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Why MLB’s pared-down draft could leave Rays short-handed

With only five rounds instead of 40, the Rays won’t have the usual opportunity to find big-leaguers where others don’t.

ST. PETERSBURG — Much will be extraordinarily different about next week’s baseball draft.

Teams gambling millions on players they haven’t seen on a field in months — and some for nearly a year — due to the coronavirus shutdown. “War-room” debates where scouts and execs make major decisions shifted to Zoom calls due to the virtual format. Content-starved ESPN turning it into a two-day major television event.

But the biggest change is the smaller number of players that will be taken, with the total rounds slashed from 40 to five in a cost-cutting maneuver.

And that may have a significant impact on a team such as the Rays, who are heavily dependent on the draft to provide the requisite talent and routinely take full advantage in finding and developing big-leaguers from the lower rounds.

Related: History shows Rays are savvy picking after the fifth round

“From that standpoint, it does hurt the Rays more than most," said Jim Callis, a longtime draft expert at mlb.com. “The draft is the most cost-efficient way to find talent, and every year there are several quality big-leaguers who go beyond the top five rounds. They’re not necessarily obvious at the time, but the opportunity to land those guys now becomes much more difficult."

The list of players drafted after the fifth round and signed by the Rays who made it the majors is extensive, more than 50 over their first 20 drafts, and impressive, including All-Stars such as James Shields, Matt Moore, Stephen Vogt; three-time Gold Glove winner Kevin Kiermaier; key contributors such as Desmond Jennings and Dan Wheeler.

Obviously, all teams are similarly limited this year, so whatever gap in talent acquisition the shorter draft creates for the Rays will be relative. (And they do have the benefit of a sixth pick, at No. 37 in the competitive balance round.)

Related: How change did the Rays good in improving draft results

And the league did create essentially a secondary market, allowing teams to sign undrafted players for a uniform bonus of $20,000, which some think will turn into a baseball version of college football recruiting where facilities, coaching staffs, development history, W-L records and player testimonials will be key enticements.

As critical as the draft process is to them, the Rays are focusing on ways to make the best of the unusual situation.

“For us to compete, it requires us to be bringing talent into the organization through all the avenues that are available to us," general manager Erik Neander said. “With respect to the draft being truncated and only having the six picks this year, obviously it’s less opportunity to bring players in through the draft. We’ll see what’s out there after the draft.

“For us to compete, we need a lot of access to talent. You look at the size of our minor leagues, there’s a lot of quality but there’s also a strength-in-numbers approach. You want to be in a position to have pleasant surprises, and we do have some late-round and undrafted players that are on our 40-man (roster) right now.

“But it is what it is. The circumstances this year are unique and the challenges to us, everything is relative. Zero sum. There’s 30 teams. You all play by the same rules and everybody is having the same access to drafted players this year."

Tampa Bay Rays leftfielder Desmond Jennings wasn't an early-round draft pick, and that didn't prevent him from being a key contributor to the team.

ESPN draft analyst Kiley McDaniel noted the Rays were among a few teams that worked to find a major-leaguer after the 10th round almost every year. “Some sort of value was expected," he said. “Not every team expects that because not every team has a track record of doing that, and the Rays are one of those teams."

The Rays will do some prep work on potential $20,000 post-draft signings, given that there will be only 160 picks from a considerably deep class. But they will balance the realities of not having a traditional minor-league season this year and, given MLB’s plans to reorganize and reduce the number of farm teams next year, the potential for limited opportunity going forward. Plus, those players have to decide if it’s worth signing for so little or going to/staying in college.

Related: Rays pitchers take mound for first time since return to Trop

The Rays are understandably spending most of their time on how best to spend the $7,474,600 bonus pool for their six picks, starting with No. 24 on Wednesday night.

Baseball America’s Carlos Collazo said there will be “more pressure on teams to get each pick right," especially smaller-market teams such as the Rays. And there is industry-wide speculation teams will focus on “safer” picks by taking collegians, who have more career history, played four weeks of games before the shutdown and often are less expensive to sign. While the elite high schoolers will get drafted, others, especially those from northern areas who didn’t start their seasons, may be seen as too risky, especially for the higher bonuses it takes to buy them out of going to college.

Rays officials spent considerable time discussing whether they should adjust their philosophy, which has been to seek the players with the most chance of impacting the big-league team at some point, rather than by position, age or timetable.

“Absolutely, there’s a temptation," amateur scouting director Rob Metzler said. “Just in general we certainly had the time over the past few months to think about all sorts of ways like … should we be thinking about it differently,’’ specifically “how we assess risk and talent."

All things considered, Kevin Kiermaier (drafted in the 31st round) has worked out pretty well for the Rays. [ ALLIE GOULDING | Times ]

They said they decided to stick with what has worked, as improved drafts, plus international signings and trades for prospects, have given them the game’s top farm system paired with a mostly young big-league team coming off a playoff run.

“You’re not making as many picks, but you’re still making a first-round pick, a comp pick, a second-round pick and so on, much like you would any other year," Neander said.

Related: Rays’ draft plans uncertain well beyond who they might pick

“You don’t have the opportunities, the sheer number and volume of opportunities we’ve had historically. But the access to talent at the top of the draft is pretty similar. ... At the end of the day you’re trying to select players you believe are those most likely to positively impact your major-league team sometime down the road. They come in different shapes and sizes with different types of risks, but I think our mindset and philosophies are pretty similar at the top of the draft."

So that’s one thing that hasn’t changed.

MLB draft

Wednesday: Round 1/Competitive Balance A; 7 p.m., ESPN and MLB Network

Thursday: Rounds 2-5; 5 p.m., ESPN2 and MLB Network

Rays picks: 24, 37, 57, 96, 125, 155

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