In 2014, the Tampa Bay Rays 2014 MLB Draft haul was unlike any we had seen before in their history. The reason: the amount of college players they selected. The Rays selected four-year college players in 31 of their 41 picks, an incredible 75.6% of their total. Their previous high was just 58.3% in 2011. Why the sudden change in strategy? The first answer is that the Rays saw the need to adjust their approach after struggling to turn their draft picks into contributing major leaguers in recent years. Beyond that, however, the Rays drafted 31 college players because they think a lot of the other 10 picks and want to get as many of them as possible signed.
Today, six days after the end of the draft, the Rays have 17 players already signed. No surprise, 15 of those 17 came out of four-year colleges, with second rounder Cameron Varga and 16th rounder Greg Maisto being the only exceptions. Varga signed for $1.1 million compared to the $943,200 slot, not a surprise given that he is coming out of high school, but Maisto, who had some signability questions of his own, apparently did not take too much to join the organization. We haven’t heard about his bonus yet and we may hear later that it’s $80,000 or $90,000, but the bottom line is that the Rays did not cost themselves any money against their bonus pool. The Rays already have several players set to exceed their slot values, and they could not afford another one.
Rays 6th rounder Mac James signed for $175,000 compared to the slot price of $226,600, saving the Rays over $50,000. As a junior in college, James didn’t necessarily have to sign for a small bonus, but the Rays made an effort to find college players who had ability yet would not sign for much. The Rays saved 27.8% of James’ assigned value. If they get the same discount on fellow college juniors Michael Russell (Round 5) and Michael Franco (Round 7), they would have saved over $140,000, accounting for nearly all of Varga’s overage. Then the Rays drafted Daniel Miles, Chris Pike, and Bradley Wallace in Rounds 8 to 10, all of whom are seniors. It isn’t crazy to think that they could get a 50% discount or more, and that would be upwards $200,000 more saved. The Rays may lose some of that money signing Brent Honeywell, Brock Burke, and Blake Bivens, but none of the three particularly stands out as a signability risk.
Honeywell is a junior college player who could go back to school, but he also was regarded as a bit of an overdraft, so it wouldn’t be shocking if the Rays could save $20,000 or $30,000 on him and maybe a little more. Burke and Bivens, meanwhile, are high school guys but not the highest-ranked ones, so their slot values could be enough as well. The Rays like them a lot–they are extremely talented pitchers–but it certainly helps that they will not take big-time money to sign. Combining their situations with all the college players that were selected, and it is realistic that the Rays could have anywhere from $200,000 to $300,000 of wiggle room in regards to their bonus pool. What they make of that money is going to make all the difference in regards to how this draft crop is viewed.
Spencer Moran, the Rays’ 11th round pick, slipped because of signability concerns, so clearly he will be a tough sign. Now, however, the Rays can offer him as much as $350,000–the first $100,00o doesn’t go against the bonus pool–and see if that’s enough. If you sign him, then you’re doing good, and you also may have a little money left to attempt to sway Jaime-Ayende Morales (21st), Zac Law (23rd), or Conor Harber (40th) to sign. If Moran doesn’t sign, you may be able to divide the money to sign at least two of the other three. And even if none of those four sign, the Rays will likely sign 37 of their 41 picks pending something crazy with one of the college guys. Maybe the college players don’t have quite the potential of the ones out of high school and junior college, but every player has his reasons for optimism and at least a few of them will turn out better than expected. At the end of the day, this is a safe Rays draft with a chance to turn something better if you sign one or two of the later guys. This is not the type of strategy we’re used to seeing from the Rays, but they needed to mix things up and did so quite well with their selections.