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2014 Rays Rookie League/Short Season Awards

Brian Blanco

While a short season doesn’t tell much about a player, the results are worth attention to, and deserve recognition. And so the short-season Hudson Valley Renegades and the rookie league Princeton Rays get their own spotlight, in what is part two of the post-season ‘Rays MiLB Awards.’

Instead of four players per category as in Part One, there’re five top players here. Gulf Coast League players are acknowledged, but many didn’t play enough games to make a fair comparison. There are a few that played 50+ games, and they’re recognized in mentions.

This was also a good way to conduct draft review, and see how recent picks fared in their first taste of pro ball, or in their second season, taking on a more challenging schedule and more competitive opponents.

Here they are….

Short Season/Rookie League Players of the Year

#1 Hunter Lockwood – Lockwood led the Stedler Division champion Hudson Valley Renegades with a powerful bat. His 46 RBI and 13 home runs were a team best, continuing the pace he set in rookie league in 2013. He had 57 hits in 235 at bats with Princeton, and this year finished the regular season with 71 hits, good for 2nd on the team, in 271 at-bats. He showcased the power that was expected of him when the Rays drafted him in the 11th round in 2013, and he was a big part of the early-season success that helped the Renegades build a strong divisional lead. Through the first fifteen games in June he hit 3 home runs and 13 RBI. He followed that up with 8 home runs and 24 RBI in July, with 26 hits, 8 of them doubles, that same month. He led the team in SLG (.494) and runs scored (47). Lockwood ended June with a season-high 4-hit game, going on to get 13 hits in ten games. But 4 hits in one game wouldn’t remain his bench-mark: in July he topped that with a 5-hit game. He led the team in strikeouts (98), something he’s got to get a handle on when he makes the jump to a full season. As he learns to adjust to more advanced pitching, and allows his natural power to take over, he’ll become the player that the Rays have gotten a small, impressive glimpse of.

#2 Casey Gillaspie- The Rays 2013 1st rounder showcased a consistent bat throughout the 2014 season with the Renegades. In 71 games, he had 42 hits, 2nd to Lockwood and had a commanding lead in walks (42). That kind of patience and production was expected from the Rays 1st rounder out of Wichita State, where the switch hitting Gillaspie .299 with 46 RBI & 62 walks his junior year. Adding to what scouts must’ve loved about the Nebraska native, he spent junior year in the Cape Cod League, leading the Falmouth Commodores in home runs. He was later named a league All-Star. The first baseman spent time in college as a designated hitter, but he can play solid defense, and made just 2 errors all season with the Renegades. An excellent first professional season from an exciting bat.

#3 Coty Blanchard- Blanchard was another strong piece of that Renegades lineup, leading the team in hits (74) and was second to Gilaspie in doubles by one (15) and 3rd behind Gilaspie and Lockwood in total bases (105) and RBI (30), finishing the season 3rd in SLG (.298) as well. He kept an outstanding pace in July and August, getting 23 hits in July and 32 in August. He kept the strikeouts lower than Lockwood and Gilaspie, K’ing just 47 times. The walks were also a plus (24), something that carried over from his collegiate career at Jacksonville State, where he had experience at all infield positions. Another plus for Blanchard is his above-average speed, which he utilized for a team-leading 22 stolen bases. Like Gillaspie, he came into the draft with the revered Cape Cod League experience.

#4 Thomas Milone- Milone led Princeton in games played (61) and hits (62). He put together a nine-game hitting streak starting at the end of June, and in that span got 14 hits. He tended to hit hot then experience a drought at the plate, but for a high school pick (Connecticut) in his second professional season, he showcased solid ability to make contact on a consistent basis. The toolsy Milone’s speed was also on display, as he led the team in stolen bases (12). He was a star football player, but obviously wasn’t playing year round in a northeast baseball program. But the raw talent the Rays witnessed drove them to take a chance. Milone’s athleticism surely factored in and this year all the things that got him drafted were on display. Cutting down on strikeouts (he was 3rd on the team with 61) should come with more experience. For a guy that didn’t have a ton of baseball experience, this was an excellent start.

#5 Riley Unroe – The runs scored leader (32) for Princeton, Unroe displayed the speed he was known for coming into the 2013 MLB Draft. The Rays drafted the shortstop in the 2nd round out of Desert Ridge (Arizona), and assigned him to participate in the Winter League Program in 2014, after getting 41 games of GCL experience. In 107 games this year, he hit .226/.315/.325 in 243 at-bats. He exhibited good patience and pitch recognition, leading the team with 29 walks. He split time between shortstop and second, committing ten errors (2nd on the team), but defensively he received high marks in reports pre-draft; besides that, moving to the right side of the field usually proves challenging for any player, so the errors weren’t a big alarming surprise. It’s definitely time for him to face the more advanced , full-season Midwest League in 2015.

Must-Mentions… Jace Conrad, Matt Reida, Oscar Sanay, Bralin Jackson, Nic Wilson, Bill Pujols, Cade Gotta, Christian Knott, Patrick Grady, Braxton Lee, Alec Sole

Short-Season/Rookie League Pitchers of the Year

#1 Enderson Franco- Franco’s 7 wins were a team best for the Hudson Valley Renegades. In 13 starts and 68 innings pitched, he walked just 8 batters, which was the lowest on the team of any full-time starter. He tied for 2nd in strikeouts (50). Through his first four starts, he didn’t allow a walk and allowed just 4 home runs all season. In one of those early season outings, he struck out a season high 8 batters. He allowed quite a lot of contact with each start, but he showed a strong ability to minimize damage. In one mid-season start, he gave up 7 hits, but allowed just 1 earned run. Franco’s made the rounds in the system since being signed by the Rays out of his home town of Anaco, Venezuela, and this year he passed a big test. He’s likely ticketed for Bowling Green next season, though it would’ve been good to see him get a few more innings in short-season play. He finished with just 3 losses, a 4.22 ERA/1.19 WHIP, and a complete game under his belt.

#2 Hunter Wood – Wood also made 13 starts for the Renegades, and led the team in strikeouts (57). His 54 innings pitched was 2nd on the team. He split time between Penn League and the Midwest League, making 6 starts for the Bowling Green Hot Rods, and in 24 innings pitched he allowed 11 earned runs on 22 hits. It was with the Renegades that he pitched deeper into games, allowing fewer walks, particularly toward the end of the season. In five starts in July, the Rays 2013 29th round pick (Howard College, Texas) gave up just 5 walks. In that same span, he struck out 22 batters. His consistency wasn’t always there, and quality starts were mixed with outings where he got really roughed up. But in 7 starts this season, he didn’t allow a run, shutting out the opposition in his final start going 5 innings, allowing just 2 hits. It was that kind of pitching that started his season, and showed what he’s capable of. He finished the season as one of seven All-Star nominations on the team, helping break a franchise record.

#3 Brent Honeywell- Righty Honeywell posted the lowest ERA (1.07) of any regular starter for Princeton this season. In 8 starts, 33 innings pitched, he allowed just 4 earned runs, while striking out 40, 3rd most on the team. His 0.74 WHIP was the lowest of all Renegades pitchers. The Rays 2014 2nd round pick allowed just 6 walks. Honeywell was a community college pick (Walters State, Tennessee), garnering attention in his final year by striking out 102 batters in 13 starts, 83 innings pitched, giving up just 15 walks. Scouts were high on the K rate and he turned in a season that was a continuation of what he showcased heading in to the draft.

#4 Hyrum Formo- Formo saw very little action in 2013, making just 6 appearances, and pitching 8 innings, after being drafted in the late rounds (27th) that same year. This year, he got his work in. In 11 starts for Princeton, he walked 8 batters while striking out 52. Through his first 3 starts he didn’t allow a walk, ending the season the same way. He achieved something unlikely in August, pitching a 9-inning complete game shutout, the first below the Double-A level in the Rays system. Another community college pick, Formo came to the Rays via Pima Community in Arizona, with a fastball that’s been clocked sitting mid-90’s.

#5 Nolan Gannon – In 11 starts for the Renegades, Gannon 47 batters (4th on the team). Through 57 innings, he allowed 22 earned runs on 50 hits. But going back to those strikeouts, he struck out 25 batters in his first four starts, including a season high ten-strikeout, 7 inning outing. The Rays selected Gannon 4th round out of Santa Fe High School (California) in 2012. He’s been getting his innings the past two seasons in rookie league ball, and showed solid progression in his first taste of short-season baseball. There’s a lot of possibility for growth, and he’s clearly shown himself to be a dependable strike thrower with a three-pitch repertoire (fastball-curveball-splitter), and a fastball that’s been reported to top out in the mid-to-low 90’s.

Must Mentions… Edgar Gomez, Henry Centeno, Kyle McKenzie, Chris Pike, Nick Sawyer, Roel Ramirez, Ruben Paredes, Tomas Michelson, Steve Ascher, Tommy Lawrence, Freddy Alvarez, DJ Slaton, Josh Kimborowicz, Eli Echarry