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Change did the Rays good in improving draft results

A shift to a more modernized, analytical and balanced approach, plus a new boss, has the Rays seemingly doing better.
The Tampa Bay Rays made Tim Beckham the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft but his performance did not match the billing.
The Tampa Bay Rays made Tim Beckham the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft but his performance did not match the billing. [ Times (2017) ]
Published Jun. 6, 2020

Evaluating baseball draft classes, especially given the built-in gap for development of even the best prospects, is a challenging and ongoing exercise, starting with when to begin: After three years? Five? Seven?

By just about any measure, the Rays went through an extended skid, leading to changes in amateur scouting from the top down in 2015.

After a 2007 draft class that yielded three All-Stars in David Price (first overall), Matt Moore and Stephen Vogt, over the next seven years the Rays drafted and signed only one other All-Star — Blake Snell.

Related: Why the shortened 2020 draft could leave Rays short-handed

There are other, and more fair, ways to judge than All-Star selections, but the results are still poor.

Since taking Tim Beckham first overall in 2008 (rather than Buster Posey, as you may have heard) through 2014, the list of players drafted and signed by the Rays who reasonably could be considered impact players in the majors, or at least have reached double digits in career WAR (a statistical quantification of performance), is short:

• Kevin Kiermaier, the three-time Gold Glover with a 25.7 career WAR taken in the 31st round in 2010

• Snell, the 2018 Cy Young award winner with a 10.3 WAR, taken 52nd overall in 2011 with the seventh of their 10 picks in the first 60 that were supposed to be a franchise-shaping windfall

And …

And …

Derek Dietrich? He was traded as a minor-leaguer in 2012, and in parts of seven seasons with the Marlins and Reds has compiled a career 5.2 WAR.

After that, the next best are the likes of Beckham, with a 3.5 WAR over parts of six seasons and currently serving another drug suspension; Andrew Toles, a 2012 third-round pick who the Rays released for off-field issues and had some brief success with the Dodgers compiling a 1.9 WAR; pitchers such as Ryne Stanek (1.3), Dylan Floro (1.3), Jesse Hahn (1.1), Jake Faria (0.7); and a few players that were used in relatively insignificant trades.

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

Of the Rays’ top picks in those 2008-14 drafts, three never even played in the majors: LeVon Washington (2009, didn’t sign), Josh Sale (2010), Casey Gillaspie (2014). The other four have not done much: Beckham, Taylor Guerrieri (2011), Richie Shaffer (2012), Nick Ciuffo (2013).

Richie Shaffer was drafted in 2012 and hasn't done much since then.
Richie Shaffer was drafted in 2012 and hasn't done much since then.

Blame was not necessarily assignable, as the Rays picked lower in the draft as a result of on-field success from 2008-13, and some high picks were applauded but sidetracked by injuries and other issues.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily because their process was bad, probably some bad decisions and some bad luck as well," said ESPN draft analyst Kiley McDaniel. “But it looked especially stark given there were so many extra picks and expectations were so much higher."

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As dependent as the Rays are on the draft, and with opportunities to stockpile prospects such as the 2011 draft wasted, they felt the need to make changes.

Rob Metzler was promoted from assistant to director of amateur scouting after the 2015 draft, and he led a shift toward a modernized approach that balanced traditional in-person evaluations with more advanced use of data, video, analytics, comparatives, personality testing and other methods.

Time, as always, will be most telling. But the initial industry reviews and short-term results have been promising.

“(The Rays) definitely have drafted better the last few years — the disastrous drafts of 2010-14 are a distant memory now,” said Keith Law, draft analyst with The Athletic. "It sounds like they’ve done a much better job of getting scouting and analytics to work together instead of at cross-purposes; they’ve been far more opportunistic when players “fall'' to their picks; and I think they’ve been better at going for some ceiling with high picks rather than defaulting to safe college guys.”

Related: All things considered, Rays ‘in a good spot’ for next week’s draft

“It does seem in the last couple years there probably have been some adjustments to the process and the outcomes have gotten much better," McDaniel said. “The balancing of the sort of progressive and traditional methods together is what tends to get the best results … and it seems like that’s where Tampa is."

Tampa Bay Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe, who was drafted in 2015, is showered with sunflower seeds after hitting a solo homer in the fourth inning against the Houston Astros in Game 3 of the American League Division Series last October.
Tampa Bay Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe, who was drafted in 2015, is showered with sunflower seeds after hitting a solo homer in the fourth inning against the Houston Astros in Game 3 of the American League Division Series last October. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Players such as Brandon Lowe (2015, third round) and Ian Gibaut (11th), Jake Fraley (2016 third round, after trade to Seattle) and Nate Lowe (13th round), and 2017 first-round pick Brendan McKay have already gotten to the majors. And there are expectations for others from recent classes, including high-round picks Josh Lowe (2016, first round) and Ryan Boldt (third round), Taylor Walls (2017, third round), Shane McClanahan and the since-traded Matt Liberatore (2018, first-rounders).

“The early returns for their recent classes are promising," Baseball America’s Carlos Collazo said. “It seems like the Rays have started to put more of an emphasis on makeup in recent years than they did previously, and there are scouts who will point to that as the reason they’ve had more success. Still, we probably need to wait and see how these recent classes pan out before we get a clear answer."

Five best drafts

Based on who the Rays drafted and signed, and how they’ve done:

Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Alex Cobb (53) points to third base as third baseman Evan Longoria (3) scoops up a grounder with his hand against the San Diego Padres at Tropicana Field.
Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Alex Cobb (53) points to third base as third baseman Evan Longoria (3) scoops up a grounder with his hand against the San Diego Padres at Tropicana Field. [ Times (2013) ]

2006: Evan Longoria was obvious and they also got Alex Cobb, Desmond Jennings.

2007: David Price was clear top pick; Matt Moore, Stephen Vogt starred at times.

1999: Josh Hamilton had issues, but he and Carl Crawford were a talented duo.

2004: Well armed with Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, Jake McGee, Andy Sonnanstine.

2000: Rocco Baldelli was good, James Shields as a 16th-rounder even better.

Five worst drafts

Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson was pretty much the only player who panned out in the 2005 draft class.
Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson was pretty much the only player who panned out in the 2005 draft class. [ Times (2014) ]

2008: The Tim Beckham-Buster Posey thing was only part of the problem.

2011: Ten of the top 60 picks, and just Blake Snell (and his Cy Young) to show for it.

2009: Didn’t sign their top two picks, got pretty much nothing from the rest.

2012: Missed with Casey Gillaspie first, added no one of consequence later.

2005: Landed only Jeremy Hellickson in what was one of the best overall classes.

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