ST. PETERSBURG — The joy Tampa native Jeff Hakanson felt Thursday in being drafted by his hometown Rays was so plentiful that he almost felt the need to apologize.
“I’m absolutely excited by this opportunity," Hakanson said after being taken in the fifth round from UCF, where he was a dominant reliever. “I just can’t wait to get started. I can’t wait to sign the papers and I’m a part of the Tampa Bay Rays. It’s awesome.
“I know there’s a lot of stuff going on in the world right now, but I’m ready to get to work whenever I can."
Doug Waechter can relate.
In 1999, Waechter was the kid, from St. Petersburg’s Northeast High, who got the local call.
“Getting drafted by the team as an 18-year-old for me was almost a fairy-tale story," said Waechter, who pitched four of his six big-league seasons for the Rays and now does pre- and post-game television analysis. “You get all the teams telling you they’re interested, that they might pick you through a certain round. So you really don’t know where you’re going to go.
“You always have those favorites in your back pocket that you hope will select you. Your top choice is always going to be your hometown team. When I got the phone call from Kevin Elfering, one of the same scouts who drafted Hakanson, I remember tearing up a little bit, thinking I’m so blessed to be drafted by my own team, that I went to opening day to watch, the first game ever (in 1998).
“Now I have the chance, they’re giving me the opportunity, to come up and play for them. Not only to play pro ball, but to play pro ball for a team I’ve grown up loving and supporting. The opportunity is very rare to play pro ball, but when you get the opportunity to play for your hometown team, you feel that much more pride and you just feel like you have that much support behind you to make it to the big leagues."
Waechter, 39, said he didn’t feel any added pressure on the way to the majors about being the local kid. “It wasn’t until I actually got to Tropicana Field and I had to give out about 150 tickets the night of my first start (Sept. 3, 2003)," he said. “Then you start thinking about it and feeling the eyes that are watching you. But you also realize that they’re there to support you."
Another key point was the decision whether to sign, as Waechter had another appealing option to play quarterback at USF.
“I was ready to go; there was no doubt in my mind I was going to play football," Waechter said. “Then when the Rays picked me in third round there was no doubt in my mind I was going to play baseball."
“Risk” was the most common word associated with the Rays’ decision to draft Nick Bitsko, who pitched only two years in high school, in the first round. Some, like MLB Network analyst and former GM Dan O’Dowd said there was too much and he needs “to see so much more" before making that call. Baseball America’s Carlos Collazo said drafting high-school right-handers is a gamble anyway and that Bitsko’s lack of innings creates an “additional layer of risk.” ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel made a similar note but said “this is the kind of risk you can see a team with the top farm system taking, especially when they aren’t scared of taking a prep arm and have a solid track record with them." And MLB.com’s Jim Callis said: “I loved the Bitsko pick for the Rays — he had the biggest upside of anyone available at No. 24. The Rays do a nice job of developing young arms and he has the stuff, polish and body to become a frontline pitcher." … Virginia Tech coach John Szefc said second-round pick lefty pitcher Ian Seymour is “a legit” No. 3-4 type starter in the majors: “He’s not the 6-4 underwear-model looking guy; he’s probably 6 foot and built like a fullback, and he works that hard, or probably harder. He’s made himself into a second-round pick. He’ll be a very easy guy to root for." … Shortstop Alika Williams, the No. 37 pick, was the best defensive infielder among college players in the draft, per Baseball America. … Fourth-round pick, shortstop Tanner Murray, started his career at UC-Davis as a walk-on. … Tigers third-round pick Trei Cruz is the son of former Rays outfielder Jose Cruz Jr.
This has to be the week an agreement is reached to start the season commissioner Rob Manfred promised, right? … Interesting sign on the office wall of GM Erik Neander, who prefers a humble approach, quoting theoretical physicist Richard Feynman: “I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong." … The Rays will be somewhat aggressive in pursuit of undrafted players, who can sign for a maximum $20,000 starting at 9 a.m. Sunday. … Catcher Mike Zunino, a former Florida Gator, is on ESPN.com’s ballot to pick an all-time college team, with voting starting Monday. Brendan McKay (Louisville) is nominated as a two-way player. … If teams get to carry 60 players between their rosters and taxi squads, does top prospect Wander Franco make the cut? … Tampa’s Denard Span, who didn’t play in 2019 after splitting 2018 between the Rays and Mariners, told mlbtraderumors.com he considered himself officially retired when he didn’t get signed for this season, and said it was a matter of principle because the offers he received were too low. … Charlie Morton is eighth in Jim Bowden’s ranking for The Athletic of the top 10 starting pitchers. … The Rays Republic team store is offering discounted Father’s Day gift packages, starting at $100; email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or call (727-342-5731) for info. … Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins confirmed what has seemed obvious, that playing regular-season games at their spring site in Dunedin is among the options if the U.S.-Canadian border remains closed when (or if) play starts. … Legendary Yankees broadcaster Suyzn Waldman is the guest for the Tampa Baseball Museum’s weekly Wednesday Facebook live talk at 4 p.m. ... The Rays are planning to continue voluntary workouts at the Trop, where about 16 players from the 40-man roster have been participating, with pitchers throwing off the bullpen mounds and hitters taking batting practice on the field in groups of two.
Eighteen players born in the Tampa Bay area have played for the Rays:
RHP Lance Carter
RHP Ryan Garton, RHP Ryan Webb
C Bobby Wilson
INF Steve Pearce, LHP Ryan Yarbrough
OK Kenny Kelly
1B Casey Kotchman, RHP Doug Waechter, RHP Ryan Weber
INF Christain Arroyo, C Kevin Cash, RHP Dwight Gooden, OF Matt Joyce, 1B Tino Martinez, 1B Fred McGriff, INF Jason Romano, OF Ozzie Timmons