Taylor Guerrieri's first foray into professional baseball last year couldn't have gone much better, with the Rays' touted pitching prospect showing why many envision him as a future front-line starter. • Guerrieri, 20, displayed confidence and poise from the start for short-season Class A Hudson Valley, both on the mound and on the microphone.
Manager Jared Sandberg said it was Guerrieri — the 24th selection overall in 2011 — who orchestrated an impromptu karaoke session on a mid-July, four-hour bus trip from Lowell, Mass. Guerrieri kicked it off with a rendition of Garth Brooks' Two Pina Coladas, then got his teammates singing until their 2:30 a.m. arrival in upstate New York.
"Everybody got a kick out of it," Guerrieri said, smiling. "That was probably my best bus ride ever."
Sandberg said that trip was a key to his team coming together in winning the New York-Penn League championship, which Guerrieri had a huge hand in. Guerrieri, drafted out of Spring Valley High in Columbia, S.C., exceeded expectations, posting a 1.04 ERA in 12 starts and walking just five in 52 innings while maturing on and off the field.
"Taylor had a tremendous year," executive VP Andrew Friedman said. "He got better as the year went on, showed great aptitude in terms of developing all his pitches. … He's young … but he definitely has the potential to be really, really good. And we'll keep working with him and try to put him in position where he can come up here one day and put on 200 plus-innings on his body and help us win games."
Guerrieri was regarded a top-10 talent coming out of high school but fell to the Rays partly due to his strong commitment to the University of South Carolina, as well as a minor drinking incident that led him to switch schools his senior year. Guerrieri believed he grew a lot last year, with Sandberg saying he was a great teammate and leader in the clubhouse.
"It comes with pro ball, this is your job and you have a lot of responsibility," Guerrieri said. "I want to make myself happy, my parents happy. I just want to do good for them."
Guerrieri said he learned how to pitch last season, not relying on overpowering hitters with his mid 90s fastball like he did in high school. He's developing his changeup and has a quality curveball, and he could throw both for strikes, according to Sandberg. Guerrieri's best weapon is his two-seam fastball, which goes down and away to right-handed hitters.
"He was lights out," said Hudson Valley third baseman Richie Shaffer, the Rays' 2012 first-round pick. "He had an unbelievable year, it's going to be fun watching him grow up and develop. He can be the real deal."
Guerrieri had a small hiccup physically and was shut down for a couple of weeks due to shoulder fatigue. But he said that was mostly precautionary, and the 6-foot-3, 195-pounder hopes to eventually shoulder the type of 200-inning load of Cy Young left-hander David Price and ex-Ray James Shields.
"I want the ball against the best players and best teams, and see what I've got," Guerrieri said. "Anytime I can pitch against somebody good, I don't back down from that."
Guerrieri enters an important and telling year, preparing to pitch in a full professional season for the first time. He'd love to start in low Class A Bowling Green but is willing to go where the team wants him.
The Rays already have gotten a glimpse of Guerrieri's potential.
"For a 19-year-old, he's very intelligent out there, he's way above anyone else as far as knowing how to pitch and execute a plan," Sandberg said. "He definitely falls in the mix of the homegrown pitching talent that we've established and we've had in the Rays organization.
"He has a high ceiling."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.