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Rays ‘optimistic’ about signing draft picks, plan free-agent pitches

Pleased with their “pretty interesting mix” of draftees, they move on to the undrafted player market.
The Rays selected pitcher Nick Bitsko of Central Bucks East (Pa.) High School in the first round of the MLB draft, 24th overall.
The Rays selected pitcher Nick Bitsko of Central Bucks East (Pa.) High School in the first round of the MLB draft, 24th overall. [ USA Baseball ]
Published Jun. 12, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — After some extra sleep and — perhaps even better — a respite from a steady stream of Zoom calls, Rays officials felt pretty good Friday about the six players they selected in this week’s draft.

And, according to amateur scouting director Rob Metzler, “very optimistic” they’ll get them all signed as they move into the opening Sunday at 9 a.m. of the market for undrafted players to sign for a maximum $20,000 bonus.

Still, there is work — and negotiating — to be done with the six draftees amid industry speculation that top pick Nick Bitsko, the prep pitcher from Pennsylvania, will seek a deal above his slot bonus of $2,831,300.

Related: Rays cap draft by shopping local

The Rays have a total of $7,474,600 to work with and can allocate more to Bitsko by paying others less than their slots. Several already have said they plan to sign, so those deals may have been discussed — and even part of the draft strategy.

Plus, no deals are official until players take physicals, a process that is complicated by coronavirus pandemic-related restrictions.

Metzler said the Rays liked the combination of talent among their six draftees.

They got two high school right-handed starting pitcher prospects in Bitsko and Hunter Barnhart, a college lefty in Ian Seymour and a dominant college reliever in righty Jeff Hakanson, a Jesuit High product. They also picked two college shortstops with different skill sets in Akila Williams and Tanner Murray.

“Pretty interesting mix, and it ended up being a pretty balanced group,’’ Metzler said. “Not necessarily any intention to it, really, just focused on taking what we believe to be the best player on the board. But it’s not a bad thing when it works out that way.’’

The organized market and bonus limit for undrafted players is new, a product of the draft being slashed from 40 rounds to five (and only 160 picks) as a cost-cutting move stemming from the pandemic.

Teams essentially will engage in college football-style recruiting, touting their facilities, staff, development programs and past successes to get the commitment given that the bonus money will be the same. Some are getting creative, preparing videos, organizing Zoom calls with staff or arranging for current and past players to reach out.

Related: Rays don’t see first-round draft pick Nick Bitsko, 17, as a gamble

Metzler said the Rays were still finalizing specifics of their plans but would use “multiple formats’’ to reach out to players and “communicate as best as possible what the organization has to offer.’’ Having a highly regarded development program and top-ranked minor-league system would seem to be a big plus but could also be a deterrent for players unsure how or if they would fit in.

Another factor for the Rays is deciding how many players to pursue and sign given the likelihood there won’t be a traditional minor-league season this year and opportunities could be reduced next year amid discussions that could reduce the number of minor-league teams industry-wide.