ST. PETERSBURG — You spend 200 nights a year on the road. You travel from elite college campuses to rundown parks in the middle of who-knows-where. You push yourself to make every last trip to see every last player because you know your franchise is depending on you.
This is how you wind up in Topeka, Kan., on a Wednesday evening in early May. You're scouting an exhibition game between the Grand Prairie Air Hogs and the Kansas City T-Bones from last-chance independent leagues. And this is when you see a pair of familiar faces.
In one dugout, is your team's $1.5 million mistake.
In the other, is your team's $4.8 million mistake.
"Those are humbling experiences," Rays scouting director R.J. Harrison says.
When it comes to drafting talent, the Rays have done better than most in recent years. The typical big-league team has around seven homegrown draft picks on the 25-man roster. The Rays have 10. They have another five players acquired in trades involving former picks.
So Harrison has reason to be proud of a starting rotation that features four draft picks, including Wade Davis taken in the third round and James Shields taken in the 16th round. The Rays also got three-time All-Star Carl Crawford in the second round and top prospect Desmond Jennings in the 10th round. Not to mention first-round picks Evan Longoria, David Price, Jeff Niemann and B.J. Upton.
Still, the sight of million-dollar busts Wade Townsend and Dewon Brazelton on the same minor-league field in Topeka is a haunting reminder of the volatility of Major League Baseball's amateur draft. Just as the sight of the Rays on top of the AL East is another reminder of how important the draft can be for a team of limited revenues.
For the Rays, faith in the draft is not a philosophy. It is a necessity. With their revenues, in their division, it is the best chance the Rays have of keeping up with the Yankees and Red Sox.
"We have to be better at this than other teams, and that's a tough thing to do," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "But we also have to believe we are."
Which brings us to next week's draft, and Tampa Bay's unique set of circumstances. For the first time in franchise history, the Rays have two picks before the second round. They have three of the first 42 picks, and six of the first 100.
If this were the NFL, Tampa Bay would be talking about a franchise-changing draft. If this were the NFL, you could talk about filling multiple positions and possibly trading up to get the exact player you want.
But MLB's draft doesn't work that way. Draft picks can not be traded, and the odds are only a handful of the dozens of players the Rays take next week will ever make the major leagues.
The truth is, the Rays are in one of their worst draft positions of the past decade. They may have more picks than ever before in the first three rounds, but they do not make their first selection until No. 17. And in baseball's draft, that's like waiting an eternity.
Typically, after the first few picks, the baseball draft is a complete crapshoot. There were 828 players on opening day rosters this season (including players on the disabled list), and 15.3 percent of them were taken between picks No. 1 and 25. From picks 26-50, the number of players on rosters drops to 7 percent. By the time you get to picks 76-100, the percentage is down to 4.4.
In other words, having a bunch of extra picks between 31 and 100 may be a good thing for the Rays, but it's not as good as having the No. 4 pick in 2004 (Niemann) or the No. 3 pick in 2006 (Longoria) or the No. 1 pick in 2007 (Price).
This doesn't mean the Rays are doomed this month. If unpredictability is one of the dangers of the draft, it is also one of the saving graces. If the Rays screwed up by drafting Townsend with the No. 8 pick in 2005, they may have hit paydirt with minor-league sensation Jeremy Hellickson in the fourth round that summer. And if Brazelton was a disaster as the No. 3 pick in '01, the Rays got a little redemption with Jonny Gomes in the 18th round and turned their 32nd-round pick (Joey Gathright) into a trade for J.P. Howell.
Remember, with 10 homegrown draft picks on the current roster, the Rays are doing better than most teams. And they have exactly one player each from the 1999, 2000, '02, '03, '06 and '07 drafts, and four players from '04.
"We kid all the time about walking out of the draft room thinking we just drafted this big group of big-leaguers," Harrison said. "I would say a realistic haul, if you end up with five or six guys being some kind of big-leaguers, that's a pretty good draft."
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.