ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays don’t know — and won’t until late Sunday night — who they are going to take with their first choice in the annual draft.
Amid all the rewards from their 2020 success is the residual action of being dropped to just about the bottom of the draft order, picking 28th — their lowest since 2009 — limiting the value of even seemingly good intel.
But at least they have a strong chance of having seen the player live and up close before making the call and potentially committing millions.
With no high school and college games to watch after mid-March last year due to pandemic cancellations, the Rays and all other teams were forced to do the massive majority of their scouting off video of either closed workouts or earlier games.
So if nothing else, between the return of in-person scouting (and an extra month to do so with the draft pushed back from June) and the expansion to 20 rounds after last year’s abbreviated five, this year seems more normal.
“It feels great,” said Rob Metzler, the Rays’ senior director of amateur scouting. “It was awesome how much baseball was played, and it was awesome we were able to be there in person.”
What the Rays do with that 28th pick and the No. 34 selection they have via the competitive balance round is what matters more, of course. While what the teams picking ahead of them do ultimately determines who the Rays take, recent history provides some guide.
This will be the sixth draft since Metzler took over and the Rays modified and modernized some of their processes and priorities. Though their top picks have come from each quadrant — prep and college, position players and pitchers — there are some clues to what they look for.
ESPN analyst Kiley McDaniel said the Rays’ profile is to lean toward middle infielders, often collegians, who can hit and develop power as they go and “sort of risky” pitchers with command issues or a lack of track record but other tools to reach their ceiling.
“I would say, in general, top three rounds it’s hit-first middle infielder and then upside I think are probably the two things they lean into the most,” McDaniel said. “Generally sort of reviewing their approach in the draft and success, I think they’re seen as one of the top five to top 10 groups in terms of domestic amateur scouting, and I think they’ve probably done a little better than (the) average team would do.”
Metzler, by nature, doesn’t reveal much about the Rays’ strategy (or anything else, for that matter), except to acknowledge that it has changed.
In the past, the Rays seemed to prioritize players who they felt were athletic enough to have the biggest impact in the majors but had to develop considerably to reach it. In recent years, they appear more interested in high-upside players who already have identified top-level skills, albeit with some risk, that can position them to move fast and show them sooner.
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“I think it’s been molded,” Metzler said. “I think it might be just a reflection of the changes in minor-league baseball over the course of the past (few years). Back a long time, it was different — I think there was more patience.
“You guys are keeping track of how the ’18, ’19 and ’20 drafts are going. They’re not hanging out down in Port Charlotte. I don’t know if it’s the world in general in grand view, or just more of minor league baseball … but it’s much more of an immediate thing. Not to say that we’re not going to get players who are on longer trajectories. We’re going to take the best talent available.”
There are examples of the quick risers in the first three of Metzler’s drafts, 2016-17-18, as eight players already have gotten to the majors — some with the Rays, some after being traded or let go.
From 2016: outfielder Jake Fraley, first baseman Nate Lowe, pitcher Sammy Long (plus unsigned pitcher Wyatt Mills).
From 2017: pitcher/DH Brendan McKay, shortstop Taylor Walls, pitcher Josh Fleming, pitcher Paul Campbell (plus unsigned pitcher Drew Rasmussen).
From 2018: pitcher Shane McClanahan (with promising prospects such as pitcher Matt Liberatore traded to the Cardinals for Randy Arozarena, and Joe Ryan, at Triple-A).
“(The classes are) each unique,” Metzler said. “We’re encouraged by how players are doing in each of them. To have some players in the ’16 and ’17 groups up here helping is awesome. And now one from the ’18 group. … (To have) some others playing well from the ’18-’19 class and even a few from the ’20 class now out playing well, we’re happy with how they’re doing.”
Now, it’s time for the next group.
Sunday: Round 1/competitive balance, 7-10:30; ESPN, MLB Network, mlb.com
Monday: Rounds 2-10, 1-7; Round 2 on MLB Network, remainder on mlb.com
Tuesday: Rounds 11-20, noon-2:30; mlb.com
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