Four Rays among Top 50 prospects
MLB.com tabs Hellickson, Jennings, Moore, Archer in rankings
ST. PETERSBURG -- Four players from the Rays' Minor League organization are among MLB.com's Top 50 Prospects for the 2011 season.
Right-handers Jeremy Hellickson and Chris Archer, left-hander Matt Moore and outfielder Desmond Jennings all made the list, giving Tampa Bay fans a sign of good things to come.
While Hellickson is ranked the highest of the Rays' prospects at No. 2, Jennings (No. 11) is the most intriguing, as the question looms regarding where he'll spend 2011.
Jennings put together his first full year of professional baseball in 2009 after getting hurt in his two previous seasons. As a result of that stint, he was named MVP of the Southern League at Double-A Montgomery before advancing to Triple-A Durham, where he showed he could play.
Unfortunately, Jennings was revisited by the injury bug in 2010, when a sprained left wrist suffered during Spring Training caused him to open the season on the disabled list. He went on to hit .278 with three home runs and 36 RBIs and 37 stolen bases in 109 games for Durham before getting recalled to the Rays on Sept. 1. In 17 games with Tampa Bay, he hit .190 with two RBIs and two stolen bases.
The scouting report on Jennings -- a former high school football standout -- calls him a gifted athlete who can play center field and runs good routes to track down fly balls. He has the ability to hit and is expected to eventually hit for some power.
"I picked up on him last Spring Training when he got hurt," manager Joe Maddon said. "D.J. is really a good makeup guy. ... These guys, really good football players, tend to be that way. He's a really good football player."
The thing that surprised Maddon the most was Jennings' baseball instincts. As a wide receiver, Jennings ran excellent routes, said Maddon, and "maybe that is the carryover, because he runs good routes in the outfield."
Maddon was also impressed with how Jennings ran the bases and took secondary leads away from the bag.
"Of course, he's going to make a mistake once in a while," said Maddon. "He got picked off at the latter part of the season, but he sees things well."
Jennings will get a good look during Spring Training, but based on the lack of offense he showed during his late-season callup and the fact Johnny Damon is earmarked to arrive and play a lot of games in left field, it's likely Jennings will start the season at Durham.
"This guy's going to be fine, he's going to hit enough," Maddon said. "He's going to hit for some power. His defense is going to be spectacular. He's going to throw all right, but he is a good athlete with a good head for this game. That tells me he's going to get a lot better. It's really fascinating, actually. [In a] couple more years, he's going to be a solid performer in this league."
When asked if Jennings was going to be the next Carl Crawford, Maddon smiled: "No, he'll be the first Desmond Jennings."
Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman called Hellickson "extremely talented" and saluted his extraordinary poise "for a young pitcher."
"We feel he's going -- whether it's Opening Day or later -- to really [step] in nicely and help us maintain the premium starting pitching we've been accustomed to," Friedman said.
However, Friedman would not go so far as to concede a starting job right out of the chute to the Iowa native. Fans can expect to hear talk between now and the end of Spring Training about Hellickson having to compete for the final spot in the Rays' rotation, and no doubt, the club will want to see some positive things from the right-hander.
While some might maintain that Hellickson becoming the fifth starter runs counter to Tampa Bay's philosophy that trips to The Show must be earned, any such suggestions where Hellickson is concerned are ridiculous. Hellickson paid his dues in full last year by showing he had nothing else to prove in the Minor Leagues, and he helped the Rays navigate a tough patch of the 2010 season when starters Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis were on the disabled list.
Hellickson's first test came on Aug. 2, when the Rays summoned him from Triple-A Durham for a spot start at Tropicana Field. He responded by holding the Twins to two runs over seven innings, striking out six and walking two. He returned to Triple-A Durham after the start, but Tampa Bay quickly recalled him when Niemann and Davis came up lame. Hellickson then threw seven scoreless innings against the Tigers in his second outing, earning the praises of Damon afterward.
"This kid knows how to pitch," Damon said. "This is only his second big league start. That goes to show you how good their starting pitching is. It seemed like the kid had no fear. He'd throw five straight changeups or five straight changeups [and] then mix in the fastball.
"The kid is pretty good. He's going to be in the big leagues to stay for a long time, if not now. The kid knows what he's doing."
Hellickson finished his initial campaign at 4-0 with a 3.47 ERA in 10 appearances, four of which were starts.
"He knows how to pitch, that's for sure," said James Shields, the elder statesman of the Rays' starting rotation at age 28. "He's got really good command of his pitches. He knows where each one of them is going. That's one of the main differences between the Minor Leagues and the Major Leagues."
Moore came in at No. 27 after continuing in 2010 to demonstrate the promise that makes him project so well.
The 21-year-old southpaw played two years at low Class A Princeton before busting loose in 2009 at Class A Bowling Green, where he led all of Minor League baseball in strikeouts. Moore has a plus fastball and breaking ball, and he is continuing to work on his changeup. He spent last season at Class A Port Charlotte, where he struck out 208 in 144 2/3 innings, walking just 61 in the process en route to a 6-11 mark with a 3.36 ERA.
Moore is earmarked to begin the 2011 season at Double-A Montgomery.
Archer, 22, ranked 47th on the list and appears to be the top prospect in the Matt Garza deal with the Cubs. Archer has been through the trade process before, getting sent from Cleveland to Chicago in the Mark DeRosa deal at the end of 2008. The 2006 draftee repeated Class A ball during his first season in Chicago's organization, finishing with a 2.81 ERA and .202 batting average against in 109 innings with Peoria in the Midwest League.
His stock rose during this past season. The right-hander split time between Class A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee, and Archer was even better when he was promoted to the tougher Southern League. Combined, he won the organizational pitching triple crown with a 15-3 record, 2.34 ERA and 149 strikeouts in 142 1/3 innings. He capped things off by beating Cuba in a Pan Am Qualifying Tournament, earning him a nod from USA Baseball for the International Performance of the Year. After the season, Baseball America ranked Archer the Cubs' top prospect, and the organization named him its 2010 Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
The key to Archer's success last year was improved fastball command. Archer still walked 65 batters in 2010, but he has improved his walk rate in each of the past two seasons. When he's able to locate his above-average to plus fastball, his plus slider becomes even better. He's also improved his changeup quite a bit, giving him an effective three-pitch mix. Archer is a tremendous competitor with an off-the-charts makeup. He could start the year in a very good Double-A Montgomery rotation and move from there.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.