Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Flush with Talent

Comebacks are rare.  Why else would ESPN cover every single underdog story in sports?  So it stands to reason that every network would want to write about the Rays.  Although most in the baseball world understand and admire the accomplishments of the Rays organization over the last 6 years, this is one comeback story that is only mentioned in passing, maybe due to the fact that most comeback stories concern singular figures, not organizations.

Between 1998 and 2007 the Devil Rays (now the Rays) compiled a whopping zero winning seasons.  During those ten seasons the team averaged 97.2 losses per season and only 64.5 wins.  That would make them the worst franchise over that time.  Not even the recently resurgent Pirates were as bad as the Rays from 1998 to 2007 (91.8 average losses and 89.9 average wins).  In 2008 the Devil Rays became the Rays, changed their jerseys and their usual status in winning percentage.  Since that time the Rays have won the American League East twice (2008 and 2010), considered the best division in baseball, and have made it as far as the World Series, losing to the Phillies in 2008. 

This turnaround is outstanding.  How did they do it?  During the years of the Devil Rays, the organization stockpiled great young talent.  The consolation given to the biggest losers is a high draft pick.  Between 1999 and 2008 the Rays never selected higher than 8th, selecting first 4 times.  In the three drafts since they have drafted 30th, 17th, and 32nd.  With great scouting and draft selections, the Rays propel themselves into the mix every season in the AL east amongst giant spenders like the Red Sox and Yankees.  Not all of the high round draft picks have panned out, but many have.  Josh Hamilton, selected first overall, left baseball due to alcohol and cocaine issues and never played a game in the majors for the Rays.  Rocco Baldelli ended up with a mitochondrial disorder and is no longer in baseball.  Success stories include, Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, Evan Longoria, David Price, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, Jeremy Hellickson, Ben Zobrist, and many others.

Despite being ranked 28th in the most recent MLB team valuations the team has recently been compiling lots of wins.  They have a small operating budget and rarely sign big name free agents.  Joe Madden and his coaching staff, the minor league coaching staffs, as well as the front office personnel have put together a winning package chock full of great talent.  The Rays may only have a 53-48 record, but it is good enough for 3rd in the AL east behind two great teams.  Yet the Rays’ are in an unique circumstance: they have a wealth of young talent, but many more players in the minor leagues ready to be called up to the majors.  As a result, the Rays have been forced to consider trading some of their top young players.  B.J. Upton's name has recently surfaced as a hot trade topic as well as James Shields, and even Jeff Niemann and Wade Daves.  The reason the Rays are looking to trade these players has everything to do with Desmond Jennings, Alex Cobb, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Chris Archer, and Alex Torres.  There is no other team that is forced to trade away great talent because they have better talent knocking at the door.  Obviously all of this talent hasn't led the Rays to enough success this season, but most teams would never consider trading the players the Rays have.  A perfect example comes from Colorado where Rockies ace Ubaldo Jimenez has been rumored to be traded.  He is a top talent entering the prime of his career, and the Rockies have attempted to quell trade talks in the hope they can keep the young righty.  The Rays may trade Shields, Davis, or Niemann, all good young talented starting pitchers.

The only organization that keeps up with the Rays amazing drafting and growing scheme is the Atlanta Braves.  The Braves have a mid level payroll and consistently bring up great young talent.  It would not surprise me if the Rays were to become a Braves-like organization.  I say kudos to the Rays on their amazing turnaround and I hope their fans support them better in the future because of any team, the Rays' future looks brightest.

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