The title of this article begs an obvious question: who is James Darnell? Did he drill several homers in his rookie season for the Devil Rays, but never amount to anything? Was he one of the several high draft picks by the Tampa Bay Rays the past few years who never panned out? In reality, James Darnell was signed by the Rays as a minor league free agent this past December 24th, and at one point it seemed like he could be an impact player for them this season. Instead, Darnell has yet to play a game in 2014, and his future both with the organization and in baseball as whole is in serious question.
Darnell, 27, was a second round draft pick by the San Diego Padres back in 2008 and he was once a highly touted prospect. Following a 2009 season that saw Darnell hit to a .311/.425/536 line with 35 doubles, 20 homers, 81 RBI, and an 89-87 strikeout to walk ratio between Low-A and High-A, he was ranked as the Padres’ #3 prospect by Baseball America. Evaluators praised him for his combination of power and plate discipline to go along with a defensive profile that could fit at third base or second base. Darnell’s prospect stock was never that high again, but after he hit to a .310/.406/.547 line between Double-A and Triple-A in 2011, the Padres called him up to make his major league debut. After 52 plate appearances, however, Darnell’s season ended with shoulder surgery, and he has not been the same player since.
Darnell recovered well enough from surgery to resurface with San Diego the following year, but a second surgery took him out for the year once again. Then in 2013, Darnell was bothered by an oblique strain before being released by the Padres in June when a third shoulder surgery became imminent. The Rays saw something in him nonetheless, and it is not difficult to see why. Darnell was a primary third baseman also capable of playing right field, left field, and first base, and even if his bat never lived up to expectations, he still had the ability to mash left-handed pitching. From 2011 to 2013, Darnell managed an insane .410/.495/.688 line against lefties in 210 plate appearances, showing the tools to at least be a capable bench player. With Brandon Guyer so injury-prone in his career, the Rays saw the potential for a Guyer-like player who traded some of Guyer’s speed for the flexibility to play the infield. They thought they had quite the backup plan ready. However, Darnell’s story paralleled Guyer’s even more as he suffered through another lost season.
Darnell didn’t play a single game for the Rays in spring training and has spent the entire season on the Triple-A Durham disabled list. Presumably, Darnell’s shoulder simply isn’t getting better, and the Rays continue to wait. It says something that Darnell has not been released–the Rays do not consider him a lost cause yet. However, the chances of Darnell returning to the major leagues this season are now extremely slim, and Darnell may find himself facing a make-or-break year in 2015 to see if he can remain in affiliated baseball.
There is still hope for James Darnell. He will spend next season at 28 years old, the same age that Brandon Guyer enjoyed his breakout year in the major leagues. If the Rays are encouraged enough by his rehab, they may even bring him back for next season–they have nothing to lose handing him another minor league contract. For this year, though, Darnell will go down as an intriguing minor league signing that simply never worked out, and we will have to see what happens to him from here.