Rays knew this day would come, and are ready
Beginning with Draft, Tampa Bay eyes new chapter in its history
When it comes to the Tampa Bay Rays, there are few accidents. All along, they knew 2011 was coming, that Carl Crawford, Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett would likely be gone. There was a surprise, when the Tigers gave Joaquin Benoit his three-year deal, which meant that in the winter when they needed to reconstruct a bullpen with a redistributed payroll, relief pitchers became 120-foot yacht luxury items.
So as far back as 2008, when they roared into the passing lane and made it to the World Series, Matt Silverman, Andrew Friedman and Co. knew what lay ahead. Oh, they could have traded a couple of players last season and gotten prospects, but they had to weigh the long-term franchise view of prospects against bringing the St. Pete Peninsula a winner, and clearly it was worth trying to win it all. Now, having finished ahead of the Yankees and Red Sox two of the past three years, they must retool.
While Friedman scrambles for a bullpen and a designated hitter, he is looking to June and the 2011 First-Year Player Draft. Tampa Bay has 10 picks before the second round, 12 picks through the first two rounds. There have been questions raised about how the Rays will pay the $12 million to $15 million to sign all these players in what is considered a deep Draft; worry not, that money was put aside two years ago. They will sign the players they want. They have to decide whom they want and when to draft them in a process so interesting that thrice they will have two picks in succession.
"We have a lot of work in front of us, because this Draft is so important to us," says Friedman, the executive vice president of baseball operations. "But it will also be fun."
On the Major League level, they expect Jeremy Hellickson to step into the rotation and join David Price, Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann, et al. Chris Archer, acquired from the Cubs in the Garza deal, may or may not be ready. They expect that Jake McGee and Alex Torres will jump out of the Minors into the bullpen and provide them with two left-handed power arms. Sometime during the season, Matt Moore, a swing-and-miss lefty considered by several scouts to be the best potential arm in the Florida State League, will slide into the rotation or, as Price did in 2008, gain Major League experience as a reliever.
This is a more complicated process than when the Rays annually had one of the eight top picks. That was the reward for ineptitude, and there were mistakes made even by this administration, such as the year they decided to take Tim Beckham instead of Buster Posey.
The first of their picks will be the 24th selection, so the top prospects in this Draft, like Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon, UCLA right-hander Gerrit Cole and TCU left-hander Matt Purke, will be long gone. This Draft requires detailed evaluation work on talent and background: In what order do they rank outfielders who might slide, such as Jackie Bradley of South Carolina, George Springer of UConn, Alex Dickerson of Indiana and Brian Goodwin of Miami-Dade? How do they rank the Vanderbilt pitchers Jack Armstrong Jr., Sonny Gray and Grayson Garvin?
Friedman seemed intrigued that the Red Sox planned to have scouts watch the Dexter School (Brookline, Mass.) hockey game Friday to watch John Magliozzi and get a line on his makeup; Magliozzi is signed to pitch for the University of Florida, but is considered by some scouts as a Craig Kimbrel clone who, because of his age, could be available in the 2011 and '12 Drafts (as a freshman).
Meanwhile, Commissioner Bud Selig is trying to help the Rays find a solution to their market dilemma. The solution may be a move to downtown Tampa or something east, in the Orlando direction, but that may or may not be possible.
The ballpark venue is part of the long view. So is the upcoming Draft. The immediate problems are whether Johnny Damon will help and whether Chad Durbin can fill the Dan Wheeler role, and who might pitch the ninth inning. The bullpen thing? Nothing should ever surprise anyone, even the Yankees paying a setup man $11 million per year. One spring, Benoit is in camp as a non-roster invitee, and eight months later, he gets three years and $16.5 million. Matt Capps gets non-tendered, and one year later, he signs for $7.15 million. The Rays right now need to find the next Benoit or Capps.
"We are a little surprised by what's happened in the bullpen market," says Friedman. "But most everything else? This is what we anticipated."
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.