Following the five-round 2020 MLB First-Year Player Draft, MiLB.com takes an organization-by-organization look at each pick with help from team scouting executives.
While Tom Brady might be the most notable athletic addition to the Tampa Bay area this year, the Rays’ Draft class provides plenty to be excited about.
Tampa Bay had six picks in the shortened Draft and used all of them, going after pitchers -- both starters and a reliever -- and hitters while mixing college talent with high school stars. Although “Zoom fatigue” set in after Day 2, Rays senior director of amateur scouting Rob Metzler was happy with the team’s selections.
“I thought it was a great outcome,” he told reporters on a post-Draft video call. “These are players that across the board we think are talented prospects who have the physical ability, the mental ability, the makeup, aptitude to compete their way through our system and have impactful roles.”
Both he and general manager Erik Neander noted how integral regional and area scouts were in taking a chance on someone who barely played in 2020. The biggest potential gamble came with choosing a high schooler with the No. 1 pick in Nick Bitsko.
“Our group does a wonderful job preparing us for a lot of different players. The selling is done by the preparation and all the work that’s poured into this process and making sure that we vetted players from every angle,” Neander told reporters. “It’s that process that provides the comfort, not just for Nick but for a lot of players. I have all the confidence in the world in the work that we’ve done.
“Everyone comes with different unknowns, different risks, but [we] felt very, very comfortable with the talent and the person that we’re getting here and full support. We’re all excited.”
The Rays wrapped up signing all six picks on Friday.
“It’s always a fun time for an organization,” Metzler said. “[But] the fist bumps over Zoom just aren’t quite the same.”
First round: RHP Nick Bitsko (No. 24 overall)
Following a record-tying number of college picks to start the Draft, Bitsko was the 10th prep player selected. The Rays took note of the Pennsylvania product last summer following his sophomore year at Central Bucks High School East, and many thought he could be the top pick in next year's Draft. But then the right-hander announced in January he was declassifying and, by doing so, gained the club’s “full focus.”
While Bitsko turned 18 only six days after the Draft, Neander is keen on his maturity and aptitude.
“[We like his] arm action, delivery, size, athleticism, arm strength, ability to spin the ball, ability to deaden the ball,” Metzler said on the conference call. “We thought all those attributes fit for somebody we could develop as a young starting pitching prospect with a competitiveness to compete his way through the system.”
Bitsko features a plus-fastball and plus-curveball and has shown the ability to dial it up to 97. Although he had a verbal commitment to the University of Virginia, he signed for a $3 million bonus, $170,000 over slot.
Competitive Balance A: SS Alika Williams (No. 37 overall)
The Rays had an eye on Williams since he was in high school in San Diego. They felt confident in the type of player he would become but thought it was "in his best interest to go to college, continue to gain strength.” The Yankees took Williams in the 32nd round of the 2017 Draft, but the 6-foot-2 shortstop decided to go to Arizona State.
With the Sun Devils, he became stronger on both sides of the ball, ranking among the top defenders in the Pac-12 Conference while hitting .300 over 129 games. The 21-year-old also made great strides in the Cape Cod League and for Team USA.
“He did everything he needed to in college and we’re thrilled with how that turned out,” Metzler said. “We see him as a well-rounded prospect. We very much appreciate his defensive skills, we think he’s a true shortstop prospect, we also think he has a chance to be an impactful, offensive player. The game is geared around contact, but we think the profile is a good offensive profile and defensive profile.”
While Willy Adames has a stronghold at short in Tampa Bay and Wander Franco -- MLB Pipeline's No. 1 overall prospect -- also calls that position home, the Rays see Williams sticking at shortstop. The California native signed for $1.85 million, just under slot.
Second round: LHP Ian Seymour (No. 57 overall)
With their next pick, the Rays went with a southpaw out of Virginia Tech. Undrafted out of high school, Seymour went south and immediately became one of the best Hokies pitchers, making history as the school's first freshman to win a Game 1 Atlantic Coast Conference start. Over two-plus seasons, his command and control improved en route to a smattering of school and conference records.
Along with a plus fastball and changeup, the 6-foot hurler has a slider in his arsenal, although there's room for growth with that pitch.
"The improvement he made as a competitor and with his stuff over the course of his career really separated him for us," Metzler said. "We’re thrilled. It speaks to 1, being a very talented kid, but 2, it speaks to his work ethic.”
Seymour also took major strides on the Cape last summer, with the potential to be a starter in the Majors, although the bullpen could provide a quicker path. The Massachusetts native signed at slot value, $1.24 million.
Third round: RHP Hunter Barnhart (No. 96 overall)
Barnhart could have been a Sun Devil, like Williams, but he ended up forgoing his commitment and signing with the Rays for $585,000 (about $20,000 below slot).
At 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, Barnhart was an MVP-caliber quarterback at St. Joseph High School, praised for his laid-back demeanor and athletic IQ. While some thought he could be a two-sport athlete in college, he chose a future on the mound over the gridiron.
A plus curveball sits in the upper 70s and anchors Barnhart’s repertoire. Scouts also note that the right-hander throws a lot of strikes.
“We identified him, liked him as a pitching prospect heading into this spring, and [he] made a big step forward with his stuff,” Metzler said. “I would highlight a powerful fastball, good breaking ball; we think physical ingredients to develop as a starting pitching prospect. Really excited to have him.”
Fourth round: SS Tanner Murray (No. 125 overall)
Murray appeared on the Rays’ radar last summer in the Cape Cod League. They continued to keep an eye on him during fall ball with UC Davis and noticed strength gains this spring. The central California native took off his first year with the Aggies, earning Big West Freshman Field Player of the Year honors in 2018. The following spring, he led the squad in just about every offensive category.
The Rays see a lot of value in Murray, who not only has a strong bat but can play multiple positions. The 20-year-old was the last of the organization’s picks to sign, getting full slot value.
“We see somebody who, obviously he has really good contact skills, has a good frame and we think more strength is going to come in his swing,” Metzler said. “And we think he’s a really steady – he’s what we call a two-out defender, somebody who is really good at converting routine balls, and I think he has range as well. So he’s somebody who has a balanced profile of a college infielder and is good on both sides of the game."
Fifth round: RHP Jeff Hakanson (No. 155 overall)
With their final pick, the Rays went local. Hakanson attended Jesuit High School a mere 20 miles away from Tropicana Field. And while he wasn’t being scouted by the team at the time, he started turning heads. Across the state in Orlando, the right-hander continued to mature at the University of Central Florida, settling in as a reliever -- and as a Tampa Bay target.
Over 49 2/3 innings at UCF, Hakanson recorded 98 strikeouts while issuing 26 walks. His arsenal features a fastball and a slider, although he continues to work on a two-seamer and a changeup.
“His stuff had made a further jump from last year when he was a highly successful reliever. We saw a power fastball with life and we saw a breaking ball to, we think, get real good hitters out,” Metzler said. “We would have loved to have the opportunity to keep scouting him all year but thrilled to take him here in the fifth round.”
Hakanson signed at slot for $340,000.
Already boasting baseball’s top overall prospect and its No. 1 overall farm system, the Rays got even stronger at the Draft. It’s no secret Tampa Bay values pitchers and shortstops, with nine of their Top 10 prospects playing one of those two positions; earlier this month, it added four pitchers and two shortstops. The club has found versatility, though, with Vidal Brujan and Xavier Edwards seeing time at second base. Creating that fluidity around the field will be key for the Rays and their stash of shortstops.
As for Bitsko, Rays fans could one day see him in a rotation with Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, Brendan McKay and Brent Honeywell Jr..
“We’re thrilled to add Nick, thrilled to add to our stockpile in any area of our talent pool,” Metzler said. “Certainly having more pitching depth, having young starting pitching prospects in the system, is something that we think is going to benefit us long-term.”
Kelsie Heneghan is a writer for MiLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @Kelsie_Heneghan.