O'Conner leads three Rays prospects on Top 100 list
Shortstops Adames, Robertson round out Tampa Bay's representatives
By Adam Berry
ST. PETERSBURG -- If MLBPipeline.com's list of Top 100 Prospects is any indication, there's another wave of high-end talent heading toward Tropicana Field.
Like last year, three Rays prospects cracked the Top 100. Catcher Justin O'Conner is the game's 61st-ranked prospect, recently acquired shortstop Daniel Robertson checks in at No. 65 and shortstop Willy Adames rounds out the group at No. 77.
The annual ranking of baseball's Top 100 Prospects is assembled by MLBPipeline.com Draft and prospect experts Jonathan Mayo and Jim Callis, who compile input from industry sources, including scouts and scouting directors. It is based on analysis of players' skill sets, upsides, proximity to the Majors and potential immediate impact to their teams. The list, which is one of several prospect rankings on MLBPipeline.com's Prospect Watch, only includes players with rookie status in 2015. Team-by-team Top 30 Prospects lists for 2015 will be unveiled in March.
Last year, Tampa Bay was represented on the Top 100 list by right-hander Jake Odorizzi, who enjoyed a solid rookie campaign in 2014, alongside shortstop Hak-Ju Lee and Taylor Guerrieri, neither of whom made the cut this year.
Amid a series of dramatic changes this offseason, the Rays made a point of restocking their farm system. Tampa Bay's recent picks in the First-Year Player Draft haven't turned into big league contributors. The club's farm system, which used to regularly push top young talent into the Majors, seemingly dried up.
Since selecting David Price with the first pick in 2007, the Rays have only drafted one Major League regular: outfielder Kevin Kiermaier, their 31st-round pick in 2010. Some players, like infielder Tim Beckham and lefty reliever C.J. Riefenhauser, have been called up for brief stints. Others, like right-hander Jesse Hahn and infielder Derek Dietrich, have made their big league debuts elsewhere.
Tampa Bay has plenty of young talent on its Major League roster -- look no further for proof than the team's projected starting rotation -- but the front office has had to go outside the organization to bolster the Minor League system. The Rays often say they must keep one eye on the present and the other on the future, and that motto rang true in their moves over the past year.
That meant parting ways with Price as part of a three-team trade that brought back starter Drew Smyly, infielder Nick Franklin and Adames at the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. This offseason, that strategy led them to pull the trigger on a five-man trade that included Robertson.
Robertson and Adames weren't even in the Rays' system at this time last year, nor were many of their other top prospects -- a sign of the work done this offseason by president of baseball operations Matt Silverman and the club's front office. They have revamped the farm system with high-end talent like Robertson and Adames, providing hope for Tampa Bay's future as it looks to remain competitive this year.
But leading the pack of the Rays' top prospects is O'Conner, drafted and developed by Tampa Bay. Picked 31st overall in 2010, the right-handed-hitting catcher spent three summers in short-season leagues before finally breaking through to a full-season league in 2013. Last year, he starred for Class A Advanced Charlotte and advanced all the way to Montgomery.
In 80 games with the Stone Crabs, O'Conner hit .282/.321/.486 with 10 home runs. In 21 games in Double-A, he batted .263/.298/.388 with two homers.
O'Conner, 22, still has some room to develop offensively, but he has quickly developed into an elite defensive catcher. He threw out more than half of the baserunners who tried to steal a base against him last year.
Adames, meanwhile, held his own as an 18-year-old at Class A last year, batting .271/.353/.429 as the youngest everyday player in the Midwest League. Now 19, he figures to spend this season with Class A Advanced Charlotte.
More than anything, the Rays have been impressed by Adames' rapid development off the field. Adames had never left the Dominican Republic when he reported to Tigers camp last spring, but he did everything asked of him while succeeding on the field.
"I've heard all the good, but seeing it here first-hand was remarkable," director of Minor League operations Mitch Lukevics told MLB.com in September. "Some guys are able to do it better than others, and Willy's able to do it."
Robertson, 20, hit .310/.402/.471 with 15 homers and 60 RBIs last year. He should start the year with Double-A Montgomery, putting him only a few years away from Tropicana Field. Robertson's bat is his best asset, and his offensive potential is strong enough to sustain his value if he has to move to second or third base.
"He is the kind of prospect that is difficult to get your hand on," Silverman said after acquiring Robertson. "He's someone with great baseball skills, can play in the middle of the diamond, has a hitter's mentality and has great potential to grow into an everyday player.
"Prospects by nature are uncertain, but he's the kind of guy we're willing to make a bet on and hope he can make an impact on our organization for many years to come."
Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.