The Washington Times - June 21, 2008, 11:07PM

By JAY LeBLANC
June 27, 2008

It’s been a long and winding road to respectability for the newly-rechristened Tampa Bay Rays, who dropped the “Devil” from their name this season to invoke thoughts of the South Florida sunshine instead of a mix between Satan and a boring sea creature. Since its inception a decade ago, the team had experienced nothing but sparse crowds and futility up until this season while watching their 1998 expansion brethren, the Arizona Diamondbacks, capture four National League West Divsion titles and the 2001 World Series championship over the storied New York Yankees. With a new name and a boatload of homegrown talent, Tampa Bay has turned the page this season. Despite a payroll of just $43 million, the surprising Rays are currently sitting in second place in the A.L. East, just a half-game behind Boston and its $133 million payroll and 5 1/2 games ahead of the $209 million Yankees.

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Arizona is all about player development nowadays and is among the best at it, but the franchise fast-forwarded its way to the top of the baseball universe at the turn of the century by freely spending its cash on free agents. The Rays also gave that a shot at first, inking aging sluggers like Jose Canseco, Greg Vaughn, Vinny Castilla and Fred McGriff to big-money deals they’d regret soon afterward. While ill-advised signings like those put the Rays in a hole pretty much as soon as they began play, it also forced them to adopt the small-market strategy focusing on a strong minor league system that has lifted them into contention with the powerful, big-market Red Sox and Yankees this season.

No franchise enjoys losing, but Tampa Bay has managed to make the best of it. The team has consistently scored high picks in the annual MLB draft as a result of its poor play, and few teams can match the Rays’ success in identifying and subsequently developing top amateur talent. Tampa Bay has also made more than their share of beneficial trades and has done a good job of identifying free-agent bargains. With that as the backdrop, let’s take a look at how the Rays used the draft and some brilliant transactions to slowly but surely piece their upstart 2008 squad together over the past decade.

The team first exhibited its ability to draft wisely in 1999, selecting high school outfielder Josh Hamilton with the first overall pick and another high school outfielder, Carl Crawford, a round later. Hamilton’s drug problems could not have been foreseen when he was drafted, and after getting his life back on track he has emerged as one of the best players in baseball this season, belatedly validating the Rays’ decision to take him instead of a high school righty by the name of Josh Beckett. Crawford, on the other hand, took a more direct route to stardom, reaching the majors at age 20 and developing into one of the American League’s best outfielders over the next several seasons. One of the key components in Tampa Bay’s success this season, Crawford is hitting .279 with five home runs, 38 RBI, 48 runs scored and 19 stolen bases. While neither player is nearly as valuable to Tampa Bay as Crawford, right-handed reliever Grant Balfour and utilityman Willy Aybar are also indirect products of the Rays’ 1999 draft. Balfour, acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for 1999 sixth-rounder Seth McClung last July, is currently 2-0 with a 1.46 ERA in nine appearances, while Aybar, who came to the Rays along with minor leaguer Chase Fontaine in exchange for Tampa Bay’s 14th round selection in the 1999 draft, Jeff Ridgway, is hitting .250 in 96 at bats.

While the Rays’ 2000 first-rounder, Rocco Baldelli, has never reached his superstar potential due to chronic injuries and illness, they added two more components to their upstart 2008 squad in that draft. The Rays scored a major steal in the 16th round with high school right-hander James Shields, now the team’s No. 2 starter. Just 18 when he was drafted, Shields made a slow climb through the Rays system before reaching the bigs for good in 2006. Since that time, he’s established himself as one of the American League’s best young starters and is currently sporting a 5-5 record with a 3.76 ERA and 78 strikeouts in 96 innings. He especially enjoys pitching in Tampa Bay’s much-maligned domed stadium, Tropicana Field, where he’s 3-1 with a 1.99 ERA in eight starts. The Rays found another diamond in the rough in the 24th round in catcher Shawn Riggans. Though he’s far from a star, Riggans is a servicable backup catcher with some pop in his bat. He’s hitting .246 with 3 home runs in 69 at bats. The Rays also drafted - but failed to sign - several other future big leaguers in the later rounds, including Twins starter Nick Blackburn (34th) and Orioles slugger Luke Scott (45th).

The MLB draft is a crapshoot, as the Rays proved with a poor showing in 2001. Most of their early picks, including their first-round selection, right-hander Dewon Brazelton, didn’t pan out, and they failed to sign fourth-rounder and current Milwaukee Brewers starter Dave Bush. However, they once again made the most of a couple of late-round picks. Tampa Bay selected Jonny Gomes in the 18th round, and while he’s struggled this season - he’s currently hitting .212 with five home runs in 99 at bats - he’s provided good pop for the team over the past few years and could still turn out to be a major factor later in the season. The Rays unearthed another late-round gem in outfielder Joey Gathright, selected in the 32nd round. Gathright was traded in 2006 but has still had a positive impact on the 2008 Rays as the player they received in return for him from Kansas City, J.P. Howell, has become a valuable member of their bullpen. The lefty is currently 6-0 with a 2.90 ERA in 28 relief appearances.

Tampa Bay hit paydirt with its first-round pick in 2002, selecting high-upside high school shortstop B.J. Upton second overall after Pittsburgh took low-upside college righty Bryan Bullington with the top pick. After zipping through the Rays system and first reaching the majors in 2004, Upton took his time establishing himself as a big leaguer but is now one of the top power-speed threats in the American League and a main component in the Rays’ 2008 success. Now an outfielder, he’s currently hitting .283 with five home runs and 39 RBI and has stolen 22 bases. The Rays nabbed the talented but troubled Elijah Dukes in round three, and while he’s been traded to the Washington Nationals, Tampa Bay received a talented young lefty who could help them down the road, Glenn Gibson, in return. The Rays added another piece to their 2008 puzzle in round 10 when they selected right-handed Jason Hammel. Hammel, currently 3-2 with a 4.96 ERA in 14 appearances, has been a valuable member of the team’s bullpen and an occasional spot starter. Tampa Bay also selected current Boston Red Sox leadoff man Jacoby Ellsbury in the 23rd round, but he declined to sign in order to attend Oregon State.

The Rays opted for high upside once again in the 2003 draft, selecting high school outfielder Delmon Young with the first pick. Young’s talent is obvious, as he reached the majors three years later and hit .293 with 13 home runs and 93 RBI last season as a rookie. However, the volatile Young rubbed often rubbed teammates and team officials the wrong way with his questionable attitude and sense of entitlement, prompting the Rays to deal him to the Twins this past offseason along with utilityman Brendan Harris and 2002 second-rounder Jason Pridie for starting pitcher Matt Garza, shortstop Jason Bartlett and minor league pitcher Eduardo Morlan. Garza has settled in nicely as the Rays’ No. 3 starter, posting a 6-4 record and 3.76 ERA to date - including a complete-game, one-hit, 10 K masterpiece yesterday against the Marlins - while Bartlett has provided solid defense up the middle and some speed on the basepaths (16 steals) despite his struggles at the plate (.246 average, 0 home runs in 248 at bats). The Rays nearly added another quality arm to their organization in third-rounder and current Marlins starter Andrew Miller, but he rejected the team’s offer and instead opted to play for the University of North Carolina.

The jury is still out on Jeff Niemann, the 6’ 9” righty out of Rice University whom the Rays took with the fourth overall pick in 2004. Niemann finally reached the bigs this season, going 1-1 with a 5.79 ERA in a pair of spot starts, but while he’s still ranked by Baseball America as the team’s No. 7 prospect, he doesn’t appear to have the upside the Rays believed he did when they drafted him. No matter, because 2004 was a banner year for the Rays in terms of building for the future nonetheless. The team scored three of their current top five prospects in the early rounds of that draft, taking shortstop Reid Brignac in the second round, right-hander Wade Davis in the third round and lefty Jake McGee in the fifth. While all those players have a shot at helping the 2008 Rays, 13th rounder Andy Sonnanstine beat them all to the bigs and has already won eight games to go along with a 4.85 ERA so far his season.

Incredibly, finding Sonnanstine in the 13th round was merely Tampa Bay’s second biggest coup in the summer of 2004. On July 30 of that year, the Rays stole Scott Kazmir from the Mets, acquiring him along with Jose Diaz in exchange for Victor Zambrano - another homegrown Ray - and Bartolome Fortunato. Kazmir made his major league debut later that summer and has since developed into Tampa Bay’s ace and one of the top starters in all of baseball. He led the American League with 239 strikeouts in 2007 and after returning from early-season elbow troubles, he’s gone 6-3 with a sterling 2.03 ERA for the 2008 Rays. If Kazmir keeps improving at his current rate, the trade in which the Rays aquired him could go down as one of the most lopsided in baseball history. At the time, the Mets hoped Zambrano would shore up their rotation for a playoff run, but he made just three starts for them that summer before succumbing to injury. He went just 8-14 for them before they gave up on him following the 2006 season, and is now getting lit up in triple-A.

The Rays had arguably their worst draft of the past decade in 2005, as first-round pick Wade Townsend has stalled in double-A and many of their other top picks that year have made little progress up the organizational ladder. However, the team did manage to add a couple bricks to its future foundation in second-rounder Chris Mason and fourth-rounder Jeremy Hellickson. Mason, ranked by Baseball America as the Rays’ No. 10 prospect, is having a tough year in triple-A - he’s currently 2-7 with a 5.47 ERA - but is coming off a season in which he went 15-4 with a 2.57 ERA in double-A. Hellickson, the team’s No. 8 prospect, has developed into one of the top minor league hurlers in all of baseball this season, earning a promotion to double-A earlier this week after going 7-1 with a 2.00 ERA and an incredible 83-to-5 K-to-walk ratio in advanced Class A.

The Rays made up for their relatively poor showing in the 2005 draft with a single selection in 2006, as they took Long Beach State third baseman Evan Longoria with the third overall pick. Longoria breezed through the minors and is already making his mark on the bigs, as he’s hit .261 with 14 home runs since he was summoned from triple-A in mid-April. The Rays are so confident in Longoria’s abilities that they signed him to nine-year deal just a week after he was called up. If Longoria plays out the entire contract with the Rays - the team holds options for the final three years of the deal - he’ll earn a total of $44 million. The 2006 draft also indirectly gave the Rays another piece of the 2008 puzzle, as outfielder Gabe Gross was acquired from Milwaukee this spring in exchange for Tampa Bay’s second rounder that year, right-hander Josh Butler. Gross has yet to live up to his lofty potential - Toronto took him with the 15th overall pick in the 2001 draft - but he gives the Rays another left-handed bat off the bench, something that could prove valuable come playoff time.

In total, 15 players on the Rays 2008 roster came to the team directly or indirectly by way of the draft - an incredibly high number in the free agency era, and a testament to the team’s excellence in scouting and player development. Three other 2008 Rays - starter Edwin Jackson, reliever Dan Wheeler, catcher Dioner Navarro and shortstop Ben Zobrist - arrived in trades Tampa Bay would gladly pull the trigger on once again if faced with the same decision today. Six other significant contributors to the 2008 squad - relievers Gary Glover, Trever Miller and Troy Percival, infielder Akinori Iwamura, utilityman Eric Hinske and outfielder Cliff Floyd - were signed to bargain deals after drawing just mild interest on the free-agent market. Needless to say, Tampa Bay has played the small-market player development game better than any other franchise - a claim justified by Baseball America, which ranked the Tampa Bay organization as having the most talent of any in baseball this past season after four straight top-10 finishes.

While it’s too early to say for certain that these players will live up to their potential, the Rays, picking first, nabbed a pair possible future stars in the past two drafts. In 2007, Tampa Bay walked away from the draft with the consensus No. 1 pick, Vanderbilt left-hander David Price. Shoulder problems delayed Price’s pro debut until May 22, but since then he’s quickly made up for lost time, going 4-0 with a 1.82 ERA in advanced Class A and earning a promotion to double-A, where he won his first start by allowing two runs on four hits and four walks over six innings while fanning seven. If the Rays stay in contention, it’s possible Price could be summoned from the minors this summer. 2008 No. 1 overall pick Tim Beckham, drafted out of a Georgia high school, won’t help the Rays this season, but the team is excited to have him in the fold. Beckham is just 18 years old, and scouts rave about his five-tool potential. If these players and some of Tampa Bay’s other prospects live up to their billing, it’s possible we’ll be seeing something thought to be impossible just a few years ago - an annual World Series contender playing its home games in Tropicana Field.

Regardless of whether the 2008 Rays reach the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, the team can be proud of the progress it has made, and the way in which it has made it. Who would have believed that the Tampa Bay Devil Rays - excuse me, Rays - would be the team that drew up the blueprint for small market success?

Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times and Mayor of the National Pastime web community. His Prospect Q&A column runs every Monday and Thursday throughout the season. He can be reached at jleblanc@washingtontimes.com.

Photos by The Associated Press