Are the Tampa Bay Rays in Danger of Falling Apart?

As we know quite well at this point, 2014 was the worst season by the Tampa Bay Rays since 2008. There are excuses we can make–no one expected the combination of injuries, bizarre slumps, and bad luck that made the season turn out quite this badly. As the Rays retool their team for next season, we can have a reasonable amount of confidence that their results will be vastly improved. The bigger issue for the Rays, though, is not one season of poor performance in the big leagues but years of subpar results from their minor league system.

John Manuel of Baseball America suggested that the Rays’ weak organization, especially in comparison to the Los Angeles Dodgers, made this offseason the correct point in time for Friedman to leave the team. Bill Madden of the New York Daily News had harsher words for the system, saying that the Rays’ situation is dire. After “six straight empty drafts” since the selection of Tim Beckham in 2008, Madden believes that the Rays’ time is about to run out. Is that really the case?

Before we even get to the question, let’s make something very clear: the Rays have not had “six straight empty drafts.” Both Kevin Kiermaier and C.J. Riefenhauser made the major leagues this season from the 2010 Draft.

Moving on from that, the Rays recent drafting certainly has not gone as expected. Kiermaier and Riefenhauser don’t make up for the Rays’ years of struggles. Let’s go year-by-year from the 2008 Draft to last year’s and mention all the prospects the Rays have left from these drafts who still have any realistic chance of making the major leagues plus the three who have gotten there.

2008: Tim Beckham

2009: N/A (well, Jeff Malm is becoming a pitcher)

2010: Kevin Kiermaier, C.J. Riefenhauser, Justin O’Conner, Ryan Brett, Jake Thompson, Adam Liberatore

2011: Taylor Guerrieri, Blake Snell, Mikie Mahtook, Jake Hager, Grayson Garvin, Tyler Goeddel, Taylor Motter

2012: Luke Maile, Richie Shaffer, Dylan Floro, Andrew Toles, Nolan Gannon, Damion Carroll, Bralin Jackson

2013: Nick Ciuffo, Ryne Stanek, Riley Unroe, Thomas Milone, Kean Wong, Johnny Field, Jaime Schultz

Just looking at those names, there is hope in the form of several guys, specifically Kiermaier, Guerrieri, Snell, O’Conner, Brett, and a few of the 2013 guys. However, there are way too many players there who will end up as relievers or bench players at best and several others who carry way too much risk because of injuries or attitude problems. In the previous six years prior to 2008, the Rays had 19 players they drafted and developed make the major leagues with them. The probability of the Rays matching that number with these six drafts is negligible.

The point that the Rays have been drafting badly in recent years is not up for debate. But just because that is the case does not mean that the Rays’ run of success has come to an end. Thanks to the excellent trades that they have made, they have managed to stock their roster with young talent that is controllable for the next several years. Here’s another fun list: major leaguers and prospects who have a chance from the 2008 to 2011 drafts that the Rays acquired in major trades.

2008: Jake Odorizzi, Logan ForsytheCole Figueroa, Mike Montgomery

2009: Wil Myers, Nick Franklin, Brad Boxberger, Nate Karns

2010: Drew Smyly

2011: Curt Casali, Matt Andriese, Patrick Leonard

Obviously not everyone from that list will make much of an impact from the Rays either, but Odorizzi, Myers, Smyly, and Boxberger are key pieces of their team right now and several of the others have the ability to get there as well.

Of course, those players only lead us to the larger point: the Rays have the major league talent to stay afloat for the next few years. They still possess one of the best rotations in baseball, and it seems relatively clear that their relief corps will rebound next season. The Rays have built bullpens successfully for years, and between the talent that they have and the low-cost signings they have become known for making, they should find a respectable group of relievers for 2015 and quite possibly more. The only question is the offense, and it can’t possibly be as bad as this season.

After 2015, Ben Zobrist will walk, as will Matt Joyce if he has not already been traded. The Rays will be depending on players like Evan Longoria, Wil Myers, Yunel Escobar, Kevin Kiermaier, Ryan Hanigan, James Loney, and Nick Franklin, and there is a little bit too much uncertainty present in that group. However, some position player prospects the Rays have will pan out, and they have the ability to trade pitching for others. That can be a sustainable formula as long as the Rays have a little more luck with their recent drafts and future draft classes yield better results.

If the Tampa Bay Rays keep drafting poorly, they will eventually face extreme obstacles trying to contend. However, we are not quite there yet.