Looking back, there’s no doubt that Josh Hamilton was the correct pick at first overall in the 1999 MLB Draft. But Hamilton’s career never panned out with the team that drafted him, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, because of Hamilton’s widely-publicized battles with drug and alcohol addiction that sidelined him from 2003 to 2005. It was not until he made the big leagues in 2006 with the Cincinnati Reds that Hamilton finally got his life together and began playing like the superstar he always had the potential to be. In this post, let’s play the “what if” game and see how Rays history could have been different if Josh Hamilton had never dealt with drug and alcohol addiction and began his major league career with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
We’ll start with some background. After being selected first overall in 1999 by the Devil Rays and receiving a 3.96 million dollar bonus out of Athens Drive High School in Raleigh, North Carolina, Hamilton began his pro career that same season and showed that he could do it all, appearing in 72 games between the Advanced Rookie-level Princeton Devil Rays and the Short Season-A Hudson Valley Renegades, posting a .312/.340/.510 line with 23 doubles, 4 triples, 10 homers, 55 RBI, 18 stolen bases in 22 tries, and also 7 outfield assists from centerfield in 327 plate appearances. The one thing he had trouble with was plate discipline, walking just 14 times compared to 57 strikeouts, but all the potential in the world was there with Hamilton. Hamilton followed up his great pro debut with another great season in 2001, this time with the Low-A Charleston Riverdogs, posting a .302/.348/.476 line with 23 doubles, 3 triples, 13 homers, 61 RBI, and 14 stolen bases in 20 tries in 96 games and 423 plate appearances. He once again gunned down 7 runners from centerfield, and he improved his patience somewhat, walking 27 times compared to 71 strikeouts. From here on out is basically everything is speculation- although we’re not going to make this too far-fetched and assume Hamilton never gets injured because we know that Hamilton is injury-prone.
Before the 2001 season, Hamilton was in a car accident that sidelined him for the start of the year. When he came back, Hamilton was aggressively promoted to the Double-A Orlando Rays as a 20 year old in a league where the average age was 24, and while he didn’t dominate, he held his own, posting a .260/.320/.440 line with 15 doubles, 3 triples, 11 homers, 50 RBI, and 15 stolen bases in 20 tries in 70 games and 300 plate appearances in the injury-shortened season. His plate discipline continued to progress as he walked 24 times compared to 65 strikeouts, and he posted 6 outfield assists while drawing great reviews defensively in centerfield. The Devil Rays had to really restrain themselves to refrain from promoting Hamilton to the major leagues at the end of the season.
In 2002, Hamilton returned to Orlando and got off to an outstanding start, posting a .300/.370/.515 line with 15 doubles, 3 triples, 11 homers, 45 RBI, and 12 stolen bases in 15 tries in 60 games, improving his patience even more with 25 walks and 50 strikeouts. And that was despite the fact that Hamilton was playing through neck and toe injuries from his all-out style of play! But injuries caught up with Hamilton and the D-Rays decided to end his season as a precaution rather than risk the health of their prized prospect.
For the 2003 season, Hamilton was brought up to Triple-A Durham for the first time as a 22 year old and continued to impress. He appeared in a career high 120 games, mashing to the tune of a .320/.380/.540 line with 33 doubles, 4 triples, 26 homers, 85 RBI, and 25 stolen bases in 31 tries. In September, the Devil Rays brought Hamilton to the big leagues and he slammed a 2-run home run for his first big league hit in his first big league game. He finished with a .350 batting average (7 for 20) with 1 double, 2 homers, 5 RBI, and a stolen bases in 4 games, getting D-Rays fans and the entire Devil Rays organization excited to see what Hamilton could do in his rookie season of 2004.
In 2004, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays featured the most exciting outfield in baseball: Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, and the rookie Hamilton, who came up in early May, with Aubrey Huff moving over to third base. Hamilton started the year in the 7-hole but by the end of the year was D-Rays’ 5th-place hitter, and he came up with a great rookie season. Hamilton posted a .285/.335/.500 line with 33 doubles, 4 triples, 24 homers, 82 RBI, and 25 steals in 32 tries in 120 games, missing nearly the last two weeks of the season after spraining his wrist. He was the runaway choice for AL Rookie of the Year, with Bobby Crosby finishing a distant second. The Devil Rays still had a losing season, going 74-88, but fans were excited for what the future held for their promising three outfielders and their team.
The 2005 season started badly for the Devil Rays when Badelli tore his ACL over the offseason during a pickup game of baseball. The necessitated a move of Aubrey Huff to right field, pushing Jorge Cantu into the starting third base job. But at least on offense, the D-Rays didn’t miss a beat. Cantu broke out as the D-Rays had a fearsome 1 through 6 in their batting order: Julio Lugo, Carl Crawford, Hamilton, Aubrey Huff, Cantu, and Jonny Gomes. Hamilton in particular stayed healthy as the D-Rays’ regular centerfielder and had a huge season, posting a .310/.365/.520 line with 35 doubles, 3 triples, 30 homers, 110 RBI, and 22 stolen bases in 28 attempts as he finished 12th in the AL MVP voting. The D-Rays lineup was formidable, but disastrous pitching beyond Scott Kazmir led the D-Rays to just a 75-win season.
In 2006, the ownership group led by Stu Sternberg took over the D-Rays, and one of the first things they did was sign Hamilton to a four year extension with 5th and 6th year options. Carl Crawford signed a similar deal for 3 years with two options. Including all the options, Crawford’s deal was worth 45.2 million dollars while Hamilton’s was worth 56 million. Hamilton struggled through oblique and knee problems for the D-Rays in 2006, appearing in just 95 games because of oblique and knee injuries and posting a .280/.335/.475 line with 20 doubles, 3 triples, 13 homers, 50 RBI, and just 8 steals in 10 tries. With Hamilton on the shelf much of the year, the D-Rays went 64-98 in their first year under Joe Maddon.
In the 2006 MLB Draft, the Rays held the draft’s 10th pick. They had wanted to select Cal State Fullerton third baseman Evan Longoria, but he went 4th overall to the Seattle Mariners. Here were the first 15 picks of the first round of the 2006 MLB Draft.
In 2007, Hamilton was able to stay mostly healthy and had a career year. He posted a .320/.400/.566 line with 45 doubles, 5 triples, 40 homers, 119 RBI, and 15 stolen bases in 17 tries in 154 games. He paired with Carlos Pena to give the Devil Rays one of the top one-two punches in baseball. Pena and Hamilton’s performance combined with second baseman B.J. Upton‘s breakthrough and another outstanding year by Carl Crawford gave the D-Rays a potent lineup, and Scott Kazmir and James Shields gave the Rays a formidable top 2 in their rotation. But a horrific pitching staff behind Kazmir and Shields along with terrible defense (especially Upton at SS), led the Rays to just a 75-win year. Pena and Hamilton finished 9th and 10th in the AL MVP moving.
In the 2007 MLB Draft, the Rays held the third pick after their 64-98 record in 2006. After the Royals selected Vanderbilt lefty David Price first overall and Mike Moustakas went secodn overall to the Chicago Cubs, the Devil Rays selected third baseman Josh Vitters out of Cypress High School in California to fill an organizational void at third base.
2008 arrived and the Rays were finally ready for a run. They had no bigger star than 27 year old Josh Hamilton, who missed 45 games with shoulder and ankle injuries but was outstanding when healthy, posting a .310/.400/.568 line with 34 doubles, 4 triples, 29 homers, 83 RBI, and 10 stolen bases without getting caught in 110 games. Hamilton and Pena anchored the Rays lineup while the rotation of James Shields, Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, Andy Sonnanstine, and Edwin Jackson took a huge step forward, and the Rays won 97 games and the AL East. 2006 first rounder Max Scherzer was overpowering after being promoted to the big leagues in late August, and Jackson moved to the bullpen late in the season because of that.
In the ALDS, the Rays managed to dispose of the White Sox relatively easily in 4 games, losing only Game 3. They then were matched up against the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS. In Game 1, the Rays fell 2-0, but they came back to win 9-8 in 11 innings Game 2 as Hamilton came up a single short of the cycle, Upton hit a walk-off single, and Scherzer earned the win with a perfect 11th inning. The Rays won in blowout fashion in Game 3 and 4 to take a 3-1 series lead, but the Red Sox came up with an 8-7 win in Game 5 and a 5-3 win in Game 6 to force the series to a 7th game. But Hamilton hit a huge 7th inning solo home run and Scherzer survived a Jason Bay homer in the 9th for the save at the Rays won 3-2 to head to the World Series. In the World Series, Hamilton was shut down by the Phillies pitching, hitting just .100 with a solo home run, as the Rays lost the World Series in 5 games.
In the 2008 draft, the Rays selected 11th overall and here is what the first half of the first round looked like.
The Rays ponied up 4 million dollars to sign Crow at the signing deadline.
In 2009, the expectations were high for the Rays as they looked to build off their AL pennant. But their pitching staff took a big step back, with Kazmir imploding, James Shields struggling, and no one really impressing- with the exception of Max Scherzer. Scherzer pitched well as a rookie, leading the staff with a 3.70 ERA in 170 IP as he finished third in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. Hamilton had more difficulty staying healthy, appearing in just 100 games and posting just a .280/.350/.446 line when he was healthy with 18 doubles, 2 triples, 19 homers, and 65 RBI. He stole just 3 bases while getting caught twice. The Rays disappointingly won just 86 games and missed out on the postseason.
After the 2009 season, the Rays had to decide whether to pick up Hamilton’s first option. Hamilton had flummoxed them with his injury problems but nevertheless, they exercised the option. Hamilton once again could not stay completely healthy in his age 29 season. But he played in 130 games in 2010 and was incredible when healthy. He posted a .340/.405/.615 line with 40 doubles, 2 triples, 32 homers, 105 RBI, and 13 steals in 15 tries. He won the AL batting title and finished second in the AL MVP voting to Miguel Cabrera. Carl Crawford also had an excellent year in his final season as a Ray. But around those two, Carlos Pena, B.J. Upton, and Ben Zobrist took steps back, and James Shields had a horrible season, posting a 5.18 ERA. Scherzer led the Rays staff in ERA at 3.50 and Wade Davis posted a 4.07 ERA in his rookie season. But thanks to an outstanding bullpen led by Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, and Grant Balfour, the Rays won 91 games and the AL Wild Card. Against the Minnesota Twins in the ALDS, Hamilton and the rotation caught fire as the Rays beat the Twins in 4 games. The Rays then faced the Yankees in the ALCS, but the Yankees powerful lineup proved to be too much for the Rays as they lost in 6 games. The Yankees would go on to beat the San Francisco Giants in 6 games in the World Series for their second consecutive championship.
2011 would be Josh Hamilton’s final season as a Tampa Bay Ray. He had to make it count. Although he couldn’t repeat his 2010 success, he gave the Rays his best effort. Hamilton finally stayed healthy as the Rays rested him a bit more and played him just 140 times despite never missing more than a couple days because of injury. And he played extremely well, if not spectacularly, the entire season. He posted a .300/.400/.534 line with 35 doubles, 5 triples, 33 homers, 113 RBI, and 10 stolen bases in 13 tries. Fueled by Hamilton, right fielder Matt Joyce in a breakout year, second baseman B.J. Upton, third baseman Ben Zobrist, and left fielder Desmond Jennings after his late-July call-up, the Rays offense was plenty good enough to get runs across for the Rays’ great pitching staff. James Shields had an unbelievable year, Jeremy Hellickson was the AL Rookie of the Year, and Scherzer, Jeff Niemann, and Wade Davis were solid at the back of the rotation. But especially impressive was the remade Rays bullpen led by free agent signings Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta, and standout rookie Aaron Crow, who was an AL All-Star. At the end of the season, Matt Moore dominated in a start and a couple of relief appearances to make the postseason roster. The Rays won 93 games, good for the AL Wild Card, as they pulled away from the Red Sox midway through September.
In the postseason, the Rays drew the Detroit Tigers. The Rays had time to set up their rotation and chose to have James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, and Scherzer line up to start against the Tigers’ Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, and Rick Porcello. Verlander struggled somewhat and Shields labored through 6 before handing the ball to the bullpen as the Rays won 5-2. Hamilton homered in a 3-run 5th inning for the Rays against Verlander. In Game 2, the Tigers lit up Hellickson as they won the 9-4. Game 3 was a slugfest as both Scherzer and Fister struggled, but Desmond Jennings homered twice as the Rays came away with a 9-7 win. And in Game 4, Shields lasted just 5 innings, throwing 120 pitches although he allowed just 3 runs, and Matt Moore pitched 4 innings of 1-hit relief as the Rays beat Verlander again, winning 4-3 to clinch the series.
In the ALCS, the Rays would take on the Texas Rangers, who exposed the defending champion Yankees’ lack of starting pitching depth to win in 5 games. James Shields dominated the Rangers in Game 1, allowing just 2 runs in 8 innings, and Hamilton hit 2 doubles as the Rays beat C.J.Wilson and the Rangers by a 4-2 score. In Game 2, Hellickson held the Rangers to 2 runs but in just 5.2 innings, and the offense slammed Derek Holland for 5 runs including a 2-run blast by Hamilton and a solo homer by Matt Joyce and Wade Davis, Jake McGee, and Kyle Farnsworth held the Rangers to one run between them as the Rays won 6-3. Scherzer had a nice 7-inning, 2-run outing in Game 3, but Colby Lewis was even better, throwing 8 innings of 1-run ball as the Rangers won 2-1. Then Jeff Niemann got slammed for 5 runs in 5 innings as the Rays lost to the Rangers 7-4 to tie the series at 2 games apiece. But Shields came up big in the Game 5, throwing 8 innings again although he did allow 3 runs as the Rays came back with a 7-4 win of their own, and Hellickson and Moore combined for a Game 6 shutout as the Rays clinched their second World Series berth.
In the World Series was a matchup off the two wild card teams, the Rays and the Cardinals, who won in 6 games to give the Rays time to reset their rotation. The result was a classic of a World Series. The Cardinals won Game 1 by a 3-2 score as Chris Carpenter outdueled James Shields. But the Rays responded with a 2-1 victory in Game 2 as Jeremy Hellickson tossed 7 one-run innings and Aaron Crow kept the Cards scoreless for the final 2. A first inning Josh Hamilton 2-run home run off Jaime Garcia provided all the scoring the Rays would need. Game 3 was completely different from the first 2 games as Max Scherzer for the Rays and Kyle Lohse both struggled, with neither lasting past the 4th inning, but in a game where Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols both homered twice, the Rays won 9-6 as Matt Moore provided some stability in the game, allowing just 1 run, in addition to allowing an inherited runner from Scherzer to score, in 3.2 innings for the win. But any momentum the Rays had disappeared in Game 4 as ex-Ray Edwin Jackson beat Jeff Niemann and the Rays 7-2. David Freese came a triple short of the cycle for St. Louis. But James Shields continued to step up, shutting out the Cardinals as Hamilton and Ben Zobrist provided the offense with solo home runs in a 2-0 lead, pulling the Rays within one win of their first championship.
Game 6 did not go as planned. Hellickson lasted just 4 innings, allowing 3 runs. But a Desmond Jennings 3-run home run in the 5th tied the game at 3. The game went down to a battle of the bullpens, beginning with Matt Moore versus Fernando Salas. Both tossed 3 innings, but Moore allowed a David Freese 2-run home run to give the Cardinals a 5-3 lead after 7 innings. But the Rays came right back with a Josh Hamilton double in top of the 8th to pull within 1 run then a Matt Joyce 2-run blast off Cardinals closer Jason Motte to take a 6-5 lead. Crow gave a run back in the bottom of the 8th as Jon Jay singled in a huge run. But Josh Hamilton hit a go-ahead 2-run homer in the 9th against Motte and with the bases loaded and 2 outs, David Freese’s flyball to deep right field was tracked down by Joyce as the Rays clinched their first World Series title.
Hamilton’s homer would be on the last pitch he ever saw as a Tampa Bay Ray. After the season, Hamilton signed with the Texas Rangers for 5 years and 108 million dollars. Thus far in 2012, The Rangers are tied for the best in baseball with a 17-8 record, although Hamilton went down with a back injury. The Rays, meanwhile, have struggled to begin the year, going 7-11. Here’s their lineup.
1. Desmond Jennings, CF
2. Ben Zobrist, 3B
3. Carlos Pena, 1B
4. Matt Joyce, LF
5. Luke Scott, DH
6. B.J. Upton, 2B
7. Sean Rodriguez, SS
8. Jose Molina, C
9. Brandon Guyer, RF
That was until Guyer suffered an ankle injury, leading to Will Rhymes starting at third base and Zobrist moving to right field. Here’s the Rays’ rotation.
1. James Shields
2. Jeremy Hellickson
3. Max Scherzer
4. Matt Moore
5. Jeff Niemann
Shields and Hellickson have pitched well for the Rays, but Scherzer, Moore, and Niemann have been extremely inconsistent. The Rays’ bullpen has pitched relatively well, but they haven’t had many leads to protect and fireballing relievers Jake McGee and Aaron Crow have been homer-prone to begin the year. With Hamilton gone, the Rays have fallen apart. And with B.J. Upton set to depart following the season, the Rays are going to need their top prospects to really come through the next several seasons to have any chance at maintaing the level that they’ve played the past few years.
If Josh Hamilton never faced drug addiction, a lot of things would be different. But not all of them would have necessarily been good. With Hamilton in the lineup, the Devil Rays are a significantly better and more exciting team from 2005 to 2007 and maybe they even win the championship that has eluded them thus far in franchise history. But if the Devil Rays do better , Evan Longoria and David Price never become Rays, and right now, even if the Rays were coming off a championship season, the future would been in question for the Rays as their franchise cornerstone would be gone and instead of David Price breaking out in 2012 for them, they would have Max Scherzer, arguably a similarly talented pitcher, but one who has been exponentially more inconsistent throughout his major league career. There’s one thing we don’t realize about the Devil Rays years as Rays fans: if the Devil Rays don’t lose, the Rays never get some of the players who turned their franchise into what it is today. Things are exciting now for the Rays. Would we have liked things to be a little better? Would we like the Rays to be playing in a beautiful new stadium in Downtown Tampa? Would we wish the Rays had beaten the Phillies in the 2008 World Series and then win another championship since then? For any Rays fan, the answer is of course. But the way things have played out, the Rays future is extremely bright and don’t worry- if the Rays can keep this level of playing going, a championship won’t be absent from the Rays’ resume for much longer.