Mikie Mahtook was not a typical Rays draft pick. Selected among the Rays’ 10 picks before the second round in the 2011 MLB Draft, Mahtook was drafted among high-upside players like Taylor Guerrieri and Tyler Goeddel and other players with considerable potential like Brandon Martin and Jeff Ames but was an entirely different story. Mahtook was a much safer pick as a good all-around player without any major flaw in his game. He didn’t have much room to grow, but he was a player who could move quickly to the major leagues and quickly become an impact player. Selecting such a player was attractive to the Rays for several reasons. The first was that with so many picks, they had to sign a few who would take less money, and Mahtook fit the fill. Mahtook was known for his exemplary passion on the baseball diamond and was exactly the type of vocal leader the Rays would love to have on their team. Most importantly, though, B.J. Upton was set to be a free agent after the 2012 season and Mahtook was a player with a chance to become a solid starting outfielder to replace Upton by 2014, a possibility we talked about in April of 2012. Selecting Mahtook went against the Rays’ usual draft strategy, but it was a case where selecting a safer, more polished player made a lot of sense. However, even the best laid plans can go quite awry and that’s exactly what has happened with Mahtook.
Mahtook overcame a rough start to his pro career in 2012 to crack Double-A in his first season. But he didn’t play particularly well once he got there, and that remains the case this season. Mahtook has just a .236/.316/.414 line with 13 doubles, 7 triples, 4 homers, 39 RBI, 10 of 16 stolen bases, and a 44-20 strikeout to walk ratio in 57 games and 250 plate appearances. Mahtook has still shown skills across the board–he’s hitting for some power, showing good speed, and playing solid defense in right field and serviceable defense in center. But his plate discipline hasn’t been great and his quality of contact and has been very inconsistent, leading to his low batting average. And at this point, scouts are concerned.
Scouts looked at Mahtook last year and struggled to find the one carrying tool that would take him to the big leagues. He has average power and a potentially average bat, and he could be an average runner. Optimists can look at that and call him a cheap five-tool player without any clear weaknesses. Pessimists can point out that he could end up just as easily as a Triple-A lifer who doesn’t do enough to really help a big league club.
At the end of the day, Mikie Mahtook is unlikely to end up as a Triple-A lifer. He has enough ability that a career as a major league fourth outfielder is a probable outcome. Plenty of first round picks end up being far worse than that. But looking at the case of Mahtook makes it easy to see why the Rays have been drafting high-upside high school players in the first round for years now despite their inherent risk. They may be less likely to make the major leagues, but they have the potential to be very good players and could still end up as backups if things don’t go according to plan. With Mahtook, the Rays’ set the bar lower and received less in the process. Mahtook could very well improve his patience at the plate and still end up as a starting outfielder, maybe even by mid-2014. But the Rays’ aren’t afraid that they won’t have a backup outfielder next season–they’re scared that they won’t be able to find impact hitters if say Kelly Johnson and James Loney sign multi-year details elsewhere and the low-cost player they sign turns out to be a flop.
The Rays did select a college player in the first round once again last year, Richie Shaffer, and he’s playing pretty badly right now, managing just a .250/.296/.367 line at High-A. Why aren’t we complaining about him? The Rays drafted him because he was a player they had rated highly who had slipped considerably in the draft, and they believed he has the ability to be a star player at third base, right field, or first base even if he had things to work on. Shaffer was a better value than Mahtook and had more upside as well. Mahtook was supposed to be better than this, and there’s a chance that he still will be. But the way the Rays run their organization, they need prospects with potential rising through the minors, and it’s starting to look like Mahtook doesn’t qualify. The Rays very well may select a college player among their two first rounds picks in this year’s MLB Draft on Thursday. However, no matter who they select, it has to be a player with upside and not a safe, conservative selection. 2011 was a strange year because the Rays had so many picks and quite a few players to sign. Hopefully this year they can get right back to the formula that has made them one of the best teams in baseball season after season.