A week ago, the Angels stunned everyone with their blockbuster deal when they signed center fielder Josh Hamilton to a five-year deal worth $125 million. Between Hamilton and Albert Pujols, the Angels have two of the most powerful hitters in all of baseball. But, Rays fans cannot help but sit back and wonder what could have been if the Devil Rays had drafted Albert Pujols in 1999 and if Josh Hamilton had not become an addict while playing minor league baseball for the D-Rays.
The Rays are now known as a team that builds their roster around players from their farm teams, but back in the early days of the D-Rays, the franchise followed a different approach. The D-Rays wanted to become division contenders as soon as possible, after their inception in 1998, and tried to do so by signing free agents. The problem with this approach was that the D-Rays could only afford cheap free agents, which meant most players they signed were past their prime. Less focus was directed towards the D-Rays’ player development with their minor league teams.
Despite this, one D-Rays scout, Fernando Arango, noticed a high school third baseman named Albert Pujols. While Arango was enamored with Pujols’ fielding finesse and power behind the plate, other D-Rays scouts did not see anything special about Pujols’ skills. Arango wanted the D-Rays to draft Pujols, then a college freshman, in the 1999 draft. But as draft day progressed, Tampa Bay was not making any moves towards acquiring Pujols. The St. Louis Cardinals eventually drafted Pujols in the 13th round, and Pujols quickly became the power hitter that Arango predicted him to be. We all know Pujols played an influential role in the Cardinals’ success over the 10 years he played in St. Louis, including helping them win the World Series in 2006 and 2011, and is still capable of terrorizing pitchers with his explosive bat. In the 2012 offseason, Pujols signed a ten-year deal with the Angels worth $240 million.
Pujols’ new teammate, Josh Hamilton, also strikes fear in the hearts of opposing teams, as he is equally prolific in the outfield and at the plate. In 2012, Hamilton reminded everyone of the power his bat is capable of when he hit four home runs in a single game on May 8, 2012. But every Rays fan remembers all too well that Hamilton was once lauded as the future of the D-Rays organization.
The D-Rays drafted Hamilton in 1999, straight out of high school, and he quickly caught everyone’s attention with his dynamic plays in the minor leagues. However, everyone knows that Hamilton’s addiction to drugs and alcohol led to his absence from baseball from 2004-2006. When Hamilton’s career resurged in the 2007 season with the Cincinnati Reds, D-Rays fans everywhere saw what their favorite team was missing without Hamilton in Tampa Bay’s lineup. In 2008, Hamilton became a competitor against the Rays after being traded to the Texas Rangers. The Rays would go on to lose to the Rangers in the ALDS in 2010 and 2011.
Now, Hamilton is 31 and Pujols is 32, and many critics believe that both players will not be worth the value of their deals in five to ten years due to age. Only time will tell whether or not these two players will continue to be the nemesis of opposing teams by the end of their careers with the Angels, but Rays fans know that if Pujols and Hamilton had played together in Tampa Bay in the early 2000s, there would probably be a lot more banners hanging from the roof of Tropicana Field.
The Rays have learned their lesson since then and now focus heavily on stocking their farm system with hopeful future stars for the organization. So far, the system has worked well, finding players like third baseman Evan Longoria and 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner David Price and leading to a string of five straight winnings and three playoff berths, and the Rays showed a continued commitment to their minor league system when they dealt James Shields and Wade Davis to the Kansas City Royals for top prospects Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi along with two more interesting players in Mike Montgomery and Patrick Leonard. No matter what it still stings to know that two of that best players in baseball could have been franchise cornerstones for the Rays, but we know that the missed opportunities with players like Pujols and Hamilton continue to influence the Rays until today- when they get chances to find players of that caliber, they do everything they can to run with them. In a way, you can credit the Rays’ acquisition of Myers, the consensus 2012 Minor League Player of the Year to Hamilton and Pujols. It made them appreciate just how rarely the opportunity comes around to acquire transcendent talents and willing to take risks knowing that the potential reward could change the course of their franchise.