Rays Prospect Primer: Wonderful Wander

No. 13 overall prospect looking to build on dynamic pro debut

Wander Franco hit .351/.418/.587 along with 11 homers and 57 RBIs in 2018, his first season as a professional. (Chris Robertson/MiLB.com)

By Jordan Wolf / MiLB.com | March 29, 2019 10:00 AM

Some players are on the verge of stardom, others are entering a crucial phase of their development and still others are getting their first tastes of full-season ball. With the 2019 season approaching, MiLB.com takes a look at the most intriguing prospects from each MLB organization.

Shining star: Wander Franco, SS

The Rays really could not have asked for a better debut campaign than the one put together by Franco in 2018.

Playing in 61 games at Rookie Advanced Princeton, Franco finished the year with a line of .351/.418/.587, 11 homers and 57 RBIs. The system's No. 1 prospect was nothing short of dominant, quickly establishing himself as not only Tampa Bay's top youngster, but also one of the best in the Minor Leagues at large.

While there wasn't much more MLB.com's No. 13 overall prospect could've done as a rookie, the club isn't putting any kind of ceiling on him as he looks to build on that success.

"We never want to put limits on anybody," assistant director of Minor League operations Jeff McLerran said. "There are definitely things that Wander's going to continue to work on. A lot of it is building that consistency of putting in the work day in and day out, and continuing to sharpen up the finer points of his game."

Adjusting to that consistent rigor and grind of a full season isn't easy for anyone, and Franco will certainly be no exception. Many players have impressive debuts, but not all can continue to put it together as they progress to higher and higher levels.

There's good reason to believe Franco will, however. He's tremendous from both sides of the plate, grading as a 70 hitter with 55 power, although most of his pop comes from the left side. His bat speed is top-notch, as is his ability to barrel the ball consistently and keep a tight eye on the strike zone -- all of which will be tested as he looks to build on his initial success.

At the crossroads: Brendan McKay, LHP/DH

Though his career is far from entering a make-or-break phase, the phase of his game that winds up making an impact might be. The two-way McKay will shift into a DH-only role when he's not pitching in 2019, a response to the two oblique injuries he suffered while also playing first base in 2018. When healthy, he was far more effective as a pitcher: McKay held a 2.41 ERA across 17 starts on the bump while hitting just .214.

It'd be easy, then, for the Rays to shut down McKay as a hitter and make pitching his sole focus. He'd be able to spend more time and energy developing his pitches, and would be less likely to get hurt swinging the bat. Even though the numbers weren't where they wanted them to be, the team still sees McKay as a potential force at the plate in addition to on the mound.

"There's still a belief that there's a big league hitter there even though the numbers, the results, may not have shown it over the last year," McLerran said. "There's enough things underneath that, given time, we're going to see the best version of Brendan McKay as a hitter."

Pitching-wise, McKay possesses a strong fastball that sits in the mid-90s. He also has an above-average cutter and curve, with a decent changeup to fall back on as well. As a hitter, he's patient and efficient with his swing, and has the potential for a solid amount of pop.

If McKay's production at the plate picks up this season, he could emerge as one of the more exciting prospects in all of baseball. If he continues to struggle in that department, though, his days as a hitter may be numbered.

Video: McKay mashes double for Stone Crabs

Full-season debutant: Matthew Liberatore, LHP

The Rays were ecstatic to have Liberatore fall to them at No. 16 in last year's Draft, as concerns over whether or not he'd sign or attend Arizona scared some teams away. But Liberatore did sign and quickly reported to Rookie ball, where he was nothing short of dominant.

The left-hander finished the campaign with a 1.38 ERA between the GCL Rays and Rookie Advanced Princeton. In the GCL, he allowed three runs in 27 2/3 innings and just a .170 opponent's batting average. That immediate success didn't go unnoticed.

"Matt continues to impress our coaching staff, just with his feel for the game," McLerran said. "He's another one who's probably mature beyond his years. ... His ability to pick things up and put them into practice pretty quickly has been impressive."

Liberatore has a fastball that sits in the low 90s and a nice changeup to offset it. He also has sharp breaking balls, possessing a fairly new slider and a curveball that may be his best overall pitch. All of that, combined with his success thus far, portends a clear path for Liberatore to climb the ranks quickly.

Loudest tool: Vidal Brujan, 2B

One of the fastest players in the Minor Leagues, Brujan used his 70-grade speed to lead the entire Minors in runs scored with 112 and was second in steals with 55 in just his first full professional season. That speed can't be taught, especially when utilized as effectively as Brujan has thus far.

"One of his most exciting tools is his foot speed," McLerran said. "A lot of his game is based around that. The foot speed plays into his defense, plays into his base-running, plays into the pressure he's able to put on the defense as well."

Don't think that's all MLB.com's No. 100 overall prospect has got, though.

Video: Brujan's second dinger of the game for Charlotte

"We wouldn't want to pigeonhole him as a guy that is strictly a speed player," McLerran added. "I think Vidal has developed a lot of different pieces of his game throughout the last few years. ... It's a really intriguing package of tools."

Brujan is a proficient hitter from both sides of the dish and projects to develop into an strong leadoff bat. When he gets on base, he uses his speed aggressively to be a real problem for opposing pitchers, evidenced by that 55 stolen base mark. Altogether, while Brujan's speed is definitely his calling card, he could be destined for all-around success as an anchor at the top of the Tampa Bay lineup.

Major League-ready: Brandon Lowe, 2B/OF

Lowe actually saw 129 at-bats in the Majors last season, overcoming a slow start to finish with a .233 average and six homers. That was enough for the Rays to extend him for six years, proving he's a key part of their long-term plans and on the cusp of making a serious impact.

His defensive versatility was one of the biggest reasons for his call to The Show, as he seemed to make the jump quicker than many expected. Lowe is a natural second baseman, but he held down roles in the outfield in Tampa Bay last year, a sign of not only his defensive prowess but also his willingness to take on new challenges -- a valuable trait as the club tries to fit him into the fold full-time.

"He's very good at taking instruction," McLerran said. "Even early on, there was a lot of things that our infield guys were working on at second base, and he would dive in head-first to tackle those things. When we brought up moving to the outfield to give him more opportunities to advance and potentially help the big league team, he was all-in."

Lowe is a strong pure hitter, possessing good contact skills and some pop. He's patient, not chasing pitches often, and can really drive the ball when he gets a hold of it. That along with his aptitude with the glove makes it seem as though his promotion to the Majors was no fluke, and that he's here to stay.

Others to keep an eye on: Brent Honeywell checks in at No. 28 in MLB.com's overall rankings and the Rays' top pitching prospect. He possess an excellent fastball and changeup in addition to his signature screwball and can throw a decent slider and curve as well. He did have his 2018 spoiled by a February elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery, however, so it will be important to see how he bounces back in 2019. …Shane Baz is another interesting pitching prospect, coming over from the Pirates in the Chris Archer trade. He's got a heater that can touch the upper-90s and an effective cutter and slider as well. He struggles with control, but if he can get that to match the pure power his pitches possess, he could easily mature into a top-level arm. … Ronaldo Hernandez is the Rays' top catching prospect and slated as MLB.com's No. 83 overall prospect as well. He has only been behind the plate for a few years -- the club moved him there shortly after signing him -- and is a better thrower than he is a stopper. Still, he's coming along as a backstop, and his strong power and overall hitting ability will make up for any defensive deficiencies.

Most home runs in the system: Nate Lowe
Most stolen bases: Brujan
Most strikeouts: Shane McClanahan
Current prospect to get most Major League playing time: Brandon Lowe
Non-Top 100 prospect to end 2019 in the Top 100: Nate Lowe

Jordan Wolf is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @byjordanwolf. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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