DETROIT -- Once again, the Tigers have two prospects on MLB.com's Top 100 list. Again, they have a familiar name near the top. The other guy at the bottom, however, creates a little bit of a surprise.
While Nick Castellanos cracked the top 20 for the second time in three years, climbing the ranks once again with his return to third base, offseason trade acquisition Robbie Ray crashed the list to land at 97.
Released Thursday night, the annual ranking of baseball's biggest and brightest young talent is assembled by MLBPipeline.com Draft and prospect experts Jonathan Mayo and Jim Callis , who compile input from industry sources, including scouts and scouting directors. It is based on analysis of players' skill sets, upsides, proximity to the Majors and potential immediate impact to their teams. The list, which is one of several prospect rankings on MLBPipeline.com's Prospect Watch , only includes players with rookie status in 2014.
A year ago, the Tigers contingent consisted of Castellanos and Bruce Rondon, then the leading candidate for Detroit's closer job. Rondon didn't close, but his half-season in the Tigers bullpen ruled him out of prospect consideration. However, the same impressive season that put Ray on the Tigers' radar when talking with the Nationals about Doug Fister put him on prospect watch as well.
Castellanos barely missed the top 20 last year, falling to 21st in part because he moved from third base to corner outfield. Maybe it made sense, then, that his return to third sent him back up the chart, but a pretty good season at Triple-A Toledo didn't hurt either.
While Castellanos' average dropped to .276 against the advanced pitching of the International League, his 37 doubles and 18 home runs results in a .793 OPS that wasn't far off his lower-level clip. The 21-year-old scored a team-high 81 runs and drove in 76.
More important was the learning curve he showed, recovering from a rough start to top a .300 average by the end of June before falling off in July. He finished strong in August to earn a late-season callup to Detroit in the middle of a playoff race.
He did all of this while taking extra pregame work every day to further his transition to the outfield, trying to improve his chances to crack a Tigers lineup that was already set at third with Miguel Cabrera. No one figured at the time, of course, that Prince Fielder would be traded in November, shifting Cabrera back to first base and opening up the hot corner.
Castellanos has already gotten in work to make the transition back, receiving instruction from new Tigers coach Omar Vizquel last month near his South Florida home.
"The outfield was getting easier, just because of the reps I was getting out there," Castellanos said. "But, 100 percent, I would much rather play the infield than the outfield."
Make no mistake, though, it's the bat that will be the key for the Tigers. While the defense has shifted from spot to spot, the right-handed, line-drive swing has always been the key. And Tigers officials have seen him as a Major League hitter in waiting for the last two years.
"I think he projects to be an average third baseman that can hit," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said at last month's Winter Meetings, "and I'm willing to live with the defense that may not be Gold Glove for the expense of the bat."
Ray, meanwhile, has had scouts divided following his breakout 2013 season coming off a subpar '12 campaign. Some who watched him last season raved about his potential as an effective, though not overpowering, southpaw.
Ray entered last season as the 10th-ranked prospect in the Nationals system, according to MLB.com. He became the third-ranked prospect in Detroit's organization following the trade, positioned behind Castellanos and first-round pick Jonathon Crawford.
Another look at Ray's season, and his standing amidst a strong crop of left-handed starting prospects across baseball, sent him climbing again. The 22-year-old went 11-5 with a 3.36 ERA between Class A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg, allowing 116 hits over 142 innings with 62 walks and 160 strikeouts.
Ray's fastball isn't overpowering, registering in the low to mid 90s, but it was the key pitch in his swing-and-miss arsenal. His 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings marked a half-strikeout improvement over his previous best ratio, while his strikeout-to-walk ratio improved to 2.58.
The key term most often mentioned with Ray is pitchability, a word that was used with the last left-hander to make it through the Tigers system -- Drew Smyly. Like Smyly two years ago, Ray will be in big league camp with the Tigers as a non-roster invite. Unlike Smyly, Ray won't have a rotation spot to try to win unless Justin Verlander isn't ready for Opening Day or another starter is injured.
More likely, his best shot at the big leagues looms in 2015, depending on whether the Tigers can hold onto looming free agent Max Scherzer.
"We think he's pretty close to pitching in the big leagues," Dombrowski said of Ray at last month's Winter Meetings. "He may need a little bit of development time, but he's got really good stuff, so we think that he could move quickly."