Marshall Bradway. 16th April, 2007 - 1:16 pm
There is no denying the Tampa Bay Devil Rays have one of the best farm systems in all of Major League Baseball. The scouting department and front office have done a great job drafting young players who are capable of helping a major league team. Not only can the effects of such a developed farm system be seen at Tropicana Field this season, but the team has put itself in great position for the future as well.
The Devil Rays own ten of ScoutingBook.com?s top 100 prospects for 2007, including three players in the top 20 and six in the top 60. Seven members of the Devil Rays opening day roster were drafted by the Tampa Bay organization within the last eight years. Former All-Star outfielder Carl Crawford, who was drafted in the second round of the 1999 amateur draft and led the American League in stolen bases and triples last year, was the first player drafted and groomed by the organization to make a significant impact at the major league level. Crawford is now widely considered a cornerstone of the organization and the face of the team.
Three other members of the Devil Rays, who were drafted by the team, include very talented but often-injured outfielder Rocco Baldelli, number two starting pitcher Jamie Shields, and power hitting designated hitter Jonny Gomes. Baldelli, selected sixth overall in 2000, regularly plays centerfield and is in charge of getting on-base for the heart of the order, while batting leadoff. Shields, taken in the 16th round of the same draft, is in his second year at the major league level. Last season he compiled a 6-8 record in twenty-one starts striking out 104 batters in only 124.1 innings pitched. For the first time in two years, Jonny Gomes, selected in the 18th round of the 2001 draft, does not have a regular starting spot, but he should still be a major power contributor off the bench for the speedy Devil Rays.
In the last five years in particular, the Devil Rays have done a terrific job drafting players who should benefit the organization for years to come. The 2007 season marks the rookie campaign for two very special players within the franchise. B.J. Upton, selected with the 2nd overall pick in the 2002 draft, and Delmon Young, taken with the 1st overall pick the next year, could be All-Stars for years to come. Upton, the team?s starting second baseman and 9th batter, has a great deal of speed and a very consistent bat that should help the bottom of the order. Young, the starting right fielder and fifth hitter, has a lot of raw power and speed as exhibited by the 25 home run, 20 stolen base seasons he exhibited in just only two years in the minor leagues.
In the last three drafts the team has done a great job filling in more long term holes, like starting pitching and the corner infield positions. The team?s first round pick in 2004, Jeff Niemann, is pitching at the AAA level and should be called up to the major leagues during the season. The team?s second round choice in 2004, shortstop Reid Brignac, who is considered a future starter for the parent club, is playing for the AA Vero Beach team. In the 2005 draft, the Devil Rays selected Niemann?s college teammate and former roommate Wade Townsend, who is currently pitching for the organization?s Columbus Catfish at the A level. Evan Longoria, the third overall pick in the 2006 draft figures to be the team?s long term answer at third base and is already playing full-time at the AA level.
If you knew nothing about baseball and were reading this article, you would probably assume the Devil Rays would be a very successful organization with great success at the major league level. However, this is a team that has never won more seventy games and has finished in the basement of the American League East eight out of the franchise?s nine seasons. It has not helped that in the first few years of their existence they have overpaid for veteran players who they thought would help lead the team.
Neither Greg Vaughn, Jose Canseco, or Fred McGriff,, who are all former All-Stars and great players in their prime, made any significant short or long-term impact on the Devil Rays. The Devil Rays do have some large contracts coming off the books this offseason, and perhaps the team will look to re-invest that money into the ball club.
With such an extensive farm system, that is already beginning to put players in the Devil Rays? lineup, the team needs to re-strategize and find a way of turning their system into wins. It could actually become a weakness if not used properly. The team needs to realize that you cannot, and will not, keep every solid prospect in your minor league programs and there is not room to play all of them, some already being blocked by young successful talent.
The perfect example deals with the team?s third base position. The team went out and signed Akinori Iwamura from the Pacific League in Japan to a three-year contract. In doing this, they have virtually stopped up one major league ready third baseman in Joel Guzman, who was acquired this offseason in a trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers. It also halted the advancement of Evan Longoria, who is seen as the team?s future at the position. While you have already shifted around players like Upton and Ty Wigginton, a versatile infielder and the team?s clean up hitter, around to fill other needs, you cannot play Iwamura, Guzman, and Longoria at the same time. You also would not want to impede the progress of Guzman and Longoria by having them sit in the dugout, so they will remain in the minors.
One glaring weakness on the Devil Rays is the lack of depth in both the starting rotation and bullpen. Over the last few seasons, Casey Fossum has not provided many quality starts form the back end of the rotation while Jae Seo and Edwin Jackson, the Devil Rays? current fourth and fifth starting pitchers, are both new to the team. The problem is, they didn?t fair well with their former teams in similar roles. While pitchers like Mark Hendrickson and Jon Lieber of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies have been available for most of the spring, the Devil Rays have yet to make an attempt to make a trade for a reliable, veteran pitching presence.
It appears as though the Tampa Bay Devil Rays front office is too worried about long term success then putting together their best major league team right now. While you certainly have to consider the future, prospects, and depth, you cannot afford to put out a half-hearted final product to the fans in Tampa Bay and central Florida. This was a team that went from averaging just under 31,000 fans per game in its inaugural season in 1998 to averaging fewer than 17,000 in 2006. The front office needs to find a way to stop this trend before this team becomes the Montreal Expos of the American League.
My advice: Start to think more short term, look to trade a young prospect behind some of the young major league talent like Joel Guzman, or trade that same major leaguer to allow guys like Guzman to play. The team would certainly become a contender in the American League East in five or six years, but they have the young talent both offensively and at the front of their rotation to give their four big-market competitors (in the AL East) a run for their money this year. That is, if they were willing to make a few roster changes.