© 2009 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.

11/24/09 10:00 AM EST

Rays stocking up on pitching talent

Hellickson, Jennings are organization's top Minor Leaguers

There's an old saying that "pitching wins pennants." If indeed it's so, then Tampa Bay fans won't have to wait much longer for another flag to float over their stadium.

Despite not being able to pull off another postseason berth in 2009 with a fine 84-78 record, there is no question that the Rays continued to excel when it comes to developing frontline young starters, with three finishing the year in the big league rotation and a parade of other prospects prominently featured up and down the system's rosters.

NL East

AL East

NL Central

AL Central

NL West

AL West

"Without question, the strength of our organization is pitching, and quite possibly, we could have four members of our starting rotation next year come from the farm system or through scouting," said Mitch Lukevics, the Rays' director of Minor League operations.

Three of those names were a trio of 2009 rookies: southpaw David Price (10-7, 4.42 ERA), the club's top pick overall in 2007; right-hander Jeff Niemann (13-6, 3.94 ERA), who finished fourth in the American League Rookie of the Year Award voting; and right-hander Wade Davis (3.72 ERA in six starts), who joined the club down the stretch and still maintains rookie status for '10.

While Price had been many people's preseason pick for the AL Rookie of the Year Award, it was Niemann -- who was out of options as his ascent since being the club's top pick in 2004 had been slowed due to a variety of injuries -- who was the most pleasant surprise.

"I think all the hard work by Jeff and by our staff over the years came to fruition in 2009," Lukevics said. "It was a culmination of good things by a lot of people and we're all so happy for him."

And there is more on the way. A lot more. One pitcher who had been expected to be beside Davis when he arrived is southpaw Jake McGee, whose rise was interrupted by Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery. But he started his comeback in the latter half of 2009, making 16 rehab starts, and the Rays have been pleased with his progress. His fastball is back up in the low 90s, and he'll be in big league camp this spring, where they can figure out the next step.

But the next guy on the ladder is expected to be young right-hander Jeremy Hellickson, the club's Minor League Pitcher of the Year, a fourth-rounder from 2005 out of high school in Iowa who has been comped to Greg Maddux since he started his pro career, and who finished the season with five shutout innings in the Triple-A championship game.

The lower levels, though, are stocked with even more young pitching, players who should comprise the next wave a few years down the road. Led by such names as Matt Moore, who led the Minors with 176 strikeouts at Class A Bowling Green, and Alex Torres, the key player acquired from the Angels in the midseason deal for Scott Kazmir, there are enough young pitchers to portend some tough decisions just narrowing down the Class A and short-season starting rotations in 2010.

The good news is, there is no rush. Because as good as the pitching is, Lukevics thinks that the biggest improvement in the system in 2009 was, actually, the pitching.

"As good as it was, I think we got even better with the emergence of so many more young pitchers," he said.

The biggest pleasant surprise for Lukevics? Probably left-hander David Newmann, a 24-year-old who made his professional debut at advanced Class A Charlotte, going 9-6 with a 3.44 ERA and finishing among the league leaders with 128 strikeouts in 131 innings. The club's fourth-round pick in 2007, he signed late and then missed all of '08 with a knee injury.

Though the Rays did not sign either of their first two picks in the 2009 Draft, a pair of high school middle infielders, with first-rounder LeVon Washington heading to junior college and second pick Kenny Diekroger opting for Stanford, they were happy with the signs they did make, which added depth to the position-player ranks (only two of their first 10 picks were pitchers).

Down on the farm, the Durham Bulls emerged as the official Triple-A champions, going 83-61 during the regular season, winning the International League title and then beating Memphis (Cards) in the postseason one-game title match. Advanced Class A Charlotte (71-66) also made it to its league finals, falling to rival Tampa (Yankees) in the newly reconfigured Florida State League finals. Both short-season Hudson Valley (38-37) and Princeton (36-31) also finished with winning records. Overall, the Rays' affiliates combined to go 447-444 (.502), good for 11th overall among all 30 clubs.


MLB.com's Preseason Picks

Desmond Jennings, OF: It was hard, coming into 2008, not to be excited about the amazingly athletic Jennings, so he was our preseason pick for Hitter of the Year but, sadly, back and shoulder injuries limited him to just a handful of games. Healthy and ready to roll this year, though, we stuck to our guns and picked the 10th-round pick from 2006 once again.

Jeremy Hellickson, RHP: In an organization loaded with good young arms, we never quite felt that Hellickson got quite enough love. He did everything well but did it quietly, effectively, with control -- kind of like that Maddux guy to whom he drew a lot of comparisons since being drafted in the fourth round of 2005. He took a 28-11 record and 2.80 ERA over four pro seasons into the '09 summer and we decided it was his turn not just to shine again but to outshine the rest. And he did.

MLB.com's Postseason Selections

Desmond Jennings, OF: Our faith in Jennings was rewarded by watching the powerful gap hitter with great speed and outstanding defense combine between Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham to hit .318 with 11 homers, 62 RBIs and 52 steals (he was caught just seven times), adding 92 runs, 31 doubles, 10 triples and a .401 on-base percentage. The Southern League MVP has good bat speed, is a line drive hitter to all fields, has excellent plate discipline and range and instincts in the outfield.

Jeremy Hellickson, RHP: It was just another run of the mill Jeremy Hellickson year. You know the drill -- a combined 9-2 record with a 2.45 ERA in 114 innings, walking just 29 while striking out 132 between Montgomery and Durham despite missing two months with a shoulder strain midseason. He limited International League hitters to a .157 average and, starting for Durham in the Triple-A championship, he responded with five shutout innings against Memphis. The big step forward for Hellickson, who already had the fastball and curveball, was the changeup he learned from pitching coach Neil Allen, which he has taken and run with. Look for both of our Rays' award winners to be in the bigs in 2010.

Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.