Over the years, the Tampa Bay Rays have become well-known throughout baseball the past several years for finding undervalued talents, taking washed-up veterans and failed prospects and turning them into key contributors to their success. The Rays may be the master of that- but the University of Tampa Spartans, playing just a few minutes from Tropicana Field, have been able to find success in a similar vein. Greg Auman of Baseball America discussed how Tampa, led by coach Joe Urso, has managed to construct a team consistently among the best in Division II by acquiring for his team players, often local products, who transfered after failed stints in Division I.
Ace right-hander Ben Brown began his collegiate career at the University of Florida before heading to Tampa and going 7-2 with a 2.67 ERA in 11 starts and a relief appearance in 2012. Right-hander Jon Keller was the Mariners’ 11th round pick in 2010 and made 24 starts at Nebraska between 2011 and 2012 before managing a great 35-15 strikeout to walk ratio in the Cape Cod League in 2012. Zach Alvord was another 2010 draft pick, by the Braves in Round 18, and hit .258 with 6 home runs as Auburn’s starting second baseman in 2012. Catcher Shane Rowland was drafted by the Red Sox out of high school in 2010 (Round 36) and was Miami’s starting catcher in 2011 before missing all of 2012. Lefty-hander Jimmy Hodgskin was drafted by the Phillies in 2010 (Round 43) and struck out 32 batters in 36.2 innings for Troy in 2012. And even though he wasn’t drafted, third baseman Sean O’Brien showed enough talent to be recruited by Florida State but wound up as a backup infielder who saw little time, going 11 for 43 (.256) between 2011 and 2012. Just among Division I transfers, Urso managed to gather for himself quite a group of talent. Even the best laid plans quite often fall apart- Alvord and Hodgskin will miss the season with an MCL tear and Tommy John Surgery respectively while Keller has also been sidelined by arm trouble- but by giving all these players opportunities, Urso has found a way to keep his team right up there among the best in Division II season after season including Division II national championships in 2006 and 2007. Everything Urso and the Spartans have done has not gone unnoticed by the Rays.
From the Tampa Bay Rays franchise’s first draft in 1996 until 2008, 32 players were drafted out of the University of Tampa. Shockingly, not a single one of those players was selected by the Tampa Bay Rays. They were so close to the school and had a front row seat to scout any prospect at the school even at a moment’s notice- how in the world did they not end up selecting a single player? But in recent years, the Rays have finally given the University of Tampa the recognition it deserves, selecting 3 players from the school in the last four years: right-hander Alex Koronis (10th Round, 2009), catcher Michael Bourdon (29th round, 2011), and most notably left-hander Sean Bierman in the 10th round of the 2012 MLB Draft. Bierman rode incredible control and command of his sinker, changeup, and curveball to go 4-2 with a 2.75 ERA, a 36-5 strikeout to walk ratio, and a 59.4% groundball rate in 11 starts at Short Season-A Hudson Valley in his pro debut, and although he’s already 24 years old, he has a chance to move quickly through the minor leagues as a back-of-the-rotation starter or middle reliever. It’s been interesting how the University of Tampa’s run of success has mirrored the Rays- and now the Rays hope to make their successes collide and find players with ability to contribute to their big league squad from the Spartans squad playing just minutes away.
After years of ignoring their Tampa Bay baseball brethren, the Rays have to acknowledge how impressed they are with what the University of Tampa has done to revitalize their program in recent years. By finding Division I castoffs and turning them into key pieces of their success, Joe Urso and the Spartans have done a spectacular job embodying what Tampa Bay baseball is all about, and the results they have gotten speak for themselves. It’s always nice to see the local college team doing well- but it’s even better to see them utilizing creative methods to become one of the best teams at their level and watching some of their players not just graduate to the major leagues but also continue their impact to Tampa Bay baseball by joining the Rays organization.