As a small market team with a low payroll, the Tampa Bay Rays are quite possibly the team most dependent on sleeper prospects.
Take Ben Zobrist for example. A vital part of the American League-pennant winning 2008 Rays, Zobrist was never on any top prospects lists.
In fact, Zobrist barely even made his college baseball team at Olivet Nazarene University, making the team after a try-out.
Zobrist went on to hit .264 with 114 home runs in nine seasons for the Rays. Widely considered the top utility man in baseball, Zobrist made two All-Star teams in Tampa, and smacked over 1,000 hits.
Zobrist is the best example off the list of Rays sleeper-prospects turned-productive major leaguers.
While the 2018 Rays are nowhere near the Rays of ten years ago on the major league field, the Rays boast their best farm system in years, headlined by top-50 prospects Willy Adames, Brent Honeywell and Brendan McKay.
It’s no doubt that the Rays future core looks to be composed of the above names. However, as a small-market team with an extremely low payroll, the Rays will need production from unexpected contributors, as they got from Zobrist several years ago.
Let’s take a look at who could become the next Ben Zobrist in Tampa Bay.
Single-A Sleeper Prospect: Hunter Schryver
The Single-A Bowling Green Hot Rods are absolutely loaded with talent.
The Hot Rods team leaders in batting average (Taylor Walls, #30), runs scored (Vidal Brujan, #18), home runs (Ronaldo Hernandez, #19) and wins (Tobias Myers, #17) are all ranked amongst the Rays top-30 prospects.
However, not ranked amongst the Rays top prospects is Hunter Schryver.
A 2017 seventh-round pick from Villanova, Schryver has been lights-out in the ninth inning for the Hot Rods.
In 21 games, the lefty has a 1-2 record with a 2.23 ERA in 36.1 innings. Schryver has saved eight out of ten save opportunities, while striking out an impressive 48 batters in 36.1 innings.
Schryver impressed in his professional debut last season, going 4-0 with a 3.12 ERA in short-season A-ball in 2017.
Schryver’s sustained track of success, especially in the late innings, makes him a serious sleeper. With a trigger-happy manager when it comes to the bullpen in Kevin Cash, Schryver’s consistency and electricity out of the bullpen are the perfect formula for future success.
An eighth-round pick out of the College of Idaho in 2017, Riley O’Brien has had a spectacular first-half, going 5-2 with a 2.43 ERA in 18 appearances split between the rotation and bullpen for the Hot Rods. Despite this season’s success, O’Brien has struggled to stay on the field, making just eleven appearances last season.
High-A Sleeper Prospect: Brock Burke
On a team headlined by top-prospects Brendan McKay, Jesus Sanchez and Lucius Fox, a seemingly forgotten former-third round pick has emerged as a potential sleeper.
Brock Burke, a 2014 third-round pick, has produced at a high-level for the High-A Charlotte Stone Crabs.
The lefty is 3-5 with a 3.84 ERA in 16 appearances with 13 starts. In 82 innings, Burke has struck out a stellar 87 batters. Burke has shown solid control, allowing just four home runs while walking 30.
After recording a 2.99 ERA in 23 starts between two minor league levels in 2017, Burke has solidified himself as a consistent lefty with good stuff.
Burke has never allowed more than six home runs in a season, a surprising number when considering his high-strikeout numbers. The bottom line is, Burke is confident in his stuff, and has the ability to get hitters out while keeping the ball in the park.
Still just 21, Burke will need more time to develop. Promoted to Double-A last week, Burke will need to continue to flaunt his good control and confidence if he wants a chance to turn out at the major league level.
The brother of Rays tenth-ranked prospect Josh Lowe, Nathaniel Lowe has put up huge numbers for the Stone Crabs in 2018. The first-baseman has hit .356 with ten home runs and 44 RBIs in 51 games. At the age of 23, Nathaniel could be more major-league ready than his better-known brother Josh.
Sam McWilliams, have a game! The right-hander sets a new Double-A high in strikeouts (8) as well as innings pitched (7). @ChrisAdamsWall will take you through the top of the ninth as Cody Hall tries to preserve McWilliams' gem.— Montgomery Biscuits (@BiscuitBaseball) June 11, 2018
T9 | MGM 2, CHAT 1https://t.co/NVaroKcq8C pic.twitter.com/VZ1gn5sFdN
Double-A Sleeper Prospect: Sam McWilliams
The 6-foot-7 righty has went 3-5 with a 4.50 ERA in nine games for the Biscuits. However, combined in 17 minor-league appearances in 2018, McWilliams has went 4-7 with a 3.69 ERA.
In 85.1 innings pitched, McWilliams has struck out 84 batters, while walking just 27.
The 22-year old went 11-6 with a 2.84 ERA in 133 minor-league innings last season, walking just 31.
If anything’s going to get McWilliams to the majors, its going to be his pinpoint control. Impressive given his tall frame, McWilliams’ ability to control his pitches will define his career, and the impact that he makes for the Rays.
At one time an eighth-round after-thought, Sam McWilliams is on the rise in Double-A.
A seventh-round pick of the Indians in 2015 out of Sacramento State, right fielder Nathan Lukes is quietly putting together a great season in Montgomery. In 70 games, Lukes is hitting .290 with three home runs, 27 RBIs and 19 doubles. Lukes’ lack of power is an issue however, as the 23 year-old’s career-high is just six long balls.
Triple-A Sleeper Prospect: Kean Wong
The younger brother of St. Louis Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong, Kean Wong has put up huge numbers for the Bulls in 2018.
In 70 games, Wong has hit a stunning .316, with six home runs and 34 RBIs.
Despite lacking any sort of power, Wong has managed to slug extra-base hits consistently, hitting 15 doubles thus far in 2018.
Like his brother, Wong plays second base. Currently occupied by Joey Wendle, Wong could have the opportunity to find playing time with a looming September call-up.
Even as a fourth-round pick, Wong has never been as highly-touted as his former top-100 prospect brother was.
Wong has the bloodline and bat, and now will just need to impress when given an opportunity in Tampa Bay this September.
A 2015 11th-rounder out of Tulane, Ian Gibaut has been lights-out for the Bulls out of the bullpen. Gibaut has registered a 1.67 ERA in 31 appearances in 2018. Gibaut has shown good “stuff”, as the righty has struck out 49 in 37.2 innings while walking just 15. Like Wong, Gibaut should have an opportunity to impress in Tampa Bay this September.