It's May and the NFL Draft is (finally) behind us.
But if you miss endless mock drafts that are by their very nature completely worthless in two months... first, what is wrong with you? Second, don't fear, because MLB Draft fever is beginning to take hold.
And like springtime questions about the offense and the bullpen, another Rays tradition won't be far behind: articles and post about how poorly the team has drafted.
Three years ago, I looked at what would have happened if the Rays fired their amateur scouting department and drafted off of Baseball America's pre-draft rankings. The "winner," if the exercise produced one, was the Rays, but it was entirely due to one pick made over a decade ago. Evan Longoria has amassed 47.3 bWAR, far more than anybody else that either side exclusively drafted (both the Rays and the hypothetical BaseballAmerica draft wound up with David Price).
Now that some more time has passed, we can revisit the outcome with a little bit more certainty.
Hardly anything has changed from the first four drafts examined, but in 2010, the Rays would have taken James Paxton instead of Derek Dietrich if they were following Baseball America’s rankings.
When I wrote my first piece, it was unremarkable: an oft-injured mid-rotation starter instead of a backup infielder. Dietrich went on to have some success with the Marlins, but Paxton has broken out in a big way for Seattle. He's far from a sure thing, of course, but he's been one of the best pitchers in baseball so far in 2017.
Time has helped clear the view on the massive 2011 draft haul as well. What struck me most three years ago was that the back end of the 1st round and the supplemental round were looking extremely weak.
Since then, there have been nice performances from players like Jackie Bradley Jr., Michael Fulmer, and Trevor Story. None of those three were taken with a hypothetical pick, but Daniel Norris, Josh Bell, Austin Hedges, and Alex Dickerson were. Meanwhile, the best the Rays turned out were Blake Snell, Mikie Mahtook, and Tyler Goeddel.
The former group would have cost several millions more, but spending money in the draft is always a good idea.
The 2012 draft is starting to look very titled in the hypothetical roster's favor. Richie Shaffer never made an impact with the Rays while Spencer Edwards flamed out in just three seasons. Meanwhile, Lance McCullers has seemingly settled in as a quality mid-rotation starter while Anthony Alford, now focusing on baseball full-time, was a top-100 prospect entering the season.
The next year looks like a wash for everybody.
The Rays pair of Nick Ciuffo and Riley Unroe are off to nice starts at Montgomery this season, but little in their past indicates a whole lot of promise going forward. The hypothetical picks are similarly middling (Ian Clarkin, a lefty in the Yankees system) or trying to return from rock bottom (Jon Denney, who was signed by the Royals after burning out of the Red Sox system in a year with the help of a well-publicized arrest). Both sides wound up with Ryne Stanek.
In 2014, the Rays hauled in Casey Gillaspie, Cameron Varga, and Brent Honeywell. The hypothetical squad got Bradley Zimmer, Marcus Wilson, and Michael Cederoth.
Honeywell was rated ahead of Zimmer on most prospect lists entering the year, while Gillaspie made an appearance on some. Wilson was off to a blistering start in the MWL before getting hurt while Cederoth and Varga started the year on the DL. All three are lottery tickets at this point.
Garrett Whitley, the Rays' first-round pick in 2015, is off to a .203/.299/.407 start with Bowling Green. Daz Cameron, the hypothetical pick, is a similar outfielder with loud tools and quiet production so far: he's hitting .190/.268/.429. Chris Betts, Tampa Bay's second-round pick, is also off to a slow start in his career. Tommy John surgery delayed his debut until 2016, when he hit for just a .595 OPS. He figures to be back with Hudson Valley when short-season ball starts.
Working off Baseball America's list, the hypothetical 2015 squad would have hurler Michael Matuella, whose career was also stalled by Tommy John, then by a sprained ligament in his elbow. He has made one appearance in 2017, striking out five batters in two innings.
A positive drug test by Delvin Perez threw the first round of the 2016 draft into a bit of a frenzy. The hypothetical pick, he slipped to the Cardinals and hit a healthy .294/.352/.393 in the GCL. The Rays took Josh Lowe, who posted a similar .249/.374/.405 line in his debut. While Lowe is scuffling in the MWL, Perez was not assigned to a full-season roster.
Tampa Bay opted for Ryan Boldt and Jake Fraley in the second round last year. Boldt is off to a fair start, hitting for a .738 OPS in the FSL, while Fraley managed just five hits in 38 ABs before hitting the DL. Hypothetical second-rounder Austin Hays has hit very well so far in his pro career with Baltimore and is currently hitting .337 in the high-A Carolina League. Nolan Jones, the other would-be pick, was not assigned to full-season ball.
What can we conclude? Nothing concrete, unfortunately. We can only theorize, and right now my theory is that successfully picking at the top of the draft comes down mostly to some combination of player development and luck, with a slight bit of scouting. The international market plays out the same way.
Miguel Sano and Adrian Rondon both topped the scouting lists as 16-year olds at separate times. Sano signed for $3.15 million in a free-for-all market, while Rondon inked a deal for $2.95 million under the new international spending rules. Sano more or less knocked the cover off the ball from day 1. Rondon hasn't. Do we credit the Twins and debit the Rays? Would Rondon be posting Sano-like numbers in another system? My suspicion is he wouldn't.
Surely amateur scouting matters. You need a guy who will drive to a New Mexico high school for a guy throwing upper-80s in bad weather, and still see something to make him an 8th-round pick. That's how you end up with Matt Moore. But scouts also drove to see Tyree Hayes and Anthony Scelfo, the Rays' eighth-round picks in 2006 and 2008.
It's not as simple as saying a team drafts badly. They can draft the "right" guy but a coach could screw him up or he could blow out his elbow. They can have the best coaches in the world, but it means nothing if they're working with vastly inferior talent or players who won't listen. Or they could be the luckiest team, never a sore shoulder or broken bone, but that can't overcome a true lack of talent.
In order to bring a player from the amateur ranks to the majors, you need coaching, scouting, and luck. For most of the last decade, the Rays have been missing a piece or two of that puzzle.