The Rays don’t care about character. That has essentially become established as a fact. Knowing that they don’t have the money to pursue the most sought-after free agents and are loathe to trade their top prospects, the Rays often decide to go after players with character issues hoping that their strong clubhouse dynamic can calm them down and make sure they stay productive. Yunel Escobar alienates himself in three other clubhouses? Bring him aboard and watch him thrive. Luke Scott‘s views too right-wing? Come on in, they’ll be part of the fun. The Rays aren’t scared of signing players other teams would shy away from, and it has benefited them quite significantly on several occasions, with Escobar being just the latest case. The Rays have the art of getting the most out of players with negative attitudes down to a science. However, that is only true at the major league level.
On Friday, Taylor Guerrieri became the third of the Rays’ last six initial picks in the draft to test positive for drugs, three out of five if you don’t count unsigned outfielder LeVon Washington. That’s unbelievable–but upon whom does the fault for that lie? Josh Sale was an especially crazy case–he was known for his incredible work ethic and then somehow everything fall apart. You can make a case to get the Rays off the hook for him. But what about Tim Beckham? The Rays should have done more research into both his ability and character, neither of which has come across too well as a pro. (At least he has finally made the major leagues.) And then there is Guerrieri.
Guerrieri was a potential top 10 pick who slipped to the Rays at 24th overall explicitly because of character issues. The Rays deemed he was worth the risk, and the next few years will make them look like geniuses or complete fools. Guerrieri has pitched like a top 10 pick in his first 26 professional starts, going 7-4 with a 1.59 ERA and a 96-17 strikeout to walk ratio in 119 innings pitched. The only that could stop him was Tommy John Surgery, and considering how talented he is, even that could prove to be just a minor bump in the road. Guerrieri has a chance to make it to the major leagues in just a couple of years and become a strong number two starter. But injuries are enough of a concern for a pitcher, and adding in the matter of character just complicates the process even more. Guerrieri will miss no games for this suspension, but that will not stop the suspension for popping into our thoughts whenever we hear about him. Hopefully Guerrieri spends the next two years proving that the positive test was a isolated incident and not indicative of the person he has become. But why is this the situation the Rays find themselves in all the time? Why do their high draft picks always need to overcome more than just the typical baseball issues if they want to succeed?
Why are the Rays so successful at overcome character issues in the major leagues yet struggle so significantly trying to do the same in the minor leagues? The reason is simple: there is no veteran clubhouse in the minor leagues to keep the prospects in line. You can do everything possible to try to help your players develop not just as players but as people, but you can’t shield them all the time from the temptations of anyone in their early 20’s. When you have a player who enters the organization with a character issue, that is exercerbated even more. Taylor Guerrieri is an extremely talented pitcher and if he avoids additional injuries and never has enough positive test, drafting him will look like yet another coup pulled off by the Rays organization. But no matter how Guerrieri turns out, it is time for the Rays to rethink their position on drafting players with character issues early in the draft. Their upside is tantalizing, but at the end of the day, the risk may just not be worth it.