As we wait for Garrett Whitley to graduate from high school and sign with the Tampa Bay Rays, it’s a good time to look at the history of successes and failures that the Rays–and Devil Rays–have had with their first round choices. The Devil Rays first choice was in the 1996 MLB Draft–Major League Baseball gave them two conventional drafts and the expansion draft to stock their farm system before they took the field for the first time. Before we start, I will note that the Rays have had a lot of supplemental round picks, but we will only talk about the Rays’ first selection in each year for the sake of time.
With the 29th pick in the 1996 Draft, General Manger Chuck LaMar chose a high school power-hitting outfielder named Paul Wilder. Wilder lasted six years in the organization and never got above Single-A. The 31st pick in 1997, right-handed pitcher Jason Standridge, at least made the major leagues, but he wasn’t successful when he got there. He pitched just 67.2 innings with an 0-5 record and a 6.38 ERA. Then the Rays didn’t have a first round pick (nor a second round one) in 1998 as they forfeited them to sign free agents.
The Rays got the first pick in the 1999 draft and looked like they had hit pay dirt with outfielder Josh Hamilton. Hamilton started off with a bang but was soon derailed by drug and alcohol addiction. By the time he got back on his feet, the Rays had lost him in the Rule 5 draft. The 2000 pick was Rocco Baldelli and that looked like a great pick until injuries hit him early in his career. He played extremely well in his 1901 plate appearances for the team, but he never appeared in even 95 games after his second season in 2004.
The Rays’ first rounder in 2001 pick was Dewon Brazelton and that was a huge mistake. Taken 4th overall because he would be a cheap signing, he was rushed to the majors and only appeared in 54 forgettable games for the Devil Rays. Somehow he was the team’s Opening Day starter in 2005–that tells you how bad the team’s pitching staff was before Scott Kazmir and James Shields established themselves. Brazelton was out of affiliated baseball by 2008.
From 2002-2004, the Devil Rays were on a bit of a run as their first round picks were the former B.J. Upton, Delmon Young, and Jeff Niemann. Upton played 8 years for Tampa Bay and registered a .243/.324/.400 slash line with strong play in centerfield. He left as a free agent in 2015 (and has obviously played considerably worse since). Young finished second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting before Andrew Friedman dealt him to Minnesota in one of his signature trades, the first Matt Garza deal.
Then, in 2008, the Rays choose Jeff Niemann, a high-profile pitcher out of Rice. Niemann had his moments and looked like a quality back-of-the-rotation starter but injuries began to derail him in 2011 and he hasn’t appeared in a game at any level the end of spring training in 2013. His greatest contribution to the team came in 2011, when he had a 2.57 ERA over a 12-start stretch from June to August to give the Rays a chance for their miracle comeback that September.
The next three draft choices started out poorly in 2006 with Wade Townsend. Townsend was another part of the highly regarded Rice University starting staff that included Niemann. However, he was damaged goods before he was drafted by the Rays, signed on the cheap, and never got past Double-A. The Rays made up for it in the next two years with Evan Longoria and David Price. Both went on to be All-Stars and faces of the franchise. Unfortunately, as we know, the Rays were not able to sign Price to a long-term contact and he was traded to Detroit.
The 2008 draft was the first for the Rays under their new name, but it didn’t go well. The Rays’ first overall draft choice was Tim Beckham and it will go down in baseball history as the “Buster Posey mistake.” The Rays passed on Posey, who went on to be an All-Star catcher for San Francisco, and chose Beckham, who lingered in the minors for seven seasons before making the majors with the Rays as a utility infielder this year.
The next year the Rays chose outfielder LeVon Washington in the 30th round of the 2009 draft. Washington chose not to sign and went to junior college. It probably didn’t make much difference as he was selected the next year by Cleveland and never got past A-ball in five seasons. In 2010, Friedman selected Josh Sale with the 17th pick Seen by many as the best pure hitter in the draft, Sale stumbled through various off the field problems and didn’t produce much when he was on the field. He never got above High-A and was released after three seasons.
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It is fair to say that the 2011 through 2014 first round draft choices have not had enough time in the system to evaluate whether they will be quality major leaguers. The 2011 choice pitcher Taylor Guerrieri has undergone Tommy John surgery, but is back on the mound and looking strong. After a slow start, 2012 choice third baseman Richie Shaffer has made it to Triple A and is hitting with power. The 2013 pick, catcher Nick Ciuffo, is learning his craft at Low-A and looks promising, especially defensively. The 2014 choice Casey Gillaspie is off to a nice start as Ciuffo’s teammate and hitting with power as well. All four have solid chances to be impact players in the major leagues.
It’s tough to evaluate high school and college players who have swung aluminum bats against average pitching or thrown fastballs past hitters who will never play professional baseball. Having said that, the Rays have not done a spectacular job of selecting first round talent, Considering they have drafted in the top 10 for 10 of their 19 drafts, only five players–Baldelli, Upton, Young, Longoria, and Price–have made significant contributions to the Rays. Let’s hope that with four first round picks in the system and Garrett Whitley in the wings, the number of success stories will eventually double.