For a team that wins on a budget, Rays have a spotty draft history

John Romano | Between 2008-15, Tampa Bay had an awful lot of misses in the first couple of rounds of the draft. It’s remarkable that the front office is still fielding a 90-win team.
Tim Beckham was not the worst overall No. 1 pick in MLB draft history but, with a career WAR of 3.5, he is certainly in the running. Times archive photo.
Tim Beckham was not the worst overall No. 1 pick in MLB draft history but, with a career WAR of 3.5, he is certainly in the running. Times archive photo. [ Times (2017) ]
Published June 14, 2020|Updated June 14, 2020

Do not judge me. I miss baseball and box scores, and all those rows of numbers adding up to perfection.

So I stayed up entirely too late a couple of nights last week to feed this addiction, even though I was technically on vacation. The MLB draft was going on, and I was pondering Tampa Bay’s recent struggles.

You know what I’m talking about. During an eight-year span beginning in 2008, the Rays had a bounty of picks in the first couple rounds of the draft. All told, they had 17 picks in the top 50 of those assorted drafts and have virtually nothing to show for it.

More than half of those first- and second-rounders never reached the majors, and the rest of them were barely recognized and largely forgotten.

Related: First things first: A look at Rays’ top draft picks

Now, this wouldn’t be a catastrophe for the Yankees, Red Sox or Dodgers. They can buy their way out of trouble, and usually do.

But the Rays need to be better, right? That’s the cost of playing without a safety net. The scouting department has had success with international signings and the front office has been exceptional with trades, but the draft still needs to feed the bulk of the roster.

So what do the numbers say? Did the Rays bungle an opportunity?

Technically, no. Although I would still argue, yes.

I’ll start by explaining my highly unscientific research. I went through every team’s draft from 06-15 and added up the WAR (wins above replacement) for every pick, according to WAR is not a perfect statistic, but it’s a generally accurate portrayal of a player’s value.

I only counted players who were signed after they were drafted, and I did not subtract for players who were subsequently traded. For instance, the Blue Jays do not get credit for Kris Bryant because they did not sign him after taking him in the 18th round in 2010, but the Pirates get credit for Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows, even though the front office foolishly traded them to Tampa Bay.

Related: Rays Tales: Doug Waechter knows exactly what Rays draftee Jeff Hakanson is feeling

The window begins in 2006 because that’s the first draft under Stu Sternberg’s ownership, but it’s important to note that the numbers will change as players continue to advance in their careers.

So, with all those qualifiers out of the way, which team had the best accumulation of picks during that 10-year span? The Diamondbacks (255.9 WAR), and it wasn’t particularly close.

The problem is Arizona let a lot of those picks (Max Scherzer, Paul Goldschmidt, Trevor Bauer, Wade Miley, A.J. Pollock, Adam Eaton and Dansby Swanson) get away, which is why theDiamondbacks haven’t been raising many pennants in the desert. St. Louis (230.5), Atlanta (212.3) and San Francisco (202.4) also had a strong 10-year draft record.

The worst team, by far, was the Phillies (66.5). They were followed by Minnesota (103.6), Detroit (106) and Pittsburgh (117.6).

As for the Rays, they currently have the highest accumulation (194.7) in the American League in that span. That’s certainly praise-worthy and that’s why I said, technically, Tampa Bay did well.

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Related: How Rays found the answers and and comfort to draft Nick Bitsko

But there are a couple of extenuating circumstances. Nearly half of Tampa Bay’s value is tied up in two players (David Price and Evan Longoria) chosen with the Nos. 1 and 3 picks in consecutive years.

Now, you can’t penalize the Rays for making the correct choices at the top of the draft, but it’s not really as impressive as getting Mike Trout (No. 25 pick), Aaron Judge (No. 32), Nolan Arenado (No. 59), Giancarlo Stanton (No. 76), Mookie Betts (No. 172) or Goldschmidt (No. 246) later in the draft.

The Rays did score big with Blake Snell (No. 52) and Kevin Kiermaier (No. 941) in later rounds but there were still an awful lot of missed opportunities beginning with Tim Beckham at the top of the ’08 draft.

You could say I’m being overly critical, and I wouldn’t argue the point. Even with a low payroll and even though they were picking near the end of the first round most of that time, the Rays have had back-to-back 90-win seasons and will be World Series contenders if there is a postseason in 2020. They’ve also had some promise in recent drafts with Brendan McKay and Brandon Lowe.

But Tampa Bay needs to be better in the draft. It’s remarkable the Rays have been as successful as they have been the past few seasons, considering their recent draft history. And it’s probably not sustainable if things don’t get better in a hurry.

So good luck to 2020 first-round picks Nick Bitsko and Alika Williams.

The Rays are counting on you to make us forget a lot of past disappointments.