The Tampa Bay Rays were once known for their stellar minor-league system, when players like Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria, B.J. Upton, David Price, James Shields and Desmond Jennings were leading this team into the playoffs more than any other American League team between 2008-13.
This organization was shrewd enough to supplement those homegrown prospects with great young players that they traded for, including Ben Zobrist, Wil Myers and Chris Archer.
But some bad drafts and the inability to pay big salaries made this franchise come back to the pack in the American League.
Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon are now working with the Dodgers and Cubs respectively, and they have much more money to work with. Those bad drafts, though, could keep this franchise a tick or two behind where they were the past seven seasons, even if Friedman/Maddon stayed on.
It All Started (and Ended) in 2008
I point to the 2008 MLB Amateur draft as the beginning of the end, strangely enough. The Rays had the No. 1 overall pick because they were the worst team in baseball in 2007, and they had just dumped the name “Devil Rays” to start the 2008 season. That year, they went all the way to the World Series to start an amazing string of reaching the playoffs in four of their next six seasons.
But in that June draft, the team that had so smartly chosen players like Longoria and Price with high draft picks, they selected high school shortstop Tim Beckham. But really, it’s not as much about who they chose – as it is about who they didn’t choose.
- Tim Beckham, SS, Tampa Bay
- Pedro Alvarez, 3B, Pittsburgh
- Eric Hosmer, 1B, Kansas City
- Brian Matusz, LHP, Baltimore
- Buster Posey, C, San Francisco
- Kyle Skipworth, C, Florida
- Yonder Alonso, 1B, Cincinnati
- Gordon Beckham, SS, Chicago White Sox
- Aaron Crow, RHP, Washington
- Jason Castro, C, Houston
Some players taken later in that first round:
- 11: Justin Smoak, 1B, Texas
- 16: Brett Lawrie, 3B, Milwaukee
- 18: Ike Davis, 1B, N.Y. Mets
- 19: Andrew Cashner, RHP, Chicago Cubs
- 28: Gerrit Cole, RHP, N.Y. Yankees
It’s well known that the Rays were choosing between Beckham and FSU catcher Buster Posey. It really was a no-brainer in the mold of St. Paul high school phenom Joe Mauer going to the Twins with the No. 1 overall pick in 2001.
The Rays didn’t even select the right shortstop named Beckham!
Had the Rays chosen Posey, and we assume he would have developed the way he did in the Giants organization, then he would have joined the Rays in 2010. Just in time to help Longoria carry the middle of the Rays lineup for the next handful of years.
That draft blunder has mostly been forgotten/forgiven because of their unlikely success in the tough AL East.
I look back at that draft, though, as the beginning of the end of the dominance of this franchise. That 2008 Rays team had the first overall pick in June, and they made it to the World Series just four months later, a completely unlikely event in baseball.
While Beckham is still quite young, 25, and he should even be able to earn a spot on this Rays team, it’s doubtful he’ll ever live up to his “first overall pick” label. It’s tough to blame him, of course, and it’s tough to blame a Rays organization that did so much right – after their previous regime did so much wrong. But it doesn’t mean Rays fans can’t dream of what could have been.
Looking ahead to the 2015 MLB season, the Tampa Bay Rays’ odds of winning are set at 45-to-1, according to the biggest betting website in the UK.
If you ever get a chance to read Jonah Keri’s book, “The Extra 2 Percent,” please do so. It discusses the Rays’ emergence from the cellar and how they became contenders despite being a small-market team in an area that gets as much love for the Yankees and Red Sox as it does for their home team.