No minor matter: How the Tampa Bay Rays rebuilt their farm system

From the 2014 ruins, a three-pronged approach has Rays back among the best in the game.
Brendan McKay is among the bright prospects in the Rays organization. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Brendan McKay is among the bright prospects in the Rays organization. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published March 9, 2019|Updated March 10, 2019

PORT CHARLOTTE – As top Rays officials lurched and then recovered from the dual defections of franchise pillars Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon following the 2014 season, they realized they also had to aggressively address another foundational issue.

The fertile farm system that had provided the basis for their remarkable run of four playoff appearances in six years was no longer providing enough yield. In more direct terms, some Rays officials considered it bare.

“It was obvious,’’ team president Matt Silverman said last week, “that our system wasn’t where it needed to be.’’

Having been considered among the game’s best for years, and No. 1 for several, the Rays were now ranking with the worst, slotted 20th by Baseball America, 23rd by ESPN’s Keith Law, 26th by Baseball Prospectus.

As Silverman settled in to steer the team in October 2014, hiring Kevin Cash as manager while eyeing Erik Neander and Chaim Bloom to eventually take over baseball operations, the Rays made it a priority to rebuild that farm system.

There was a lot to do, and more than a buzzword laden action plan was necessary.

RELATED: Why Blake Snell won’t get much of a raise for winning the Cy Young

Eventually, it became a three-pronged approach:

* Adjust and advance their drafting process and performance as years of fallow return had caught up to them;

* Expand their financial commitment to the international market, where they could compete more evenly with higher-revenue teams;

* Increase their pro scouting effort, especially at the lower levels of the minors, to be positioned to maximize the return in every trade.

Correspondingly, they provided additional resources in player development, such as adding staff, improving nutrition, increasing off-season programs, to turn the prospects, projects and occasionally a few suspects into impact players.

Four years later, they appear to have made it.

That’s what it looks like on paper, as the Rays have climbed their way back to the top tier of the rankings, tabbed second overall behind the Padres by Baseball America, ESPN,, and others.

And also in person, based on the young players in the majors, the prospects who will soon be ready and the group of elite prospects they’ve assembled, led by 18-year-old sensation Wander Franco and two-way Brendan McKay. Clearly, there is a depth of talent scattered among the 5 ½ fields of the Charlotte Sports Park complex.

“Ive never experienced anything like this in my 24 years here,’’ said farm director Mitch Lukevics, gushing beyond his default setting. “We haven’t had a group like this. These (top prospects) are just some of the players that you know that are getting headlines. We have many more you have no idea about at this point.

“I don’t want to get too giddy. But I get pretty excited just seeing them.’’

Rays infielder Wander Franco is one of the reasons the team's farm system is drawing raves. [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times]
Rays infielder Wander Franco is one of the reasons the team's farm system is drawing raves. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
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RELATED STORY: The wonder of Wander

Though more reserved, Silverman is also pleased with their progress.

“We’re at the point now where that work tending to the farm system is paying dividends and has a chance to provide a long runway of talent for the major-league club,’’ he said.

Having a steady flow of players from the minors, whether as front-liners, reserves or trade inventory, is important for every team. For the financially challenged Rays, even more so.

“It’s everything,’’ Lukevics said.

Especially since players from the farm system are also inexpensive players.

“For us to be able to compete in the American League East we’re going to need to rely upon these young, talented players who come up through our system,’’ Silverman said. “If we have that core, we can continue to build around it and supplement. But without it, it would be very challenging to compete with the larger revenue clubs.’’

The rebuilding effort focused initially on trades coming out of the 2014 upheaval, as they swapped veteran Jeremy Hellickson for Andrew Velazquez and Justin Williams, Wil Myers for a package that included Jake Bauers and Steven Souza, Ben Zobrist and Yunel Escobar for a group that included Daniel Robertson.

They have continued making those kind of deals, such as trading Chris Archer last July for the talented trio of Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows and prospect Shane Baz.

And also flipping some of the players they acquired, trading Williams in a deal for Tommy Pham, Bauers for Yandy Diaz, and Souza for a package that included Anthony Banda, Colin Poche and Nick Solak.

RELATED STORY: The Rays gave up a lot for Yandy Diaz. He gave up even more to get here.

In almost every move, they strive to find added value.

But the more important success comes from within.

And they were quite proud to note that all of their record tying nine prospects in Baseball America’s top 100 list were homegrown.

The international market has yielded Jesus Sanchez, Ronaldo Hernandez, Vidal Brujan, Moises Gomez and Franco, who is the early leader to be the game’s No. 1 prospect going into 2020, with more to come.

And, since adopting more of a data-driven approach to the draft in 2015, they are getting a better return, starting with Brandon Lowe, who was a third-round pick and made the majors last season.

Silverman, ever the pragmatist, says the challenge now is to maintain the flow – and to see it translate into success in the big leagues and, ultimately, another playoffs banner.

“It’s fun to see the rankings, it’s fun to see the top-100 lists and the articles written about the system,’’ he said. “But until those players are helping us win games at the major-league level, it’s just words.’’

What has worked best?

We asked some of the experts, and here are excerpts of what they said:

Keith Law, ESPN:

They’re drafting smarter, better, they’re more opportunistic. They’re, I think, just doing a better job of weighing probability against risk. … I’d say the last two drafts have been very, very strong. And they’re also really starting to hit on the international front. Wander Franco is the most obvious fruits of that. But you’re going to see in the next two or three years, more of their international prospects bubbling up. ... They’re extremely deep at this point. … They’re trading well too. They are thought of so much as an analytics-focused organization. They scout the minors as well as any team I can think of. … Not only do they have good scouts, but their system for going out to see those players is itself different (in how their coverage plans allow more looks at players). … I’m very much of the mind that more information is always better, and I think the Rays are the best organization at doing that.’’

J.J. Cooper, Baseball America:

“Even when the Rays dipped, their pro scouting was still excellent, and their ability to produce a steady stream of pitchers has long been a model for other teams to emulate. But there was a lengthy stretch there where the team struggled to draft and develop hitters. … The Rays still do an excellent job in pro scouting, especially at finding and then developing players acquired as prospects, but their ability to draft and develop hitters has improved. And their scouting/development from the international market is now excellent, where it once was hit or miss.’’

Jim Callis,

“They’re hitting on all cylinders. They went through several years of weak drafts after 2007, really blowing an unprecedented opportunity with all of their early-round choices (10 of the first 60) in 2011. Though their recent first-rounders don’t stand out as a group, they’ve had better draft success with less-heralded guys like Brent Honeywell in the supplemental second round (2014), Nate Lowe in the 13th round (2016), Brandon Lowe in the third round (2015). They’re doing great work internationally, starting with Wander Franco and also including guys like Jesus Sanchez, Ronaldo Hernandez and Vidal Brujan, among others. And they’ve made some nice trades, grabbing guys like Shane Baz, Lucius Fox (acquired with Matt Duffy for Matt Moore), Nick Solak and Colin Poche, just to name four guys."

Comeback Kids

Here are the the Rays farm system rankings by two experts, Baseball America and ESPN (Rankings in parentheses).

2013: Baseball America (4); ESPN (3).

2014: Baseball America (20); ESPN (23).

2015: Baseball America (17); ESPN (23).

2016: Baseball America (13); ESPN (14).

2017: Baseball America (11); ESPN (19).

2018: Baseball America (5); ESPN (7).

2019: Baseball America (2); ESPN (2).

Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.