PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- At some point in the hopefully not-too-distant future when the coronavirus pandemic passes, people are safe, rosters are being set and the season is around the corner, the Tampa Bay organization is going to have some tough decisions to make, specifically in the middle infield of
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- At some point in the hopefully not-too-distant future when the coronavirus pandemic passes, people are safe, rosters are being set and the season is around the corner, the Tampa Bay organization is going to have some tough decisions to make, specifically in the middle infield of the middle of its Minor League ladder.
The game's best farm system also boasts its best prospect in Wander Franco, the 19-year-old shortstop who finished 2019 at Class A Advanced Charlotte. It also claims No. 45 overall prospect Vidal Brujan, who split time between short and second base while completing his season at Double-A Montgomery. It also picked up No. 72 Xavier Edwards in a deal from the Padres this offseason, adding another switch-hitting infielder to the mix after he finished up at Class A Advanced Lake Elsinore at age 19. The Rays also used their 2019 first-round pick on UNC Wilmington shortstop Greg Jones. Add in the organization's No. 15 prospect Taylor Walls, No. 25 Lucius Fox and ... you get the picture.
Of the top 30 Tampa Bay prospects ranked by MLB.com, six are shortstops or second basemen who either ended last season at Class A Advanced or Double-A or, like Jones, are definite candidates to start above Class A. That might seem like a roster conundrum. Rays director of Minor League operations Jeff McLerran has a pretty simple response to that.
"As you know, we are the Rays," he said.
In other words, expect most of these middle infielders to play numerous positions as they try to carve out their future roles with Tampa Bay.
Start, as most things Rays-related do these days, with Franco. The talented switch-hitter has climbed to the top of every major prospect ranking list, mostly on the strength of his elite bat. After all, Franco did produce a .327/.398/.487 line with nine homers, 56 walks and only 35 strikeouts in 114 games between Class A Bowling Green and Charlotte. (Oh yeah, he was also only 18 years old for the whole season.) Franco's 80-grade hit tool makes him valuable at any position, but he would have even more value if he could stick at short. That's not necessarily a given. He has above-average speed but not the blazing wheels that command attention or cover vast amounts of ground on the dirt. His plus arm certainly might play at third, and his size at 5-foot-10, 189 pounds is actually closer to that of a second baseman.
All three spots could be on the table some day for Franco.
"Even now with the way defenses shift, you get a lot of different experiences in areas of the field," McLerran said. "He's worked out in different spots during his time with us, even though he's only played shortstop in games. That's something we'll continue to make sure he's ready to step into any role that's necessary of him when he does make it to the big leagues."
That said, Franco was scheduled to play for the Dominican Republic at this month's Olympic Americas qualifier before that, like most of baseball, was put on hold. Even though the squad also boasted fellow Top-100 prospect and shortstop Geraldo Perdomo, the Rays had been told by Team DR that Franco was still slated to be the club's starter at the six.
So if Franco could be penciled in for a promotion to Double-A to open 2020 as the Rays try to find his next challenge, it's pretty safe to assume he'll be Montgomery's Opening Day shortstop as well.
"Versatility is something that a lot of our guys add during their journey in their development," McLerran said. "We'll see what happens with him. As of now, the plan is for him to be at short. ... He can play a good shortstop and be a good Major League shortstop. If he's ready at any of the other positions, that's a bonus."
A candidate much more likely to move around -- possibly also at Montgomery -- is Edwards, Tampa Bay's newest addition to its core of Top-100 prospects. The 38th overall pick in the 2018 Draft got off to a strong start in his first full season, hitting .322/.375/.396 with 54 strikeouts, 44 walks and 34 stolen bases in 123 games between Class A Fort Wayne and Class A Advanced Lake Elsinore in the Padres system. He was dealt to the Rays, along with Hunter Renfroe, for Tommy Pham and Jake Cronenworth in December and instantly became part of the discussion with Brujan and Jones for the title of the fastest runner in the Rays pipeline.
Unlike Franco, Edwards already has split time between multiple positions, making more starts at second base (86) than he did at his drafted position of short (30) last season. He could make for a fun double-play partner with Franco if they both made the jump to the Southern League, and McLerran added Edwards is also expected to get some looks at third base, based on the early positive impression he has given his new organization.
"Once again, our scouts did a great job finding someone who has tools and skill, but also someone who has work ethic and is willing to take coaching and comes to the field with the mind-set to get better each day," McLerran said. "We're going to continue to get him exposure to different spots on the infield as well. He's going to be at a level with some other good infielders, so they'll get a little bit of playing time at second and short. But it seems like all the physical ability we were told was there has shown up in camp."
McLerran also stated that Edwards' profile reminded him some of Brujan's earlier in the latter's career, in that both are speedsters who derive their power not from hitting balls over the fence but rather from their abilities to stretch singles into doubles and doubles into triples. (Those total-base additions help in the slugging percentage category too.)
Brujan has basically become a full-time second baseman, and it's possible he could turn two with Franco at Montgomery to start if the Rays decide his .266/.336/.391 line in 55 games means he needs more experience at the Double-A level. If he doesn't make the jump to Triple-A Durham, that might mean Edwards repeats Class A Advanced, which is where Jones (with his 70-grade speed) seems likely to open his first full season. With Fox and Walls -- both gifted defenders up the middle -- seeming destined for Durham, the contest to be Tampa Bay's next great infielder could be fierce at the upper levels. That's before anyone remembers the contending Major League club already has a few promising young players on the dirt in Brandon Lowe and Willy Adames.
There can only be one shortstop per team. There can only be one second baseman of the future. It's going to be one massive puzzle to figure out exactly who fits best where and which players will have to move around to get the most of their skill set. Then again, they are the Rays. They seem to be pretty good at this kind of thing.
"It's a great thing in that it ramps up the level of competition for all of those guys," McLerran said. "For instance, Greg Jones was here in January. He, Jelfry Marte, Abiezel Ramirez were all beginning to push each other in January as they started to compete and really find ways to one-up the other one. As we get closer to setting rosters, we're going to sit down and have a challenging discussion about how we separate playing time.
"As we always mention, we do value versatility, so some of those getting exposure to other positions certainly isn't a bad thing. We're going to take a look at where each guy is at, figure out what game reps are going to help them the most and develop them."
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.