Tampa Bay Rays: A Look Back at the 1997 Expansion Draft

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Bobby Abreu (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

We re-visit the Tampa Bay Rays 1997 expansion draft. Big names and missed opportunities.

In an alternate universe, Tampa Bay Rays fans are gearing up for the season opener at Tropicana Field on Thursday, March 26. Unfortunately, in our universe, we are stuck in line-drive limbo, in payoff pitch purgatory. What better time to review the origin of the Rays franchise by re-visiting the 1997 expansion draft.

In the winter of 1997, two new franchises were bursting out of Major League Baseball’s womb and breathing their first breaths of life. 1998 would mark the beginning of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Each team could protect 15 players in the entire organization. Players with no prior major-league experience were ineligible for the draft. If a player was signed at 19 and had less than three years of service they were ineligible. Same for players signed at 18 and less than four years. A team could only lose a maximum of one player per round and add three more players after each of the first two rounds.

Tony Saunders

The first selection: Left-handed pitcher Tony Saunders. He was coming fresh off of a Marlins World Series Title in which he even pitched two innings of the World Series during his rookie year. Saunders went on to lead the league in walks in 1998 with an astounding 111 free passes in 192.1 innings pitched. He would play one more season in the big leagues.

Bobby Abreu

With the third pick of the first round and sixth overall pick, the Rays selected Bobby Abreu. He was only 23 with a career OPS+ of 84 at the time of his selection. Many of the selections in this draft were names the teams thought they could move for needs. It seemed that the pickings were slim and the Rays traded Abreu to the Phillies for shortstop Kevin Stocker.

Abreu would complete an 18-year career in which he smashed 574 doubles, 288 homers, and slashed .291/.395/.475 over 2,425 games. In FanSided’s Expert Hall of Fame voting, I voted for Abreu as worthy of enshrinement. He may not have been the flashiest but he is one of the greatest hitters to play the game. When your name is mentioned among the candidates for the  Hall of Fame, it’s a truly incredible accomplishment. It’s crazy to think that the Rays had him for a short period of time in November of 1997. Oh, what could have been…

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