Entering the 2014 season, the juxtaposition between the two teams from the 2008 World Series was quite incredible. The Philadelphia Phillies saw their aging roster collapse without a revival likely in the next few years while the Tampa Bay Rays just kept winning. Then the season began, and suddenly, at least for one year, their results were much closer to each other. The Rays were 77-85 while the Phillies were just 4 games behind at 73-89. Luckily for the Rays, they still have a chance in 2015 and beyond while the Phillies’ odds remain long. The season was a chilling reminder, however, of the importance of prospects, especially in the lower minors.
When a franchise figures out a way to perennially contend, prospects are more of a luxury than a necessity. In the case of the Rays, they had their core group of players and then consistently made successful low-cost signings to round out the rest of their roster. Prospects certainly figured heavily into their teams, but just as important as their production was the flexibility they allowed the team to trade players like Matt Garza and James Shields. Those trades may have never happened without Jeremy Hellickson in the first case and Chris Archer in the second emerging as legitimate options to replace the traded starters. However, even as the Rays struggled in the draft, we never thought of it as a major long-term concern. After all, with a team that had found a way to win 90 games for four straight years, the Rays had time before they needed to find prospects capable of continuing their success.
Now, however, after a season that revealed chinks in the Rays’ armor, we have to reevaluate how we view the Tampa Bay Rays’ minor league system. The Rays can recover from 2014 just like they did from 2009, but will the same be true the next time they decline? Now it is clearer that the future of the team revolves not just around a few choice prospects from the upper minors ,but players up and down the system. We have to care more about the fate of a player like Adrian Rondon.
If you haven’t heard, Rondon is a 16 year old shortstop that the Rays signed for $2.95 million in July. He was considered by Baseball America to be the top international free agent prospect, eliciting comparisons to Hanley Ramirez. This fall, the Rays brought Rondon to America for the first time as a professional as he participated in Instructional League. They were excited by what they saw.
"“He carries himself well,” Bloom said. “It’s easy to forget he’s so young. He’s precocious, and some of the good ones do go places when they’re young. We have to remind ourselves that there has to be a maturation process both on and off the field — every player has to build that foundation to prepare himself for the grind that’s in his future.“We obviously think very highly of him, and he’s continued to show us great skill — both in the field and at the plate. He can really impact the ball well for someone so young. Right now, we’re still getting him accustomed to how we do things in the professional environment. We want to try to get a lot under his belt to prepare him for next year’s challenges.”"
Whether or not Adrian Rondon turns into the Rays’ long-term shortstop is not the critical question here. It would be foolish to expect too much from a 16 year old, even he is as talented as Rondon, and so many things will happen between now and when Rondon is ready for the major leagues (if he ever is). At the very least, though, between Rondon, Willy Adames, and all these teenage prospects, we have to look at them and start wondering whether they will be enough to lead the next generation of Rays baseball to as many victories as we hope for. The Rays are decidedly not the Phillies, but we can’t be sure when their luck will run out at the major league level. When it does, the Rays better be ready with an influx of talent that will make us wonder why we ever doubted this team at all.