[Chris Glover, our English contributor currently residing in Toronto, is back with a dynamite breakdown of the construction of the Rays. With the the draft Andrew Friedman called "the most important draft in club history" on the horizon, this is essential reading for Rays fans.]
After their solid start to the season and widely praised farm system, the Kansas City Royals are a hot story and have been getting more attention than in years past. When setting context for where the Royals are, several commentators have noted that they look like the Rays from 2007: “With all those high draft picks, it’s inevitable that they will come good at some point.”
This perception is becoming increasingly frustrating and, to be honest, a little disrespectful of the Rays: they are where they are today because they were bad for so many years, stockpiled high draft picks and are now reaping the benefits. Of course, there is an element of truth to this – 70 or less wins in every season and 10 of 11 last place finishes in the AL East until 2008 tells a grim tale – however, to attribute the majority of the current success on those years of ineptitude seems simplistic at best. With that in mind, let’s take a quick look through the current roster, how they were acquired and how this compares to other teams in the division (I am going to stick to the major league roster so future call ups are excluded for now).
High draft picks
- B.J. Upton (2nd overall pick, 2002) [Mark's Note: Think the Pirates want that Brian Bullington 1st overall pick back right about now?]
- Jeff Niemann (4th overall pick, 2004)
- Reid Brignac (45th overall pick, 2004)
- Wade Davis (75th overall pick, 2004)
- Evan Longoria (3rd overall pick, 2006)
- David Price (1st overall pick, 2007)
Three points to make on these first picks:
- First, they are obviously extremely talented and a major part of the Rays roster today. Price and Longoria look set to be Cy Young and MVP candidates for years to come while all the others are above average starters (Upton’s career Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is 13.1, Brignac 0.8, Davis 2.1 and Niemann 3.2). Without Price, Longoria or arguably Upton it is doubtful the Rays have two AL East banners flying at the Trop.
- Secondly though, I think it is also important to note that high draft picks do not necessarily equal successful draft picks and all of these players aside from Price were passed on by someone else (how are Luke Hochevar and Grey Reynolds working out for Kansas City and Colorado in place of Longoria?). Upton is the only top five selection from 2002 to feature in more than a handful of major league games, while Niemann makes a strong argument for being the third best player in his class (behind Justin Verlander (2nd pick) and Jered Weaver (12th)).
- Finally, how good does that 2004 class look right now? Niemann, Brignac and Davis were joined by Jake McGee and Andy Sonnanstine giving five important members of the current big league roster today. On top of that, Ben Zobrist, J.P. Howell, Sam Fuld and Adam Russell were also drafted in ’04 making it 10 of the current 25 man roster drafted that year. On an interesting side note, the first overall pick that year was Matt Bush who now finds himself in Montgomery.
So if all the Rays’ players aren’t highly touted draft picks, where did they come from?
Later round draft picks
- James Shields (16th round, 2000)
- John Jaso (12th round ,2003)
- Jake McGee (5th round, 2004)
- Andy Sonnanstine (13th round, 2004)
- Jeremy Hellickson (4th round, 2005)
Two-fifths of the rotation which ranks 4th in the AL in ERA and 2nd in WHIP along with a long reliever, potential closer and decent catcher is a pretty good haul for later round picks. Shields grades out as a top-10 pick of the 2000 draft class with only Adrian Gonzalez, Chase Utley, Cliff Lee and Adam Wainwright definitely ahead of him (the once dominant but oft-injured trio of Dontrelle Willis, Brandon Webb and Grady Sizemore are more debateable). It’s still early yet, but Jeremy Hellickson could also play out as a top-5 pitcher in a deep ’05 draft class with only Matt Garza, Clay Buchholz and Ricky Romero off to a much quicker start in their career (and all are at least 2 years older than Jeremy).
Acquired via trade
- Ben Zobrist (in the Aubrey Huff deal)
- Sam Fuld (in the Matt Garza deal)
- Sean Rodriguez (in the Scott Kazmir deal)
- Matt Joyce (for Edwin Jackson)
- Kelly Shoppach (for Mitch Talbot)
- Adam Russell (in the Jason Bartlett deal)
- Cesar Ramos (in the Jason Bartlett deal)
- J.P Howell (traded for Fernando Cortez and Joey Gathright)
This is where the Rays front office have really distinguished themselves from other teams and it is here that we should focus rather than the big name draft picks. We can assess the value of these trades in more detail in a future post but a couple of points are worth highlighting:
- Zobrist delivered more value (based on FanGraphs ‘dollar value’ measure) during last week’s double header in Minnesota ($1.4m) than Huff did during his career in Houston ($0.5m).
- Since leaving Tampa, Kazmir has been terrible, posting a 5.48 ERA, 1.55 WHIP and a total WAR of just 0.2. Dave Cameron at FanGraphs suggested that “Kazmir was among the worst pitchers in baseball last year, and that version was far superior to the one who took the hill [in Kazmir’s first start this year]”. Unfortunately, Kazmir may be finished as a big league pitcher.
- Sam Fuld has perhaps been Tampa’s best player to date this year but Matt Garza has been even better (league leading xFIP of 1.98) and we will need Brandon Guyer, Chris Archer or Hak-Ju Lee to develop if this one is going to pan out (of course, this deal was not meant to be evaluated now and the development of Fuld is merely a bonus to a trade which restocked the farm system while shedding salary for 2011).
- After one season it looked like Matt Joyce for Edwin Jackson was a rare miss by the Tampa Bay front office but with Jackson struggling to find consistent success (and with his third team since leaving Tampa) and Joyce enjoying a good start to the season (I know, I know, small sample sizes and a .433 BABIP looks terrifying) the winner of this trade is uncertain to say the least.
Buster Olney recently suggested there are rumblings of other GMs being reluctant to deal with Friedman such has been his knack for dumping players at the right time and the form of the likes of Fuld and Joyce paired with the recent struggles of Kazmir, Bartlett and Wheeler will only strengthen the legend of Friedman’s staff.
- Johnny Damon
- Dan Johnson
- Felipe Lopez
- Casey Kotchman
- Elliot Johnson
- Kyle Farnsworth
- Joel Peralta
- Juan Cruz
This eclectic bunch can hardly be considered to be an elite bounty of free agency pickings. Johnny Damon ($5.25m) was a comparably big acquisition but all the others aside from Kyle Farnsworth ($2.6m) are due to make less than $1m in 2011 and were generally considered to be cast offs from other teams. It’s no surprise that acquiring players in free agency is the biggest gulf between the Rays and their wealthier AL East competitors (even the Orioles’ spending eclipses the Rays by some distance).
Around the league
So, how does the makeup of the Rays compare with the rest of the AL East?
Baltimore Orioles – between 2002 and 2007, when the Rays enjoyed their high draft picks, the Orioles also held high picks with all but one coming in the top nine selections. Of those picks, only Nick Markakis (2003 – 7th) and Matt Wieters (2007 – 5th) are currently making an impact in the bigs. Adam Loewen (2002 – 4th), Wade Townsend (2004 – 8th), Brandon Snyder (2005 – 13th) and Billy Rowell (2006 9th) range from being out of the game to converted to the outfield. To reiterate, high picks do not equal good picks.
Boston Red Sox – the Sox include three players picked in the top-5 overall (Gonzalez, Drew and Beckett) and ten first round picks in total, four of which were made by Boston (Lowrie, Ellsbury, Bard and Buchholz). The difference being of course that Boston acquired these players with the benefit of hindsight having seen them play in the big leagues, yet still don’t boast as good a record as Tampa Bay in identifying talent, or at least getting the most out of it.
New York Yankees – a surprising nine players on the 25 man roster can be considered to be home grown including three first rounders (Jeter, Hughes and Chamberlain). However, their top two starters and five of their top six bats have all been acquired as big name free agents or via trade. These players include three of the largest six contracts in history (Rodriguez, Teixeira and Sabathia) and the 8th largest given to a pitcher. If we are considering high draft picks an advantage for Tampa Bay then let’s just say bottomless pockets to buy high draft picks in their prime aren’t a bad thing to have either.
Toronto Blue Jays – the Jays have eight first-rounders on their big league roster, five of which they picked plus a couple of arms acquired via trade (Drabek and Morrow [Mark again - I hope someone in Seattle got fired for giving up on that guy so quick.]). The Jays have done a nice job in the draft over the past few years and the Halladay trade gave them some much needed star power in their farm system. However, it’s hard to feel too sorry for a franchise that gave Vernon Wells seven years and $126m (next time you see him wandering round left field or hacking his way to a .218 OBP, remember he is owed $63m over 3 years after this season. Remind me again how they persuaded the Angels to take him off their books).
It doesn’t need repeating that the Rays are at a disadvantage when it comes to competing with the Yankees and the Red Sox but to try and diminish their achievements based on an assumption that the Rays benefited from years of misery is a bit unfair. Yes the Rays were given an opportunity to pick some great players but that is what the draft is for and many teams before them have failed to convert those chances into success. In short, stop making excuses for why the Rays are kicking your collective butts with a payroll smaller than Bartolo Colon’s ______ (insert your own punch line here) and start trying to win some games.