This year’s MLB Draft was one for the ages. The amount of selections were seriously cut, and some teams made some interesting selections. The Tampa Bay Rays were not one of those teams, as they went about business as usual.
In what many pundits have called a draft win for the Rays, the Florida club focused on only two positions: pitcher and shortstop. Like I said, big surprise. The Rays had six total selections; they chose four pitchers and two middle infielders.
They dipped into the high school ranks just twice, instead focusing their attention on players with more experience under the belt. Their first pick came towards the end of the first round, at 24.
No. 24: Nick Bitsko
For most teams, Nick Bitsko was a major question mark. Firstly, as a pitcher, his trajectory is naturally difficult to predict. In the situation everyone is faced with this spring and summer, teams questioned Bitsko’s future even more. Everyone except the Tampa Bay Rays.
The Rays say that they are not taking a risk with the young pitcher. Instead of looking at the possible negatives of drafting a 17-year-old pitcher with only two years of high school play, Tampa looked at the teenager’s upside.
Bitsko falling to the Rays must have been a dream for the team. He has a prototypical frame, great velocity, and propensity to focus on analytics. At seventeen with plenty of time to grow, Bitsko has a long lean frame, at six foot four inches and 225 pounds.
His fastball hovers between 92 and 96 mph and has hit 98-99 on occasion. Combine that with a strong curveball and quickly developing changeup, and you’ve got yourself a great power pitcher. Just look at Justin Verlander, who Bitsko has been consistently compared to.
The fact that the player them self focuses on analytics shows that they are determined to improve. Bitsko uses analytics to work on his fundamentals. He said that he mainly looks at his spin rate and what kind of breaking his offspeed pitches have been doing.
Bitsko’s limited, but strong, resume in conjunction with these measurables convinced the Rays to take him in the first round. They’ve also convinced me of this selection. This pick suits the organization’s strength in developing pitching talent, and we should see Bitsko in the Trop years down the road.
No. 37: Alika Williams
The first of two position players, Williams signed his entry level contract with the Rays on June 18th. His contract sits at $1.85 million, a touch lower than the allocated amount. The 37th overall selection, acquired in the Jose Martinez-Matthew Liberatore trade, is a middle-infielder, but mainly plays shortstop, a position of organizational strength.
Williams fits the mold that the Rays typically look for in a fielder. He is best known for his fielding ability, but has sneaky good athleticism and solid bat tools. What he lacks in power, Williams makes up for with his contact rate and ability to get on base.
Over his collegiate career, Williams only struck out 49 times. Compared to his 55 walks across 549 plate appearances, that number is incredibly low. In his best season, Williams hit 0.333 with four homers and 53 RBIs. Before the draft, Baseball America rated him as the best defensive infielder in college and the 31st best prospect.
Williams fit the mold for the Rays, but doesn’t really make sense for the organization. Tampa has a ton of shortstops in the system, and some really good ones at that. The team expects top level prospects Lucius Fox and Wander Franco to make an impact in the big leagues sooner rather than later.
The depth at the position, especially with the log jam of young players, makes Williams’ path a bit tougher. However, he has plenty of tools that other players in the system can’t say they do. He fits the bill for what the Rays look for and is relatively polished for his age.
No. 57: Ian Seymour
This pick is another example of a Tampa Bay Rays ™ draft choice. Ian Seymour pitched three seasons at Virginia Tech and steadily improved. The southpaw has a few important traits that drew the Rays into picking him a round earlier than the consensus ranking.
The main, and most obvious, is Seymour’s general skill set. His fastball hangs around the 94-95 mark. He also has a nice changeup and developing “cutter”. Positionally, Seymour fits the Rays’ focus as well.
In 2018, the Rays first used an “opener”. But even before then, they experimented with using long relievers as starters for bullpen days. Seymour tracks to become one of these type pitchers, a position that the Rays have been able to utilize well over the years.
Another factor that needs to be taken into account is the difficulty in signing draftees this year. As there were only five rounds, the draft money that was able to be allocated to each pick was significantly decreased. Many of the players available at 57 would have been hard signings for the Rays, who put most of their money towards their first selection. Based on this, Seymour was a safe selection.
This pick is a win almost any way you look at it. Seymour is a talented pitcher who performed well at Virginia Tech who fits the Rays’ mold. At the same time, he is likely to sign with the team, adding that much more value to him from the team’s point of view.
No. 96: Hunter Barnhart
With their fourth round pick, the Tampa Bay Rays dipped back into the high school pitching pool. They chose Hunter Barnhart out of St. Joseph’s High School in California.
The two-sport athlete was committed to Arizona State University before signing his first contract with the Rays on the 19th. He’s certainly going to be a work in progress for the organization, but the young man has some of the tools to make an impact down the road.
Firstly, Barnhart has a ton of untapped upside. In high school, he split his time between baseball and football, only just recently putting more of his time towards baseball. In that short time, his fastball has seen an uptick in velocity, hitting 96 mph at times, and his curveball has gotten even more devastating.
There are a few downsides, however. Barnhart is a young prospect, getting drafted at just 18 years old. He also appears to be somewhat limited in his stuff. He usually works off of his fastball and curveball, his most dangerous pitch. His third pitch, a changeup that hovers in the low 80’s, leaves some to be desired.
This appears to be a boom or bust pick for the Rays. Barnhart could end up being a middle to top end starter or a career minor leaguer. There isn’t enough tape on him with his complete focus on baseball to make that distinction. All in all, I think he’s in the right place with the Rays, who know how to get the best out of pitchers.
No. 125: Tanner Murray
The second and final position player selected by the Tampa Bay Rays was a walk-on at UC Davis before becoming a mainstay in the lineup. Tanner Murray looks like a contrast to the other middle infielder the Rays chose, Alika Williams.
Murray is more known for his bat talent than his glove. As a freshman, he was named to the list of Freshmen of the Year for the Big West. The following season, Murray led UC Davis in almost every major offensive category. As a junior, he hit .310 and a homer in the just 16 games of play.
Even though he was a consistent performer in college, he struggled in the Cape Cod league. The Cape Cod league is a collegiate summer baseball league where many potential draft picks play at the highest level. Murray struggled in his most recent trip, hitting .211 and striking out 27 times over 35 games.
Much like the Williams selection, this is one that fits the Rays’ mold, but doesn’t make the most sense. The organization has a lot of depth at the middle infield positions and has players that have performed at a higher level against better talent. Murray could certainly grow into a productive player, but the amount of players with higher upside ahead of him make his road to the big leagues a tough one.
No. 155: Jeffrey Hakanson
With their last pick in the 2020 draft, the Tampa Bay Rays selected a local player. Jeffrey Hakanson grew up in the Tampa area before taking his talents to UCF in Orlando.
Hakanson is an out and out relief pitcher. He threw for just 26.2 innings in 2019, and only 8.1 in the shortened 2020 season. But in that short time, he was incredibly dominant.
In 2020, he was named an All-American pitcher after allowing just three baserunners in 28 batters faced. He struck out 20 out of 28 batters, and only two balls hit reached the outfield.
For his collegiate career, Hakanson struck out 98 batters in just 49.2 innings. In that time, opposing batters only hit 0.135. His pitching style fits the Rays as well.
He used to just throw hard. Now, Hakanson pitches hard and has a nasty slider to go along with it. His fastball tops out at 97, but hovers around 96. His slider got a lot more refined in 2020, and now buckles batters after being thrown in the low to mid 80’s.
The big question mark surrounding Hakanson is consistency. He doesn’t have many miles on his arm and with that comes a lack of experience. Overall, I think this was a great pick by the Rays to shore up a future bullpen with a pitcher who can be dominant.
All said and done, I think the Rays did a great job this draft. They stuck to their game plan that has worked the last few years. They had a good mix of safe prospects and prospects with a higher ceiling, lower floor.
The majority of these players won’t make an impact next season, or maybe even the next, but if they reach their potential, they’ll be the next class of great pitchers coming out of Tampa.
Overall Grade: A-
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