How Do the Rays Keep Their Minor League System Going Strong?
By Robbie Knopf
It’s really unbelievable. Once again this year, the Rays’ minor league system is right up there among the best in baseball, with Baseball America ranking them 4th in MLB and John Sickels ranking them 3rd. That’s not a surprise- the Rays have long been known for their tremendous player evaluation talents- but it certainly becomes more of one when you hear the following two statistics: 1) the Rays are the only team in baseball to not have a single player from their last five drafts make the major leagues and 2) Ben Badler of Baseball America just wrote about how the Rays signed only four international free agents that were ranked in their Prospect Handbook, just tied for 22nd in baseball. How is the Rays’ minor league system so great if their recent results appear to not be nearly up to par?
The first thing that immediately stands out about that first statistic is that results over the last five years don’t have very much to do with how good the Rays’ system is now, and also that even if players from those drafts have nto yet made the major leagues, several of them are very promising prospects. But that’s still a pretty alarming stat- no player the Rays have drafted since they began contending has made the major leagues, and clearly the Rays have taken a step back from the level of their draft picks from before, something that does make sense because the Rays draft much later in the first round than they did previously. But combine poor drafts with a sub-par international presence, and you would think that the Rays would have a pretty bad farm system. Instead, it’s the exact opposite. What’s going on?
We know that from 1998 to 2007, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, as they were then known, were not a good team by any stretch of the imagination. Their major league team was terrible, escaping the AL East cellar just once with one 4th place finish and losing 100 games three times. Their horrific performance gave them a lot of high draft picks, and indeed they did have several star players even as their overall team was almost unbelievably bad year after year, but the could never put anything together. But what the Rays were able to do was turn those few good players into several key pieces of their team through trades. Aubrey Huff turned into Ben Zobrist. Victor Zambrano, one of their few impact international signees, turned into Scott Kazmir. Delmon Young yielded Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett. And most recently, James Shields and Wade Davis turned into Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi. Then you can add in the Kazmir trade to Los Angeles, the Garza trade to the Cubs, and the Bartlett trade to the Padres all giving the Rays contributing players to their team. A series of perfectly-executed trades followed by more excellent trades of the players they acquired a few years later gave the Rays an impressive group of prospects and young players in their system even when the majority of their drafting and international signing was not doing so well. Pair those players with a couple excellent high draft picks (i.e. Evan Longoria, David Price, Carl Crawford, and B.J. Upton), a few high-upside draft picks drafted in the later rounds who eventually panned out (e.g. Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson, Wade Davis, and Desmond Jennings), and a multiplicity of great under-the-radar free agent signings (e.g. their entire bullpen and Carlos Pena), and suddenly the Rays had themselves a very good team. Even when their draft picks and international signings were not working out on the whole, the Rays have always done an excellent job trading away their major leaguers at peak value to refurbish their system. The Rays would have loved to draft better on the whole, but they take full advantage of every player on their team that lives up to his potential, getting all the production they can from them for their major league team and then dealing them away for highly-touted to create a revolving door of more players with the ability to keep the process going.
The Rays’ success at the major league level has also allowed them to be very cautious with their prospects and take them very slowly through the minor leagues. The Rays’ would have hoped that players like Tim Beckham would have made the major leagues right now, but the Rays’ drafting tendencies these days are not towards players with the ability to make the majors quickly. They have focused on drafting high school players with significant potential and then have allowed at whatever pace suits them best to help them become the best players they can possibly be in the future. They know that their MLB team is good and that if they need more talent at the upper levels of their system they can always make trades. The Rays’ drafts over the past few years have given them several extremely talented prospects in their system- and although they may not be ready for the majors over the next couple years, the rest of baseball could be in for a rude awakening when these players have made their way through the minors and are ready to make a major league impact.
You can be concerned by the Rays’ lack of major league production from their last few drafts and their lack of topflight international talents in their system, but at the end of the day, it means very little. It’s certainly not the ideal, but the Rays have proven the last several years that they will continue to find ways to continue to stock their system and keep the future of their ballclub looking bright. Just look at the Rays’ results in the major leagues and how highly-touted their minor league system remains to be, and it’s clear that the Rays don’t have anything to worry about.