Rays near top at producing prospects
Tampa Bay trails only Texas in ESPN's organizational rankings
ST. PETERSBURG -- Scouting and development is the mantra of Rays baseball.
In the minds of the Rays' brass, keeping the two in harmony to produce young prospects is the only way to compete with the likes of their division rivals, the Yankees and Red Sox.
Recently the Rays were ranked second behind the Rangers in ESPN's Keith Law's rankings based on "the current states of their farm systems." These rankings were based on Minor Leaguers and players who will be Major League rookies in 2009.
Left-hander David Price was ranked the second-best prospect in the game in Law's Top 100, just behind Orioles catcher Matt Wieters. In addition, five other Tampa Bay prospects made Law's top 100: shortstop Tim Beckham (No. 11), outfielder Desmond Jennings (No. 25); right-hander Wade Davis (No. 33), right-hander Jeremy Hellickson (No. 47) and shortstop Reid Brignac (No. 78).
Regarding these rankings, Law wrote of the Rays:
"They just keep churning out the prospects, although they'll have a new challenge in 2009: no Draft picks in the top 10 -- or even 20. Success with high school pitchers taken after the first round has been a big part of their system's depth, including another wave of kids who spent 2008 in short-season ball. However, their recent efforts in Latin America have yet to yield any significant prospects."
Law broached the subject of how the Rays will fare without the benefit of picking at the top of the First-Year Player Draft. This year, Tampa Bay will make its first pick at No. 30. In the previous three Drafts, the Rays selected Evan Longoria, Price and Beckham -- with Price and Beckham being the top overall picks.
Tampa Bay scouting director R.J. Harrison addressed the new era for his department and how the organization might be affected.
"Theoretically, you have a shot at the very best guys available when you're picking up there," Harrison said. "And you pick at the top of every round. The opportunities are better when you pick up there. But we're looking forward to picking where we're picking."
While picking from a premium slot at the Draft is critical, history has shown that the best choices aren't always made.
"You can look at past Drafts, which I do all the time and you go, 'Oh my gosh, how did this guy get to here?' and that sort of thing," Harrison said. "And conversely, you'll be like, 'That wasn't a very good choice.'"
Drafting at No. 30 will dictate "a little different strategy," according to Harrison. For starters, he won't be able to narrow down the field as he has been able to do in the past five Drafts, which allowed him to have individual meetings with the top three to five players the Rays were considering.
"I'm going to be that much more dependent on our guys in the area, building relationships [with the different prospects] and that sort of thing and feeling good about the individual that we're considering," Harrison said. "Hopefully they've already established relationships with the guy we're going to draft in the first round."
One thing is for sure: scouting won't be handing development the same kind of prospect -- at least from the No. 1 slot -- as it has in recent years.
|"For us, in scouting, I think it's going to be a new challenge. After the first round, in the past, it's like you have to be ready for anything. The hardest part is going to be sitting there waiting all the way through the first round to get to our pick."|
|-- Rays scouting director R.J. Harrison, on picking 30th in 2009 Draft|
"But I think that in most Drafts -- and the numbers can change each year -- after you get past that first handful of guys -- and the further you get from that handful of guys -- you have a chance to get a similar type talent, tools, with the 30th pick as you do with someone in the teens."
Experience tells Harrison not to be surprised at who is available when the Rays make their first pick.
"We can't assume anything," Harrison said. "You can't assume that a guy won't be there when you pick then all of a sudden, he's there."
Harrison cited the case of Carl Crawford when the Rays were drafting in 1999. They had the top pick that season and selected Josh Hamilton. Never in their wildest imagination did they figure Crawford would still be available when their turn came up again at the top of the second round. But Tampa Bay's scouts did their homework anyway, and when he was available, it selected him and got a future All-Star.
"We would not have gotten him had we decided early on that he's a high-profile football player, he's going to Nebraska, and even if he does get to us, we can't sign him," Harrison said. "If we had those kinds of mentalities, we wouldn't have been ready to take him. But we were prepared, so we have to be prepared for anything, now more so than ever this year."
Harrison won't say scouting and development will be more difficult under the new circumstances.
"More challenging, I like to put it," Harrison said. "For us, in scouting, I think it's going to be a new challenge. After the first round, in the past, it's like you have to be ready for anything. The hardest part is going to be sitting there waiting all the way through the first round to get to our pick. It's just a little bit of a different challenge and something that we're all certainly embracing."
After all, picking 30th in the Draft means that good things happened in the Major Leagues.
"That's what all of our jobs are about. If we're having success at the big league level, that means we're doing something right," Harrison said. "You hope like heck you get it right [with the Draft] and that you're lucky and guys stay injury-free. There are a lot of things that can happen from when you draft and sign them until you on that road to get them to the big leagues."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.