After reaching the World Series in 2020 falling just short of the ultimate prize, the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays are full of question marks. They traded away their young ace in Blake Snell and declined to re-sign veteran pitcher Charlie Morton. While they still have a lot to be excited about, they’re sticking with a low-payroll, development-heavy approach.
What isn’t in question is their farm system. Once again, the Rays boast one of the most stacked farm systems in the league and look to continue focus on developing (and eventually trading away) premier talent. The 2021 Tampa Bay Rays season should be no different, with quite a few exciting young players likely scheduled to make their major league debut.
This article won’t include prospects who have gotten a taste of major league action, like 2020 postseason star Randy Arozarena, pitchers Shane McClanahan or Brendan McKay, or a recent acquisition from the Snell trade, Luis Patiño. While they may still be classified by rookies, this article will focus on the true prospects who will be getting their first shot in the big leagues.
2021 Tampa Bay Rays: Wander Franco
Unless you’ve been living under an extremely large and heavy rock, this first prospect should be no surprise. The shortstop will turn just 20 years old in a month and is the undisputed #1 prospect in baseball wherever you look.
Franco is a switch-hitting shortstop and has absolutely crushed every level of competition he’s faced. He’s dominant in all facets of the game. He has elite plate discipline (amassing more walks than strikeouts in his minor-league career) and an incredible eye for contact. He has impressive speed, and while stolen bases have fallen out of style in the major-league game, it also bolsters his defensive play, even if he doesn’t stick at shortstop long-term. His biggest flaws are power (which he by no means lacks) and a rather high ground-ball rate—both elements that will improve as he continues to develop.
In 2019, he slashed .327/.398/.487 across two levels of Class A. It was enough to earn him a spot on the taxi squad in 2020—prompting speculation of a call-up—but he was never given a shot at major-league action. So far, he’s been so dominant at every challenge he’s faced that it seems inevitable that he’ll get a taste of the big leagues near the end of this season.
The biggest question is where he’ll fit in—the middle infield is pretty locked in for the Rays with Willy Adames at short and Brandon Lowe at second. With a wunderkind like Franco, the Rays are bound to find a spot for him to get him some major-league experience. However, as with any top prospect, expectations should be tempered. While he could jump in and immediately rake like Ronald Acuña Jr. or Juan Soto, he could also struggle to adjust a la Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Either way, he’s unlikely to struggle for long and he’ll be exciting to watch, whether you’re a Rays fan or not.
Another prospect stuck dealing with the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays’ crowded middle infield is Vidal Brujan. The second baseman is about to turn 23 and was added to the Rays’ 40-man roster in 2020, but never made an appearance. He projects for above-average defense, solid speed, and an eye for contact, with a little bit of pop, and could be a huge part of the Rays’ future.
Like Franco, he’s a switch-hitter with a murky path to playing time in the Rays’ middle infield. Unlike Franco, Brujan has gotten reps at center field as well, which opens a potential path to join the Rays’ outfield in 2020. While his plate discipline has declined as he moved up the minor-league ranks, his power has increased and he has little left to prove in the minors. A possible trade of Adames or Lowe (it is the Rays, after all) could free up some space for Brujan and Franco to get consistent playing time by the end of the season.
Brent Honeywell Jr.
The biggest question mark of the Rays’ farm system, Honeywell’s roller coaster of a baseball career included a meteoric rise through the ranks before being devastated by injuries. The right-hander hasn’t pitched since 2017 but is projected to be healthy in time for the start of spring training. A nearly-26-year-old with an injury-marred career set to make his debut doesn’t scream potential, but the Rays still look at him as one of their top pitching prospects.
Honeywell boasts a five-pitch arsenal, headlined by an above-average fastball and changeup, along with a legitimate screwball. Whether the injuries or absence from game appearances have sapped any of his velocity or command remains to be seen, but he’ll make for an exciting debut to watch in the 2021 season.
Other Possibilities for the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays
With such a stacked farm system, it wouldn’t strain credulity for the Rays to make more moves before the start of the season, particularly to clear out their infield for Franco and Brujan. While Patiño and McClanahan weren’t discussed here, they will be exciting to watch as they get their first extended experience with major-league hitting.
Outfielder Josh Lowe, who made the 40-man roster in 2020 but never saw the field, is another to keep an eye on—he’s likely to debut during the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays season and could acclimate quickly to major-league pitching. If there’s anything we’ve learned over the past few seasons, it’s that the Rays will continue to churn out quality MLB-caliber players.
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