It was disheartening to hear about the death of ex-major leaguer Ryan Freel via a self-inflicted gunshot wound on Saturday. One thing that is not so well known about Freel is that he actually spent time in the Rays organization back in 2002. As it turned out, Freel played a peripheral role but a significant one in Rays history, and his time in the Rays system helped him to the greatest stretch of his career beginning two years later with the Cincinnati Reds.
Freel was a 10th round draft pick by the Toronto Blue Jays back in 1995 and worked his way up through their system over the next seven years. In 2001, Freel made the Blue Jays’ roster out of spring training and got off to a solid start, going 6 for his first 22 (.273), but he was sent down in late April. Freel proceeded to have a nice season back at Triple-A Syracuse, managing a .260/.357/.392 line with 5 homers, 22 stolen bases, and a 42-42 strikeout to walk ratio in 85 games and 376 plate appearances. However, the Blue Jays lack of faith in Freel may have reduced enthusiasm for him when he became a minor league free agent following the year, and he ended up signing with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Spending the entire season at the Rays’ Triple-A Durham affiliate, Freel had another good season, managing a .261/.337/.393 line with 8 homers, 37 of 47 stolen bases, and a 51-38 strikeout to walk ratio in 119 games and 511 PA’s playing all three outfield positions plus second base. And this time, Freel, 26, signed with the Cincinnati Reds following the season and would manage a .285/.344/.431 line in 153 plate appearances with the Reds in 2003. The next season, Freel had his breakout season with Cincinnati, managing a .277/.375/.368 line with 3 homers, the same 37 of 47 stolen bases he had posted two years before in the Rays system, and an 88-67 strikeout to walk ratio in 592 plate appearances. Freel’s time in the Rays system could not have gone has planned as he must have hoped to make the major leagues in Tampa Bay, but he was able to reestablish his value to help him find a franchise that would give a chance the subsequent season.
Fine, the Rays had a small role in Freel’s eventual success in his major league career. But what did Freel possibly do for the Rays if he didn’t even make the major leagues? The answer is quite interesting. Back in 2002, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays were undeniably a terrible team, losing 106 games. Their outfield, though, was probably the strength of their team. Randy Winn in centerfield had a breakout season in the fifth and final year with the D-Rays, managing a .298/.360/.461 line (120 OPS+) with 39 doubles, 9 triples, 14 homers, 75 RBI, and 27 stolen bases. Ben Grieve in right field, meanwhile, had his last good year in the major leagues, managing a .251/.353/.432 line (111 OPS+) with 30 doubles, 19 homers, 64 RBI, and 8 stolen bases. Left field, though, was much more sketchy. The Rays started with Jason Tyner as their left fielder only to watch him fail to hit at all, managing just a .214/.249/.238 line (33 OPS+) in 180 plate appearances. The Rays gave Greg Vaughn the next crack, but he was a shadow of the player who had once hit 50 home runs, managing just .163/.286/.315 line (62 OPS+) in 297 plate appearances on the season. After a couple more forgettable players got brief chances, the Rays realized that they had to find an alternative solution. They had two options: Ryan Freel, who was playing well after Triple-A after signing with the D-Rays as a minor league free agent, and the Rays’ top prospect, Carl Crawford, just 20 years old at the time. The D-Rays chose Crawford but watched him struggle mightily, managing just a .259/.290/.371 line (77 OPS+) in 278 plate appearances. The Rays could have been justified in sending Crawford down to the minor leagues for more seasoning and giving Freel a shot. Instead, the D-Rays knew how talented Crawford was and decided to stick with him, and as we know, the results of that could not have been any better as Crawford blossomed into one of the best players the Rays had ever seen.
Ryan Freel’s time in Tampa Bay turned out to be the best for everyone involved. Freel was able to parlay his strong Triple-A performance into a job with the Reds that led to the best moments of his major league career while the fact that the Devil Rays’ kept Freel at Triple-A prevented them from making a pivotal mistake with a prospect that could have ruined the history of their franchise. Rest in peace, Ryan Freel. You made a major impact on your teammates, coaches, and fans during your glory years with the Reds, but thank you as well for your subtle contribution to Rays history.