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Rays top prospects of all-time: No. 1

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

Josh Hamilton #72
Josh Hamilton is the top prospect in franchise history, but he never played for the team in the majors

We’ve reached the conclusion of this series on the top prospects in Rays history. If you’re familiar with the franchise, you’ve likely been able to deduce who the No. 1 prospect is after seeing the rest of the list.

20. SS Reid Brignac
19. RHP Matt White
18. RHP Chris Archer
17. RHP Wade Davis/LHP Jake McGee
16. RHP Jeremy Hellickson
15. 1B/LHP Brendan McKay
14. SS Tim Beckham
13. RHP Brent Honeywell
12. SS Willy Adames
11. OF Desmond Jennings
10. LHP Blake Snell
9. OF Wil Myers
8. LHP Scott Kazmir
7. 3B Evan Longoria
6. OF Rocco Baldelli
5. IF/OF Melvin Upton Jr.
4. OF Delmon Young
3. LHP David Price
2. LHP Matt Moore

1. OF Josh Hamilton

Acquired: No. 1 pick by Devil Rays (1999)

Baseball America Top-100 ranks: 1 (2000), 13 (1999), 18 (2001), 33 (2002)
Organization Top-30 ranks: 1 (1999), 1 (2000), 1 (2001), 2 (2002), 16 (2003), 30 (2006*)
League Top-20 ranks: 1 (1999 Appalachian League), 1 (2000 South Atlantic League), 9 (2002 California League)

*With Reds

In 1999, Hamilton became the first No. 1 overall pick in team history. The Devil Rays earned the chance to draft him by only winning 63 games in their inaugural season. He eventually lived up to the hype as a top pick, but it took quite a bit of time for him to do so.

Hamilton actually peaked as a prospect after his first full professional season, and it was a good one. In 96 South Atlantic League games, he hit 13 home runs and 39 extra-base hits total with a .302 average, .342 on-base percentage, and .476 slugging percentage. He also stole 14 bases in 20 attempts.

His stats were good, but Baseball America’s scouting report ($) was better. “He’s one of the few players with five legitimate plus tools,” BA said. The report goes on to rave about his defense in center field and strong throwing arm. In addition to his great tools, including 80-grade raw power thanks to his swing and strength, “[h]is knowledge of how to play the game far exceeds his experience.” He was a hard worker. The only problem — and it hadn’t hurt him yet — was his aggressive plate approach. His walk rate was just 6.4 percent, but he only struck out 16.8 percent.

As a No. 1 pick, it’s not surprising that Hamilton had great tools. He actually improved in his early professional days compared to his amateur career. In its predraft report, BA of course highlighted his physical gifts, but at that point in time, it was believed he would have to shift to right field because he didn’t have the speed to stay in center. That he improved his defense to go along with his hit and power tools separated him as a prospect.

Unlike some other top picks in franchise history who took months to sign and were unable to make their pro debut the year they were drafted, Hamilton signed immediately and was able to play 72 professional games before the season ended. Most of them came in the Appalachian League, where he hit 10 homers and stole 17 bases in 20 attempts in just 56 games. Despite being just 18 years old, he was 10th in the league with a .972 OPS. Every player with a better OPS was older than him.

From there, his career with the Devil Rays went downhill. Prior to the 2001 season, he was involved in a car accident, injuring his back. Years later, it was revealed that this is when Hamilton’s addiction to drugs and alcohol began.

In 2000, Hamilton played in 96 games before missing the end of the season with a knee injury. Due to injuries to his back, legs, shoulder, and elbow — some of which required surgery — he only played in 83 games in 2001 and 2002 combined. Sometimes the performance was fine. With Class A-Advanced Bakersfield, he batted .303 with a .866 OPS and nine homers and 10 steals in 56 games, but he just wasn’t on the field enough.

For the next several years, he wouldn’t be on the field at all. In 2003, he left the team to deal with what he described as “personal issues and problems” and eventually sat out the entire season. Over the next two seasons, repeated failed drug tests led to increasingly long suspensions. He was out of baseball.

After Oct. 6, 2005, he tried again to get clean and beat his addiction. That winter, he began working out in an attempt to return to baseball. This time, his work both on and off the field paid off.

Hamilton, along with the Devil Rays, mentors, and doctors, convinced commissioner Bud Selig to allow him to return to baseball activities with the organization. He was permitted to work out with minor leaguers, and after further evaluation, was allowed to return to game action.

On July 4, 2006, Hamilton played in a game for the first time since 2002. He went 1-for-3 with a double. In 15 games that summer, his stats were unremarkable. The 25 year old batted .260 with a .327 OBP and .360 SLG and no home runs. However, it was remarkable that he was back on a baseball field with a chance to finally reach the majors.

The Devil Rays had a choice to make. At that point, he was long off the 40-man roster, meaning he would be available for any team to take in the Rule 5 draft. When the deadline for 40-man additions came, they added several players to the roster. Hamilton wasn’t one of them.

In December, he was taken in the Rule 5 draft. He was selected by the Cubs with the the third pick and promptly traded to the Reds as part of a predraft agreement. Did the club fail to gauge how much interest there would be in giving the former top prospect a shot?

Perhaps it misjudged how quickly he could shake of years of rust from injuries, surgeries, and suspensions. The BA report that winter indicated that even in the small sample of his games in 2006 with Hudson Valley, his tools were still there. The organization, at least Renegades manager Matt Quatraro, knew that. Whatever their reasons were, the Devil Rays decided to take the risk that they did.

Cincinnati took a smaller risk just by drafting Hamilton. It cost $50,000 to take him, which is of course pocket change for a Major League Baseball team, but it still had to be serious about his chances of playing in the majors. Selection in the Rule 5 draft requires a team to keep that player on the 25-man roster all season, or at least be active for 90 days if there’s an injury. Players can’t be sent to the minors without first clearing waivers and being offered back to their original team for half of the original cost of drafting him.

In spring training in 2007, he certainly didn’t look like a rusty player who hadn’t played above short-season ball since 2002 with hardly any games in between. He batted .403 with seven extra-base hits in 81 plate appearances, and his defense stood out. He even had a 9.9 percent walk rate. He certainly was not overwhelmed facing the most experienced pitchers he ever had.

On April 2, he made his big league debut as a pinch hitter. On April 10, he hit his first home run. It came five years later than anyone expected, but Hamilton had arrived in the majors.

After a great rookie season that saw him hit .292 with a .368 OBP and .554 SLG with 19 home runs and 38 extra-base hits in 337 plate appearances, Hamilton was traded to the Rangers for pitchers Edinson Volquez and Danny Herrera. Despite the 131 OPS+, he did not receive a single vote for Rookie of the Year. Various injuries and ailments prevented him from playing in more games.

With Texas, Hamilton became a superstar. In 2008, he stayed healthy, allowing him to be named to his first of five straight All-Star teams and win his first Silver Slugger. He batted .304 with a .901 OPS in 156 games and hit 32 home runs.

However, Hamilton’s road to recovery was not a smooth and linear path. The first of several known relapses during his major league career happened in early 2009 when he had some drinks at a bar. He reported his behavior to the team and the league immediately and passed a drug test. Despite being named to the All-Star team again, he had a down season shortened by injuries.

In 2010, he rebounded with a huge season. His .359 average ranked ninth among all hitters since 2000, and no one has topped it since. He led the league with a 1.044 OPS, thanks to his league-leading .633 SLG. In 133 games, he hit 32 homers and totaled 75 extra-base hits. He won the AL MVP and led the Rangers to the first of two consecutive World Series appearances. In the ALCS against the Yankees, he was named MVP with four home runs in six games. The Yankees intentionally walked him five times.

Hamilton continued to have success over his final two seasons with the Rangers, although he had another relapse with alcohol prior to the 2012 season. On May 8 at Baltimore, he became the 16th player in league history to hit four home runs in a game. He also doubled. He finished the season with a career-high 43 home runs and won his third Silver Slugger.

That offseason, he signed a five-year, $125 million contract with the Angels, but his time as an elite player was over. He played in 151 games in 2013, but his .250 average and .305 OBP were career lows. The next season, he only played in 89 games due to thumb and shoulder injuries.

His relapse in 2015 was his most serious. After undergoing shoulder surgery, he reportedly used cocaine, but an arbitrator ruled MLB could not punish him. On April 27, he was traded back to the Rangers, where he played 50 generally ineffective games. Now 36, he hasn’t played in the majors since. The team wanted him to play in the two seasons after that, but several knee surgeries kept him from taking the field.

Josh Hamilton won an MVP, three Silver Sluggers, a batting title, made five All-Star teams, and accumulated 28.1 WAR — remarkable, considering the years he lost to myriad injuries and addiction-related relapses.

Hamiltion made his big league debut as a 25 year old. Had circumstances been different, he could have been eligible for arbitration by then. When he won MVP in 2010, he could have already been a free agent. Still, he hit 200 home runs in his career. Unfortunately, none came with Tampa Bay.

That wraps up this series recapping the best prospects in franchise history. After 20 years, a lot of elite talent has passed through the organization. Some of it the team has signed or drafted itself, some of it has been acquired through trades. Some of the players have panned out, and some haven’t. That’s how it usually goes with prospects. The team has also had plenty of players who were merely very good prospects — like Carl Crawford — or generally ignored as prospects — like Kevin Kiermaier — who have had great careers. Over the next 20 seasons, there will surely be more.