a team from the dropdown below.

The spotlight shined bright on the Rays farm system this year, with Wil Myers earning Rookie of the Year honors. Myers, who was drafted by the Royals before attending a brief finishing school with Triple-A Durham, is a prime example of Tampa Bay's favorite Minor League practice: trade for talent, grow it as its own. But things are changing in the depths of the system: after several barren classes, the Rays are drafting better, and more and more of their young stars were originally signed by the club, which is the case for most of the players listed below.

Like the Major League club, three Rays' affiliates reached the playoffs. Triple-A Durham won the Governors' Cup to advance to the Triple-A National Championship before losing to Myers' former team, Omaha. Class A Advanced Charlotte made it to the Florida State League Championship Series, while Class A Bowling Green was eliminated in the opening round of the Midwest League playoffs.

After chatting with three managers in the Rays' farm system, we learned that the organization's top youngsters move quickly -- on the basepaths and up the ladder. From an outfielder who led the Midwest League in triples to a pitcher who went from Double-A ball to the Majors in a matter of weeks, Rays prospects are just plain fast.

Rays Organization All-Stars

Catcher -- Curt Casali, Charlotte (46 games), Montgomery (35 games): Although he needed a brief adjustment period after he was acquired from the Tigers, Casali helped turn the Stone Crabs' season around, according to manager Brady Williams. The Vanderbilt product continued that success in Double-A, leading the Biscuits with a .383 average during his 35-game Southern League stint.

"He's an offensive catcher, he swings the bat well, gives you good at-bats, but also his leadership qualities on the field, I think those are his top two traits," Williams said. "He's working hard on his throwing. Once he gets that, he receives the ball pretty well -- he just needs to work on the agility a little bit behind the plate."

Honorable Mention -- Luke Maile, Durham (95 games): The 21-year-old split time between first base and catcher, but his work behind the plate is most notable as he threw out 51 percent of would-be basestealers.

First base -- Leslie Anderson, Durham (119 games): In his fourth pro season, Anderson led Durham with 14 homers and 74 RBIs.

"He's done everything that needs to be done at the Triple-A level to get to the big leagues, but the chance hasn't been there," said Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo, who's worked with the Cuba native for three years. "He's a good hitter and a good professional."

With James Loney gone via free agency, Anderson could make his Major League debut as early as April. He edged Bulls teammate Vince Belnome (see below) for All-Star honors at first base, due mostly to the number of games he played at the position.

Second base -- Thomas Coyle, Bowling Green (121 games): In his first full Minor League season, the University of North Carolina product stole 40 bases while getting caught only eight times. Coyle also led the Hot Rods with 184 total bases, 24 doubles and 91 walks, helping him post a .399 on-base percentage.

"He's not the biggest kid but a kid that has pretty good bat speed and 'hitability' -- his ability to get on base," Bowling Green manager Jared Sandberg said. "Defensively, he was solid, made all the routine plays. I'm pretty sure, in my opinion, he improved his range over the course of the season."

The 23-year-old committed 12 errors in 121 games, a vast improvement from the 14 errors he totaled in only 66 games with short-season Hudson Valley a year earlier. Sandberg also noted that Coyle's ability to turn the double play has improved markedly.

Third base -- Richie Shaffer, Charlotte (122 games): As a 2012 first-round pick and the Rays' No. 9 prospect, Coyle began the season under a degree of pressure. Once he was able to relax and just play the game, his talent spoke for itself.

The Clemson product used an improved second half to lead the Stone Crabs with 33 doubles, 73 RBIs and 187 total bases. After Shaffer struggled heading into the Florida State League All-Star break, Williams saw the 22-year-old work "very, very hard" on his defense. It reached the point that, if the ball was hit to third, the batter was "pretty much out," the manager said.

"I think he takes pride in being a guy who can hit in the middle of the order. When you hit 3-4-5, that's why you hit there -- to drive guys in," Williams said. "He wants to be up there in those situations. He definitely wants to drive guys in, so his at-bats are a little bit better."

Shortstop -- Tim Beckham, Durham (122 games), Tampa Bay (five games): After highly touted prospect Hak-Ju Lee injured his knee 15 games into the season, Beckham moved from second base to short for his sixth pro season. The top overall pick in the 2008 Draft improved offensively and defensively enough to get a September callup, then went 3-for-7 with an RBI with Tampa Bay.

"He had a lot of pressure at first because he is a first-rounder overall," Montoyo said, adding, "everybody said he's supposed to be in the bigs by now, but he's still a young kid -- it's just taking him a little bit longer than other people. But he's got all the tools and he did a great job this year, played a very good shortstop."

Ranked 16th among Rays prospects, Beckham's best asset may be his speed. The Georgia native led the Bulls and tied for second in the International League with seven triples, just two behind Lehigh Valley's Cesar Hernandez.


Willie Argo, Charlotte (95 games): The University of Illinois stolen base record-holder remained a force on the bases in his second pro season, swiping a team-best 37 bags for the Stone Crabs. He also excelled defensively, committing two errors in 182 total chances.

Williams considers his team's MVP to be "a baseball player" for his hard work and dedication, saying Argo reminds him of former big leaguer Matt Diaz.

"They're not going to wow you with tools, so to speak, but every year they're just going to keep going out there and putting up numbers and playing well and helping teams win," Williams said. "And then, next thing you know, they're playing 10 games in the big leagues. So he's just that kind of player -- he's a gamer-type of player."

Andrew Toles, Bowling Green (121 games): The Rays' Minor League Player of the Year entered his sophomore season focused solely on offense and ended up leading the Midwest League with a .326 average and 62 steals. Once he shifted some attention to his defense, he became a more complete player.

"He got better, the jumps got better, the routes got better, the confidence got better, the attention to detail got better as the season went along," Sandberg said. "Just with pure speed and athleticism, he can go gap-to-gap like nobody else."

Sandberg said he was excited by how quickly the 21-year-old could change the game with a leadoff double or triple or by employing his speed to force catchers into mistakes.

Brandon Guyer, Durham (98 games): Like many of his fellow Rays All-Stars, Guyer makes this list due partly to his speed. Along with Rich Thompson and Jason Bourgeois, he led Durham with 22 stolen bases and tied Kevin Kiermaier for second with six triples, just one behind Beckham. Guyer missed most of August with a fractured middle finger and, after the Minor League season ended, was placed on the 60-day DL. He remains on the Rays' 40-man roster.

For his speed and skill set, as well as his injury history, the 2007 fifth-round pick reminds Montoyo of another former Bull.

"They can hit for average, they have power, they can steal bases, they can play good outfield, so [Guyer] reminds me of [Justin] Ruggiano when he was with us," Montoyo said.

Utility -- Vince Belnome, Durham (127 games): The day before the 2013 season, Belnome was promoted to Triple-A, a decision for which Montoyo was thankful.

"We knew he was a good hitter, but we didn't know he was that good -- he had an outstanding year," Montoyo said. "He was a player of surprise this year."

Montoyo used Belnome mainly at first base, although he also saw time at second and third as well as designated hitter. In November, the Rays added him to the 40-man roster to prevent him from being selected in the Rule 5 Draft. Like Anderson, he's a top internal candidate to replace Loney if the Rays do not re-sign him.

Honorable Mention -- Alejandro Segovia, Charlotte (109 games): After moving out from behind the plate, Segovia split his 2013 season between first base and DH in order to get more at-bats. With those extra opportunities, the 23-year-old Venezuelan had his best season statistically since 2009, leading the Stone Crabs with 44 walks and tying Jeff Malm for the team lead with 14 homers.

"He just has no fear and he's looking to hit the ball hard somewhere," Williams said.

Right-handed starting pitcher -- Dylan Floro, Bowling Green (19 games), Charlotte (four games): Floro, who turns 24 right after Christmas, led the Hot Rods with nine wins before earning a promotion to the Stone Crabs in August. A reliever until this past season, the Cal State-Fullerton product combined to go 11-2 with a 1.77 ERA and was rewarded with Rays Minor League Pitcher of the Year honors.

"I think his slider was shortened up a bit and it became more of a strikeout pitch," Sandberg said. "The changeup, he threw it more than he would've liked, but his changeup got better as he went along. Here's a kid who is a fierce competitor -- he wants to take the ball, stay healthy."

In his first FSL playoff start, the 6-foot-2 California native pitched eight scoreless innings.

"I think he surprised a lot of people this year and what he's done in his pro career so far," Sandberg added. "I think he can maybe move fast through the Rays organization."

Left-handed starting pitcher -- Enny Romero, Montgomery (27 games), Durham (one game), Tampa Bay (one game): It was a heady season for the 22-year-old native of the Dominican Republic, who led Montgomery with 110 strikeouts and shared the team lead with 11 wins.

After making a quick stop at Triple-A, where Romero pitched eight scoreless innings, he told the Rays he was ready to pitch in the Major Leagues. The club took him up on his offer and he did not disappoint. The Rays' No. 5 prospect allowed a hit and four walks over 4 2/3 shutout innings against the Orioles.

"He reminds me of [Rays starter Chris] Archer," Montoyo said. "Good arms like that are always going to have a chance to pitch in the big leagues. If they locate their stuff, they're going to be good. He is going to be very good some day in the big leagues."

Reliever -- Kirby Yates, Durham (51 games): Another recent addition to the Rays' 40-man roster, the 26-year-old right-hander was a big part of the Bulls' run to another International League championship. Against Indianapolis and Pawtucket in the Governors' Cup playoffs, Yates recorded four saves without allowing a run.

"This guy throws strikes with his fastball. He's not afraid to throw it against anybody," Montoyo said, adding that Yates -- a nominee for the Reliever of the Year MiLBY -- handles the pressure of the ninth inning very well.

The Hawaii native was named the Rays' Minor League Reliever of the Year after compiling 20 saves and a 1.90 ERA.

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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