Winning presents its fair share of problems. When a team begins to find success, how they refurbish their team roster in the offseason begins to change. Gone are the days of drafting first or second. Sure, a team can still find excellent players in the draft, but they usually come with flaws. They take longer to develop and do not make an impact right away. Position players can hit the ball a mile, but strike out more than a teenaged boy trying to find a date for prom, or they might play hot potato with every ground ball hit their way. The pitchers might throw the baseball a million miles an hour, but can only throw strikes during lunar eclipses, or not at all. Worse yet is if your draftees fail to live up to expectations.
From 1999 to 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays drafted no lower than sixth. That string of picks contributed mightily to the Rays’ success the last six years. Even though 2008 was a long time ago now by Rays standards, though, those draft picks continue to pay dividends. The Rays’ success since has caused a shift in philosophy of sorts as the pipeline of homegrown prospects has become far from unlimited. With that in mind, netting talent in trades has became more and more important for Andrew Friedman and company. While they do not profess to be a “win now” team, the Rays have not gone into a rebuilding mode at any point since 2008 and, for a smaller market team, that is telling. Drafting near the bottom of the first round the past several years, because of their successes, the Rays draft decisions have been criticized more and more. Key pieces have had to come from other teams, but the Rays have managed to do just that.
The obvious gems from the Rays’ earlier drafts are David Price and Evan Longoria. But look at all the players who have become of those earlier draft picks! Delmon Young was traded for Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett, who were in turn traded for Chris Archer, Hak-Ju Lee, Brandon Guyer, and Brandon Gomes. James Shields was drafted in the 16th round, but after he panned out in a big way, he was traded for Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi. Victor Zambrano turned into Scott Kazmir who turned into Alex Torres and Sean Rodriguez, and Torres turned into Logan Forsythe, Brad Boxberger, and matt Andriese. And those are just a few examples–the Rays’ lineup gives us much more. For this season, the Rays’ starting lineup will be this:
Of these players, only Evan Longoria, Desmond Jennings and David Price were drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays ability to trade for major league or near-major league ready talent has put less of an onus on them to rush their young talent to the majors. The Rays have gained a reputation for leaving their players in the minor leagues so as to maximize service time with the big club. But is that the only reason? Sure, it’s a big reason and one that can’t be ignored. But the Tampa Bay’s ability to accrue depth has partly been the reason. B.J. Upton was entrenched in center for the longest time and Desmond Jennings was brought along slowly. Jennings’ struggles last year in the field and sometimes at the plate proved his development is ongoing. Matt Moore’s control has been problematic and Myers defense is a work in progress. But fewer financial resources have caused the Rays to be creative when it comes to maximizing a player’s service time with the team. However, Andrew Friedman’s ability to maximize the talent the Rays receive in trades has given the team the ability to allow players like Hak-Ju Lee to tell the Rays when they are ready. The Rays have made trade after trade to allow them to put the best possible team in the field and develop the prospects they have at the proper pace. It is not luck with draft picks but skill with trades that has gotten them this far, and for the foreseeable future, they are not going anywhere.