After covering the Hudson Valley Renegades (Class-A, short season) for two seasons, I'm moving on to the Triple-A Durham Bulls. But before I do, here's some thoughts on a few players that were on the New York Penn League Rays affiliate team during that time.
Without a doubt, the 2013 Renegades are the scrappiest team I've ever covered. The roster was full of guys that didn't appear to tire, even down the stretch when the Tri-City Valley Cats started looking like the stronger team. If there's one moment that sums up the approach, it would be during one of their final home games, when outfielder Julian Ridings dove into home plate with the team down a couple runs late in the game. He was willing to fully commit his body to make something happen, hurting himself in the process. Maybe that's not the smartest play, but it's the only play.
In looking ahead to 2014, those guys will be playing together for either Charlotte or Bowling Green. 2013 Renegades MVP Darryl George led the club with Ridings, both creating opportunities in their at-bats, and exhibiting solid defense. His approach and patience at the plate allowed him to make consistent contact throughout the season. He finished 2013 hitting .286, with 65 hits, 23 walks, and a .702 OPS in 61 games. Signed as a non-drafted FA in 2010, the Australian-born George did all he could at that level, taking full advantage of his opportunities. He's earned a spot on the Bowling Green roster to start the season. As for Ridings, skill-set both at the plate and on the field showed a guy coming out of Western Carolina that has the tools to execute. The key for him is channeling his aggressiveness in a consistently productive way.
Starting pitcher Aaron Griffin was the rotation's best arm, with excellent command and the ability to pitch deep, he too finished the season having proven he was ready for the next level. That's no small thing, though it sounds like a throwaway. The first year of pro-ball can be an overwhelming workload, physically and mentally. The main goal is to learn as much as they can in the brief time-frame of short-season. Righty Griffin seemed comfortable fairly early and didn't show signs of tiring. In fact, the Rays 2013 10th round pick looked strongest in August, finishing with a 0.99 ERA through five starts. The walks were the revelation: he allowed just 8 all season. The 6'4" Californian doesn't try to kill 'em all with a fastball, he doesn't have to, and it's not the kind of pitcher he is. He mixes pitches, throwing a sinker and slider for strikes and keeps the ball down in the zone. He won't be for long in Low-A if that's where he winds up to start the season. Read my full report on Griffin for FanGraphs here - http://www.fangraphs.com/fantasy/the-rays-aaron-griffin-quickly-adapts-to-pro-ball/
In 2012, RHP Taylor Guerrieri did exactly what he needed to in order to succeed in his first professional season. He started off needing to work on command and mound composure, and ended the season a much more polished gem on a team that won the New York Penn League title. He's the best player I saw in those two years, not just for his repertoire, but for his ability to learn and adjust so quickly. He ended 2012 with a 1.04 ERA in 12 starts and fired off 45 strikeouts while walking only 5 batters. That was followed by a full season with Bowling Green, where he went 6-2 with a 2.01 ERA and struck out 51 through 67 innings, earning MiLB.com's honor of 'Top Rays Prospect'. But since then, he's hit some big bumps, including undergoing Tommy John surgery, and then being suspended for a 'banned substance'. Guerrieri is similar to Kyle Drabek in many ways. I'd covered Drabek when he was in the Phillies organization, then with the Blue Jays. I'd never seen any player, before Guerrieri, that exhibited that kind of command and talent, but needed to overcome his disposition. When Drabek was with the Phillies, he was a bit unfocused, with a lot of immaturity. But when he got in the Jays organization, the difference was highly noticeable, very quickly, in both talking to him and on the mound. Guerrieri exhibited the same qualities. He improved with each start, growing as a person and pitcher every time. Both needed to learn how to harness and properly focus their energy and power. It will be interesting to witness what this Rays prospect, so important to the team's future, will do as he faces these challenges and moves to the next level. If all goes well, that arm isn't far from the majors.
See links below for more stories from the 2013 season on the Renegades. And read my Durham Bulls coverage for Minor League Ball starting April 3rd.