Before there was anything in the history of the Tampa Bay Rays franchise, there was Matt White. It was 1996 and Tampa Bay had just been awarded their own major league baseball team, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The fledgeling franchise wanted to make a splash.
Selected 7th overall in the 1996 MLB Draft by the San Francisco Giants, Matt White was a highly-touted prospect. The 6’5″ right-hander was the USA Today’s National High School Baseball Player of the Year in 1996 at Waynesboro Area High School in Pennsylvania, and everyone knew he had an electric arm. But then something crazy happened. It was fifteen days after the draft and the Giants had not yet offered White a contract. As it turned out, Scott Boras, White’s advisor at the time, discovered a loophole in the draft rules that he believed allowed White to be declared a free agent because of Rule 4E which stipulated that a team offer their draft picks a contract within fifteen days of the draft. After much debate, Major League baseball acquiesced to Boras’ demands, and White was indeed ruled a free agent. The Devil Rays saw an opportunity. After finding little quality talent in the expansion draft, the Devil Rays saw the best high school pitcher in the country fall right into their lap. They had to get him. The Devil Rays ponied up a 10.2 million dollar bonus and got their man.
Prior to the 1997 season, Baseball America ranked White the 4th-best prospect in baseball. In 1997, the D-Rays sent White, then 18, to Short Season-A Hudson Valley to begin his pro career. White didn’t quite dominate, going 4-6 with a 4.07 ERA in 15 starts and 84 innings pitched. but he showed his great potential. He struck out 82, 8.8 batters per 9 innings, and he walked just 29 (3.1 BB/9) although he did hit 11 batters, and he allowed just 3 home runs (0.3 HR/9). All of that amounted to a nice 3.14 FIP. After the season, Baseball America ranked him the 6th-best prospect in baseball.
In 1998, White was promoted to Low-A Charleston and got off to a nice start to the season, going 4-3 with a 3.82 ERA in 12 starts and 75.1 IP, but striking out 59 (7.0 K/9), walking just 21 (2.5 BB/9) while hitting 5 batters, and allowing just 1 home run (0.1 HR/9) for a great 2.84 FIP. The D-Rays, even in the days before FIP, saw through his high ERA and sent him straight to High-A St. Petersburg. Or at least we wish that was the reason- they promoted him aggressively because they wanted to get their high-priced signing into the big leagues as soon as possible. The results of the quick promotion were disastrous. In 17 starts and 95.2 IP, White got absolutely hammered by High-A hitting, going 4-8 with a 5.55 ERA. And this time he struck out just 64 (6.0 K/9), walked 41 and hit 6 more (4.4 walks and hit-by-pitches per 9 innings- let’s call that BW/9 or bouts of wildness per 9 innings), and also allowed 10 home runs (0.9 HR/9), amounting to a bad 4.69 FIP. On the positive side he did have a nice complete game win, still showing that he had enormous potential. But worse than his struggles at High-A was how much he was overworked. White jumped from 84 innings in 1997 to an astounding 171 in 1998, more than you ever see from a minor leaguer who’s any sort of prospect. Baseball America noticed something was off, dropping White to #32 in their prospect rankings.
The Devil Rays had a rush of common sense and sent White back to St. Petersburg in 1999, and while the surface results were bad once again as he went 9-7 with a 5.18 ERA in 20 starts, 1 relief appearance, and 113 IP. But he tossed two complete game wins and his peripheral stats improved exponentially. He struck out 92 (7.3 K/9), walked 33 and hit 8 (3.3 BW/9), and allowed just 6 home runs (0.5 HR/9), which led to a 3.35 FIP. Having turned 21 in August, White was back on the fast-track to the big leagues.
2000 was the season that the Devil Rays were dreaming about for White. His surface stats finally came up to par with the Double-A Orlando Rays as he went 7-6 with a 3.75 ERA in 20 starts, 2 of which were complete games, and 120 IP. His ancillary stats were a little bit more alarming. He struck out 98, a solid 7.4 K/9, but he walked 58 and hit 15 more (a terrible 5.5 BW/9), and allowed 10 homers (0.8 HR/9), which amounted to a 4.48 FIP. Nevertheless, the D-Rays were impressed enough to promote him to Triple-A Durham. And luckily for everyone, White figured something out after his promotion. He went 3-2 with a 2.83 ERA in 6 starts and 35 IP to close out the season, striking out 28 (7.2 K/9), walking 15 unintentionally and hitting 3 more (4.6 BW/9) and allowed just 1 home run (0.3 HR/9). He was invited to be a part of the US baseball team for the Sydney Olympics, and despite already having thrown 155 innings on the season, he pitched well in exhibitions, including a perfect 2-strikeout inning versus Australia. But then everything changed. Along the way he suffered a shoulder injury and was not able to participate in the Olympic Games. But not participating in Sydney is only a side-point. His career was ruined.
White underwent shoulder surgery and only returned at the end of 2001, and got hammered to the tune of a 0-5 record, a 7.80 ERA, more walks than strikeouts, and a 1.2 HR/9 in 7 starts. The D-Rays sent White back down to Low-A Charleston for 2002 and he pitched well, going 3-4 with a 3.15 ERA, a 6.3 K/9, a a 3.2 BW/9, and a 0.8 HR/9 in 10 starts and 54.1 IP, but he was destroyed again after being promoted to Double-A Orlando, posting a 5.56 ERA in 7 starts, posting just a 1.05 strikeout to walk ratio and allowing a 1.9 HR/9. He was shut down with shoulder problems before he returned at the end of 2003 and being dismantled yet again as he posted a 7.47 ERA in 7 starts, and that was it. White underwent two more shoulder surgeries but never pitched another professional game. He finally retired in 2006.
Matt White was a very promising pitcher. But he was rushed through the minors and overworked and those mistakes proved costly. The D-Rays were foolish to throw 10.2 million dollars at a high school pitcher to begin with, but the way they handled him was downright reckless. Matt White will be remembered as a bust, and in truth he was. But there’s no way to say it was all his fault. White is just 33 years old now, an age when many people thought he’d still be one of the best pitchers in the big leagues, and he’s now pitching coach at the University of Michigan.
When I was doing my series on Scott Kazmir, I couldn’t help but compare Matt White’s story to the story of Kazmir. It’s poetic justice that Scott Kazmir was acquired the year after White played his final professional game. The two encapsulated the 12 year existence of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays prior to 2008. Matt White, like the young Devil Rays, had potential but with mishandled by the ownership group and the results were disastrous. Kazmir was the beacon that showed the potential was finally starting to come into fruition, but just as he struggled adjusting when his velocity began to waver, the Devil Rays simply could not make the next step as a franchise even as their core developed. 2008 was the passing of the torch from Kazmir to Evan Longoria and the current Rays who have made the leap and made the Tampa Bay Rays into one of the best teams in baseball and arguably the most efficiently-run franchise in sports.
Matt White is still there. When you look at the largest bonuses in Rays history, Matt White is still number one at 10.2 million dollars. He is almost the anti-Ray at this point. Essentially, he was the quintessential Devil Ray. The Rays run their team like a true business now. They have stopped being sentimental except in the rarest of cases and have allowed their greats to leave without second thoughts. The Rays are a franchise that has stopped depending on individual prospects and has stockpiled talents knowing that while some of them will pan out, many of them won’t. The Rays take nothing for granted anymore. White retired in 2006, just as the new ownership group led by Stu Sternberg was coming in. Matt White was the wake-up call.
How should we look back at Matt White’s career? He failed. There’s no two ways about that. But he wasn’t simply a failure. He was a tragedy. However, he was the tragedy that needed to happen for the Tampa Bay Rays franchise to move forward. When you see Matt White’s name, you should smile. He helped incite the change that has made the Tampa Bay Rays the great franchise they are today.