Earlier in May, Major League Baseball decided that the 2020 draft would last just five rounds. A prior agreement with the MLB Players Association gave the league the power to shorten the draft from its usual 40 rounds, and further negotiations failed to produce a longer draft.
That same agreement will also lead to a shortened 2021 draft — perhaps 20 rounds. Over the next two years, that’s over 1,500 amateur players who won’t hear their names called and may not have a chance to play professional baseball.
Of course, not all of those players would’ve signed anyway, and no, the Double-A hitting coach’s nephew probably didn’t need to be selected in the 39th round. But there have been a lot of players drafted after the fifth round who have reached the majors, and even became significant contributors.
To shine a light on the significance of the later rounds, I decided to make a roster of players the Rays drafted and signed after the fifth round or signed as nondrafted free agents. When I refer to top-prospect lists, unless otherwise noted, I’m referring to Baseball America’s top-30 list for the Rays.
Designated hitter John Jaso
Jaso — a 12th-round pick — was not a good defensive player, but his bat was too good to leave out of the lineup. Despite mostly playing catcher, his on-base ability gave him the opportunity to bat leadoff, including in the postseason. He appeared on five top-prospect lists and had two stints with the Rays.
Left fielder Desmond Jennings
Injuries kept Jennings from becoming the player everyone thought he would be, but the 10th-round pick and four-time top-100 prospect showed impressive talent over seven seasons with the Rays. As an amateur, he played football and baseball, and the $150,000 signing bonus — significantly more than the $20,000 maximum for nondrafted players in effect this year — helped him choose his sport.
Center fielder Kevin Kiermaier
Kiermaier is one of the top players in franchise history. Despite being a 31st-round pick, he made the first of his two appearances on top-prospect lists after just 57 professional games. Under this year’s draft rules, the Rays may have never gotten one of the top defensive players in recent memory.
Right fielder Jonny Gomes
Gomes’ defense left a lot to be desired, but someone has to take the field, so why not the 18th-round pick who emerged as a productive and popular player from the early-Rays era?
He only needed half a pro season to earn the first of four top-prospect-list appearances, and it quickly became clear he had the bat to reach the majors. He’s still 10th in franchise history in home runs.
First baseman Nate Lowe
Lowe is a speculative addition at this point, but with seven homers in his first 50 games, the early returns showed some promise. The 13th-round pick has crushed minor league pitching over the last two seasons and just needs a full-time opportunity. He was a top-10 prospect in the organization once.
Third baseman Jorge Cantu
The team’s media guide classifies Cantu as an undrafted player. He appeared on the top-prospect ranking for the organization twice, and his major league career got off to a great start. In his first 200 games, he slugged 30 homers and 92 extra-base hits. He couldn’t sustain that, and his defense across the infield wasn’t great, but he provided highlights for some poor teams and later had a couple productive seasons with the Marlins.
Second baseman Mike Brosseau
There are better defenders out there, but the undrafted Brosseau is more known for his bat. He has hit at every stop in the minors while playing all over the field. Like Lowe, he doesn’t have much experience, but he could carve out a major league role in the coming seasons despite having never appeared on a top-prospect list.
Catcher Toby Hall
I took three catchers for the roster. Despite mostly poor offensive statistics, I chose Hall as the starter as the franchise leader in games as a catcher, while my other two choices had their best years with other teams. He also gives back the least defensively.
He was a ninth-round pick in 1997, made one appearance on the top-prospect ranking for the organization, and won a Futures Game MVP.
Shortstop Elliot Johnson
To hardcore Rays fans, Johnson may be more well known as a player they chose to protect in the Rule 5 draft instead of Josh Hamilton, but the undrafted infielder did play over 300 games in the majors, including 200 for the Rays before he was traded with James Shields to Kansas City. He appeared on four top-prospect lists.
Catcher Stephen Vogt
Vogt may have batted 0-for-25 with the Rays, but he’s had a productive career that includes two All-Star appearances with the A’s. Like Jaso, the 12th-round pick certainly wasn’t known for his work behind the plate, but he played enough other positions for plausible versatility. He was a top-30 prospect twice.
Infielder Taylor Motter
There weren’t a lot of choices on the infield. Motter brings experience all over the diamond and did hit five home runs in a month for the Mariners once. He was ranked as a top prospect once each for the Rays and Mariners.
Infielder Jared Sandberg
Sandberg was a longtime minor league coach for the organization before leaving for Seattle, but as a player, he played three seasons and hit 18 home runs as an everyday player in 2002. He was ranked on top-prospect lists twice.
Outfielder Matt Diaz
Diaz was a 17th-round pick who only took 30 at-bats with Tampa Bay, but he enjoyed a lengthy career as a platoon outfielder, mostly with Atlanta. He was twice a top-30 prospect with the organization.
There’s only one choice for this roster’s Opening Day starter. The 16th-round pick in 2000 was on top-prospect lists three times but never higher than 12th. Shields missed an entire season due to surgery and was nearly released, but he went on to become one of the two best pitchers in franchise history.
Hammel was Shields’ teammate for several years — including the 2008 pennant-winning season — but it took a couple trades before he had his first quality season and even longer to have a stretch of sustained success. He was once a top-100 prospect and has over 1,800 major league innings. Not bad for a 10th-round pick.
Clearly, Moore did not have the career many envisioned. After becoming an All-Star as a 24 year old, he had a 5.08 ERA in 557 2⁄3 innings over six seasons. He was never the same pitcher after Tommy John surgery. Still, the eighth-round pick became the best pitching prospect in baseball and was ranked alongside Mike Trout and Bryce Harper — one of the best players of all-time and one of the best prospects in decades.
Kennedy only appeared on one top-prospect list. In 2001, he had a 0.19 ERA in 47 innings with Double-A Orlando before moving up to Triple A and eventually the majors. After a couple average seasons with Tampa Bay, he struggled and was traded to Colorado, where the eighth-round pick enjoyed the best season of his career.
Before doing research for a different project, I did not know Backe was a Tampa Bay 18th-round pick or that he started his career as an position player. After he moved to the mound, he reached one top-prospect list, but he only pitched 57 2⁄3 poor innings before being traded to Houston, where he enjoyed a little more success on some good Astros teams.
Yates is another nondrafted success story. Boston didn’t sign him after drafting him out of high school, so he didn’t start his pro career until 2009, when the Rays signed him from pitching factory Yavapai College. He didn’t break out with the Rays or his first few stops with different organizations, but he eventually became one of the top relievers in baseball with the Padres.
Wheeler was a teammate of Backe in Houston and was a key member of the Astros’ bullpen in those seasons. The 34th rounder eventually had a second stint in Tampa Bay, where he rebounded from a rough 2007 season and returned to form as a reliable reliever in the franchise’s first years of contention.
Another 34th-round pick, Gaudin had a couple unremarkable seasons with Tampa Bay despite two appearances on top-prospect lists. He pitched for eight more teams in his major league career, but his best stretch came with Oakland, when he posted a 3.09 ERA in relief despite more walks than strikeouts and then stepped into the rotation and threw 199 1⁄3 innings in 2007.
Wood is another player whose best days may still be ahead of him, but with 86 2⁄3 major league innings with a 3.32 ERA under his belt, he’s already off to a nice start. Of course, that success won’t be with the Rays after he was traded to Cleveland at the deadline. He was a 29th-round pick in 2013 and made two top-prospect lists.
Honestly, I just wanted another lefty on the staff, and he was probably the best option. Although Liberatore only totaled 88 2⁄3 innings in the majors with the Dodgers, that was more innings with more success than I remembered. He was a 21st-round pick in 2010 and traded in 2014.
Any club needs a spot starter or long reliever, and Sonnanstine is a good option — especially since his nemesis, Ben Francisco, was a fifth-round pick and not eligible for the post-fifth-round league. The 13th-round pick certainly had his problems with the long ball, but in 2008, he provided 193 1⁄3 average innings at the back end of a deep rotation and later gained some experience in relief.
What does the future hold?
The Rays have the top farm system in baseball. A lot of their top prospects were drafted early or given big bonuses on the international market, but not all of them.
On BA’s top-30 list, five prospects were drafted after the fifth round, including No. 8 prospect, Joe Ryan. Will the next Joe Ryan be willing to sign with the Rays for $20,000? In some cases players above were undrafted signees, but not many.