Tune-Up Vlog – Joel Peralta Trade, 40-Man Moves, and More

Full disclosure: No mother was actually yelled at during the making of this weekly update.

Hot Rods Could See Dividends in 2015 from Hellickson Deal

We have yet to reach Winter Meetings on the baseball off-season calendar, but the hot stove sure is cooking as we approach Thanksgiving! In case you missed it, the Hot Rods’ parent club dealt Jeremy Hellickson to the Arizona Diamondbacks for a pair of prospects. Those prospects happened to frequent Bowling Green Ballpark for the (then) South Bend Silver Hawks.

According to Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times, Andrew Velazquez and Justin Williams just may be headed for Bowling Green in 2015. Williams is a clear choice to be in the outfield for BG in ’15, as he only joined South Bend later in the second half, and he’s only 19 years of age. Velazquez would be a curios addition to what is shaping out to be a powerful potential Opening Night roster. He was named the Midwest League’s Prospect of the Year after batting .290 with 56 RBIs and 50 stolen bases.

For further breakdown, we dive into the careers of Velazquez and Williams:

Photo by Emily Jones/MiLB.com

Velazquez- He stands just 5’8”, but anyone that has seen him play will tell you he plays much bigger than that “on-paper frame” and stature. He was selected in the seventh round by the Diamondbacks in the 2012 draft out of Fordham Prep in New York City. He turned 20 on July 14, so another year (at least to start) at the Class-A level would certainly not be a step backward.

He was the everyday shortstop for South Bend in ’14, and one has to wonder if the Rays are contemplating a move given how deep the position is within the organization, most notably, the acquisition of Willy Adames from the Tigers in the David Price trade. As a hitter his talents are clear, he piled up 42 extra-base hits, 15 of them triples, and swiped a whopping 50 bases in 65 attempts.

He reached base in 72 consecutive games this past season, which is an official (or unofficial depending who you ask) Minor League Baseball record. He did strike out 136 times, but also drew 62 walks and scored 94 runs. All this while being a switch-hitter at the plate, creating a matchup nightmare for opposing managers.

Williams- A second-round pick (52nd overall) in 2013, Williams turned 19 on August 20 this past season, and celebrated a few weeks later when he clinched the Pioneer League batting crown despite a late-season promotion to South Bend. He hit .386 (73-189) before arriving in South Bend, and ended his season with 28 games with the Silver Hawks, despite playing in nearly half the contests, he had the same RBI total in both cities (23).

At 6’2”, most scouts think he’ll develop into a power-bat with room to grow. The Diamondbacks sure thought that when they gave him a signing bonus north of seven figures. He’s played primarily left field in his professional career, but one would think he’ll have a comfortable home in the middle of the order for the Hot Rods come Opening Night 2015.

Hellickson was dealt after a sub-par year (4.52 ERA in 63.2 innings pitched), although he was battling back from a major elbow injury. It frees up a 40-man roster spot for a prospect, many think that could go to someone like former Hot Rod Justin O’Connor (2013) to protect him (and other prospects) from the upcoming Rule-5 draft.

Jaime Schultz Named AFL Pitcher of the Week

The leaves may be falling in most places around the baseball world, but that hasn’t stopped 2014 Hot Rod Jaime Schultz from continuing his success on the diamond that he started with the Hot Rods. The Arizona Fall League named Schultz, now a starter for the Peoria Javelinas, the premier prospect league’s Pitcher of the Week.

Schultz dominated Surprise (Seriously…it’s a city in Arizona) over five innings on Halloween. He conceded just three hits and one run, while striking out seven batters in the process. The seven whiffs bumped his total to 23 through 18.2 innings pitched, ranking him first in the entire AFL as of Tuesday afternoon. It was Schultz’s first win on the fall tour, and his latest in a season of abrupt stops thanks to an appendectomy in Spring Training and a DL stint with BG in June.

Schultz dominated the MWL while with BG. Photo by Gregg Rich

Schultz dominated the MWL while with BG. Photo by Gregg Rich

“Being only my second year, I wasn’t sure what to expect [about the AFL],” said Schultz in an interview with Don Ketchum of MLB.com. “You can tell it’s a good atmosphere, kind of relaxed, but the intensity really picks up for the games. It’s a huge learning experience when you see how hard everybody works and the adjustments they make.”

Jaime posted a 1.95 ERA with the Hot Rods over nine starts, and he tied a franchise record by fanning 12 batters in his May 22 start against Lake County at Bowling Green Ballpark. He finished with 58 strikeouts in just 37.0 innings pitched with BG, and he amassed 21 more strikeouts in five starts with Advanced-A Port Charlotte following his promotion.

Shortstop Loaded Position for Rays Farm System

A blockbuster trade can beef up any position, and with David Price dealt at the deadline by the Tampa Bay Rays, the prospect list took quite a shuffle. The addition of Willy Adames surged the Hot Rods into playoff contention in the month of August after a series of earlier promotions, and Adames found himself the hottest name in the system.

Hot Rods – Willy Adames and Juniel Querecuto

Photo by Gregg Rich

Photo by Gregg Rich

The Hot Rods were in South Bend, Ind. taking on the Silver Hawks when the clubhouse (painted in pink by the way) went buzzing on July 31. The news leaked out David Price was Detroit bound, and many speculated West Michigan’s star prospect would be joining the Rays organization, and even the Hot Rods. That was confirmed hours later, and Adames joined BG in Lake County.

Adames experienced a meteoric rise in 2014 well before he was traded. He entered the season ranked as the 30th prospect in the Tigers system, still an impressive feat for an 18-year old who was making his stateside debut. Not only did he settle in a new country, he did so by completely skipping over three levels to join West Michigan in the Midwest League. After batting .214 in April, he hit .294 in May and never looked back.

Upon joining BG, Adames was hitting .269 with six home runs and 50 RBIs. He was second in the league in triples, and had already piled up 32 extra-base hits. In 27 games with the Hot Rods, Adames hit at a .278 clip with nine extra-base hits and 11 runs batted in. He went on a nine-game hitting streak from Aug. 20 until Aug. 29. Overall, Adames drove home 61 runs and batted .271 against competition that was usually four years or more older than him.

It’s easy to see why Adames was placed as the second-best prospect in the Rays system after the trade. He has power to all areas of the field, a good eye (despite a high strikeout rate), and he’s very advanced for his age. It’s hard to see a ceiling for Adames at this point, and it will be fun to see what he does as he rises through the system.


Lost in the shuffle of Adames’ arrival was the excellent season put together by Juniel Querecuto. Many were expecting some rust after the Venezuela native missed all of 2013 due to injury, but he showed no signs of it while hitting at a .291 clip with the Hot Rods in 88 games. The roster lacked a true lead-off man, but Querecuto filled the role well and batted .290 when hitting first in the order.

“Q” is a traditional contact hitter, but it was a bit surprising when one looked at his career statistics and saw zero home runs. That all changed on June 22, when after 1,065 professional at-bats, Querecuto lined a homer to right field on June 22 in Lansing, Mich. against the Lugnuts. Even more crazy was that just five games later, he hit his second.

He played his final game for the Hot Rods on July 28 against Quad Cities, and as the bus loaded up for South Bend, Ind., Querecuto was given a plane ticket to Port Charlotte for a promotion to the Stone Crabs. His production dipped just a bit in Port Charlotte, but he collected 18 hits and eight RBIs in 27 games while in the Florida State League.

Triple-A Durham – Hak-Ju Lee


Adames isn’t the only shortstop acquired via blockbuster trade. The Chicago Cubs sent Hak-Ju Lee over in the Matt Garza trade in January of 2011. That trade also netted Tampa Chris Archer, Brandon Guyer, and Sam Fuld. Lee cracked the top 100 of nearly every prospect list from 2011-13, but injuries have plagued his campaigns the last two seasons.

He saw action in just 15 games in ’13, but managed to play in 93 this past season. He batted just .203 with 14 extra-base hits, but the Rays were probably just relieved to have Lee back on the field healthy again. He hit .318 in ’11, and batted a respectable .261 with Montgomery in ’12, so one would expect Lee to return to that form with health concerns (mostly) becoming a thing of the past.

Double-A Montgomery – Jake Hager

Jake Hager

Hager has been one of those “quiet prospects” his entire career. He’s produced solid results nearly every summer, but has yet to earn recognition from most publications. He was selected with the 32nd overall pick in the famed 2011 draft out of Las Vegas, and he played his first full-season with Bowling Green in ’12. That year, he batted .281 for the Hot Rods while driving in 72. His 10 home runs hit that year still rank as his career-best total.

He did experience a bit of a drop-off in ’13, only hitting at a .258 mark in 113 games for Port Charlotte, but the Rays elected to move him along to Montgomery this past season. He looked a lot like the Hot Rods version of Hager, pushing his average back up to .271 and forcing across 47 RBIs. The extra-base hits returned to his game as well, as Hager accounted for 35 total.

At just 21 years old age, Hager could easily be back in Montgomery, but his results have certainly earned him an opportunity to move to Durham. This creates a bit of a log-jam in the upper levels of the system that is now being felt below with the presence of Adames and Querecuto. It’s a good “problem” to have, and Hager will have the chance to continue to develop at whatever affiliate he ends up with in ’15.

Advanced-A Port Charlotte – Leonardo Reginatto

Reginatto represented Brazil at the World Baseball Classic.

Reginatto represented Brazil at the World Baseball Classic.

The Rays’ patience with Reginatto is now paying high dividends. He hit just .198 in 2011 and had to repeat with short-season Hudson Valley in ’12, but he broke out with the Hot Rods last season. Reginatto finished just one point behind teammate Andrew Toles in the Midwest League batting race, ending his campaign with a .325 clip.

The 24-year old did not slow down this past season with the Stone Crabs, as he amassed 115 hits in just 94 games. His .316 average and .384 on-base percentage were amongst the Florida State League’s best, and he showed drastic improvement on the base paths. He was thrown out seven times in ’13, but he stole 14 bases in just 16 tries with PC.

Those results earned him a late promotion to Montgomery (in part thanks to injuries), but he was a quiet 7-54 in 17 games with the Biscuits. That won’t scare Reginatto or the Rays, and he very well could be the opening day shortstop for Montgomery if Hager moves to Durham. Otherwise, we could see some position shuffling going on at the Double-A level.

-Andrew Kappes



Arizona Fall League Friday – Oct. 17

Week two is in the books for the Arizona Fall League, and while the Peoria Javelinas (Tampa Bay’s club in the AFL) are off to a 2-6 start, the AFL is much like the rest of Minor League Baseball in that winning is not exactly the main objective. Last week we spotlighted Colton Reavis who opened up the fall with a great outing, and this week we turn our focus to the backstops who donned the Hot Rods uniform in recent years.

Luke Maile may not be playing with his Rays teammates on Peoria (he’s a taxi-squad member for Surprise), but that doesn’t mean he isn’t right at home. He drove home a pair of runs while knocking a double in just his second game in on Wednesday, just one of the days he’s eligible to play as a taxi-squad member. Maile made the jump from BG to Double-A Montgomery, as profiled on the Tune-Up earlier this month. A strong AFL performance, and he should be the Opening Night catcher for Triple-A Durham next season.

Justin O’Conner has cooled down since his hot start, but he still ranks second on Peoria in batting average with his .368 mark. He posted multi-hit efforts in his first three games, including three doubles and a stolen base. The Muncie, Ind. native should take over for Maile in Montgomery next season on a full-time basis after getting there late this past year.

Our two 2014 Hot Rods are also showcasing their talents out west, and Colton Reavis has been superb outside of a couple of pitches. He worked a pair of scoreless appearances to start his AFL career, but he did surrender four runs in his last outing. Jaime Schultz has battled an appendectomy and a few other minor injuries to make his way to the Fall League, and he’s made two starts for the Javelinas. Schultz has registered seven strikeouts in just 5.2 innings, placing him third on the club.

For complete Arizona Fall League coverage, please click here.

-Andrew Kappes



Wong Headlines Tampa Bay’s Pool of Second Basemen

Second base is a talent-rich position for the Tampa Bay Rays organization, and Hot Rods fans haven’t had the venture far in the past few seasons to see these slick-fielding and savvy-hitting players. Perhaps the fastest rising name in the system patrolled half of the middle infield this season for the Hot Rods, and Kean Wong headlines a talented crop of players.

Hot Rods – Kean Wong

Photo by Gregg Rich

Photo by Gregg Rich

His brother may be getting all the accolades now, but Kean is well on his way to joining older bro Kolten in the big leagues. Despite leading all Rays minor leaguers with a .328 average fresh out of high school in 2013, Wong was for the most part unheralded entering the 2014 season. That changed out of the gate in a hurry, the lefty batted .346 in his first April of his pro career…spending most of it as an 18-year old!

College pitchers and hurlers who had three times the amount of experience didn’t faze Wong at all throughout the season. He batted above .300 for every month except August, and if it wasn’t for a quiet two-week stretch (mind you the only average span of his season), he probably would’ve ascended above .300 for the final month as well.

Wong finished the season with 129 hits and a .306 average, both tops for the Hot Rods. If you look at his splits (.256 vs. lefties and .317 vs. right-handers) you might think you’ve spotted a trend. Not so fast, as Kean batted near .300 against fellow southpaws for the second half. He didn’t face a younger opponent until squaring off with Lewis Thorpe on July 24, and despite being drafted as a catcher, Wong adjusted to his new position remarkably well. He was voted by the Midwest League’s managers as the best defensive second baseman on the circuit, not to mention best hitting prospect.

As this post was being written, news broke that Rays President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman was leaving for the Dodgers. Wong may be one of Friedman’s last steals in the draft, as he was snatched up in the fourth round (128th overall). Kolten was selected with the 22nd overall pick in 2011 out of Hawaii, where Kean was committed to play before signing with Tampa Bay. Jonathan Mayo did a throwback to Kolten’s MiLB days (including his MWL time with Quad Cities) just a few days ago.

One more thing on Wong: his power. Many opposing broadcasters (of teams that is, we rarely square off in duels) asked if Kean showed power like Kolten has this season (15 home runs between St. Louis and Triple-A Memphis). Anyone that has seen Kean in batting practice on a day-to-day basis can see the power, and he even implemented it in games late in the season. Yet another strong asset to his game. Look for his stock to continue to rise next season.

Triple-A Durham – Mike Fontenot and Nick Franklin

Photo courtesy of the Durham Bulls

Photo courtesy of the Durham Bulls

Franklin is a bit of a wild card, but it seems he fits best at second base in the Rays system so far. Franklin spent most of his ’13 campaign in the big leagues with Seattle, driving home 45 and adding 12 home runs. He was an integral piece in the David Price trade, joining Drew Smyly and Willy Adames (more on him in a later edition).

Franklin was under-whelming with Durham, going just 21-100 with four extra-base hits and nine RBIs. However, he started to heat up as a September call-up with the big league club, and will factor into the long-term plans of the Rays, whether it’s at second or a different infield spot.

Courtesy of the Durham Bulls

Photo courtesy of the Durham Bulls

Fontenot is a great guy to have in the system, he’s the owner of 582 big league appearances, including a career-best 135 games in 2009 with the Chicago Cubs. The ’14 season was Fontenot’s second in Durham, and he batted .276 in 113 games with 48 RBIs.

With the rising talent in the system, it will be interesting to see if Fontenot returns for another minor league deal, or if he’ll elect to go to an organization where he could potentially see major playing time at the big league level.

Double-A Montgomery – Ryan Brett

Photo courtesy of the Montgomery Biscuits

Photo courtesy of the Montgomery Biscuits

Like Wong, Brett was consistent all season long for the Biscuits. He never batted below .274 in a month, and posted a composite average of .303. The 2010 third-round pick amassed 39 extra-base hits, and tied his career-high of 38 RBIs. Brett also led Montgomery in stolen bases with 27, edging out Willie Argo’s total of 24.

Some are unhappy with Brett’s walk total, just 24 free passes in 422 at-bats. However, if he can produce the amount of knocks he has thus far, that will quickly get overlooked. Last season Brett had 21 more hits than games played (128-107), and collected 25 doubles to set a new personal best. Brett has posted a .297 average as a minor leaguer, and is poised to move up to Durham next year.

As a Hot Rod in 2012, Brett stole an astounding 48 bases in 100 games. He hit .285 with six home runs and 35 RBIs while with Bowling Green. He just turned 23 one week ago, but already owns 372 career professional games. If you’re a fan of the annual “Top 20” lists, it will be interesting to see where Brett is slotted come March.

Advanced-A Port Charlotte – Tommy Coyle

Photo courtesy of the Stone Crabs

Photo courtesy of the Stone Crabs

Coyle has been a steal for the Rays from the 2012 draft after he was selected in the 16th round out of the University of North Carolina. He flew onto the pro scene in ’12 with short-season Hudson Valley, blasting five home runs (more than he had ever hit as a collegian) and stole 20 bases in 67 games. He continued that positive momentum in ’13 with the Hot Rods, teaming up with Andrew Toles for the best speed duo in Minor League Baseball.

He stole 40 bases in 126 games with the Hot Rods, thanks in part to an impressive .399 on-base percentage. Those numbers took a dip this season, as Coyle only posted a .249 average and was getting on base at a .333 clip. He still managed 30 stolen bases and was only thrown out four times, and was only a few percentage points off of leading the Florida State League’s second basemen.

Coyle seems poised to move up to Montgomery next season, especially since Wong will need a spot to play every day in Port Charlotte next year. He should transition fine, and might even be due for a return to his 2013 ways.

-Andrew Kappes



Arizona Fall League Friday – Oct. 10

Every Friday the Tune-Up will take a look at how our former Hot Rods are doing in the prestigious Arizona Fall League (AFL, not to be confused with a tiny football field). A number of former Bowling Green players grace the roster of the Peoria Javelinas, as the Rays are one of six teams that feed directly into it. However, the catching position’s uniqueness means Luke Maile (2013) is currently on Surprise, and even faced off with his current Rays teammates this past week.

Thursday was a big day for Peoria, as they rolled to an 11-2 win over Scottsdale. The first five hits for the Javelinas went for extra-bases, and former Hot Rods were in the thick of the action. Kes Carter (’12) followed Francisco Lindor (former Lake County Captain) with a double to drive him home in the bottom of the first. Justin O’Connor (’13) and Patrick Leonard (’13) each added doubles in the four-run frame.

After three innings from Aaron Northcraft (Atlanta Braves organization), Colton Reavis was summoned out of the bullpen. The 2014 Hot Rod may not have been accustomed to pitching in the fourth inning with Bowling Green, but he proved to be fantastic in his AFL debut. The Texas native fired a pair of scoreless innings, striking out two batters and allowing just one hit. Reavis is one of the greater stories this season in the AFL, he was a 30th round pick in 2013, yes a 30th round pick! 907 players were picked ahead of him, the VAST majority didn’t even make it to A-ball last year. Very impressive.

"Rev" is taking his mid-90's fastball to the AFL. Photo by Gregg Rich.

“Rev” has taken his mid-90′s fastball to the AFL. Photo by Gregg Rich.

O’Connor has built upon his breakout offensive year that was profiled on this blog earlier. He collected three hits in the AFL’s Opening Day, and followed that up with a two-hit performance yesterday afternoon. Through just two games O’Connor already owns five hits, two doubles, and a pair of runs scored. He batted just .233 with BG in 2013, but his bat has not quieted down since the open of play this season, and a quick “off-season” did nothing to change that.

Carter, a former Western Kentucky star, finished yesterday with two hits and two runs batted in. This is a big opportunity for Carter who has hit just .235 in back-to-back campaigns. He was a Hot Rod for just 37 games in ’12, and split last season between Advanced-A Port Charlotte, and Double-A Montgomery.

Photo by AJ Riedel

Photo by AJ Riedel

Stay tuned to the Tune-Up Blog as we chronicle the AFL journeys of our former Hot Rods.

Andrew Kappes



Rays Organizational Review: First Base

The big league club has found a consistent force at first base in James Loney, but there are a number of potential successors that lie in the farm system. The former Dodgers star batted .290 with 69 RBIs in 155 games this season for Tampa, so it’s clear he’s not going anywhere soon. Here’s a look at the potential (future) replacements the Rays have in the pipeline.

Hot Rods – Alexander Simon

Photo by Gregg Rich

Photo by Gregg Rich

Simon was perhaps the most surprising name found on Bowling Green’s Opening Night roster. He had just one stateside season under his belt, and that was in the Gulf Coast League. He vaulted past Princeton (Appalachian League) and Hudson Valley (New York-Penn League) to take over every day first base duties for the Hot Rods.

Things did not start well for Alexander, he went hitless in his first six games, and was just 3-34 entering April 18, which was his first multi-hit game of the year. He posted five more such games to close out April, and he never fell back to his slow-starting form. Simon batted .313 in May, and even blasted his first stateside home run against West Michigan on May 26, a liner that Ben Verlander could not grab just over the wall in right field.

Simon hit just .268 in June, but finished strong with averages of .301 in July and .291 in August. Overall, he hit at a .281 clip. Despite the slow start, he showed amazing consistency afterward. The switch-hitter amassed 58 hits in the first half, and 63 in the second half. He still has a ways to go defensively, but Simon made tremendous and visible strides as the season wore on.

Looking Ahead: Simon just turned 22, so it’s very possible he could return to Bowling Green. However, that really depends on where the Rays elect to assign their top pick in this year’s draft, Casey Gillaspie. The 20th overall pick drove in 42 and batted .262 for Hudson Valley in 71 games.

Triple-A Durham – Vince Belnome

Photo courtesy of the Durham Bulls

Photo courtesy of the Durham Bulls

My journeys as the #2 broadcaster in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre during the 2013 season have been documented on this blog before, but perhaps the largest visiting roar I heard last year was for Vince Belnome of the Bulls, who grew up in NEPA. Coatesville, Pa. to be exact, and why should that ring a bell? It’s the same hometown as 2014 Hot Rod, Ty Young! I’m sure the pass-list was filled with the Belnome name when he made his Major League debut on July 3 this year.

Belnome was one of the best hitters in the International League in 2013 with Durham, batting .300 with 67 runs batted in. He drew 84 walks to push his on-base percentage over .400. His average took a bit of a dip this season, but he still walked on 72 occasions and blasted 10 home runs in 118 games, all while being a part of the “Durham-Tampa shuttle” system. He recorded an RBI and a double in four games with the Rays.

The 26-year old is no stranger to the Midwest League, while he did not feature with the Hot Rods, he played for Fort Wayne in 2009 after being selected in the 28th round by the Padres out of West Virginia. He appeared in just 10 games for the TinCaps, but Belnome managed to drive in 10 runs in just 32 at-bats. He was acquired by Tampa Bay prior to the ’13 campaign.

Double-A Montgomery – Cameron Seitzer

Photo courtesy of the Montgomery Biscuits

Photo courtesy of the Montgomery Biscuits

In 2012, Seitzer batted .307 while accounting for 36 doubles with the Hot Rods. Those impressive numbers, along with an impressive college resume, prompted the Rays to move Seitzer over Advanced-A Port Charlotte and straight to Montgomery. He handled himself well in 139 games with the Biscuits in ’13, driving home 61 runs and hitting a respectable .268, but he had 10 fewer extra-base hits in 65 more at-bats, resulting in Seitzer repeating this past season.

His power returned, and Seitzer launched a professional career-high 14 home runs while sending home 65 runs, also a personal best. The home run total was the most since he blasted 16 as a sophomore at Oklahoma. He accounted for a total of 41 extra-base hits, and did all this in just 123 games. His average took a dip (.242), but his on-base percentage came in at .330 for the season.

It will be interesting to see what happens next year with Seitzer, who is probably due for a promotion to Durham. If Belnome makes the big league roster, this transition is easy. If he doesn’t, one has to wonder if either Belnome will have moved on to a different organization, or if the Rays will look at moving Seitzer to a different position. Seitzer is the son of former big leaguer and current Toronto Blue Jays hitting coach, Kevin Seitzer.

Advanced-A Port Charlotte – Patrick Leonard

Photo courtesy of the Port Charlotte Stone Crabs

Photo courtesy of the Port Charlotte Stone Crabs

Leonard is a recent name for Hot Rods fans, having spent the entire 2013 season in Bowling Green. With the Hot Rods, he hit just .225 and only nine home runs. Many attributed the down year to the high expectations following the James Shield/Wil Myers trade, in which Leonard was a big prospect piece. He shook of doubts this season with a fine year in Port Charlotte.

He proved durable yet again, appearing in 122 games. Leonard amassed 13 home runs, just one shy of his career best set back in ’12 when he was a member of the Appalachian League’s Burlington Royals. He raised his batting average nearly 60 points to .284, and added a speed element to his game with 14 stolen bases and five triples, both career highs. Leonard was a two-time Florida State League Player of the Week, and was selected to the Midseason All-Star team.

With the Arizona Fall League underway, Leonard will get even more at-bats as a representative of the Rays in the prestigious fall season. Leonard was a fifth-round draft choice by the Royals out of St. Thomas Catholic High School in Houston, the 156th overall selection in the 2011 draft. At just 21, Leonard will look to take a big step forward on the prospect charts with a big 2015, most likely in Montgomery.

Rays Organizational Review: Catcher

The catching position is a rather deep one in the Tampa Bay system. The Hot Rods have seen a number of highly talented backstops come through Bowling Green since 2009, especially the past couple of seasons. Here is an organizational look at the catchers who received significant playing time at affiliates, beginning with BG:

Hot Rods – Oscar Hernandez and Armando Araiza

Both Hernandez and Araiza were found on the Opening Night roster, and that prompted the two-catcher system the Hot Rods employed all season. Despite this approach, Hernandez played in 94 games and Araiza in 93, thanks to the use of one of the two backstops at the designated hitter position.

Photo by Gregg Rich

                  Photo by Gregg Rich

Hernandez cracked most Top 30 rankings for team prospects, and his bat backed those accolades up. Oscar led the team with 63 runs batted in, and over one-third of his hits went for extra bases. He batted just .249, but that mark was somewhat torpedoed by a .170 clip in the month of April. He hit .342 in May, .258 in June, and .262 in July. Hernandez tied the franchise record on three different ooccasionsby collecting four hits in a game, including a four-RBI performance on June 19 in Lansing. He also launched the first grand slam of the season in Minor League Baseball on Opening Night:

Araiza moonlighted as a producer for Hot Rods Live. (Photo by Gregg Rich)

Araiza moonlighted as a producer for Hot Rods Live. (Photo by Gregg Rich)

Araiza was labeled a defensive-minded catcher entering 2014, and Midwest League managers agreed. He was named the best defensive catcher in a poll of opposing skippers conducted by Baseball America. Araiza threw out an astounding 58.2% of would-be base runners, totaling 39 caught stealings. Hernandez wasn’t too far behind with a 41% rate. It appeared Armando ran out of gas late, as he hit above .263 in both April and May, but failed to reach above the .239 threshold after. Like Hernandez, Araiza had one of the most memorable home runs of the season:

Looking Ahead: It’s hard to envision a scenario in which either catcher returns to Bowling Green, and it makes a lot of sense that both would be promoted together given the Rays’ current catching system.

Triple-A Durham – Curt Casali

Courtesy of the Durham Bulls

Courtesy of the Durham Bulls

Casali starred not too far from Bowling Green collegiately, starting for three seasons at Vanderbilt in Nashville. He was a tenth-round choice of the Detroit Tigers in 2011, and he featured in the Midwest League with West Michigan in ’11 and ’12. He was acquired by Tampa Bay prior to the 2013 campaign, and he blasted 10 home runs between Advanced-A Port Charlotte and Double-A Montgomery.

As most positions are at the Triple-A level, catching was a revolving position for the Bulls this season. Casali played a team-high 41 games behind the plate, and batted .237 for the reigning Governor’s Cup champions. His contract was purchased by Tampa Bay, and he made his Major League debut on July 18 in a 6-2 win at Minnesota. Casali had a base hit and a run scored in the contest. He would go on to make 30 appearances for the big league club, driving home three runs in 72 at-bats.

Double-A Montgomery – Luke Maile

Courtesy of the Durham Bulls

Courtesy of the Durham Bulls

Maile made somewhat of a suprising leap over Port Charlotte after only featuring in 95 games with Bowling Green in 2013, but he made an impression very quickly, and even ended his season in Durham. Maile batted .269 with 17 RBIs in the first half, and that earned him a place on the Southern League All-Star team. He launched his first Double-A home run on April 12 at Mobile, and drove in a season-high three runs against Huntsville on May 23.

The Edgewood, Ky. native was chosen in the eighth round by the Rays in 2012 out of Kentucky, and he enjoyed an All-Star season in his first full-season as a pro while playing in the bluegrass with the Hot Rods. Maile’s meteoric rise continued when he was called upon to get playoff at-bats for the Bulls. He amassed a pair of runs batted in while seeing action in five playoff games with the top Minor League club. Maile appears poised to be the Opening Night catcher for Durham in 2015.

Advanced-A Port Charlotte – Justin O’Conner

Courtesy of the Port Charlotte Stone Crabs

Courtesy of the Port Charlotte Stone Crabs

Another former Hot Rod, O’Conner enjoyed a breakout season. He opened up with Port Charlotte, but ended his season in Double-A. In 80 games for the Stone Crabs, O’Conner hit for a career-high .282 clip, and launched 10 home runs while driving in 44. An astounding 31 of his 90 hits were doubles, and he nearly had a 50% rate of extra-base hits.

While he was named to both the Midseason and Postseason All-Star teams in the Florida State League, the biggest honor bestowed upon O’Conner this season was his selection to the Futures Game held before the Major League All-Star Game. O’Conner squared off with fellow Tampa Bay Ray farmhand (and former Hot Rod) Enny Romero. O’Conner won the matchup with a single to left field.

He was rewarded with a late-season promotion to Montgomery, where he’s expected to begin next season. In 21 games for the Biscuits, O’Conner collected 21 hits and a pair of home runs. He opened 2013 as high as 19th on Rays prospect charts, but don’t be shocked if he cracks the Top 10 entering the 2015 campaign.

As we approach the New Year, we’ll begin to take a look at the performers below Bowling Green while trying to predict the Hot Rods’ Opening Night roster. For now, we’ll focus on full-season leagues. Next up, an in-depth look at first baseman around the Rays system.

-Andrew Kappes



Saying Farewell to Derek Jeter

This weekend we will watch one of the greatest players to not only play this game, but represent it, take the field. As a Tampa Bay Rays affiliate, perhaps it is a bit blasphemous to write about a New York Yankees legend. However, Derek Jeter calls Tampa his “second home” and the Rays did give him some pretty sweet gifts, so I feel somewhat vindicated here. I speak with great pride of my 2013 season as the #2 broadcaster with the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, the Triple-A affiliate for the Yankees. It didn’t really hit me until last night, but the seven games I spent with Derek Jeter were the biggest and most exciting of my career to date.

Maybe you grew up disliking the Yankees like I did. All that money, all that glitz and glamour, it was enough to make a country boy like me sick. That changed in 2001 when I read The Life You Imagine: Life Lessons for Achieving Your Dreams. I was 11 at the time, and for me, that book gave the true glimpse of the determination and hard work it took for Jeter to reach the legacy he owns today. It wasn’t bought, it was earned. Even if you hate the Yankees, we’re not losing the “Evil Empire” this weekend, we’re saying goodbye to someone who truly exemplified what it means to be a professional.

Flashback to July 2013, and my boss (the wildly-talented John Sadak) and I inherited a media relations nightmare. Jeter was arriving in a matter of days, that was the exciting part. However, we knew hundreds of media personnel from around the world would be following him, and it was time to get to work. My distaste for printing media passes was born the day his rehab assignment to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre went public. The likes of ESPN, CBS Sports, The New York Times, and any other media outlet with a passing interest in sports requested credentials.

I approached him in the clubhouse shortly after his arrival before batting practice. I fully expected him to groan at my presence, because I was one of the guys who would be shuffling him to the hundreds of reporters who would all ask similar questions, mostly about his ankle. Instead of being annoyed, he asked for my name, my title, and how long I’ve been in baseball. Later that night he asked me what I wanted to do long-term, and I told him I one day hope to reach the big leagues. It took every ounce of professional blood in me to not bring up his book that I read 12 years before.

My entire season with the RailRiders felt like I hit the lottery, and it continued to prove true when I found out I would be flying solo on the radio broadcast. The game was being aired on television, and with one of my biggest mentors in this business shifting to television, I was left alone in the home radio booth. To this day I’m still not really entirely sure if my feet ever touched the ground that entire game, and it wasn’t just because I had my chair lifted really high.

The story I will tell my kids and their kids one day is my favorite from my years in baseball so far. While talking to one of the guys during his second rehab appearance with SWB weeks later, I feel a big slap on the back. Fully expecting it was one of the usual pranksters, I turned around to see it was Jeter, staring at my feet. He complimented my blue and black sneakers, and thankfully he didn’t make fun of their clown-like feature. Rob Crain, the President and General Manager of the RailRiders, always made fun of me when I wore those. It felt totally justified after that encounter.

Facts are facts, and whether you think he’s the greatest shortstop of all-time or overrated, there’s only five human beings with more hits than he has collected. He won four World Series championships, He went to 14 All-Star games, blasted 260 home runs, and drove in 1,310 runs in 2,745 games with the same team. All this while staying out of the 24-hour news cycle and New York headlines for negative reasons. My positive story is just one, a simple google search will result in hundreds of others. Not many players have the type of respect from his opponents than Jeter, and that truly shows how special his career has been.

Baseball is a funny game, I truly believe it’s the only sport that senses the moment that it finds itself in. The vast majority of baseball-loving people like myself woke up this morning expecting to see something different play out on SportsCenter than what we saw all over the news Thursday night. With Derek Jeter’s baseball career winding down, he saved one of his most iconic personal moments for last. For a player who has put team accomplishments over his own for two decades, perhaps it was the most fitting end.


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