Discussing the Rays’ Upside Draft Strategy

The more we’ve seen the Rays draft under the leadership of Andrew Friedman, the more apparent the Rays’ draft strategy has become. The Rays go for upside as often as possible, knowing that at least some of their upside picks will work out. What’s very interesting is how those picks work out. Let’s look back at the Rays’ last six drafts under the new ownership group and see what we can learn.

 Let’s go back to 2005, the Rays last draft before the new ownership moved in. First round pick Wade Townshend, the team’s selection because he would sign for cheap, was a complete bust. But in the 4th round, Jeremy Hellickson has turned into a very good starting pitcher. In the 18th and 19th rounds of that draft, the Rays failed to sign two other upside picks that you are now very familiar with: RHP Tommy Hunter, now on the Baltimore Orioles, and first baseman Ike Davis, now with the New York Mets. The Rays’ draft crop didn’t turn out very well, with Hellickson being the only quality player along with halfway decent players in Henry Wrigley and John Matulia who are still in the system. But the Rays went for the moon with Hunter and Davis, and if they had had the money to sign them back then, we’d be looking back at 2005 as an outstanding draft class for the Rays even though Townshend and second rounder Chris Mason were busts. But they didn’t, and instead Hellickson will be the only major league player the Rays will have gotten from this draft.

In 2006, the first year under the new ownership lead by Stu Sternberg, the Rays drafted some guy named Evan Longoria in the first round. (How did he work out?) But beyond Longo, the Rays had an excellent draft. In the 10th round, the Rays drafted Desmond Jennings out of Junior College, and boy was he a great pick. In the 4th round, the Rays selected Alex Cobb, who was a nice starter for the Rays in 2011 and has a major league future as a starting pitcher (although possibly with another organization because of the surplus of starters the Rays have). Way down in the 15th round, the Rays came away with a quality player in Kyeong Kang who can flat-out hit. And in the 5th and 6th rounds, the Rays came away with decent prospects in Shawn O’Malley and Nevin Ashley. The Rays drafted two superstars and they could have had another very good player if they had been able to sign LHP Mike Minor in the 13th round. It was an excellent draft class, and it extended beyond just their first round selection of Longoria.

If the 2006 draft was a great day on the trading floor for Friedman and the Rays, the 2007 draft was winning the lottery. With the first overall pick in the draft, the Rays got another player we know very well, one David Price. But the later-round prospects are not too far behind. In the 3rd round, the Rays drafted a nice pitching prospect in Nick Barnese. Way down in the 31st round, the Rays got  a promising prospect, albeit one who struggled mightily in 2011 in Joseph Cruz. And the Rays got some decent prospects and in some cases more in Dustin Biell (5th), Reid Fronk (7th), Cody Cipriano (9th), Greg Sexton (10th), and Stephen Vogt (12th). I feel like I’m forgetting somebody… Will Smith (40th)? Nope, no relation to the Will Smith. Oh, I remember now. A left-handed pitcher out of Moriarty High School in Alburquerque, New Mexico, Matt Moore, in the 8th round. That pick has worked out well. The Rays had an incredible draft class, and the best pitcher in the class could very well be their 8th round pick even though their first round pick has worked out absolutely great.

In 2008, the Rays draft has thus far been a miss, but they still have no small number of solid prospects. In starts with 1st overall pick, Tim Beckham, who we could talk about and play “what-if” games for a long time with regarding his selection. But the Rays got values all over the draft. The Rays got solid prospects in Kyle Lobstein (2nd), Jake Jefferies (3rd), who has since been traded for a solid major league reliever in Burke Badenhop, Shane Dyer (6th), Anthony Scelfo (8th), Matthew Hall (10th), Trevor Shull (19th), Marquis Fleming (24th), and Josh Satow (25th). And they actually got some really nice values in Ty Morrison (4th) and Jason McEachern (13th). Beckham will really be the determinator of how this class will be viewed, but nevertheless this class will have multiple big leaguers and could realistically have a nice outfielder in Morrison, a solid 3rd or 4th starter or setup man in MacEachern, a 5th starter in Dyer, and solid relievers in the lefty Fleming and Satow. As far as bad draft classes go, the Rays 2008 class was pretty good.

2009 would have a been a complete disaster for most teams. But somehow, some way, the Rays managed a nice draft class. The Rays failed to sign their top two draft picks, promising prospects in OF LeVon Washington and SS Kenny Diekroeger, who will likely be a first round pick in the 2012 MLB Draft. But the Rays managed. The Rays drafted legitimate prospects in 4th rounder Luke Bailey, 5th rounder Jeff Malm, 7th rounder Cody Rogers, 12th rounder Andrew Bellatti (although I like him more than most evaluators), 16th rounder Tyler Bortnick, and 19th rounder Scott Shuman. There were other nice values as well, including 28th rounder Zach Rosscup, who was a throw-in in the Matt Garza trade. The Rays salvaged a could-have-been disaster draft by drafting a bunch of upside guys, and we’ll see how many of them pan out.

The 2010 draft has been one of mixed emotions for the Rays. The Rays’ had three draft picks in the first round and supplemental first round, and the first two they drafted, Josh Sale and Justin O’Conner, are beaming with potential but have been serious busts so far. But Drew Vettleson has been outstanding, and second supplemental rounder Derek Dietrich along with 3rd rounder Ryan Brett have been very successful as well. The Rays also got very good values all across the draft, including a couple of lefties in 20th rounder C.J. Riefenhauser and 25th rounder Matthew Spann who showed flashes of dominance in 2011. The Rays hope Sale and O’Conner will rebound and become the prospects the Rays thought they were getting, but even if they don’t the Rays acquired nice players all over the draft.

It’s way too early to talk about the 2011 MLB Draft, but they selected tons of upside picks, even going beyond their 12 picks of the first 89 in the draft. They couldn’t sign all of them after the 3rd round, but they still ended up with tons of upside, starting with Taylor Guerrieri.

A pattern emerges when you look at the Rays’ drafts. Their first round picks have been hit or miss, with Longoria and Price obviously being the hits, but the Rays have always gotten some very nice value after the first round. Moore and Jennings have legitimate superstar potential, and they’re just the tip of the iceberg in terms of all the value the Rays got after the first round, particularly in the 4th round and later. Looking at the Rays’ pre-2006 drafts, they got Hellickson, James Shields, Jonny Gomes, and a few relievers in the 4th round and later, but not much else at all in the nine drafts the Rays franchise made under the dreaded Naimoli ownership. The reason the Rays have been so successful has been their willingness to gamble on upside at every point of the draft. That reliance on upside has cost the Rays consistency on their first round picks, but it has given them the potential to land great players at any point in the draft and get several great values in the middle rounds every single season. That’s why the Rays farm system has remained so consistently great. The Rays realize that the first round is just one of 50 rounds in the MLB Draft. What matters is not just getting one quality payer, but a multiplicity of players with legitimate upside. Players inevitably won’t pan out, even first rounders, but if you draft enough upside, the return will be completely worth it. Last year, I wrote a post on all 60 players the Rays drafted in 2011 (that post has since been deleted, but I’m going to re-post it here at RCG because it’s such a great resource). Why does it matter who the Rays’ drafted after the 5th round or so? The draft is basically a game of chance after the middle of the first round anyway! Well yes, it is. But the Rays take calculated risks. They go for players with potential at every point of the draft. Even though the majority of these upside picks the Rays make will give them no return at the major league level whatsoever, some of them will, and it will all be completely worth it. The Rays give themselves the opportunity to draft a Matt Moore or Desmond Jennings every single season. And this strategy of going for upside nearly every round of the draft is what has allowed the Rays to remain competitive even if their big league payroll is at the bottom of baseball.

The probability that you get struck by lightning is very small, but someone gets struck by lightning every day. The Rays know that their draft strategy will frustrate fans when the first rounders don’t pan out. But what they care about is that lightning-in-a-bottle that comes when one of their later round upside picks flourishes and turns into the kind of baseball players that can carry the team. Don’t be frustrated by the Josh Sale’s and Justin O’Conner‘s of the world. Even if they never turn it around, there will be another treasure waiting among all these upside picks Andrew Friedman and the Rays have selected these past few years. The Rays don’t draft for consistently solid players. They reach for the stars every time and inevitably, every once in a while they get the kind of players they need to remain in contention. Their consistency is unremitting potential at every point in the draft. And we see as the years pass by that in every draft, players that the Rays draft harness that potential. The Rays exploit every advantage they possibly can as they fight to compete with baseball’s big-market teams. The Rays have figured it out with the draft. They take calculated risks and we’ve seen the fruit that those risks bear. Even when their first round picks fail, the Rays’ upside draft strategy yields productive players every time.

Topics: Andrew Friedman, David Price, Desmond Jennings, Evan Longoria, James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Stuart Sternberg

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