There was some talk of the Tampa Bay Rays being a sleeper suitor for Michael Bourn. It’s pretty obvious why that didn’t happen- the money. An equally as compelling reason, though, was that signing Bourn would have necessitated the Rays giving up their first round draft pick. Why wouldn’t they want to do that? Look no further than the last time the Rays gave up a draft pick to sign a free agent, 1998.
Entering their inaugural season, the Devil Rays decided to sign not one, not two, but three Type-A free agents: lefty starter Wilson Alvarez, closer Roberto Hernandez, and outfielder Dave Martinez. All three of those signings cost the Rays a draft pick. Unlike a Bourn signing would have been, those signings were idiotic and based on nothing but delusions of grandeur. The D-Rays were far from contending but obstinately signed three players they didn’t need in the slightest. Alvarez had managed an impressive 3.68 ERA in 152 starts and 973.2 IP the previous five years, but he had also managed just a 6.8 K/9, a 4.3 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9, not exactly numbers that inspire confidence. (By the way, it was a five-year deal. What?!) Hernandez was a solid closer- he still leads the Rays franchise in saves- but the D-Rays had several other good relievers in 1998 including Jim Mecir, Albie Lopez, and Esteban Yan, and signing him was an extraneous splurge. And Martinez? We love Davie as a coach, but he was a corner outfielder on the wrong side of 30 with an even 100 career OPS+ and just a little power and speed, and giving up a draft pick to sign him didn’t make sense no matter how you slice it. Chuck LaMar and the D-Rays made a trio of stupid signings to do what, only lose 99 games instead of 101 or 102? But beyond the money and beyond the fact that the signings were misguided, you have to look at the draft picks the Rays lost.
The three players selected in the draft spots forfeited by the Rays were Forrest Hill (MS) High School outfielder Arturo McDowell in the first round, University of Washington outfielder Chris Magruder in the second round, and Ashtabula (OH) High School left-hander Dan Mozingo in the third round. McDowell and Mozingo never made it out of Double-A while Magruder made the majors but hit just .220 in parts of five MLB seasons. Looking at how that trio turned out, it certainly was worth it for the D-Rays to take the risk on three established players, right? Of course not- they just got lucky. And had the Devil Rays actually held those picks, who’s to say that they would have selected the same players?
Four picks after McDowell, the Montreal Expos selected outfielder Brad Wilkerson. Six picks after McDowell was selected, the Chicago White Sox selected Aaron Rowand. Fourteen picks after McDowell, the New York Yankees selected Mark Prior, although they failed to sign him. Would the D-Rays have possibly selected any of those three over a player like McDowell? Well, Wilkerson was from the University of Florida and that may have appealed to LaMar and the Rays. Rowand was a more polished product than a guy like McDowell, so maybe the Rays would have gone with him. How about Prior? Well, if the Rays hadn’t signed all those free agents, they would have had money to burn in the draft, and maybe they would have taken a real run at signing him and the story of Prior and the early history of their franchise could have been entirely different. The D-Rays wasted a first round pick on a free agent they didn’t need at all and we can never know how much the Rays could have gotten from that pick had they kept it.
Eleven picks after Magruder, the Texas Rangers selected Barry Zito but failed to sign him. Could he have been another player the Rays could have gone after with the money they didn’t use on free agents? Especially if they had selected both Prior and Zito, they definitely would have found a way to sign at least one, right? What if they had gotten both? Imagine if the Devil Rays had developed a trio of Matt White, Prior, and Zito in their system, decided to take them a little more slowly through the minor leagues knowing how good they were, and then had Zito take the American League by storm in 2001 and Prior and White a couple years later? Maybe the 2004 season where the Devil Rays were over .500 in June turns into a playoff appearance! Maybe a new stadium gets built!
What about Mozingo? Just two picks later, the Philadelphia Phillies selected Jason Michaels, who would become a solid reserve outfielder. Not that it makes any difference, I would put money that Michaels would have been the D-Rays selection- he was a Tampa native coming out of the University of Miami, and more importantly, they had selected him in the 44th round two years earlier. So what’s the final tally for what the D-Rays lost by giving up those three draft picks? The opportunity to draft at least one potential superstar and maybe even two, and a solid role player. We’re talking only hypotheticals here- maybe, even probably, the Devil Rays have those picks but draft conservatively and end up with little or nothing to show from them in the long-term. But the potential is always there, and giving up that potential is very often the wrong choice. Some free agents are so good that it doesn’t matter- but for the ones that teams aren’t at that level, that teams aren’t sure they need, and that they know probably won’t be enough to help their team contend, keeping the draft pick is the right move. For the Rays, Bourn would have helped them, but making a big (at least by their standards) multi-year commitment, especially to an aging speed-oriented player, would have been a major risk, and amplifying that by losing a draft pick was too much for them to even considering bearing. For a team like the New York Mets, Bourn would have certainly improved their outfield significantly, but it’s not like they’re about to contend, and you can’t lose the 11th overall pick and the potential it possesses when that’s the case. With 30 MLB teams, there’s always going to be teams with needs to fill who are willing to take their chances and sign players while forfeiting their first round picks. However, doing that unnecessarily is accomplishing nothing but setting your team up to fail. Maybe the player you would have drafted would have amounted to nothing. But there’s always the chance that you would have selected a modest big league contributor, a strong role player who has his moments, or maybe even a star, and no teams wants to let that opportunity go unless they absolutely have to.