Starting in October and running through the end of the year, MiLB.com's State of the System series will evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each Major League organization, highlights prospects who've made the biggest strides in 2020 and offers a peek at 2021.
As Tampa Bay begins a third decade of existence, it does so bearing little resemblance to its expansion ancestors.
Although the Rays don't boast the financial might of the Yankees or Dodgers, the organization has deftly maneuvered itself near the pinnacle of baseball's pecking order. Tampa Bay has consistently shown an ability to identify talent that translates to direct success at the Major League level. It's no wonder the Rays are considered one of the deepest and most well-run organizations in the game.
A World Series loss to the Dodgers erased none of the shine from another banner year for the Rays. Tampa Bay's 40-20 record was tops in the American League and second in baseball to its Fall Classic opponent. Rays No. 19 prospect Randy Arozarena was the talk of the sport after putting together one of the best postseason performances in history.
Notably absent from the big league roster was second-ranked Rays prospect Brendan McKay and Wander Franco, ranked No. 1 overall by MLB Pipeline. The two-way player tested positive for COVD-19 and underwent shoulder surgery in August, while Franco spent his summer at the Rays' alternate training site in Port Charlotte, Florida.
Tampa Bay's six Top-100 prospects match San Francisco for the most in baseball and include Franco (No. 1) and McKay (No. 12) along with infielders Vidal Brujan (No. 41) and Xavier Edwards (No. 67) and pitchersShane Baz (No. 86) and Shane McClanahan (No. 99).
System strengths: Finding a weakness in a system as deep and multi-faceted as the Rays' is not easy. What Tampa Bay does better than most teams is recognizing something -- anything -- of import in a player and using it to its advantage. While the Rays continue to enjoy success in the Draft and with international signings, they separate themselves by parlaying many of their own prospects into trade chips.
A case in point was the acquisition of Arozarena from the Cardinals last January for former first-round pick Matthew Liberatore. Tampa Bay netted veteran Jose Martinez and a Competitive Balance Round A pick in the 2020 Draft. They turned that pick into No. 14 prospect Alika Williams.
It's a cycle the organization has mastered under director of Minor League operations Jeff McLerran.
"We always want to be better in every area as an organization. It’s one of those things that makes the group we have so special. We don’t rest on our laurels and we're constantly pushing ourselves to get better," he said.
While pitchers comprise 13 of Tampa's Top-30 prospects, six of its top 10 call the mound home. At No. 5, Baz posted a 2.99 ERA in 17 starts for Class A Bowling Green in 2019 and McClanahan (No. 6) went 11-6 with a 3.36 ERA and 154 strikeouts over 120 2/3 innings across three levels. Ninth-ranked Joe Ryancompiled a 1.96 ERA and ranked second in the Minors with 183 punchouts.
Not to be forgotten are McKay and oft-injured but supremely talented Brent Honeywell Jr. (No. 7), who has not thrown a pitch in a game that counts since 2017. Honeywell underwent another elbow procedure last week but should be available next season.
Areas for growth: If there is one aspect that might trend toward problematic for the Rays, it's the relative inexperience of their top prospects. Of course, ranked prospects are not the only types to benefit the club, but in the case of Tampa Bay, a host of their notable youngsters will enter 2021 with little to no experience beyond Class A Advanced.
That's not to say 2020 and its lack of Minor League competition was a total loss, but there's no denying the pandemic put up significant roadblocks in terms of developmental opportunities. Just how significant remains to be seen.
"We try and plan ahead as much as possible to balance the needs of [the Rays] to the specific needs of our prospects as they work through the Minors," McLerran said. "It's important to avoid emotional decisions and figure out the best plans for these guys on an individual basis. Every offseason we look around the league to see what other clubs are doing and try and incorporate what we might be missing into our plans.
"No matter what types of accolades we receive as an organization, we take a good, hard look at our process and how best to improve ourselves."
What changed in 2020: Despite the challenges presented by COVID-19, Tampa Bay was pleased with its picks in the Draft, four of whom were pitchers.
"Our scouts have been following these guys for years, so to them it was business as usual," McLerran said. "For us developmental folks, getting up to speed was a little bit harder because of the pandemic."
Leading the way was first-rounder Nick Bitsko (24th overall), who was thought to be one of the top high school arms available ... in 2021. However, the 18-year-old graduated early, making him eligible for this year's Draft -- and the Rays pounced. Armed with a mid-90s fastball and a solid 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame, Bitsko looks the part of a power pitcher. He also effectively uses a hard breaking ball and breaks out a changeup that will need development when he begins his professional career.
The "when" is shrouded in some mystery after the Doylestown, Pennsylvania, native underwent shoulder surgery in November.
"It's an unfortunate part of pitching when things like this happen," McLerran said. "But we have no doubt he'll bounce back and be stronger for having dealt with it. He's already shown good maturity and depth of thought for someone so young. We can't wait to see him back healthy and throwing in 2021."
Tampa Bay moved to shortstop in picking Williams at No. 37 overall, a player McLerran describes as "better than what we thought" after seeing the Arizona State product during instructional camp. The Rays went back to the mound for three of their final five selections with second-rounder Ian Seymour, third-round pick Hunter Barnhart and fifth-rounder Jeff Hakanson. Shortstop Tanner Murray was the Rays' fourth-round pick out of the University of California, Davis.
"We came away impressed with all of them," McLerran said. "The way they jumped right into their routines and how they performed [in instructs] against more experienced competition was impressive."
Alternate site standouts: "We knew going into the season we'd have a good [Major League] club," McLerran said. "So we knew that there would be limited opportunities for some of our true prospects."
That's not to say that some notable names didn't stand out. McLerran singled out a number of players who opened eyes, including No. 10 prospect Josh Lowe and 12th-ranked Ronaldo Hernandez. The work paid off for McClanahan, who made his Major League debut in the postseason, despite having two Minor League relief appearances -- one in 2018 and another in 2019 -- under his belt.
"The experience of being around veteran players is something that can't be adequately expressed," McLerran said. "When these guys start out, they're in the lower levels of the Minors with their peers, but one thing they don't experience is sitting with the veterans. The alternate site provided that opportunity and I think it will be extremely beneficial for them moving forward."
Impact rookies: Believe it or not there were several, but they were hard to notice, thanks to Arozarena.
Promoted on Aug. 30, the Havana native closed the regular season by hitting .281/.382/.631 with seven homers, 15 runs and 11 RBIs in 23 September contests, an impressive opening act to what would follow in October.
The switch-hitting outfielder carried over his September success to the tune of a .377/.442/.831 slash line, 19 runs scored and 14 RBIs in 20 playoff games. Arozarena established Major League records for hits (29) and homers (10) in a single postseason, going yard in three straight Division Series games against the Yankees and hitting safely in 17 of 20 contests.
"What Randy did this year surpassed any expectation we had for him, which is not to say we didn't have high hopes for him to begin with," McLerran said. "We gave up a good player to acquire him and we wouldn't have done that if we didn't feel that Randy himself would be a good player for us. We noticed things really starting to click for him [at the alternate site]. When he gets under those lights, he shines."
Arozarena wasn't the only Rays rookie to make a positive impact. John Curtiss posted a 1.80 ERA and a 25-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 25 innings in 17 appearances, including three starts. Peter Fairbanks fanned 39 in 26 2/3 frames while sporting a 2.70 ERA and No. 30 prospect Josh Fleming was unbeaten in five decisions to go with a 2.78 ERA in seven appearances (five starts).
Next big thing: Wander Samuel Franco already is synonymous with anticipation and limitless talent, all packed into a 19-year-old body that's produced a .336/.405/.523 line in three Minor League seasons. The native of the Dominican Republic is baseball's top overall prospect for a reason, and it was evident to the Rays from the start.
"From the moment our scouts saw him, we knew he was special," McLerran said. "His talent is apparent but what stands out to us is how much he wants to be the best. He's never had to deal with failure in any real form as a pro, but facing Major League-ready pitching on a daily basis was an eye-opener for him. He's an ultra-competitive guy and experiencing some more advanced competition was a good thing for him."
A switch-hitter who uses all fields and owns an advanced approach at the plate, Franco has shown prowess as a hitter that's rarely seen at such a young age.
"One of the goals in our system is to push our guys," McLerran said. "Wander is a good example of someone who thrives off competition. He's aware of his surroundings. He sees other players who are talented and working just as hard and that pushes him even further. I'm glad we got to see him struggle a little [at the alternate site]. It's given us even more of a positive impression because we saw him react to his failures, make adjustments and get back to his accustomed level of success.
"It's a big silver lining for him in an otherwise upside-down summer."
Michael Avallone is a writer for MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @MavalloneMiLB.