Rays Tales: Low-level minor-leaguers can be big prizes in trades

Published May 7 2017

When the Rays made the deal to trade star 2B/RF Ben Zobrist to Oakland, with SS Yunel Escobar attached, in January 2015, the return was headlined by C/DH John Jaso, who in theory would immediately add a proven bat to the Tampa Bay lineup.

But they also got back two future pieces in a pair of lower-level minor-leaguers, one a then-20-year-old named Daniel Robertson who, while highly regarded among prospects, had yet to play above Class A. That's the same Daniel Robertson who has been so impressive the first five weeks of this season filling in around the infield and showing immense promise. (The other, OF Boog Powell, was flipped after the 2015 season in a deal to get INF Brad Miller.)

Similarly, in making the December 2012 blockbuster deal that sent RHPs James Shields and Wade Davis (plus INF Elliot Johnson) to the Royals, the Rays' primary return included three players to help in the nearer term, headliner OF Wil Myers, RHP Jake Odorizzi and LHP Mike Montgomery.

But they also got a 20-year-old who had played only one pro season of rookie-level ball, INF Patrick Leonard, who is now starring at Triple-A Durham and may soon be pushing for a big-league call-up.

In trading established major-leaguers, as they do pretty much every year, the Rays rarely match up one-on-one for the type of elite-level uberprospects or young major-leaguers they seek. (An exception was the January trade of 2B Logan Forsythe to the Dodgers for RHP Jose De Leon.)

So instead of the one high-quality piece, the Rays often ending up going for quantity, getting back lesser big-league players and high-ceilinged prospects who are often at the lower rungs of the minors.

Their path, even for those highly rated, is hard to predict — and risky to bank on. But don't think of these guys as throw-ins, either, as the Rays do a massive amount of work identifying the young players they are willing to gamble on.

Deal LHP David Price, get back big-leaguers Drew Smyly and Nick Franklin, plus then-18-year-old Class A SS prospect Willy Adames. Trade LHP Matt Moore, get back INF Matt Duffy and 19-year-old Class A SS prospect Lucius Fox. Essentially swap Myers for OF Steven Souza Jr. in a pair of deals involving 11 players but also get back 19-year-old Class A prospect Jake Bauers.

"In all trades, we are looking to get value back in ways that work well for both clubs," Rays baseball operations president Matt Silverman said. "Ideally, we'd trade for young players who can immediately impact our big-league club, but in many cases the club we're trading with is reluctant to part with them. That's when the focus of a deal might shift to minor-league players who aren't as far along in their development.

"There is less certainty with them, and their potential impact is further away. But if we do our homework well and they continue to develop, these players can be a big part of our long-term success. It's where our patience and our long-term focus can really benefit us."

The attrition rate can be high, just like with the players drafted and signed by the Rays who are at the low end of the minors. Performance, injuries and off-field issues can all be potential derailers.

And the challenge is steep, as there is limited data and history on players with that little pro experience. The Rays at times, as in Leonard's case, will scout fall instructional league games. They also consult with their area scouts, who are familiar with the players from before they were drafted or signed, such as Carlos Vargas, who was a $1.7 million international signee in July 2015 with Seattle and acquired in the latest Smyly trade.

"Our scouting evaluations are key drivers in these trades," Silverman said. "The deeper you dive into a minor-league system, the more uncertainty there is. It's where our scouts can be real difference makers. They have extensive history with these players, often times dating back to scouting them as amateurs. They provide valuable insights not just about baseball skill but also on their makeup and who we want to bet on."

Robertson was one of those guys, someone the Rays felt pretty sure would prove to be the prize piece of that deal. And, once he got over the surprise of being traded, Robertson realized the opportunity he would have.

"I knew I was a key part of that deal, and I knew the Rays had a lot of interest in me to make that significant of a trade based on how much Zobrist meant to the team and the organization," Robertson said.

"I definitely didn't look at it like I was another guy thrown in. I was kinda like, Wow, for Zobrist? That was cool. That was special to me. And now I've kinda taken on that Zobrist role early in my career moving all over the place. And that's cool."

Some things we think we know

• The clock isn't ticking yet on 1B Rickie Weeks, who brings some valuable intangibles, but it may soon with a .163 average and strikeouts in nearly half his plate appearances (28/60).

• The question won't be whether Matt Duffy takes over as the starting shortstop, assuming he is ready as expected in late May, but may be if they are better off keeping Tim Beckham or Daniel Robertson as the utility infielder.

Rays rumblings

Whatever Fox's corporate cost savings, Rays fans were big losers in last week's decision to not have the usual Fox Sports Sun crew in Miami with no clubhouse interviews, plus no pre- and postgame shows. … The Rays remain the favorites to sign top international SS Wander Franco, and for near $4 million, in the July 2 window, per mlb.com's well-connected Jesse Sanchez. … Vegas was slightly impressed with the Rays' first month as odds on them winning the World Series dropped, per the online Bovada site, from 100-1 to 66-1. … MLB has special uniforms for four big holiday weekends — Mother's Day, Memorial Day, Father's Day, July 4 — but scheduled the Rays to be on the road for all four. Hmmm. … Guessing I wasn't the only one not hip enough to get the headline on the Inside Pitch Kevin Kiermaier story: In Love With Tampa Bae. … Kiermaier shares in the story that he and fiancee Marisa Moralobo set a Nov. 10 wedding date. … With a four-game total attendance of 54,510 showing how little juice the Rays-Marlins Citrus Series has, MLB should at least try scheduling the games on weekends so fans can travel. … Useless trivia of the day: Thursday was the first time the temperature inside and outside the Trop was 72 since April 22, 2014. … New ownership of the Double-A Montgomery affiliate is led by Lou DiBella, who moved the Giants' Double-A team from Norwich, Conn., to Richmond, Va., and is a former HBO boxing promoter and promises to increase community ties.

     
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