With the first pick in the history of their franchise, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays selected outfielder Paul Wilder out of Cary High School in North Carolina with the 29th overall pick in the 1996 MLB Draft. Matt White was the future ace of the Devil Rays’ staff. Wilder was the five-tool outfielder, the future 3-hole hitter, the player destined to be a star and fan favorite. They would be the stars that would lead the fledgeling franchise into contention.
Paul Wilder seemingly had all the upside you could ask for from a prospect. Wilder was 6’4″, 246, but don’t let his large stature fool you. He was as athletic as they come, being a highly-rated linebacker recruit for NC State. He combined captivating power from the left side of the plate with remarkable speed. He hit bullets at the plate with an extremely advanced approach, and he also moved well in left and although he wasn’t quite fast enough to play centerfield, he moved well in the corner spots with an excellent arm. He was going to be the Rays’ right fielder for a very long time.
In his first pro plate appearance in 1996 with the Rookie-level GCL Rays, Wilder stepped up to the plate against a rehabbing big leaguer, Jimmy Key. It was 18 year old hotshot versus 13-year MLB veteran, 4-time All-Star, and 2-time Cy Young runner-up. And Wilder won the battle. Wilder drilled a double to right-center and with the Devil Rays major league franchise not yet playing games, all eyes were on Wilder. Key was not washed up yet- he would win 16 games with a 3.43 ERA in 212.1 IP for the AL East-winning Orioles in their last year with a winning record to date. But Wilder went in the opposite direction. Bothered by nagging injuries, Wilder’s overall numbers were not great. But the potential was clearly still there. He posted a .207/.351/.332 line with 10 doubles, 2 triples, 3 homers, 20 RBI, and 7 stolen bases in 12 tries in 53 games. He led the Gulf Coast League with 37 walks, showcasing his great approach at the plate, although he did strike out 66 times, 29.2% of his plate appearances. The D-Rays hoped he could stay healthy in 1997 as he moved up to Advanced Rookie Princeton and get his overall numbers up to respectability.
Instead, Wilder struggled through another injury riddled season. Playing just 44 games, Wilder posted a .202/.349/.387 line with 6 doubles, 2 triples, 6 homers, and 3 stolen base in 5 tries. He walked 33 times, but tallied 63 strikeouts, 32.8% of his PA’s. Wilder was hitting the ball hard when he made contact, but he couldn’t stay on the field and there was some bad luck involved as his BAbip was .277 compared to the league mark of .330 (not that anyone cared about BAbip back then). Wilder’s solid .736 OPS was definitely progress, and the Devil Rays hoped he was on the verge of a breakthrough.
The D-Rays aggressively promoted Wilder to the Low-A Charleston Riverdogs for his third pro season in 1998 despite his struaggles the previous two season. He remained as inconsistent as ever. He posted a .197/.326/.379 line with 9 doubles, 13 homers, 39 RBI, and 3 stolen bases in 6 tries in 76 games because of more injuries. His 13 homers were tied for 27th in the Sally League and he tied for the most home runs from any player who played a maximum of 80 games, tying with fellow Rays farmhand Aubrey Huff. He walked 43 times, but he struck out 119 times, a scary 37.3% of his PA’s. Wilder couldn’t get good reads on pitchers on the basepaths, but he grounded into just two double plays, showing his speed. Defensively, the D-Rays put Wilder in left field and he showed off his arm, registering 7 outfield assists. All the potential was still there. But because of injuries and an inability to make consistent contact, Wilder was going nowhere.
Wilder returned to Charleston in 1999 and his problems persisted as he played just 44 games, posting a .173/.287/.280 line with 4 doubles, 4 homers, and 13 RBI. He did steal 7 bases in 8 tries, but that didn’t make a difference. Wilder missed all of 2000 with injuries before going to the High-A Bakersfield Blaze in 2001 and posting a .265/.379/.378 line, going for a career-high .757 OPS, but that came in just 30 games. The Rays had seen enough. They promptly released Wilder, still just 23. Wilder appeared in 5 games for the independent Pennsylvania Road Warriors in 2002, a team that does not even have a home ballpark, and he went just 0 for 14, a .071 batting average. That would be the end of the baseball career of Paul Wilder.
Paul Wilder was not your typical upside pick. Wilder was a bigger guy built like a linebacker as opposed to the option quarterback or wide receiver-types that teams typical draft as upside picks (with Carl Crawford and Desmond Jennings immediately coming to mind). He was an experiment as the Devil Rays tried to innovate to get their then-embryonic franchise kickstarted. The experiment failed. Wilder had the athletic ability, the power, and the speed. He had the pure ability to be a great major league player. But between his inability to stay healthy and his struggles to make contact, his baseball career never got going. Every team makes great draft picks and terrible ones. Every team takes risks and many don’t work out. Paul Wilder was a calculated gamble that failed. Wilder and his pitching counterpart White set the tone for the early Devil Rays years. They tried hard, but none of their efforts came into fruition. But over time, the Rays have learned from their mistakes. If nothing else, the stories of Wilder and White teach us that nothing in baseball or in life can be taken for granted. But if we persevere through our failures, we give ourselves opportunities to achieve what is within our grasp. And sometimes, as the Rays have shown, your wildest dreams can come true.