The Tampa Bay Rays’ philosophy was simple: prospects were gold. The Rays would occasionally deal a big league role player or throw in an unheralded prospect in a trade, but you would be hard-pressed to find an instance when the Rays gave up a prospect of any value. But then slowly but surely, a shift began. In December of 2011, the Rays traded away unimpressive catching prospect Jake Jefferies in exchange for Burke Badenhop. During the 2012 season, they dealt another low-profile player in Theron Geith for Ben Francisco, but they also traded a player who was a little more well-known: infield prospect Tyler Bortnick for Ryan Roberts. Then following the year, the Rays took another step up, dealing a well-regarded player in Derek Dietrich to land Yunel Escobar. The 2013 season didn’t see them give up any players of that caliber, but they still traded Matthew Spann, Sean Bierman, and Ben Kline. Then this offseason, they traded away Todd Glaesmann in the Ryan Hanigan deal and now Jesse Hahn in their recent exchange with the San Diego Padres. The top prospects are sticking around, but suddenly the Rays are open to dealing players even just one step below. How can we make sense of this drastic shift in the Rays’ mindset?
Like every team in baseball, the Rays continue to work to refine their approach to achieve the best possible results. This offseason, we have seen them spend more money then we ever would have expected signing James Loney, Hanigan, and David DeJesus to three-year deals. They are starting to view “undervalued” in context and are willing to spend more if they find the right player at an affordable price. In the draft, they have gone from selecting almost exclusively high-risk, high-reward high school players to drafting college players like Richie Shaffer and Ryne Stanek as well. Their drafts were not producing major leaguers, and they decided a change was necessary. And in terms of evaluating their prospects on the whole, the Rays are beginning to realize that holding on to their prospects is not always the best move.
Upside is relative. You always want prospects with the highest upside, but upside for your major league team can be even more valuable. Dietrich had potential, but Yunel Escobar was a talented shortstop with the ability to turn the shortstop position from a weakness on the Rays’ roster into a strength. Glaesmann had a chance to be a fourth outfielder and maybe even a starter if his plate discipline clicked, but that was nothing for the Rays compared to the opportunity to acquire Hanigan and shore up their catching corps. Trading Jesse Hahn is exactly the same thing. Hahn has the most upside of any prospect we have mentioned so far. He touches 97 MPH at times with his sinking fastball to go along with a sharp slider and a solid changeup. He can overpower hitters and has experienced plenty of success early on in his pro career. But then the Rays have to ask themselves just how good he can be realistically. Hahn may have great stuff, but his seemingly unremitting health issues make it unlikely that he can remain a starter. He will turn 25 in July and has yet to pitch above High-A, so even as a bullpen arm, he has his questions. For every reason the Rays had to keep him in their system and see what could happen, they had a reason to deal him away if the right opportunity arose. They looked at Logan Forsythe, Brad Boxberger, Matt Andriese, and the rest of the players they could get from San Diego, and decided the upside they were getting was worth more than what they were giving up.
Every team has a bias towards their own players, and it can affect many decisions. Why else do teams re-sign so many aging players when it isn’t always the prudent move? The Rays have tried their best to be immune to that, trading away players like James Shields, Matt Garza, and Scott Kazmir while letting Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, and others leave as free agents. But in terms of prospects, the Rays couldn’t overcome it. The prospects were their guys, the players they had developed from Day 1 and had envisioned as future contributors to their major league team the whole way through. But now they realize that there is nothing inherently special about their prospects that other players don’t have. There is not some additional benefit they get from having a player they developed on their team instead of one they acquired by trade of free agency. Sometimes they just have to look at a prospect and realize that he is more valuable as a trade chip than anything else. No, the Rays will not be trading too many prospects away, but they will assess every case individually and decide whether trading a prospect, even a talented one, is the right move. The Rays are not afraid to trade away Jesse Hahn, Derek Dietrich, or Todd Glaesmann anymore, and that will help them maintain the best team they possibly can both now and in the long-term.