The Tampa Bay Rays’ Search For Homegrown Position Players

By David Egbert

The annual Tampa Bay Rays Winter Development Program is getting into full swing this week at Tropicana Field. Some 27 Rays minor leaguers will show off their talents to the team’s front office and field management. The players range from high school kids to college graduates and they all have one thing in mind: to make the Rays’ 25-man roster at some point in the near future. But recent Rays history tells us that one group has a much better chance than the other.

The 27 players can be broken down into 12 pitchers and 15 position players. The pitchers are quite lucky. The Rays are one of the best in the game at developing pitching and have sent a bevy of talented pitchers to the team over the past several years. Look no further than the top four in the Rays’ current rotation: David Price, Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson, and Alex Cobb. Price was the first overall selection in 2007, but none of the other three were drafted before the 4th round in their respective drafts. Of course a top prospect like Blake Snell is right where he belongs, but pitchers like German Marquez and Hunter Wood have plenty of reason for optimism as well.

But it hasn’t worked that way with position players. Currently the team has just four homegrown position players on its 40-man roster from the Andrew Friedman era: Evan LongoriaDesmond Jennings, Tim Beckham, and Kevin Kiermaier. Longoria is a superstar and Jennings is a solid regular, but Beckham and Kiermaier just made their big league debuts with cups of coffee in 2013. As things shape up now, Beckham will miss the season due to injury and Kiermaier will return to Durham to find out if he is a legitimate prospect. But at the Winter Development Program, there are quite a few players hoping to join them.

Included in the prospect camp are Andrew Toles, Ryan Brett, Jake Hager, and Richie Shaffer. The issue: only Brett has cracked Double-A among those four. Nick Ciuffo, Riley Unroe, and Oscar Hernandez will also be present, but the three have a combined three games in full-season ball. Plenty of talent is present in that group, but there the risk remains extremely high in every case. There could very well be a star or two among those seven, but none of them would be confused with Wil Myers at this point.

We all know that for every Wil Myers there are dozens of so-called prospects that never make it to Double-A. First round draft choices like Justin O’Connor just can’t adjust to the advanced talent they face every day. However, well rounded farm systems like the St. Louis Cardinals’ produce as many big league position players as they do pitchers. They take that 10th round draft choice and develop him into a big league ballplayer, not just for pitchers but for hitters as well. Why not the Rays?

Is it scouting or development that cause the problem? Maybe the scouts are too pitching oriented. Maybe there aren’t enough quality minor league hitting instructors. Whatever the problem, we know that lack of offense has been a Rays problem for years and it hasn’t been helped by the lack of internal options. Perhaps the Rays need a new look at the development of position players. For now, however, the only thing we know is that the Tampa Bay Rays have some top position player prospects and they are long overdue to have a few of them pan out.