I still laugh whenever I read my comments on the Rays’ final supplemental first round pick from this past June, outfielder James Harris, but unfortunately that’s not a good thing. Here’s what I said.
Harris, a 6’1″, 180 outfielder out of Rickey Henderson’s alma matter, Oakland Technical High School, might have Henderson-esque upside. Harris is fast- really fast. He uses his speed to fly on the bases and in centerfield. At the plate, Harris is a very patient hitter- after all, you can’t steal 1st. If Harris can ever learn to hit, he could be a special prospect.
I can’t believe I actually said something as blunt as that- “If Harris can ever learn to hit, he could be a special prospect”- but unfortunately it’s true. Harris is still very young- he doesn’t turn 19 until August- but looking at this numbers from his professional debut with the Rookie-level GCL Rays is nothing but a cause for alarm. His .165/.257/.203 line in not such a small sample size, 45 games and 180 plate appearances, makes some inner part of me die. He hit 6 doubles among his 26 hits and drove in 8, and he even stole 13 bases in 17 tries. He struck out 39 times, a not insane 21.7% of his plate appearances, and he walked 13 times, a decent 7.4% of his PA’s. He even posted a halfway decent .963 Fld% primarily at centerfield but also with time in left field and a game each at left field and catcher. But none of that matters. He can’t hit. That is a serious problem.
The Rays are addicted to upside. And that strategy has worked for them. Without that strategy (which I talked about more in depth here), they never would have landed players like Matt Moore and Desmond Jennings in the middle rounds of the draft.But those two players were drafted in the 8th and 10th rounds respectively. Harris was drafted in the supplemental first round. Sure, it was their 10th pick before the second round, but nevertheless he was a reach. In the Rays’ defense, they didn’t pay him even a slot bonus, paying him $490,000 compared to the slot of $605,700. But Harris has a fatal flaw as a prospect, so even paying him much money seems to make little sense.
The Rays pushed the limits of drafting for upside by selecting Harris. Carl Crawford and Desmond Jennings fit a similar profile as raw, athletic centerfielders, but at least the Rays drafted them a little further into the draft and we didn’t know as soon as they were drafted that they couldn’t really hit yet. But we have to think about the possible reward the Rays could get from drafting Harris- as I said before, “Henderson-esque upside.” Think about Rickey Henderson. He was an incredible athlete with great speed allowing him to steal 80+ bases per season, and he also added in a great bat with the ability to hit over .300 with 20 homers consistently and the patience to post OBP’s over .400. What is Harris missing from that? One thing: hitting ability. The chances are he’ll never learn to hit at anywhere near an elite level. But what if he does? Every team hopes to draft the next Rickey Henderson. How much should they be willing to risk? $490,000 is nothing compared to the potential benefit from a Henderson-type player. But getting the next Rickey Henderson is like winning the lottery! $490,000 is a whole lot to pay for a lottery ticket!
But we have to remember that this isn’t like the lottery where there are two outcomes: you win, or the exponentially more likely outcome, you lose. Maybe Harris learns to hit a little bit and becomes a productive 4th outfielder and pinch-runner. Maybe he becomes an average hitter and becomes a productive outfielder, stealing 50 bases per season. The Rays are not wagering on just one outcome. James Harris is teeming with upside. Maybe he never lives up to his draft slot, but there’s the chance that he becomes so much more. And it’s not like he was the only Rays first round pick. The Rays had 10 picks before the 2nd round, some with tremendous upside, some with less upside, and some safety picks. They could afford to take on a gamble like Harris. And if they can make him into a productive hitter, they’ll look like geniuses yet again in a few years.
James Harris is the kind of draft picks that makes you want to rip Andrew Friedman and the Rays front office for their pure upside draft strategy. But we have to view it in context. Harris is a risky pick especially given the nearly $500,000 they’ve already committed to him, but if he can somehow pan out, he’ll be worth every penny, and there’s still a pretty good chance that even if he fails to reach his ceiling, he still becomes a solid player. James Harris is a flawed prospect right now- there’s no way to deny that. However, if the Rays can fix that flaw, the reward will certainly be worth the risk.