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Days of drafting No. 1 over for Rays

Days of drafting No. 1 over for Rays

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The future success of every Major League team lies in its Minor League system. With that in mind, each preseason, MLB.com takes a top-to-bottom look at all 30 organizations, from top prospects to recent Draft picks.

Sorry, Tampa Bay Rays fans, but it looks like your days of having the No. 1 overall draft pick are over for a while.

That's the price you pay for having one of the best teams in baseball, a team with youth, depth and so much talent that the biggest challenge may be finding room for everyone to play. Because even with the accelerated arrivals of so many prospects in 2008, the Rays farm system is still deep in terms of quality, quantity and balance.

With four players on MLB.com's preseason Top 50 Prospects, they're tied for most in the game, sitting atop the list for the second year in a row (last year they had five).

The Rays almost won it all, despite having one of the youngest rosters -- and lowest payrolls -- in the Majors and became the first team in nearly two decades to reach the postseason a year removed from having the worst record in baseball.

You can give the lion's share of that credit to the player development/scouting department. And you can look for a lot more of the same in the foreseeable future.

Coming Soon

Jeff Niemann, RHP:
The 6-foot-9 right-hander, a first-round pick out of Rice in 2004, is making a good case to break camp with the big club. He had a 3.59 ERA at Triple-A Durham with 128 strikeouts in 133 innings last season and ranked among the Minor League leaders with a .207 opponents' batting average.

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Fernando Perez, OF:
The 2004 seventh-round pick out of Columbia made his big league debut last season and was an immediate impact guy as both a starter and role player. He has game-changing speed and is an outstanding defensive outfielder who could stick in many different roles. He was the Rays' 2008 Minor League Player of the Year, hitting .288 with 43 steals at Durham.

David Price, LHP:
There is some debate in the early going as to whether Price will break camp as a starter for the Rays or get a little more time at Durham, but that may be more to take any perceived pressure off the No. 1 overall pick from 2007 as he enters his first full season. He is the undisputed future ace of this club with fantastic stuff and even better makeup.

Under the Radar

Joe Cruz, RHP
A 2007 30th-round pick out of junior college in California, Cruz ranked fifth in the organization with a 3.17 ERA at Princeton last summer, fanning 62 over 54 innings while walking 14. With good arm action and a good feel for pitching, he has an explosive fastball and a lot of room for growth. He is still working on his secondary stuff.

Rhyne Hughes, 1B
Hughes hit .268 with 14 homers and 52 RBIs at Double-A Montgomery last summer, but really opened eyes in the Arizona Fall League. There he batted .394 with five homers and 27 RBIs in as many games and rode an 18-game hitting streak at season's end. A 2004 eighth-round pick out of community college, his pitch recognition is getting better.

Emeel Salem, OF
Salem lost most of 2008 to a broken arm suffered on a slide into second base in mid-May and still finished fifth in the system with 25 steals in 38 games, so the Rays are understandably excited to see what he can do over a full campaign. He was hitting .301 when he went down after batting .311 with 18 steals at Hudson Valley in his 2007 debut. He was a sixth-round pick out of Alabama.

Draft

Top Picks

2008: Tim Beckham, SS
Taken with what should be the Rays' last overall No. 1 pick in the foreseeable future, the Georgia high school star has all the tools. He hit .243 with two homers and 14 RBIs in his brief debut at Princeton, added a handful of games at Hudson Valley and looks to make his full-season debut at Class A Bowling Green. His older brother, Jeremy, also was drafted by the Rays, which likely accelerated his signing to June 16.

2007: David Price, LHP
After combining for a 12-1 record and 2.30 ERA at three levels in 2008, a pro debut pushed back several weeks by a sore elbow, Price more than lived up to billing en route to his coronation in the big leagues in September. His fastball and slider are tops in the system.

2006: Evan Longoria, 3B
The third player taken in 2006 out of Long Beach State, Longoria earned American League Rookie of the Year honors last year as he helped lead the Rays to the World Series, hitting .272 with 31 doubles, 27 homers and 85 RBIs.

2008 Draft Recap

LHP Kyle Lobstein (2): Signed right at the deadline out of high school in Arizona, the smooth-throwing Lobstein will make his pro debut in 2009. ... C Jacob Jefferies (3) signed out of Cal-Davis and hit .315 to rank second in the system, adding two homers and 41 RBIs at Hudson Valley. ... Power-hitting OF Jason Corder (7) is another Long Beach State product and hit .306 with five homers and 36 RBIs at Hudson Valley in his debut. ... RHP Matt Gorgen (16) was one of two Gorgens signed last year as twin brother Scott was a fourth-round pick by St. Louis. Both pitched in the New York-Penn League, with Matt posting 13 saves and a 1.96 ERA. He's a Cal-Berkeley product. ... Speaking of siblings, Tim Beckham's older brother, 2B Jeremy Beckham, (17) hit .260 at Princeton and .220 at Hudson Valley after being taken out of Georgia Southern.

Predictions

Hitter of the Year -- OF Desmond Jennings
We called this one last year as well, but a pair of injuries that bookended his season (back and shoulder respectively) eliminated that possibility. A healthy Jennings could tear it up.

Pitcher of the Year -- RHP Jeremy Hellickson
With an 11-5 record, 2.96 ERA and 162 strikeouts against only 20 walks over 152 innings, he would have won this last year had it not been for that Price guy. With Price likely to be in the bigs for most, if not all, of the season, it could finally be Hellickson's turn.

Notes of Note

After holding big league Spring Training at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg and having its Minor League complex in a trailer park overlooking a dog run, Tampa Bay moved its whole operation an hour south to Port Charlotte, where the Rays also will field its Florida State League affiliate, the Charlotte Stone Crabs. Farm director Mitch Lukevics is still getting to know the lay of the land, but he's loving every minute of it. "It's been tremendous and we've already reaped the benefits of being all together," he said. "Our Minor League coaches can help out at Major League batting practice, while Joe Maddon has already been over on the back fields, talking to the Minor Leaguers." ... The Class A Advanced team isn't the only club with a new home. The South Atlantic League affiliate has moved from Columbus, Ga., to Bowling Green, Ky., and is now the Bowling Green Hot Rods. ... LHP prospect Jake McGee underwent Tommy John surgery midway through 2008 and is expected to miss much of '09 while rehabbing. He struck out 175 over 139 innings in his last full season.

Quotable

"We knew (that the team would be good thanks to the influx of homegrown talent), we just didn't think it would be this soon. Being a championship club changes the whole atmosphere. You can see it in our Minor Leaguers. They're proud of what went on. They can see that their Minor League teammates made a contribution. They know because of the homegrown talent in the big leagues that someday they'll have a chance to make the same kind of contribution, because that's the direction our whole organization is going. It's a whole different ballgame."

--Mitch Lukevics, Rays director of Minor League operations

Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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