The Rays are in trouble, and not just because for the first time since 2007, they are in danger of finishing in last place in the AL East. The Rays farm system is almost in shambles, jeopardizing the entire future of the franchise.
Over the last seven seasons, no contending team has relied on their farm system more than Tampa. Hampered by the third worst revenue stream in the game – behind Miami and Oakland, according to Forbes.com – the Rays have formulated one of the most efficient and cost-effective systems for team management, one that is contingent on a healthy farm system.
They operate off of a base of homegrown players in their cheap arbitration or pre-arbitration years, or that are locked up to long term deals, as well as a handful of veterans acquired via trade or free agency, The front office then bolsters their roster each year with reinforcements from the perenially deep minor league ranks; number two overall prospect (according to Baseball America) David Price joined for the 2008 playoff run, fellow number two Matt Moore for the 2011 one.
When young players age and become more expensive, the Rays simply flip them to another team for talented and cheap prospects. These prospects are then called up and the cycle repeats; Matt Garza gave way to Chris Archer, James Shields to Wil Myers. Each of them, in turn, will have their opportunity to be traded.
But that chain is in danger of being broke because quite simply, Tampa Bay is running out of prospects to call up. Their farm system, perenially ranked as one of the top five in the game, has fallen on hard times of late. Baseball America listed it as the 20th best system in baseball, ESPN pegged it at at 23, and Baseball Prospectus had it all the way down at 26. Worse, Prospectus named it as one of just five systems expected to decline over the course of 2014.
The reasons for the downturn are varied, and some have little to do with the Rays front office itself.
In the early 2000s, years of losing endowed the team with a trove high picks, picks they used to take names like Evan Longoria and David Price. Now, though, season after season of contention has given them a series of late selections, nearly all of which have come up short, and run their system dry.
The team also managed to strike gold on several late round high schoolers in the mid-2000′s, as Matt Moore, Desmond Jennings, Alex Cobb, and Jeremy Hellickson were all taken between the third and tenth round of the draft. The Rays have not been as lucky of late. Since taking Matt Moore and David Price in 2007, Tampa has not drafted a single everyday player, although Kevin Kiermier is trying to change that. Before Kiermier’s recent hot streak, though, they were only team in baseball to not have taken a player in their last six drafts that has accumulated a career WAR of at least one.
Beyond the draft, the Rays have failed to collect much of anything on the international free agent market. They have been almost historically poor in this department, failing to develop an amateur free agent into a starting pitcher or everyday player since 2003, when they called up Jorge Sosa to the big leagues. Baseball named two players of international origin, Enny Romero and Alex Colome, to its preseason Tampa Bay top 10 prospect list, but the former is 3-7 with a 5.35 ERA at Triple-A, and the latter missed all of 2014 with his second drug suspension.
Here the front office is not blameless. While other small market teams like the Padres, Royals, and Pirates attempted to compensate for their financial handicaps by spending on amateurs, the Rays have been surprisingly thrifty for several years. In 2011, when teams were still free to spend as much as they pleased, Tampa ranked 17th in baseball in terms of international spending. In 2010, they ranked 20th.
The Rays have changed their strategy over the last couple seasons and spent aggressively, exceeding their allotted bonus pool. But because of the extremely young age of most international signees – most of them are 16, and virtually all are teenagers – it could be years before the impact of this new push is seen.
Although the pipeline was looking empty going forward, the Rays were still expected to support their 2014 major league team by graduating several of their best prospects. Instead, a series of talented players thought to be on the cusp of the majors have come up short. The only rookie to break camp with Tampa, Jake Odorizzi, owns a 4.73 ERA through 14 starts. Their top prospect according to MLB.com, shortstop Hak Ju Lee has a .603 OPS in Triple-A, the aforementioned Colome and Romero have had their arrivals delayed by ineffectiveness and a drug suspension, and Nathan Karns, acquired from the Nationals last offseason, has been hit hard for the first time in his professional career.
Yet even if all these youngsters were performing at a high or even decent rate, the farm system would still be in bad shape. None of these prospects have star potential; the only players with that level of talent to come through the Rays system in recent years have been acquired via trade. Wil Myers was the centerpiece of the James Shields deal and Chris Archer was the linchpin of the Matt Garza trade. The Rays top two prospects heading into the year, Odorizzi and Lee, were also acquired in those swaps.
The only high-upside talent in this system is vested in the lower levels, years from the majors. Four of the Rays top five picks from last year’s draft, and four of the top six from the 2012 draft were high schoolers. Nick Ciuffo, their first selection from 2013, has all-star potential, but he has yet to make it out of short season ball and a best case scenario doesn’t put him in the majors for another three or four seasons. Their first pick from 2011, Taylor Guerrieri, has drawn universal acclaim from scouts but he hasn’t pitched above Low A, and won’t until next season; the 21 year old righthander is spending all of 2014 rehabbing from Tommy John Surgery.
For the Rays, more so than for other team, this is unacceptable. The only way Tampa can afford great players is bringing them up through the minors; they have no money for free agents. If that support line is cut off, their winning ways will go with it.
To that end, the team’s struggles this season may actually be a boon to the the long-term health of the franchise, if Andrew Friedman and the front office plays their cards right.
The conditions are ripe for a farm system restock. For the first time in seven seasons, Tampa will get high draft picks. They will also be allotted deep budgets for both the draft and international free agency
More impactful, the team will start selling as the deadline approaches. Ace David Price is all but gone, and veterans Erik Bedard, James Loney, Joel Peralta, and David Dejesus could all join him on the block. The return could be enormous, particularly for Price, who could fetch the single best collection of prospects ever traded.
Losing is rarely beneficial, but for a franchise as cash strapped and dependent on a continual stream of youth as the Rays, one or two sub-par season could be essential for survival. But it all depends on how they handle it. If Friedman and the Front Office can spend and draft efficiently like the Rays of yore and flip players like the Rays of recent, they’ll have a chance to re-group for another half-decade of contention. If not, or if they simply are unlucky – developing prospects is often more a a matter of fortune than scouting acumen – Tampa Bay’s outlook could be bleaker than its been since they had the word “devil” plastered on the front of their jerseys.