AL EastAnalysis

The 2021 Rays Draft Class Is Shaping up to Be Elite

More often than not, the success of drafts is measured by which top-tier talent is picked in the first rounds. Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, and Carlos Correa are prime examples of players who were the number one overall prospect in their respective draft classes and have had fantastic MLB careers since. A top prospect has the potential and power to completely change an organization’s future and direction. This is evident in today’s game of baseball too. The Adley Rutschman and Julio Rodriguez eras just began this year, as those two franchise icons have the budding talent to be leaders of future winning cores.

But baseball is also a game where roster depth tends to win more games than individual stars. I could go on by comparing the success of the star-studded and perennial loser Angels to the deep rosters of unknowns on the consistent playoff Rays and Guardians, but the narrative is clear: it takes a village to last an entire 162-game season. That’s why I think it’s perhaps more interesting to analyze some of the deepest draft classes.

A good gold standard for one of the most successful drafts by a team in one year would have to be the 2016 Dodgers. A very good Dodgers team coming off of a division title and 92-win season had a middle-of-the-road pick in the following year’s draft at 20th overall. While many teams can’t even get an all-star within the top 5 picks, the Dodgers utilized this 20th overall pick and the several other rounds after it to build up a good chunk of their current core. Current second-baseman, Gavin Lux, was picked in the first round. One of the best catchers in the game, Will Smith, was picked in the second. Fearsome flamethrower, Dustin May, was picked in the third. Tony Gonsolin, perhaps the breakout of the year in 2022, was picked in the ninth. The rest of the picks in this draft feature names used in the Yu Darvish and Manny Machado acquisitions and other depth pieces that were later sold for useful pieces at the trade deadline. Essentially, the Dodgers knocked this draft out of the park. Two elite rotation arms, a top 5 catcher in baseball, an everyday infielder, as well as minor leaguers used to acquire names that could help win championships are prime examples of how to successfully scout and utilize every round of a draft.

So, why is it not surprising then that a team that has regularly been putting together winning seasons recently like the Dodgers also could have composed a masterful draft? Let me introduce the 2021 Rays draft and the loaded potential within it.

For the Rays, the 2021 draft class looks to be paying dividends for a team that relies so heavily on its development system. Initially in a tough situation as the team going into that draft with the 28th overall pick, Tampa Bay knew the pickings were going to be slim for what type of talent they could get at such a low spot in the first round and the following ones. In terms of how they handled that low pick, Tampa Bay did not view this draft as any type of limited opportunity:

  • Carson Williams, SS (Torrey Pines HS): With the 28th overall pick, the Rays followed a growing trend among scouting and prospect development of going with a toolsy, high-ceiling, high school shortstop at a lower first-round spot in Carson Williams (other recent examples: Anthony Volpe at 30th and Jordan Walker at 21st). The appeal of Williams is his powerful bat combined with an athletic frame that he could still fill out at the age of 19. Put that together with great glove skills at perhaps the most challenging position of shortstop, and that’s a player that would earn a double take from any scout. Anytime a prospect features lean athleticism and strong home run potential at such a high-value position like shortstop, the potential for a generational, game-changing type of player is definitely there.

    So far in his minor league career, Williams has shown an ability for hitting for the fences with 19 homers (albeit striking out at a ridiculous high while doing it) and manning shortstop fantastically. This is incredibly encouraging for the Rays as they now most likely hope for Williams to fill out his frame, add even more power, and take the leap to a possible top-20 prospect. The potential for boom is evident, and while the potential for bust with alarmingly high strikeout rates with a launch angle approach is there, the Rays identified a hopeful future star at a pick where players are usually seen as a major step down from the top crop of talent.
  • Kyle Manzardo, 1B (Washington State): A part of MLB’s Prospect Team of the Year, Manzardo was perhaps one of the biggest minor league breakouts of the year. A bat-first player, the 22-year-old Manzardo tore apart both High-A and AA pitching with an overall .327/.426/1.034 slash line featuring 22 homers and an elite walk-to-strikeout ratio. Obviously, stats like those instantly make Manzardo a top name to watch in the Rays system, but what makes him stand out from just being someone to look out for and a truly possible elite prospect is his plate discipline. One of the most telling signs of the best prospects that went on to be great hitters in the majors is how well they can see strikes and balls. Counting stats a player collects over a season has the potential to be skewed by the level of competition the player goes up against, therefore making those skills not so easily translated as they move to tougher levels, like the majors. But the most telling attribute a player can have that seems to travel consistently over every level is plate discipline. The players who control the zone the best will recognize better pitches to hit and amass more walks in the process.

    A comparison for Manzardo and his powerful, patient approach at the plate that earns him elite walk rates would have to be another fearsome slugger in Yordan Alvarez. Manzardo might not have the glove skills to stick in the Rays’ defensive position churn system they do with so many of their flexible players, but his bat has shown more than enough production that I’m sure Tampa Bay’s offensively starved offense would love his presence in the lineup in a couple of years time.
  • Mason Auer, OF (San Jacinto JC): In his first full minor league season, Mason Auer certainly impressed, putting up a .290/.372/.859 slash line with 15 homers and 45 stolen bases while showing an ability to play all over the outfield. He’s even continued this success in the AFL (Arizona Fall League) and lit up more scouts’ radars in the process. Auer demonstrates one of the widest range of tools among prospects in the Rays system, which makes him an easy player to dream on. He can play all over the outfield, has the ability to hit for pop while consistently taking walks, as well as prowess on the basepaths making him a multi-dimensional player that has the versatility to fit in a crowded Rays outfield.

    In a sense, a good comparison for Auer would be fellow Ray Randy Arozarena who carries that similar profile of a versatile outfielder who racks up a lot of extra-base hits and stolen bases. Interestingly, Auer was a pitcher first with potential for power, but after his move to San Jacinto JC, his bat took off, and it was quickly established that his bat would be his best tool going forward. Auer will be fascinating to watch going forward, as all five-tool prospects are, but usually, five-tool prospects don’t keep every one of their tools as they age and develop. But with two very strong showing in the minors and AFL, Auer has now demanded the attention and looks from the prospect community.
  • Mason Montgomery, SP (Texas Tech): A power lefty starting pitcher, Montgomery stands at 6-foot-2 and employs a three-pitch mix of a brilliant fastball and changeup with a weaker slider as a complement. In his first full season, Montgomery dazzled with a 2.10 ERA over 124 innings and was able to make the transition from A ball to AA with relative ease. Montgomery does not overpower hitters with his skillset, however. He’s a lefty who uses craft and dual-wields his heavily thrown fastball with a disappearing changeup. Much like how current/former Rays Ryan Yarbrough and Josh Fleming have been developed as polished college lefties with premier control and soft contact rates, Montgomery also falls in line to follow them. However, the one thing Montgomery has over them is speed on his fastball with a complement to the offspeed. This makes me think he has the skills to be a good comparison to LA Angel Patrick Sandoval.

    The Rays love developing killer changeups, which made Brooks Raley and Jason Adam relief targets that were incredible successes for them in the 2022 season. Seeing how his season starts at AA, Montgomery is definitely a prospect to keep your eye on, as fans could see him if proves himself in AAA and gets the call-up.
  • Austin Vernon, P (North Carolina Central): One of the more unknown prospects in the Rays system who didn’t even crack MLB’s top 30 for the team, Vernon is pitching his way to that list in a big way. Standing at a massive 6 foot 8 and 265 pounds, Vernon has earned himself the moniker “mount Vernon” for his imposing stature on the mound. He uses his huge body to throw a fastball that consistently ranks in the upper 90s with two breaking pitches, a slider and curveball, that utilize sweeping action to throw hitters off if they’re expecting the high velo. His first full season in the Rays system was a raging success, as he tossed 78 innings of 2.40 ERA baseball, though he saw his numbers take a hit when he made the jump from low A to high A.

    Vernon has a lot of moving parts in his windup and he utilizes his giant frame very successfully, but with that comes a max effort delivery that scouts project will make him more of a bullpen arm than a rotation piece. A pitcher who instantly came to mind when comparing Vernon was former top reliever Jonathan Broxton, who also utilized a power fastball and sweeping slider combination that propelled him to a prosperous 13-year career. Vernon’s high age (23) at such a low level makes him a candidate to be moved quickly through the minor league levels in the upcoming year meaning fans could see him as quickly as next year

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Featured Image: MLB Pipeline / Twitter

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