Q & A With Rays Beat Writer Marc Topkin

Marc Topkin has been covering the Rays for the Tampa Bay Times since the team’s inception. He’s a great read both during the season and in the winter months. He sat down with us to talk about the Rays off-season, the outlook for 2015, and some of his favorite memories covering the Hot Rods’ big league club. You can follow Marc on Twitter or keep up with his articles by clicking here.

A.K.: The Rays have been very active on the trade market this off-season. What deal stands out the most to you (Reader note: The Hot Rods stand to gain from a few of these deals, as noted here)?

M.T.: The two deals that I found most surprising – and thus come with the biggest risk – were trading Wil Myers and Ben Zobrist. In both cases, because the Rays could have waited.

Wil had an impressive second half of 2013 and a poor 2014, though with an injury in the middle that cost him half the season. So I thought they would use this season to get a better sense of what they really have – he  is only 24 – and then if they didn’t like what he did or how he did it trade him after the 2015 season. That they did so now makes you wonder if they were concerned he would have another bad year and his value would be significantly diminished.

As for Zobrist, I would have thought they would have played it out like they did last year with David Price – trade him in July if they are out of the race, keep him if they were in and take the draft pick. And while John Jaso will help the team this season, Daniel Robertson is considered a big-time prospect and Boog Powell has some value, it did not look to be an overwhelming return. But for the Rays to be so proactive, you again wonder if they were concerned about Zobrist’s dropoff in power.

A.K.: The promoted management on the baseball side has not been shy so far. Not many new faces and it’s very early on, but what are your thoughts on Matthew Silverman and his start as the guy in charge?

M.T.: The first thing people – including me at times – have to remember is that Matt is not new to the team and the decision-making process, just the role as having the final say. As team president, he was essentially Andrew Friedman’s boss for the previous 9 seasons, and was certainly closely involved in much of what they did. Plus, his top two assistants have also been with the Rays and part of the inner circle for a while, Chaim Bloom and Erik Neander.

That said, it’s different being in charge, and Matt has shown himself to be willing to be bold, to take risks, to be emotionless, and to be creative. All elements that typically make for a good baseball exec.

A.K.: David Price was such a big part of the fabric and the success of the Rays, even though you’re technically in an objective role, how odd was it to not see such a staple of the franchise on a daily basis?

M.T.: There certainly was a void, and while the players and fans noticed it most on the mound, I did in the clubhouse, as David was one of the players I had a very good rapport with, talking in some fashion on just about a daily basis. He is a player that I saw grow up, meeting him when he first signed with the Rays, and I’ve gotten to know his parents, I’ve been in his house in Tennessee, I’ve met his girlfriend and brother. And, he often was a good quote. You always miss those guys!

But this is still a business, so while it was odd to not have him around in the final two months of the season, it was only slightly different than seeing Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton and James Shields leave as well. The only difference was that Price left during the year so it felt more sudden as the other were off-season moves.

A.K.: The return haul for Price saw immediate dividends (Drew Smyly, Nick Franklin) but the biggest prospect of the trade was 18-year old Willy Adames, a relatively unheralded infielder entering 2014. He enjoyed a meteoric rise last season, capped by a one-month stay in Bowling Green. How much have you heard from Rays brass regarding Adames?

M.T.: I think the Rays, and many others around baseball, are quite high on Adames. Farm director Mitch Lukevics told me that they not only have high praise for his baseball skills – arm, glove, bat, legs, etc. – but also his makeup and personality, saying Adames has “it.”  For him to do as well as he did being as young as he is, the future seems incredibly bright. And I get the sense that under the new management they may be a bit more aggressive in moving players up through the system. At this stage, Adames definitely projects as a major-league regular.

A.K.: Tim Beckham arrived in Bowling Green with significant hype in the inaugural season of 2009. What prospect grabbed your attention the most from his arrival in the system to his debut in Tampa Bay?

M.T.: This may not be the answer you were looking for, but the draft pick that turned out to be the most fascinating to follow never played for the Rays, and that would be Josh Hamilton, whom they made the top pick in 1999. Obviously that run of top of the draft picks that they had made for some hyped prospects, such as B.J Upton, Delmon Young, Jeff Niemann, Evan Longoria and David Price. Another one that was interesting to follow was Dewon Brazleton.

A.K.: Building on the last question, with Tampa Bay being such a MiLB-driven organization, how often do you glance at how the affiliates are doing?

M.T.: Honestly, I try to at least look at the box score or a story summary every day (or at night during the Rays game). The value of prospects (and the money they get) makes them worth following, and the interest from fans requires it. They truly are the future, especially in this organization. And I will admit that it’s a low moment for me when I get a question from a fan, via email or Twitter, about a minor-leaguer and I don’t know who they are talking about, so I try to make it a point to get as familiar as I can with all the players in the system.

A.K.: It may not be Thursday, but we have a throwback question for you. You’ve covered the team since its inception and endured all of the growing pains. How rewarding was it to go from covering 90+ loss clubs to the 2008 World Series and subsequent winning seasons?

M.T.: Even though as reporters we don’t pull for the team to win, we do root for interesting and exciting stories (in other words, the worst team to cover is a mediocre one; really good or really bad is much better). And I had seen plenty of bad, wondering during the 2002 season if I had had enough. But they hired Lou Piniella after that, which at least made it interesting, for the next three years. And then the transformation of the Rays, going back to Stuart Sternberg’s purchase of the team in October 2005, was a remarkable journey to chronicle, from putting Andrew Friedman in charge to hiring Joe Maddon, to rebranding the team and changing the uniforms, and then, of course, winning games and making the 2008 run to the World Series. It was exciting, exhilarating and exhausting, as the Rays became THE story locally and nationally. It is quite fun to the be the beat writer on the hottest story in town. And while there certainly have been some exciting moments since – Longoria’s Game 162 homer in 2011 to clinch the wild-card berth, and the 2013 end of season march from winning on the final day in Toronto to Game 163 in Texas to the wild-card game in Cleveland and then on to Boston for the ALDS – nothing will match the intensity of the 2008 ALCS finales, when Aki Iwamura stepped on second base to clinch the pennant.


A.K.: Some predict a temporary slowdown of the recent Rays success in 2015 (aka building for 2016), others see a competitive year. Where do you think the Rays fit in this year’s version of the AL East?

M.T.: As we sit here today, I think the Rays have taken a step back, but still have a chance to compete. Primarily that’s because they have the best starting rotation in the AL East, and have a chance to have one of the deepest bullpens, assuming Jake McGee is back, and as effective, within the first month of the season. There are some legitimate questions about the offense, especially in the power department, and still some uncertainty over the infield defense. They upgraded at catcher with Rene Rivera, and a good season from Asdrubal Cabrera could match what they would have gotten from Zobrist. So to me the keys look to be Nick Franklin, who may get the bulk of the playing time at second, and Steven Souza, whom they are counting on to be as good as Wil Myers was supposed to be. A prediction? 85 wins.

Breaking Down BA’s Top 30 Rays Prospects: 5-1

We’ve reached the finale of the Baseball America countdown, but fear not, we’ve an exciting interview that we’ll be posting on Monday. Marc Topkin was gracious enough to take some time with the Tune-Up Blog. Topkin has been the Rays beat writer for the Tampa Bay Times since the club’s inception. He has some great insight and observations into Tampa’s active off-season. That’s on Monday, but for now, the Rays’ Top 5 prospects according to Baseball America.

#5 – Justin O’Conner, C

It’s hard to say a first-round draft pick “vaulted” onto the scene, but after three sub-par years that’s just what O’Conner did with the Hot Rods in 2013. That year, he launched 14 home runs and drove in 56 in just 102 games. His bat finally caught up to the defensive prowess that made the Rays select him 31st overall in 2010 out of Cowan High School in Muncie, Indiana.

O’Conner took another leap forward last season, batting .282 in 80 games with Advanced-A Port Charlotte. That represented a nearly 50-point rise from his season with Bowling Green, and it led to a promotion to Double-A Montgomery at the end of the season. He held his own with the Biscuits in 21 games, collecting 21 hits and batting a respectable .263. O’Conner singled off fellow Rays prospect Enny Romero in the Futures Game, and he batted .303 in the Arizona Fall League. We’ve profiled a few other catchers that were on this list earlier, but O’Conner is the cream of the crop and could find himself behind the plate at Tropicana Field in late 2015.

#4 – Alex Colome, RHP

Colome found himself in the news for all the wrong reasons thanks to a suspension following a positive PED test. It was especially disappointing considering many considered Colome a favorite to crack the Opening Day roster for the first time since being signed by Tampa out of the Dominican Republic in 2008. He posted a 3.09 ERA with Durham in ’13, and was impressive in three starts with the big league club to end the season.

The suspension proved tob e just a bump in the road, and Colome won seven games in 15 starts with Durham last season. He appeared five times (three starts) for the Rays, compiling a 2.62 ERA in 23.2 innings. Tampa figures to have the best rotation in the American League East, so it’ll be awfully hard for Colome to crack it. However, there’s a great chance he’ll end up in the bullpen with the Rays to start the season.

#3 – Willy Adames, SS

Photo by Gregg Rich

                  Photo by Gregg Rich

Very few guys exhibit the “wow” factor at the Class-A level, but Adames did just that. Even more impressive, he did it as an 18-year old in his first stateside season AND after being dealt to a completely new team at the trade deadline. That’s a lot of culture shocks to experience for anyone in a six-month period, but Adames handled it flawlessly. He was signed for just over $400,000 by the Tigers, but was the prize asset coming back from Detroit in the David Price trade last July. His Hot Rods career lasted just one month, but it was one to remember.

Adames made the rare jump from the Dominican Summer League to full-season baseball, and showed no signs of needing time to settle in. He hit .269 with 32 extra-base hits and 50 RBIs in 98 games with West Michigan. By the deadline, he was a fast-rising name on prospect lists, and the Rays were able to acquire him by dealing Price. Even though he had to settle in with a new team, he improved his average by nine points, and helped keep the Hot Rods in the playoff chase during the month of August.

#2 – Daniel Robertson, INF

Acquired from the Oakland Athletics in the Ben Zobrist trade, Robertson is yet another first-rounder in the Rays farm system. He was selected 34th overall in 2012 out of Upland, California, and his rise has been a quick one. He hit .277 with Beloit in 2013, driving in 46 runs and tallying 111 total hits. He turned 20 before the start of last season, and enjoyed a career year.

Robertson made the move to Advanced-A Stockton, and set career-highs across the board. He hit .310 with 15 home runs and 60 RBIs, not to mention the 37 doubles he clubbed. All of these numbers being showcased from the shortstop position. He went on to hit .301 with 12 RBIs in the Arizona Fall League. Robertson is young which makes you think the Rays will allow him to play at Double-A Montgomery all year, but another step forward like he had in ’14, and Robertson just may force himself into the annual Durham playoff chase.

#1 – Steven Souza, OF

Souza made one of the best catches in ’14, and it saved Jordan Zimmerman’s no-hitter on Sept. 28, 2014.

Souza was an interesting choice for the top spot, Personally, I would’ve placed Robertson or Adames in this spot, but the Rays clearly feel Souza can help this year. They had to trade away Wil Myers after just two seasons to get him, and Souza’s journey to Tampa is an unorthodox one. He was the 100th overall selection in 2007, and toiled as an infielder in the lower minors for five seasons before the Nationals moved him to the outfield. Since that change, he’s been a steady climber.

Souza enjoyed an outstanding 2014 campaign with Triple-A Syracuse, blasting a career-high 18 home runs to go along with 75 RBIs. He also stole 26 bases in 96 games, and made his way to Washington as a September call-up. In 21 games with the Nats, he only received 23 at-bats, but did club a pair of home runs. After 722 games in the Minors, Souza figures to be an everyday player with Tampa Bay in 2015.

Breaking Down BA’s Top 30 Rays Prospects: 10-6

Part three of our four-part countdown continues here on the Tune-Up as we profile the first half of Baseball America’s Top 10.

#10 – Brent Honeywell, RHP

Honeywell at Tropicana Field signing his first contract.

Unless the Rays plan to be super cautious with the young right-hander, Honeywell could very well end up as Bowling Green’s Opening Night starter on April 9 in South Bend. He was selected with the 72nd overall pick in last year’s draft by Tampa Bay out of Walters State Community College. He has professional pedigree, his father (also named Brent) was signed out of Saint Leo University in 1988 by the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Honeywell enjoyed one of the best debut seasons of anyone in the 2014 class. He made nine appearances (eight starts) with the Princeton Rays in the Appalachian League. Honeywell conceded an absurdly low four earned runs in 33.2 innings, good for a 1.06 earned run average. He struck out 40 while issuing just six free passes, and he allowed only one home run. For his efforts, Honeywell was named the Most Valuable Player for Princeton.

#9 – Ryan Brett, 2B

Selected in the third round in 2010, Brett has steadily risen through the Rays MiLB ranks. Hot Rods fans probably remember his BG days in 2012. That year he clubbed 29 extra-base htis, 35 RBIs, and hit for a .285 average in 100 games. His speed was greatly impressive, as he swiped 48 bags. 2013 saw him hit .340 in 51 games with Advanced-A Port Charlotte, which earned him some time at Double-A Montgomery.

Brett returned to the Biscuits for his first full season there in 2014. In 107 games, Brett hit an impressive .303 with 25 doubles and 38 RBIs. He also stole 27 bases in 34 tries. Brett is just 23, but could be knocking on the door of the big league club later this year. The biggest obstacle to that would be the emergence of Nick Franklin, and if Hak-Ju Lee enjoys a breakout season.

#8 – Mikie Mahtook, OF

Mahtook made the rare jump from college to High-A, skipping over Bowling Green. He was picked 31st overall in 2011 out of LSU after slamming 28 home runs and driving in 106 his final two seasons on campus. He found it tough to adjust to the pro ranks power-wise at first, but he did hit a cool .290 in 92 games with Port Charlotte in his debut campaign of 2012. He ended that year in Montgomery, and went on to play all of ’13 with the Biscuits.

He ascended to the Triple-A level for the first time with Durham last season. He knocked 51 extra-base hits in 132 games, and drove in 68 runs with 18 stolen bases. While Mahtook did strike out 137 times, he also posted a .292 average and .350 on-base percentage. The big league outfield is crowded with the addition of Steven Souza (profiled later on his list) and the emergence of Kevin Kiermaier, but he’ll get a shot at making the roster in Spring Training.

#7 – Nathan Karns, RHP

Karns put up modest numbers his junior year at Texas Tech, but after the Washington Nationals took him in the 12th round in 2009, he excelled as a pro. The right-hander put up ERA’s of 2.05 with Hagerstown, 2.25 with Potomac, and a 3.25 mark with Double-A Harrisburg. He was in the deal by the Nationals to the Rays before last season for Jose Lobaton, Drew Vettleson, and Felipe Rivero.

He made two starts with the Rays last season, but struggled most of the season at Durham. With the Bulls, he went 9-9 with a 5.08 ERA in 27 starts. He did posses quite the swing-and-miss stuff though, fanning 153 in 145.1 innings of work. It was the third season in Karns’ career that his strikeout total reached triple digits. Like prospects listed earlier on Baseball America’s list, he’ll head to Port Charlotte in a few weeks to compete for the fifth spot in the Tampa Bay rotation.

#6 – Adrian Rondon, INF

At 16, it’s incredibly rare to be gracing the Top 10 of any prospect list. That’s just how talented scouts think Rondon is. He was the top international prospect in last season’s signing period, and the Rays shelled out $2.95 million to get him. At 6-2 and 180 pounds, he’s already big enough to contribute at a high level. Scouts who had Rondon high that were surveyed by Baseball America think he can be a fast-riser much like Starlin Castro.

The Rays risked quite a bit on Rondon. Besides spending nearly $3 million bucks, they went well over their bonus pool which severely limits them in the 2015 signing window. This will obviously not matter if Rondon is the real deal and develops into what many have billed him to become. One has to wonder how soon Rondon will play stateside, although it’s high unlikely he’ll see action in Bowling Green until at least 2017.

Breaking Down BA’s Top 30 Rays Prospects: 20-11

#20 – Richie Shaffer, 3B

Shaffer was drafted as a big slugger in 2012, chosen 25th overall out of Clemson. The Rays opted to push Shaffer, and he subsequently did not spend any time in Bowling Green. After a hitting a combined 15 home runs in his first 155 professional games (spanning two seasons), he broke out with the power in ’14 with Double-A Montgomery. Shaffer blasted 19 home runs, and drove in 64. The two biggest concerns in his game are strikeouts (119 in ’14) and his low contact rate, he hit just .222 with the Biscuits last season.

#19 – Tyler Goeddel, 3B

A first-rounder in the huge 2011 draft class, Goeddel made his professional debut with the Hot Rods in 2012 as a 19-year old, and repeated with BG in ’13. He combined to hit 13 home runs and drive in 111 runs with the Hot Rods, but he also stole 60 bases and slashed 14 triples. The Rays deemed him ready to move up to Port Charlotte this past season, and he did not disappoint. Goeddel posted a career-high .269 average, drove in 61 runs, and collected 39 extra-base hits in 113 games. At 6-4 and 180 pounds, Goeddel posses has the frame to support a speed/power combination. Many are expecting a breakout year from him in Montgomery.

#18 – Jose Dominguez, RHP

Acquired in the Joel Peralta trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Dominguez is a fireball right-hander that posses a fastball that can hit 100+ miles her hour. He made his big league debut with Los Angeles in 2013, tossing 8.1 innings over nine contests. He competed in five more big league games last year, but spent most of his season closing games for Triple-A Albuquerque. He pitched with Great Lakes in the Midwest League in 2012, and will be competing for a spot in the big league bullpen in Tampa during Spring Training.

#17 – Nick Ciuffo, C

As is to be expected with a high school catcher, Ciuffo was slow out of the gate, hitting a respectable .258 in the Gulf Coast League in 2013. He spent all of last season with Princeton, batting just .224 with four home runs and 20 RBIs. Those numbers aren’t a huge cause of concern, as offense is usually the last skill to “click” in young catchers, especially those chosen out of high school. Ciuffo was picked up with the 21st overall pick in the ’13 draft, just a few slots before 2014 Hot Rod, Ryne Stanek.

#16 – Justin Williams, OF

Williams is a name Hot Rods fans should be absolutely thrilled about for the 2015 season. He was acquired from Arizona in the trade that sent Jeremy Hellickson to the Diamondbacks. The 19-year old figures to at least start the season in Bowling Green, and he’s already a feared hitter at the Class-A level. In 28 games with South Bend last season, WIlliams hit .284. That was a cameo appearance as he hit .386 in 46 contests with Missoula en route to the Pioneer League batting crown. While Williams has connected for just five home runs as a pro in two seasons, many are excited by the power potential he possesses. He’ll be a part of a middle order that may just be the best in all of the Midwest League next season.

#15 – Jake Hager, SS

Hager enjoyed the best season of his professional career so far with the Hot Rods in 2012, blasting 10 home runs and driving in 72. He hit just .258 in Port Charlotte during the 2013 campaign, but he did rebound last season with Montgomery. As a Biscuit, Hager hit .271 with 47 RBIs. His glove has carried him thus far in his pro career (excluding the eye-popping ’12 campaign), but he’s poised for a big year at the plate this year. The big question will be whether he’s back in Montgomery, or on his way to Durham.

#14 – Taylor Guerrieri, RHP

The 2011 first-rounder was putting up historic numbers with Bowling Green in 2013, but his season ended early when Guerrieri underwent Tommy John Surgery. Before going under the knife, he owned a 2.01 earned run average in 14 starts with the Hot Rods. That was coming off a 2012 campaign with Hudson Valley that saw the South Carolina native establish a ridiculous 1.04 ERA in 12 starts. He was able to throw in five games for the GCL Rays in 2014, so most think Guerrieri will be ready to go for ’15, probably in Port Charlotte.

#13 – Casey Gillaspie, 1B

The former Wichita State Shocker could be another piece in Bowling Green’s order in ’15 after a respectable debut with Hudson Valley last season. He starred at Wichita State, blasting 34 home runs over three seasons, including 15 his junior campaign. He was Tampa Bay’s top draft choice (20th overall) in ’14, and hit seven home runs while driving home 42 with the Renegades. Despite a slow start, he hit .262 and drew 42 walks in 263 at-bats. His older brother Conor is a regular for the Chicago White Sox, and fans could see Casey at Bowling Green Ballpark to start the year in ’15.

#12 – Andrew Velazquez, INF

Tabbed the Midwest League’s prospect of the year while with South Bend last season, Velazquez was the other piece of the Hellickson trade along with Williams (#16 on this list). He’s an electric infielder who batted .290 with 42 extra-base hits and 56 RBIs. He also stole 50 bases, and was one of the best defenders at the shortstop position. Many speculate Velazquez will be changing positions thanks to a deep shortstop pool in the Rays system, but it’s hard to imagine Velazquez returning to the MWL, but the Hot Rods would sure welcome him to the top of their order.

#11 – Blake Snell, LHP

Photo by Gregg Rich

Photo by Gregg Rich

Snell returned to Bowling Green in ’14 to get a handle on his control, and he did just that by controlling Midwest League competition. In eight starts with the Hot Rods, the lefty posted a 1.80 ERA, and struck out 42 in 40.1 innings while issuing just 19 free passes. He was promoted to Port Charlotte in late May, and he went on to strikeout 77 more batters in 75.1 innings with the Stonecrabs. His big highlight came on August 2 when Snell tossed the first no-hitter in Port Charlotte franchise history. It was rain-shortened, but he was nearly perfect as well (just two walks). Snell was the 52nd overall pick in 2011, and while a return to Port Charlotte would make sense to start ’15, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in a Montgomery uniform.

-Andrew Kappes

@KappesPxP

akappes@bghotrods.com

Breaking Down BA’s Top 30 Rays Prospects: 30-21

In part one of a three-part series, the Tune-Up Blog will take an in-depth look at Baseball America’s Top 30 prospects in the Tampa Bay Rays organization. It’s a list that has changed multiple times this off-season with the big league club’s wheeling and dealing. The result? A resurgent Minor League system that features several big-time prospects. In our first edition, we take a look at who Baseball America says is #30-21.

#30 – Patrick Leonard, INF

Acquired in the trade that sent James Shields to Kansas City, Leonard posses very good power that is beginning to take shape. He blasted 13 home runs last season for Advanced-A Port Charlotte, up from the nine he hit while in Bowling Green in ’13. The biggest advancement he put forth was actually his batting average. It skyrocketed 59 points to a career-best .284, along with a .350 on-base percentage. He quieted down a bit in his Arizona Fall League campaign, but Leonard should find himself with Double-A Montgomery to start the season.

#29 – German Marquez, RHP

Photo by Gregg Rich

                   Photo by Gregg Rich

Marquez made the leap from Princeton to Bowling Green in 2014 as a 19-year old, and after a slow start, it really paid dividends in the second half. His 3.21 earned run average is very good, but consider he posted a remarkable 1.67 mark in five starts during the dog days of Summer, and it’s easy to see why Marquez is flying up the prospect charts. Marquez ended the year touching the upper 90’s with his fastball. He should be fun to watch this year in Port Charlotte.

#28 – Ryne Stanek, RHP

Photo by Gregg Rich

                Photo by Gregg Rich

Stanek was a top 10 prospect a year before the 2013 draft, but a hip ailment sent his stock downward just a bit. That was good news for the Rays, who selected Stanek with the 29th overall pick out of the University of Arkansas. He arrived in Bowling Green with much fanfare on May 8 of last season, striking out six batters over five innings in his professional debut. He tied the franchise record for strikeouts in a game (12) in his final Hot Rods start at Lake County on July 2, and was subsequently promoted to Port Charlotte. He made three starts there before being shut down because of an injury, so he should feature with the Stonecrabs to start 2015.

#27 – Burch Smith, RHP

The three-team trade with the Padres and Nationals netted Smith from San Diego, and he’ll have a shot at the fifth-starter role this upcoming season. Smith started his career at Howard College (same school as 2014 Hot Rod Hunter Wood), and reached the big leagues just two years after being drafted out of the University of Oklahoma. A 1.16 ERA at Double-A San Antonio in ’13 put him high on the radar, but he’ll look to stay healthy after injuries limited him to just two starts last season.

#26 – Luke Maile, C

Maile is a name familiar to folks across the bluegrass. Before he starred at the University of Kentucky, he was lashing line drives for Covington Catholic High School. Maile batted .283 in 95 games with the Hot Rods in ’13, and hit .268 with Double-A Montgomery. The performance was enough to warrant a promotion to Triple-A Durham for the playoffs. He’s a great defensive catcher who’s on the cusp of being big league ready.

#25 – Kean Wong, 2B

Photo by Gregg Rich

                Photo by Gregg Rich

It took less than two weeks for people to get over the “Oh Kean, not Kolten” thing with the younger brother of a certain Cardinals contributor. Wong was just 18 when he played in his first Class-A game last season, and never looked his age all season. He ended the campaign with a .306 average, good for second in the Midwest League. Wong batted below .300 in a month just once, and he was voted as the best defensive second baseman on the circuit. He should have another standout year in Port Charlotte this season.

#24 – Hak-Ju Lee, SS

Injuries have stalled Lee’s career, but at one time he was the highlight of the Matt Garza trade. He could join Chris Archer in Tampa Bay in 2015, but he’s only played in 108 games over the past two seasons. He owns a solid glove with quick feet, but many wonder if he’ll have to move down the road with the log-jam of shortstops behind him. With Nick Franklin cemented in a role at Tropicana Field, it looks as if Lee will return to Durham to start 2015.

#23 – Enny Romero, LHP

Romero was selected to his second consecutive Futures Game this past season, and he’ll battle for the fifth rotation spot in Spring Training. The lefty went 5-1 with a 4.50 ERA in 25 starts with Durham in ’14, but he does have one big league start under his belt, which came on Sept. 22, 2013. Romero struggled at times with Bowling Green in 2011, but a solid 2013 season has vaulted his name up prospect lists. Despite his many innings in the Minors, Romero will be just 24 when the season opens, wherever that may be for him.

#22 – Tim Beckham, INF

He’s about to “age out” so this will be the final year you will see Beckham on any prospect list. He was perhaps the hottest name in Minor League Baseball when he was a part of the inaugural Hot Rods club in 2009, and batted .275 that year. Beckham experienced many ups and downs after, but finally put it together in 2013 with Durham, earning a big league call-up at the tail end of the season. He was set to battle for a roster spot last year, but a knee injury shut down most of his campaign. Beckham will once again have to battle to avoid the bus rides in 2015.

#21 – Jake Bauers, INF

For those who listened to our radio coverage last season, I enjoyed numerous “24” puns at Bauers’ expense. While he’s not being tasked with saving the world, Bauers is considered a surging name. He’s just 19, and batted .296 in 112 games with Fort Wayne in ’14. At one point, his average was well above .400 before he cooled off after his arrival. Despite this relative cool-down, Bauers still managed to drive home 64 runs and amass 120 hits. Sadly I will probably not be able to make any “24” references this year, which is good for Bauers. He’s likely destined for Port Charlotte in ’15.

That’s our short synopsis of prospects #30-21 according to Baseball America, keep an eye out next week when we dive into #20-11.

-Andrew Kappes

@KappesPxP

akappes@bghotrods.com

Reinaldo Ruiz Named Hot Rods’ Fifth Manager

Much like the players who have competed for the Bowling Green Hot Rods (Class-A/Tampa Bay Rays), the managing spot has been one featuring rising names in the Tampa Bay system. The latest to add his name to that list is 34-year old Reinaldo Ruiz, who was named Bowling Green’s fifth manager on Wednesday. He spent the past three seasons as the hitting coach with the Princeton Rays (Appalachian League), and succeeds Michael Johns, who was promoted to Advanced-A Port Charlotte (Florida State League). Pitching Coach Bill Moloney, Coach Dan DeMent and Athletic Trainer Nick Flynn return after serving in those roles for the Hot Rods in 2014.

“We’re thrilled to welcome Reinaldo and his family to South-Central Kentucky,” said Hot Rods Chief Operating Officer and General Manager Adam Nuse. “He arrives with great praise across the Tampa Bay Rays organization. We’re also excited to welcome back Dan DeMent and Bill Moloney, who both did a tremendous job last season with the Hot Rods.”

Ruiz arrives in Bowling Green with an impressive resume. At just 34, he will be one of the youngest managers in affiliated baseball this season. He spent the past three seasons as the hitting coach in Princeton, helping oversee league-best 40 wins and a berth in the Appalachian League playoffs last season. Prior to his time with Princeton, Ruiz was the hitting coach for short-season Hudson Valley in 2011, and a coach for the Gulf Coast League Rays in 2009.

“I am very excited and very happy that I have been promoted to manager of the Bowling Green Hot Rods,” said Ruiz of his new post. “It’s a new challenge in my coaching career, but I am looking forward to that challenge. We are going to give our 100% to help develop the players that go through BG, to have a competitive team, and bring excitement to all the fans this year.”

Signed to a professional contract by the Houston Astros organization, Ruiz began his stateside playing career in Martinsville Appalachian League) in 2001. That same season, he was promoted to another affiliated club in the state of Kentucky, the Lexington Legends. He would go on to play a total of 32 games with Lexington during the 2001 and 2002 seasons. Ruiz would then spend a total of three seasons with Advanced-A Salem (Carolina League) in the Astros system before retiring from his playing career.

The 2015 season will mark Moloney’s third in Bowling Green. He’s been with the Rays organization since 2008, having tutored pitchers for Port Charlotte and Double-A Montgomery in addition to the Hot Rods. In 2014 Moloney led a staff that posted a respectable 3.69 earned run average. He helped prospects to numerous mid-season promotions, most notably starters Blake Snell and Ryne Stanek, and closer Colton Reavis. Moloney enjoyed a well-decorated playing career, spending parts of three seasons at the Triple-A level with the legendary Pawtucket Red Sox.

DeMent returns for his second season as coach with the Hot Rods. He mentored a young offense in 2014 that finished fourth in the Midwest League in batting average despite losing key pieces of the lineup throughout the campaign. Hot Rods hitters finished with a .260 average and 337 extra-base hits. DeMent was previously the hitting coach at Hudson Valley during the 2012 and ’13 seasons. DeMent reached the Triple-A level as a player, and was originally signed by the Rays in 2000.

Flynn was awarded the 2014 Midwest League Trainer of the Year, and he will defend his crown as he begins his second season with the Hot Rods. The 2015 campaign will mark Flynn’s sixth in professional baseball, five of those years have been with the Tampa Bay organization. Flynn interned with the Toronto Blue Jays during the 2009 season. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of South Florida, and his master’s degree from Georgia State.

Oscar Hernandez First Off the Board in Rule 5 Draft

Rumblings that made ripples around the Twitter-sphere were proved true on Thursday afternoon when the Arizona Diamondbacks made 2014 Hot Rod Oscar Hernandez the first selection in the Rule 5 draft. We’ve profiled the Rule 5 before, but the quick summary is a Rule-5 selection has to either be on the Major League roster the entire following season, or be on the disabled list with (a legit) injury. If Oscar makes it, he’ll be a rare Low-A to big league story. It certainly is a fantastic professional opportunity for Hernandez.

Oscar made a name for himself in 2011 when he put up insane (but verified) numbers in the Venezuelan Summer League. He won the circuit’s triple crown that year, blasting 21 home runs, driving home 66, and hitting at a ridiculous .402 clip (nearly 40 points higher than his nearest competitor that season). He struggled to find his offensive grove in his stateside debut in Princeton in 2012, but did fare a bit better in the ’13 season that included a very brief stint in BG.

Hernandez showed flashes of his 2012 VSL self with the Hot Rods this past season. He ended the season as the club’s RBI leader with 63, and he accounted for 32 extra-base hits. His nine home runs were second on Bowling Green, and his five triples (as a catcher!!!) surprisingly ranked second on the squad. He did not make the Midwest League All-Star team, but he was poised to crack Tampa Bay’s Top 20 prospect list in most publications.

It’s clear what the Diamondbacks see in Hernandez. He threw out over 40% of would-be base thieves. His powerful (but still developing) bat, rocket of an arm, and athletic ability prompted Arizona to give up a 40-man spot. Now, the road is still long for Hernandez to make the big league roster in the desert. He has to survive cuts in Spring Training, and can be returned to the Tampa Bay organization (who would NOT be required to place him on the active or even 40-man roster) at any time. A pick built high on potential for Arizona, who could sit him behind a big league starter and develop him with an unconventional method. The Tune-Up Blog certainly enjoyed having Oscar on the club this season, and we wish him the best of luck on this new journey!

Getting to Know You: Kevin Cash

Cash Kevin

The Tampa Bay Rays gave Kevin Cash a big birthday present of the employment variety by naming him manager last week. Upon seeing this news, you may have been wondering how many puns you could work into everyday conversation. Before you take those puns to the bank, (see what we did there? Get it? Cash is stored in banks…) the Tune-Up Blog gives you a brief history of the youngest manager in the Major League Baseball.

Cash is widely considered one of the up-and-coming bright minds of baseball. At just 37, he has been tutored the past couple of seasons by Terry Francona, who famously broke the curse of some candy bar guy in Boston in 2004, and led the Red Sox to another title in 2007. It was pretty clear from the get-go the Rays wanted a young voice to lead the clubhouse, in fact Raul Ibanez was a finalist along with Cash, and he hasn’t even been out of playing the game for more than a few months. On top of the knowledge he gained from Francona, Cash has deep Tampa Bay and Rays connections.

He starred at Tampa’s Gaither High School, where he followed up former San Francisco Giant, Chad Zerbe. The catcher turned a successful high school career into a commitment to baseball-powerhouse Florida State. He blasted 27 home runs over three seasons while in Tallahassee, including 14 his junior year. He signed with the Toronto Blue Jays prior to the 2000 season, and quickly advanced to the big leagues with Toronto in 2002. He made his big league debut as a pinch hitter on September 6, 2002. The man he replaced? Why that was Ken Huckaby, who spent 2014 as the hitting coach for the Lansing Lugnuts. Side note: Huckaby is also the guy who hurt Derek Jeter.

After 101 games in the big leagues and 160 at Triple-A Syracuse, Cash was traded by the Blue Jays and to his hometown Rays in 2005 for Chad Gaudin (Fun fact: I had the pleasure of meeting Gaudin this past season while he dined with 2014 Hot Rod lefty, Stone Speer. In fact, Gaudin threw out a first pitch at Bowling Green Ballpark earlier that evening). Cash spent most of the season in Durham, but did appear 13 times for his new employer. After spending all of 2006 in Durham, Cash inked a minor league deal with the Red Sox in ’07 and added a World Series ring to his trophy cabinet. He became the personal catcher for Tim Wakefield in 2008, and would go on to see action in 61 games for Boston that season, a career best.

In 2009 he collected another ring with the Yankees (and played for my previous employer, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre). He split 2010 between the Red Sox and Houston organizations before retiring with Round Rock, Texas’ Triple-A squad in 2011. Shortly after, he joined Toronto’s front office as a scout, helping discover and sign players for the team that signed him originally.

After a short scouting career, Francona took Cash under his wing in Cleveland, and was on the staff that turned around the Indians in 2012 before falling to (you guessed it) Tampa Bay in the playoffs. The Rays’ managerial search came down to Kansas City bench coach Don Wakamatsu, Cash, and Ibanez. By giving the reigns to Cash, Tampa seems to be signaling a fresh voice to coincide with typically youthful Rays clubhouse. While games are not won with the hiring/firing of a manager, combined with the veteran leadership of guys like Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist, Cash seems to be a money in the bank kind of hire for the Rays. Pun intended.

Andrew Kappes

@KappesPxP

akappes@bghotrods.com

ABL All-Stars Announced – Plus, VOTE GOETZMAN

On Tuesday morning, the Australian Baseball League published their rosters for the upcoming ABL All-Star game. As expected, the former Hot Rods currently playing for the Brisbane Bandits are well represented. 2014 Tampa Bay Rays MiLB Player of the Year Johnny Field started his 2014 success in BG, and he’s continuing that “down unda'” and headlines the All-Star list. 2013 Hot Rod Tommy Coyle, and former Fort Wayne TinCap and current Rays MiLB’er Maxx Tissenbaum also made the cut, but our friend (and ’14 BG man) Granden Goetzman needs your help:

Goetzman enjoyed a breakout season with the Hot Rods, batting .315 with seven home runs and 31 RBis in just 60 games before being promoted to Advanced-A Port Charlotte following the Midwest League All-Star game. He was also present on the MWL Mid-Summer classic squad, and he hopes to add an ABL All-Star nod to his resume. He’s currently tied for fifth in home runs with five,  tied for third in stolen bases with six, and he’s launched exactly half of his hits for extra bases. To vote for Goetzman in the “Final Vote” for the ABL, visit their Facebook page by clicking here. Perhaps the leaders of the G-20 can give Goetzman a vote as a token of appreciation for his shoutout last month.

Field is tied for third in the ABL in homers with sxi, and like Goetzman, he has also driven in 11 runs and swiped six bases. Field owns a .371 on-base percentage, and like he did in BG, he’s made some highlight reel plays with the Bandits. Tommy Coyle finds himself in the batting-title race, he owns a .373 mark and is in fifth place. Coyle also leads the Bandits with 13 RBIs, and has complied nine extra-base hits. Tissenbaum may have never worn a Hot Rods jersey (perhaps acquired by Tampa just a year too late for BG), but the Tune-Up Blog counts him as one of our own. Maxx (that’s two X’s mind you) is hitting .321 with three home runs of his own.

Weekly Vlog – December 5

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