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Rays top prospects of all-time: No. 19

After 20 years of Rays baseball, we’re counting down the top prospects in franchise history.

Matt White

Continuing on our list of the Top-20 prospects in team history, we go back a little further. While Reid Brignac’s career with the franchise spanned the Devil Rays and Rays eras, our next player is all Devil Rays.

20. SS Reid Brignac

19. RHP Matt White

Acquired: Signed as a free agent (1996)

Baseball America Top-100 ranks: 4 (1996), 6 (1997), 32 (1998), 100 (2000)
Devil Rays Top-30 ranks: 1 (1996), 1 (1997), 1 (1998), 5 (1999), 7 (2000), 7 (2001), 20 (2002)
League Top-20 ranks: 9 (1999 Florida State League)

How could a player who was twice ranked in BA’s top 10, among players like Kerry Wood and Adrian Beltre, only be the 19th-best prospect in franchise history?

First, the story of how White joined the organization.

Drafted seventh overall in the 1996 draft by the Giants, White never reached an agreement with San Francisco. In order to earn large signing bonuses for some of his clients, advisor Scott Boras used a little-known rule from 1990 to gain free agency for several draft picks, including White. Because teams did not extend any offer to these picks within 15 days of the draft, it was ruled that they would become free agents.

It was a rare opportunity for amateur players to earn money in a true free market. White certainly cashed in, getting a record $10.2 million signing bonus from the Devil Rays.

It was certainly a lot of money for the franchise to pay, but in order for small-market teams to compete, acquiring talented amateurs with the hope of developing them into major league stars making little money prior to arbitration is always an avenue worth exploring, even though sometimes it doesn’t work out, as was the case with White.

White was promising as one of the top high-school pitchers available in that draft. But when he was ranked as the No. 4 prospect in baseball, he hadn’t yet thrown a single professional pitch.

He made his professional debut in the short-season New York-Penn League in 1997. In 84 innings, he struck out 82 batters, walked 29, and only allowed three home runs. His 4.07 ERA was slightly worse than the league average of 3.88, but he was 18 years old, competing against batters that were on average three years older than him.

White ranked No. 6 in baseball entering the 1998 season, but he took a step backward that season, results wise. In 171 innings — a preposterous total for a 19 year old in today’s game — with Class-A Charleston and Class A-Advanced St. Petersburg, he only struck out 123 batters with a 4.79 ERA combined between the two levels.

BA’s first available scouting report came following that season ($). Despite the statistical struggles, there was still a lot to like. It says he has No. 1 starter stuff with a mid-90s fastball, impressive breaking ball, and improving changeup, and he also threw strikes. It also noted he had trouble throwing quality strikes. He was still just 19 years old, and a healthy one at that.

After a poor return to the Florida State League in 1999 with a 5.18 ERA in 113 innings, he began to slide down prospect lists and was off the Top-100 entirely. However, he made progress in 2000 with 155 quality innings between Double-A Orlando and Triple-A Durham. After the season, he even had a chance to pitch for the U.S. Olympic team, but his track record of good health came to an end. A shoulder injury kept him out of the competition.

White seemingly never recovered from that. He had seven ugly starts with Durham in 2001, walking more batters than he struck out. He had to undergo shoulder surgery. In 2002, after a rehab assignment with Charleston, he returned to Double A, where his struggles continued.

Finally, in 2003, he made his final professional appearances. In 31 13 innings with Orlando, the 24 year old walked 23, allowed 40 hits, and struck out 18. In 2006, he officially retired, having never pitched in the majors.

After a few years as an assistant college coach, the latest update I can find on White is that he works for the Boras Corporation. That was from six years ago.

Clearly, the large investment for the Devil Rays did not pay off. It can take time for young pitchers to pan out, and after a slow start to his career, it looked like White may have turned a corner and was on his way to fulfilling some of his potential.

Injuries cut his career short, though. Did throwing as many innings as he did as a 19 year old affect him? If that is the case, it took a couple years before those effects were realized. Whether that played a role, I think the days of pitchers that young throwing 171 innings are in the past.