Despite their shoestring budget, only one team won more games than the Tampa Bay Rays from 2008-13. The Rays won 550 games those years, 14 fewer than the New York Yankees but at least 12 more than any other team. Against all odds, the Rays were a perennial contender.
The last three seasons have been a much different story, however. The Rays won only 77 games in 2014, their fewest since the then-Devil Rays won 66 in 2007. Last year they improved to 80 wins, which still wasn’t enough to get back to the postseason.
This season the Rays are 60-83 and on pace for 94 losses, which would be their most since that 2007 team went 66-96. Tampa Bay has gone 29-51 in their last 81 games, and staff ace Chris Archer has a chance to become the majors’ first 20-game loser since Mike Maroth lost 21 games for the 2003 Detroit Tigers , the worst team I’ve ever seen.
How does a team go from winning the second most games in baseball over a six-year span to losing 90-plus games just three seasons later? The same way every team falls into the cellar: by making mistakes. Mistakes in decision making and player evaluation. Mistakes are inevitable, so limiting them is crucial.
Because the Rays don’t have the resources to cover for their mistakes the way the Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers or Boston Red Sox do, they’ve slipped in the standings the last few years and are now facing a potentially long uphill climb. There are two main reasons the Rays are where they are.
Their recent drafts haven’t yielded much
The Rays had a top 10 draft pick every year from 1999-2008, and those picks helped land them Melvin Upton (2nd overall in 2002), Delmon Young (1st in 2003), Evan Longoria (3rd in 2006), and David Price (1st in 2007). Longoria and Price are the gems, obviously, but Upton’s had a productive career too. Young was traded for Matt Garza , who was part of Tampa’s pennant-winning team in 2008.
Since selecting Price with the 1st overall pick in 2007, the Rays have drafted and signed only four players who have gone on to produce at least +1 WAR in the big leagues. Obviously the jury is still out on the most recent drafts, but at this point teams should be seeing results from 2008-12 draft classes, if not 2013. Here are those four +1 WAR players:
- OF Kevin Kiermaier : 15.0 WAR (31st round, 941st overall in 2010)
- RHP Jesse Hahn : 1.8 WAR (6th round, 191st overall)
- IF Derek Dietrich : 1.7 WAR (supplemental 2nd round, 72nd overall in 2010)
- IF Tim Beckham : 1.2 WAR (1st overall in 2008)
Kiermaier is a massive player development success. Getting an everyday player in the 31st round is hitting the draft lottery. He is, by far, Tampa’s most productive pick from the last nine drafts.
Hahn and Dietrich never played for the Rays but did prove useful in trades. Hahn was dealt to the San Diego Padres in the January 2014 swap that sent Logan Forsythe , Matt Andriese , and Brad Boxberger to Tampa. Dietrich was traded to the Miami Marlins straight up for Yunel Escobar in December 2012.
The Beckham pick is most symbolic of Tampa Bay’s recent draft failures. He was a legitimate top five draft prospect in 2008, though the number one prospect on just about every draft board was Florida State catcher Buster Posey . Posey is now in his 8th big league season with a Rookie of the Year, an MVP, and +32.9 WAR to his credit. Beckham, meanwhile, is struggling to stay on the Rays’ roster as a utility player.
Missing on a draft pick that high is a back-breaker for a small market franchise like the Rays. It seems unlikely Tampa will even get a chance to unload Beckham for a high upside player in a trade, the way they flipped Young for Garza when it was becoming clear Delmon would fall short of his perceived ceiling. They just have to hope Beckham is a late-bloomer.
As bad as the Beckham pick has turned out to be, the 2011 draft may have been even more harmful to the Rays long-term. Tampa lost Carl Crawford , Rafael Soriano , Joaquin Benoit , Randy Choate , Chad Qualls , Grant Balfour, and Brad Hawpe to free agency during the 2010-11 offseason and received compensation picks for all of them. Those were the days of the old Type-A/Type-B free agents. The qualifying offer didn’t exist yet.
The Rays had 10 first round picks in 2011 (!) and 12 of the first 89 picks thanks to all of those compensation picks. Of those 12, Tampa Bay landed one stud ( Blake Snell ) and one other fringe big leaguer ( Mikie Mahtook ). Only one of the remaining 10 players ranks among MLB.com’s top 30 Rays prospects ( Taylor Guerrieri ). Six of the other nine are no longer in the organization.
Snell is really awesome and the Rays did well with that pick. He’s a future rotation cornerstone. Unless Mahtook or Guerrieri have an impact down the road, Snell is the only regular big leaguer to come out of the Rays’ 2011 draft class even though they held 12 of the top 89 picks. All those extra picks were a chance to build the foundation for the next great Rays team. It hasn’t worked out.
A small market team like the Rays is going to live and die by the draft. It’s their best chance to land impact players on the cheap, either by drafting them or trading drafted prospects for them. The Rays have come up empty far too often in the draft since 2008. It’s set them back big time.
They’ve come up short on big trades
Because of their need to be creative to remain competitive, the Rays have never shied away from blockbuster trades. They’ve traded more than a few talented pitchers a year or two away from free agency to replenish the young player pipeline, and many worked out great, like the Garza trade. The Chicago Cubs sent Chris Archer, Brandon Guyer , and others to the Rays for Garza a few years back.
More recently, Tampa Bay has made some high-profile trades that are not working out as expected. Two immediately jump to mind.
1. The Price Trade. Two years ago the Rays had little choice but to trade staff ace David Price. He was a year and a half away from free agency and there was no chance Tampa would be able to afford to re-sign him. Theoretically, the sooner the traded him, the more they’d get back because he was further away from free agency.
At the 2014 trade deadline, the Rays traded Price to the Tigers in a three-team deal that sent Drew Smyly , Nick Franklin , and prospect Willy Adames to Tampa Bay. Price was, of course, marvelous after the trade. Smyly, on the other hand, has a 5.00 ERA (80 ERA+) this season and has battled shoulder problems since the deal. Franklin has played only 105 games with the Rays and is trying to stick as a utility man.
Adames is the potential saving grace here. The 21-year-old shortstop is the team’s top prospect according to MLB.com, and he hit .274/.372/.430 with 11 homers in Double-A this season. Adames is a top 100 prospect, no doubt, but when you trade a pitcher as good as Price and less than two years later you have to hope the Double-A infielder works out to save the trade, it’s not good.
Consider what the Tigers trade Price for last year, when he was half-a-season away from free agency, not a year and a half. Detroit netted two starters currently in their rotation ( Daniel Norris , Matt Boyd ) plus another prospect. The Tigers have received more immediate impact by trading Price than the Rays did. Maybe Adames will work out and make this all moot. Tampa has to hope that’s the case.
2. The Myers Trade. Two years ago the Rays seemed to grow tired of Wil Myers , the 2013 AL Rookie of the Year, so they traded him to the Padres in a massive 11-player trade. It’s remembered as a three-team trade but was really two separate two-team trades. Here’s the breakdown.
Trade 1: Rays trade Myers, Ryan Hanigan , and minor leaguers Jose Castillo and Gerardo Reyes to the Padres for Rene Rivera , Trea Turner , Joe Ross , Burch Smith , and minor leaguer Jake Bauers .
Trade 2: Rays trade Turner and Ross to the Washington Nationals for Steven Souza and minor leaguer Travis Ott.
That second trade is the killer. Trading Myers for the package built around Turner and Ross would have been a huge win for the Rays. (Bauers is also one of their top prospects.) Both Turner and Ross have already been difference-makers in their relatively short time as big leaguers. Especially Turner.
Rather than hold on to those two, they Rays immediately flipped Turner and Ross to the Nationals for Souza, a corner outfielder with big power but a .231/.304/.399 (93 OPS+) batting line and a 34.5 percent strikeout rate in two years with Tampa. Not exactly the most irreplaceable player in the world, you know?
At the time of the trade Souza was coming off a monster Triple-A season, though he was already 25, and all signs pointed to him being a strikeout prone hitter who would run into the occasional fastball at the MLB level. That’s exactly what he is. To get him, the Rays gave up two no doubt top 100 caliber prospects who are already paying big dividends for the Nats. Great trade for Washington. Brutal trade for the Rays.
The jury is still out on the Ben Zobrist trade and right now it looks like that deal will come down to shortstop prospect Daniel Robertson , who didn’t hit much in Triple-A this year and is Tampa’s No. 10 prospect in the eyes of MLB.com. That’s another deal where it feels like the Rays might have been able to do better than they did.
To be fair, the Rays have made some very good trades in recent years too. The Nathan Karns – Brad Miller swap is working out well for Tampa so far, ditto the six-player trade with the Padres that sent Logan Forsythe to the Rays. The smaller trades have worked out well. The big ones, such as the Price and Myers deals, have not so far. Price and Myers were two huge trade chips who didn’t net the Rays nearly enough impact talent in return.
The Rays are heading towards their first 90-loss season since the Devil Rays days, and they’ve sunk this low because their recent drafts and blockbuster trades haven’t provided enough MLB talent. When you have to pick up Oswaldo Arcia and Kevin Jepsen and Alexei Ramirez off the scrap heap like the Rays did this year, it’s a pretty good indication your player development system is not meeting expectations.
Whether a third straight sub-.500 seasons send the Rays into a full blown rebuild — trade Archer, trade Longoria, trade Forsythe, etc. — remains to be seen. As it stands now, Tampa appears to be a few years away from contending in the always tough AL East. They’ve failed to bring in young impact talent in the recent years, and now they have to pick up the pieces.
Source: CBS Sports / Unproductive drafts, questionable trades leave Rays in the AL East cellar