Franco, Ryan top Rays' deep prospect pool

Talent on MiLB.com's top farm system bodes well for the future

Wander Franco played at two levels in 2019, finishing with a .339 average over 52 FSL games. (Mark LoMoglio/Tampa Tarpons)

By Rob Terranova / MiLB.com | December 13, 2019 10:30 AM

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.

Plain and simple, all Tampa Bay's system did in 2019 was win, win, win.

So much so that the organization earned the nod as MiLB.com's Farm System of the Year.

The Rays' domestic affiliates combined for a .573 winning percentage. Every squad that could qualify for the playoffs -- the Florida State League and Gulf Coast League playoffs were suspended due to Hurricane Dorian -- did. Triple-A Durham made it to the Governors' Cup Finals, while Double-A Montgomery and Class A Short Season Hudson Valley exited in their respective semifinals. Class A Bowling Green was ousted in its opening round.

Furthermore, the collective .581 winning percentage of Tampa Bay affiliates above the complex level was the best in baseball. The Rays feature seven players among MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects. No organization places more. The Rays have four players among the top 50 prospects in No. 1 overall Wander Franco, Brendan McKay (12), Vidal Brujan (39) and Matthew Liberatore (41). Brent Honeywell Jr. (68), Xavier Edwards (72) and Shane Baz (94) round out the Top 100.

Rays Organization All-Stars

Catcher -- Luis Leon, Princeton (43 games), Hudson Valley (three games): In his fourth professional season, the 21-year-old appears to have found his way not only at the plate, but also at a new position in the field. Mainly a middle infielder through his first three years, Leon got behind the dish for the first time this season and showed promise while his offensive numbers took off. The Venezuela native put together a career-best slash line of .331/.374/.497 while setting personal high-water marks in homers (five), doubles (13), hits (60), RBIs (30) and runs (29).

"We've tried conversions in the past and it is a difficult journey, but he really took to it," said recently appointed Tampa Bay director of Minor League operations Jeff McLerran. "And just making the switch from infielder to backstop, you really don't know how the tools are going to play or how the body is going to hold up. And he was a guy that actually got healthier and stayed stronger, and a lot of his at-bats played better as well. I think it made him more in tune with what pitchers were doing and helped his education and made him a better overall player."

First baseman -- Nate Lowe, Durham (93 games), Tampa Bay (50 games): It was the second consecutive MiLB.com Organization All-Star appearance for Lowe. The 24-year-old made his debut in The Show at the end of April, but found himself on the shuttle between Durham and Tampa Bay for most of the year until he was recalled on Sept. 1 and finished the season in the bigs. Whichever uniform Lowe was wearing, he found a way to produce. With the Bulls, the Mississippi State product hit .289 with 16 dingers, 24 doubles and 63 RBIs over 93 games. He brought that power with him to the Rays, mashing seven taters and eight doubles in the Majors.

"Great year for Nate, a well-earned Major League debut for him," McLerran said. "Like any Triple-A player, he dealt with the ups and downs of being sent back and forth between the big leagues, but he handled it as well as you could hope for. He's a guy that's got a real future with us because of that makeup that he has as well as those physical tools."

Video: Lowe homers thrice for Bulls

Second baseman -- Vidal Brujan, Charlotte (44 games), Montgomery (55 games): The No. 39 overall prospect has been a fast riser through the Rays system. He finished this season at Double-A Montgomery at age 21. It's the second straight appearance for Brujan as an MiLB Organization All-Star after he posted a combined .277/.346/.389 slash line across two levels with 28 extra-base hits, 56 runs scored, 40 RBIs and 48 stolen bases. The third-ranked Rays prospect also sparkled at second base, sporting a .982 fielding percentage.

"Nobody works harder than Vidal," McLerran said. "And he came to us 150 pounds soaking wet, if even that. And he just continues to get stronger every year, continues to work on his game. He's kind of a perfectionist, he holds himself to a really high standard and is not happy if he doesn't meet those standards. He's also got a really exciting tool set, still refining a few of his skills, but has the making of being an impact player for us."

Video: Montgomery's Brujan clears the fences

Third baseman -- Michael Brosseau, Durham (73 games), Tampa Bay (50 games): Another player who got his first taste of the big leagues this year, Brosseau spent three stints with the Rays and finished the year with Tampa Bay. The 25-year-old raked over 73 games with the Bulls, compiling a .304/.394/.567 slash line with a career-high 16 dingers, 60 RBIs and 53 runs. Brosseau packed the boomstick with him for Tampa Bay, where he smacked six homers, seven doubles and drove in 16 runs for the Rays. The nondrafted Oakland University product is another rapid riser for the organization after beginning the 2017 season with Class A Bowling Green.

"Mike is such a great story," McLerran said. "Being an undrafted free agent, he's had to prove himself all along the way, but never wavered in the work that he did and is just a natural hitter. He just finds a way to put the barrel to the ball no matter who is throwing at him. And to not only get to the big leagues, but also have some success on a team that's able to make the playoffs -- man, just a great story."


MiLB.com Organization All-Stars: Team by Team


Shortstop -- Wander Franco, Bowling Green (62 games), Charlotte (52 games): There's not much left to be said about baseball's top overall prospect. Franco is still only 18, finished the year at Class A Advanced Charlotte and has excelled at every level in the organization's system. The top Rays prospect opened the season with the Hot Rods, batting .318 over 62 games, and then found a new gear in the Florida State League, where he hit .339 in 52 games for Charlotte. His 60-run grade was also on display as he swiped 18 bags. There were no shortage of accolades for Franco this season -- he was a Futures Game selection, and end-of-the-season All-Star in both the Florida State League and the Midwest League and the organization's Player of the Year.

"Wander has skills that are well beyond his years," McLerran said. "A lot of young prospects, you know, we talk about tools and physical ability and he has all of that, but the way he's able to put it into action is just a much more mature approach than typical guys at that stage. Still, obviously, some things to work on. He is still 18. And that's all going to be part of the development process. But it's an incredibly exciting package in the way he uses it."

Video: Bowling Green's Franco clobbers fourth homer

Outfielders

Miles Mastrobuoni, Montgomery (107 games), Durham (four games): Aside from a short stint in July with the Bulls, Mastrobuoni spent the year in the Southern League and put together the best season of his professional career. The 2016 14th-rounder posted a .299/.367/.388 slash line with 20 extra-base hits, 57 runs scored and 34 RBIs over 107 contests with the Biscuits. The 24-year-old showed off his versatility, appearing in all three positions in the outfield as well as at second and third base. He notched a .994 cumulative fielding percentage in the outfield.

"Miles is a guy that can play all over the field," McLerran said. "First time that he spent a lot of time in the outfield, but he really took to it well. He's just a good baseball player and so was able to adapt more quickly than some other guys. He has great bat-to-ball skills, which is something you always want on your club."

Brett Sullivan, Montgomery (102 games): Another jack-of-all-trades prospect, Sullivan spent the bulk of his time this season in the outfield, but he also had some action behind the plate and tossed a pair of innings. The 25-year-old was a force in the middle of the lineup for the Biscuits all season, batting .280 with 40 extra-base hits, 10 homers, 53 runs and 51 RBIs. In left field, the 2015 17th-rounder committed two errors in 122 total chances. In 14 games behind the dish, Sullivan was perfect over 95 total chances, and in a pair of relief appearances, the right-hander allowed a run on one hit.

"Brett is another guy that can bounce around the field," McLerran said. "But really anything that can get his bat in the lineup. Another guy with good bat-to-ball skill, and he started to show some power this year. And that obviously opens up a few more avenues for him. Being able to move around is something that we value as an organization, and both he and Miles really took to that especially."

Josh Lowe, Montgomery (121 games): The 12th-ranked Rays prospect found the power dial this season and then he turned it to max. Lowe set career highs with 18 taters, 70 runs and 62 RBIs. The 21-year-old also finished with four triples, 23 doubles, 30 stolen bases and 113 hits. The 2016 first-rounder patrolled all three outfield positions and sported a .993 fielding percentage. He followed up that season with a stellar showing in the Arizona Fall League, where he was named a Rising Star.

"He is a guy who has been young for his level all the way through and has had to take on some challenges that other guys his age or in his Draft class haven't, and he's really been able to pass those tests with flying colors," McLerran said. "I think we're really excited with the way he's continued to develop as a defensive outfielder, and we feel he has a lot of exciting tools and skills at the plate. The power really started to come through as well, but he has a swing that naturally leads to some power, so we think that will continue."

Video: Biscuits' Lowe goes deep to center

Utility -- Kean Wong, Durham (113 games), Tampa Bay (six games), Anaheim (one game): Wong this year had quite a journey en route to his Major League debut. The 24-year-old spent almost the whole season with Triple-A Durham, where he posted a .307/.375/.464 slash line with 10 roundtrippers, six triples, 29 doubles, scored 71 runs and drove in 63 more while appearing in all three outfield positions as well as at second, third and short. Wong was called up to The Show on Sept. 5. After six games with the Rays, he was designated for assignment, claimed by the Angels and finished the year in Anaheim. The 2013 fourth-rounder was released again and claimed by the Giants on Nov. 5.

"Of all of our guys that made debuts, about as happy for Kean than anyone," McLerran said. "It has been a long journey for him. He spent a lot time at Triple-A, and he was having success, but the opportunity just didn't happen to be there. And for him, a kid who came to us in the Draft out of high school, worked his way all the way up ... for him to be able to make that debut with the Rays, I think was really exciting for everybody involved -- our staff, the players that came along with him. He's a guy that everybody likes in the clubhouse and to be able to see him reach that ultimate dream was exciting."

Offseason MiLB include

Right-handed starter -- Joe Ryan, Bowling Green (six starts), Charlotte (15 games, 13 starts), Montgomery (three starts): Tampa Bay's No. 16 prospect put together a season most guys might only have in video games. The 23-year-old rose through three levels of the system and appeared in control at every stop. Ryan posted a combined 1.96 ERA and a 0.84 WHIP with 183 strikeouts and 27 walks over 123 2/3 combined frames. The Cal State Stanislaus product also limited opponents to a .173 average.

"We saw that Joe could be special the first year with us. Now, would anyone have been able to guess the season he just had? Probably not," McLerran said. "But that's really a testament to who Joe is. Joe is a guy who always believes that he could be the best. And will work at it. He knows that if he outworks everybody, he will be able to outperform them. And this year showed that he could do it. Just going through three levels and reach those high standards that he sets for himself at each of those levels was really exciting to see."

Video: Ryan fans 11

Left-handed starter -- Michael Plassmeyer, Bowling Green (five starts), Charlotte (19 games, 18 starts), Durham (one game): Acquired by the Rays from the Mariners in an offseason deal that also netted Mike Zunino and Guillermo Heredia in exchange for Mallex Smith and Jake Fraley, Plassmeyer enjoyed a breakout campaign. In just his second professional season, the 23-year-old climbed three levels of Tampa Bay's system and finished the year with a relief appearance for Triple-A Durham. In 132 combined innings, the Missouri product compiled a 1.91 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP with 109 whiffs and 23 walks.

"We didn't really have any history with Mike, but our scouts were high on him. I think he even exceeded those expectations this year," McLerran said. "He has an interesting mix from the left side, but the way he puts it together is what makes him special. And he's able to think right along with our pitching coaches, in terms of how to attack hitters. He really sets himself up to succeed."

Video: Plassmeyer's first Triple-A K with Bulls

Relief pitcher -- Andrew Kittredge, Durham (27 games), Tampa Bay (37 games): The 29-year-old was in the big leagues most of the year, but the chunk of time he spent in the International League was simply dominating. The right-hander sported a 1.93 ERA with an 0.80 WHIP and fanned 55 over 37 1/3 frames. Kittredge only walked six and held opponents to a .182 average in 27 appearances.

"Kit came back and knew there was another gear there," McLerran said. "And really, got himself into a little better shape, added a few extra mph on his fastball and a sharper slider. From there, it was just taking those new toys and learning how to attack hitters, and I think the work that he put in showed."

Honorable mention, Phoenix Sanders, Montgomery (37 games), Durham (eight games): The 2017 10th-rounder made it to the Minors' highest level this season. Sanders opened the year in the Southern League, where he posted a 1.81 ERA and struck out 57 over 49 2/3 innings. McLerran dubbed the right-hander "fearless." He spent two stints with the Bulls before his season was derailed by an injury suffered in an Aug. 25 game.

Rob Terranova is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter, @RobTnova24. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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