As far as we can remember, the Tampa Bay Rays have featured some of the best prospects in baseball. Every year, another player or two comes up to the big leagues to contribute, and 2014 will be no exception as Jake Odorizzi is expected to be the 5th starter to begin the year and Kevin Kiermaier should find his way to a role in time. But is that run about to come to an end? Keith Law ranked the Rays as just the 23rd best organization in baseball, criticizing the team for “several unproductive drafts.” With the pipeline of top prospects stopping, is it time to be concerned that the Rays’ incredible stretch since 2008 could only have a few years left?
The Tampa Bay Rays do not have a great minor league system right now. We can agree on that. The better question is how much it matters, and in truth it does not. Here’s the funny thing: had the Rays traded David Price for a package similar to what they got for James Shields, they would have a significantly worse major league team team but an organization ranked in the top 10 in baseball. That is how crazy these year-by-year rankings are. In addition, two of the key players who made the Rays’ system one of the best in baseball last season, Wil Myers and Chris Archer, did not simply disappear off the face of the earth. All they did was graduate to the major leagues, and the Rays are excited to have them for at least the next six years. Matt Moore gives the Rays a third talented major league player under 25, and even as he enters his third year in the major leagues, he has more upside than the pitchers in plenty of teams’ systems. The Rays may have a slightly older core than in years past, but the presence of young players in critical roles is not something that is about to change.
Law is correct that the Rays’ last several drafts have not turned out as desired. Hopefully several prospects can turn themselves around and first rounders Nick Ciuffo and Ryne Stanek can headline a strong 2013 class, but the Rays’ inability to find impact talents from the draft has been concerning. The past several years, however, the Rays’ strong organization has always been built around trades, and they will continue to follow that same plan. David Price could be dealt following the 2014 season, and the Rays will likely listen on nearly all their players, seeing if the right offer comes around. If the Rays make one big trade and get rebounds from a few of their prospects, suddenly their 2014 ranking will look like an enormous outlier. Since the Rays’ system looks weaker, maybe you can’t have a Matt Garza trade where Hak-Ju Lee and Chris Archer both head to the minor leagues while Jeremy Hellickson steps in to seamlessly replace Garza. The trend the Rays have going where they can trade a player and replace him internally with just as good of an option may be coming to an end. Either the Rays will have to replace players like Price with less capable prospects or they will have to sacrifice some potential in the players they acquire to get more big league-ready talent. But while that is not the ideal, the Rays still have time to get their system together.
With their starting nine position players, five starting pitchers, and several of their key relievers signed for the next two years, the Tampa Bay Rays have the ability to be great with only minor contributions from their prospects. That gives the Rays a window not just to contend for a World Series title but to refurbish their system as well. The Rays have two years to continue implementing changes to their draft and development strategies and reevaluate where their system is at. They also possess the major league talent to make trades to restock their organization–even though they kept Price this year, we know the Rays are unafraid to trade key players even as they hope to contend. The Rays’ minor league system may not be strong this year, but it will be just fine in the long term. One poor organizational ranking is not a harbinger of impending doom, but simply a deficiency that the Rays have time to address.