Spotlight on the Rays
An up-close look at the club as we approach Opening Day
More team spotlights:
Reid Brignac, SS: An outstanding defensive shortstop, Brignac made his big league debut last summer, but his September arrival was canceled due to a broken wrist suffered when he was hit by a pitch at Triple-A Durham. The 2004 second-round pick out of high school in Louisiana hit .250 with nine homers and 43 RBIs in 97 games before his injury. Brignac, who was the 2006 California League MVP when he hit .326 with 21 homers and 83 RBIs at Advanced A Visalia, is a left-handed batter who has filled out from lanky teen to muscular 23-year-old and continues to refine his game. An International League All-Star at midseason, he brings good power potential up the middle.
Wade Davis, RHP: With southpaw David Price likely in the big leagues for good, Davis is the next superstar to watch on the horizon. He checked in at No. 31 on MLB.com's preseason Top 50 and boasts the best curveball in the system as his main out pitch. The system's Minor League Pitcher of the Year in '07, he combined to go 10-3 with a 2.50 ERA between Advanced A Vero Beach and Double-A Montgomery. Then he kept up the good work in '08 as he combined for a 13-8 record and 3.47 ERA between Montgomery and his Triple-A debut at Durham, with his ERA actually dipping after the promotion to a 2.72. The 6-foot-5 220-pounder is a power pitcher with a fastball in the mid-90s and a good changeup as well. The 23-year-old was a 2004 third-round draft pick out of high school in Florida and has combined for a 3.25 ERA over his pro career.
Jeremy Hellickson, RHP: Hellickson is finally getting some rankings love as he landed at No. 39 on the MLB.com preseason Top 50, his debut on that list. A control artist who would have been the Rays' Minor League Pitcher of the Year in '08 had it not been for a guy named Price, he combined to go 11-5 with a 2.96 ERA between Vero Beach and Montgomery. He struck out 162 batters while walking only 20 over 152 innings. His strikeout total not only led the organization, it was good for fifth in the Minors and his 9.59 strikeouts per nine innings ranked 13th among all Minor League full-season starters. He has command of three pitches including a fastball in the mid-90s and a plus changeup, and the poised Iowa native -- a 2005 fourth-round pick -- has drawn the inevitable comparisons to Greg Maddux.
Desmond Jennings, OF: In a loaded organization, the 22-year-old Jennings still stands out as the best athlete, but a pair of injuries bookended a lost '08 season for the 2006 10th-round pick. He lost time early to back trouble and later to shoulder surgery that limited him to 24 games at Vero Beach, where he hit .259. He headed to the Arizona Fall League to make up for some of the lost time, batting .239 in seven games. The club hopes for more of the Jennings it saw in '07, when he hit .315 with 45 stolen bases at Class A Columbus. He's a gap hitter with some power, great speed and outstanding defensive potential.
Matthew Moore, LHP: Moore blew away the competition in the Appalachian League as he led the organization with a 1.66 ERA at Princeton, falling a third of an inning shy of winning the ERA title. An 2007 eighth-round pick out of high school in New Mexico, his 12.75 strikeouts per nine inning and .154 opponents' average led all Minor League starting pitchers, while his ERA was sixth in the Minors. With an easy delivery and improved control, he walked only 19 while fanning 77 over 54 1/3 innings, doing it all at age 19. Throwing a fastball in the low-90s with a hard-to-hit curve, he will make his full-season debut this spring.
Jeff Niemann, RHP: The 6-foot-9 Niemann was a first-round pick out of Rice in '04, but injuries slowed his ascent. He didn't make his anticipated big league debut until last season, when he posted a 5.06 ERA in a brief Tampa Bay showing. He could make the club out of Spring Training this time around, though. Finally healthy, he's put together strong back-to-back campaigns at Durham with a 12-6 record and 3.98 ERA in '07 and a 9-5 record and 3.59 ERA last summer. He fanned 128 over 133 innings for the Bulls in '08 to finish fifth in the system in strikeouts and 10th in ERA. At 26, it's time for him to show what he can do in the bigs with a fastball in the low-90s and a hard curve. His .207 opponents' average ranked seventh among all full-season Minor League starters in '08.
Fernando Perez, OF: There is debate as to whether the switch-hitting Perez projects as a full-time outfielder or a valuable fourth guy in the bigs. There is no debate, however, as to what he brings to the table. One of the fastest players in the Majors and one of the best defensive outfielders, Perez became a household baseball name when he manufactured the Rays' winning run against Boston in the 11th inning of Game 2 of the American League Championship Series. A 2004 seventh-round pick out of Columbia -- that Ivy League institution's highest-drafted player ever -- he taught himself to switch-hit to make better use of his game-changing speed and has been among his team's most effective and popular players ever since. His .288 average and 43 steals at Durham in '08 earned him the Rays' Minor League Player of the Year honor.
David Price, LHP: What more is there to say about the savvy southpaw who topped MLB.com's preseason Top 50 Prospects list? Armed with the best fastball and slider in the system, the No. 1 overall pick out of Vanderbilt in '07 made a belated pro debut last May after a sore elbow sidelined him to start the spring. But as far as making up for lost time, he wound up as the system's Minor League Pitcher of the Year. He went 4-0 with a 1.82 ERA at Vero Beach, posted a 1.89 ERA in nine starts at Montgomery and a 4.50 mark in four starts at Durham before joining the big league team for the stretch drive. His postseason heroics are already legendary as he matched his stuff with poise and class. He combined to fan 110 over 109 2/3 innings in the Minors and may not see much of them again, if at all.