Count Archer among the prospects the Rays have held back in the minor leagues. Has it been worth it? (Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
When to bring a hot young prospect up to the majors has always been a hotly debated topic in baseball circles. Teams have differing philosophies about when a player should come up. In his article on grantland.com, writer Jonah Keri visited several teams’ spring training sites and dissected their approach to bringing along talent. In the article, Tampa Bay Rays GM Andrew Friedman laid out the Rays’ approach: “I think we learned a lot from the Devil Rays’ past, in terms of getting guys up maybe before they were ready…the front office is just much more reticent to run guys up than they used to be. We’re much more likely to try to put guys in the best position they can to get up to the major leagues and have success as quickly as they can. Preferably right away.”
After all, Wil Myers should have started game one last year and spent the whole year…well, just being Wil Myers. Chris Archer should have been up to begin the year and dazzled the pants off the AL East. Hak-Ju Lee should have driven Yunel Escobar to the train station and told him under no circumstances should he come back to St. Petersburg, right? Well, no. The Rays have been conservative when promoting players to the major leagues, preferring to err on the side of caution rather than throw a player in before they are ready, but every time, it’s a baseball decision, not a money one.
The Rays are no longer a “swim-or-sink” team. They are no longer dependent on the next talented but immature phenom to come in and bash them back to respectability. Trades have become a vital part of the Rays recent string of success. Slotting new draftees in when they are ready has only augmented their success. Although the Rays management remains cognizant of a player’s service time, their approach to slotting in new players is a science, born out of the necessity of competing with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox’s spending mania. Looking at a few of the Rays players, one begins to see why they were handled like they were, and it doesn’t always have to do with money.
Last year, the Rays had a progeny-in-waiting that the world was just itching to see. But Wil Myers and the world had to wait until June 16th for him to be called up. When he was up, Myers translated his ability into a Rookie of the Year award. The thing about it is, the Rays didn’t necessarily need him in the majors right away.
Among their choices in the outfield at the time: Matt Joyce, a very serviceable bat who can nearly always be counted on for a hot start; Desmond Jennings, the only one who could start daily in centerfield; Ben Zobrist, a very good right fielder; and the master of glove Sam Fuld. Kelly Johnson and Sean Rodriguez also got the chance to occasionally show what they could do. The outfield was in capable hands. While none of them carry around the lethal weapon that is Wil Myers’ bat, none are slouches at the plate either. Why not, then, let Myers abuse Triple-A pitching for a time, all the while continuing to work on perfecting his hitting and work on the thing he needed to improve most, his defense?
As advanced as Wil Myers’ hitting seemingly was entering 2013, he was still nowhere near the finished product. After the 2011 season, he started swinging harder in an effort to harness that power. But flaws remained–particularly a weakness against breaking pitches that led to too many strikeouts. Myers gained additional time to correct that flaw and gain additional confidence in his talent level.
Chris Archer made his pro debut on June 20, 2012 against the Washington Nationals, striking out seven as he went toe-to-toe with Stephen Strasburg. Five more strong appearances followed, and it looked everything like he would be an impact starter for the Rays in 2013. Instead, Roberto Hernandez was signed in the off-season, so Archer found himself heading back to Durham. Joe Maddon even described him as a big league-ready pitcher before he was sent down. How did it make any sense for Archer to be sent back to Triple-A?
Archer showed considerable talent in his limited major league time, but that was not enough to overlook the issues with his game. He walked 4.4 batters per 9 innings during his time in Durham, and the Rays had to hope he would throw more strikes. In addition, Archer was developing a changeup to augment his nasty fastball-slider combo. Was Archer a better choice than any of the starting five who began the season? He probably was. But by waiting just a while longer, the Rays brought him to the major leagues a more complete pitcher who could provide them with more when he did arrive.
The last player to note is Hak-Ju Lee. From the outside, it may look like Lee is being blocked unnecessarily by Yunel Escobar. Lee, still just 23, is well-known for his fielding prowess. His speed holds a special allure to the Rays, and eventually he will slot into the shortstop position. However, his bat has lagged behind and a knee injury in 2013 only set him back further. Lee played extremely well last season before getting hurt, and another team might have simply signed a placeholder for this season expecting Lee to come up before long. But with Yunel Escobar holding down the fort for at least 2014, Lee will get the chance to get completely healthy and have his bat be as ready as possible before he comes up to the major leagues.
When you get down to it, the Tampa Bay Rays’ prospects may spend more time in the minors than average, but they arrive ready, and once they do, they almost always stay up. Depth in all facets of the roster have made their 25-man roster continually strong, and that depth allows them to develop their prospects to the fullest extent. While it must be acknowledged that the Rays do keep an eye on service clocks (and why wouldn’t they, considering they do not have the Yankees’ margin to work with?), it is not the only reason. In the end, success dictates philosophy and the Rays’ track record in recent years cannot be overlooked.