3 Top Prospects That Can Get the Tampa Bay Rays over the Hump Next Season
Tampa Bay was victorious in a must-win game against the Blue Jays at the end of the regular season, securing a share of the second wild-card spot. They then knocked off the Rangers on the road in the AL Wild Card tiebreaker to earn an official postseason berth and promptly took down the Indians (on the road) to reach the ALDS.
Facing a 2-0 deficit in the best-of-five series against the Red Sox, the Rays extended their winning streak in elimination games to four with Jose Lobaton’s walk-off home run in Game 3 of the ALDS. However, that would be it for both the streak and Tampa Bay’s season, as they were ultimately eliminated in Game 4 the following night.
Despite graduating top prospects Wil Myers and Chris Archer to the major leagues this past season, the Rays’ farm system remains loaded with potential major league talent.
So, here’s a look at three specific prospects that can help Tampa Bay get over the hump next season.
Enny Romero, LHP
Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2008, Enny Romero was eased through the low minors to open his professional career and didn’t make his full-season debut until 2011.
The 2012 season marked the left-hander’s breakout campaign, as he registered a 3.93 ERA and .201 opponent batting average with 107 strikeouts in 126 innings. While he proved difficult to barrel, Romero struggled with his control for most of the year and finished the season with 76 walks.
Despite his overall rawness, the Rays promoted Romero to Double-A Montgomery to begin the 2013 season. The 22-year-old responded favorably to the challenge by posting a 2.76 ERA with 110 strikeouts over 27 starts. However, control was once again a problem for the southpaw, as he issued 75 walks in 140.1 innings.
As a result of his success, Romero—a two-time selection to the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game—was moved up to Triple-A Durham late in the season in anticipation of the International League playoffs. In his only regular-season start at the more advanced level, Romero allowed just four hits over eight scoreless innings.
However, the promotions didn’t end there. The Rays called up Romero on September 22 to make a spot start against the Baltimore Orioles in the heat of a playoff race. Though he recorded a no-decision, the left-hander was impressive given the circumstances, allowing one hit and four walks with no strikeouts over 4.2 scoreless innings.
While nobody has ever questioned Romero’s stuff and ability to get outs, his control remains a work in progress. And if it doesn’t improve by the end of the 2014 season, it’s possible that the left-hander may be relegated to a full-time bullpen role. However, given the strides he made this year, Romero should get a crack at the team’s starting rotation at some point next season.
Hak-Ju Lee, SS
Hak-Ju Lee was signed by the Chicago Cubs out of South Korea in 2008 and quickly emerged as one of the game’s more intriguing shortstop prospects. But after only two years in the Cubs system—including an impressive full-season debut at Low-a Peoria in 2010—Lee, along with right-hander Chris Archer and three other players, was traded to the Rays after the 2010 season in exchange for a player package highlighted by Matt Garza.
Assigned to High-A Charlotte for the 2011 season, Lee took the pitcher-friendly Florida State League by storm, batting .318/.389/.443 with 31 extra-base hits and 28 stolen bases in 97 games. However, the left-handed hitter unexpectedly struggled at Double-A Montgomery after a late-season promotion, posting a .190 batting average with 22 strikeouts in 24 games.
Lee spent the entire 2012 season back at Double-A where his approach and on-base skills were challenged once again. Playing in 116 games, he batted .261/.336/.360 with 29 extra-base hits and a career-high 37 stolen bases. But for a projected top-of-the-order hitter, Lee’s 68 runs scored and 102 strikeouts were a disappointment.
Due to their lack of a long-term shortstop, the Rays continued to move Lee up the organizational ladder with a promotion to Triple-A Durham to begin the 2013 season. Perhaps making up for the lost time, the 22-year-old opened the year on fire with a .422 batting average (1.136 OPS) and six stolen bases through the first 15 games.
Sadly, Lee’s potential bounce-back season ended prematurely. In Durham’s game against Norfolk on April 21, Lee suffered torn ligaments in his left knee during a collision at second base and was forced to undergo season-ending surgery. Considering his hot start at Triple-A, Lee would have likely spent at least a few months in the major leagues this past season.
Viewed as the Rays’ future shortstop since joining the organization in 2011, Lee has the upside of a Gold Glove-caliber defender with plus speed and an above-average hit tool. Even if the bat never comes around, his defensive prowess should make him an everyday middle infielder in the major leagues.
Provided that his knee injury isn’t an issue moving forward, Lee, who already owns a spot on the Rays’ 40-man roster, could receive a call-up early in the 2014 season.
C.J. Riefenhauser, LHP
Selected in the 20th round of the 2010 draft out of Chipola (Fla.) Junior College, C.J. Riefenhauser was developed primarily as a starter during his first two years at a full-season level. But after spending the first half of the 2012 season in the High-A Charlotte rotation, the Rays organization decided to transition the left-hander to the bullpen. Riefenhauser responded favorably to his new role and reached Double-A Montgomery by the end of the season.
Assigned back to Double-A for his first season as a full-time reliever, the 23-year-old was outstanding as Montgomery’s closer, posting a 0.51 ERA with 11 saves, .153 opponent batting average and 48/11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 53 innings. Having mastered the level, the Rays promoted Riefenhauser to Triple-A Durham following his appearance in the 2013 SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game. While he didn’t post video-game numbers at the more advanced level, the left-hander was still highly effective with a 3.05 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 20.2 innings.
The Rays presumably will give Riefenhauser an extended look next spring in major league camp to see if he can win a spot in the Opening Day bullpen. Even if he opens the 2014 season back at Triple-A, the left-hander should be able to make quick work of the level and spend a majority of the year in The Show.