ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays are typically about the leverage play.
But for as much as they have invested in the annual draft — in dollars, man hours, brainpower, computer bytes and emphasis — the yield, thus far anyway, has not been very good.
In eight drafts since the current regime took over after the 2005 season, the list of players drafted, signed and developed by the Rays who have become impact big-leaguers numbers only five:
Third baseman Evan Longoria and starter David Price, who were consensus top picks, plus outfielder Desmond Jennings and starters Alex Cobb and (now injured) Matt Moore.
"We have expectations to do far better than we've done," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "And it drives us every day to continue to get better on this front with changes that will prove beneficial year in and year out. It's tough. But that being said, it's everything for us. So we have to figure out a way to be better than we've been."
They try again starting tonight, when they have the Nos. 20, 60 and 72 picks in the three-day, 40-round event.
Much of their lack of success can be considered self-made.
Some is due, certainly, to their improvement at the big-league level, resulting in lower draft slots and, scouting director R.J. Harrison suggests, fewer openings for younger players to get to the big leagues.
They obviously have made some bad decisions, none more obvious nor more discussed than taking Tim Beckham first overall in 2008 with Buster Posey, Pedro Alvarez and Eric Hosmer among those available.
And there are the matters of attrition, discipline problems (2010 top pick Josh Sale) and injuries (three of their top 12 2011 picks have had Tommy John surgery).
But also a core issue is their philosophy — which they may be adjusting slightly — to focus on draftees who have the highest upside and most potential to be impact big-leaguers rather than just role players or complementary parts.
"Because of our financial limitations relative to our direct competitors, our mentality and thought process has been more to go big and shoot for upside, and obviously when you do that there's a lot of downside that comes with it," Friedman said.
"It's a very high-risk, high-reward strategy, but appreciating that the higher floor players, the good major-leaguers, we can access different ways through trades and free-agent signings and even waiver claims … whereas the star, the potential star player, is incredibly difficult for us to access, whether it be the trade front or the free agent front. So that definitely factors in."
But where that has failed them, as talent evaluators in the media and with other teams have noted, is the players they've drafted haven't, at least yet, turned out to be those impact players, or even elite-level prospects on the way.
Friedman said the criticism is fair.
"I definitely think we have a void of obvious star-caliber players coming up," he said. "I do think we have a lot of depth in our system. And with depth, there are pleasant surprises that come from that. … But it's not nearly as good as we want it to be."
Friedman and Harrison indicated they are tweaking their approach, at least after the first few rounds. By considering lower-ceiling and potentially safer picks who could advance more quickly, they might be able to fill lesser but still important roles.
"At the top of the draft you always have to look for impact," Harrison said. "I think there's some evolution of thought as you work your way down."
There are some mitigating circumstances as well.
Because the Rays draft a lot of high school players who take longer to develop, Harrison said patience is required — sometimes up to five or six years — in making true evaluations.
Also, the Rays have traded more than a dozen picks from those drafts, including six from the top three rounds, in deals that have landed them big-leaguers.
And there have been some signs of progress: Starter Taylor Guerrieri, their top 2011 pick, was gaining traction last summer, though only at the Class A level, until needing Tommy John surgery. Outfielder Mikie Mahtook, another 2011 first-rounder, is playing well at Triple-A Durham.
Still, Friedman said, "I would like far better results than we've achieved."