Prospects are about the future, but I thought I’d take a look back at the past. I looked at every domestic Rays affiliate on Baseball Reference and totaled up the major league wins above replacement (prior to the 2020 season) to try and determine the best affiliates in franchise history. I did my best to filter out rehab appearances and zeroed out negative-WAR players since reaching the majors shouldn’t count against them.
1999 Princeton Devil Rays — 72.1 WAR (eight major leaguers)
OF Carl Crawford (39.1)
OF Josh Hamilton (28.2)
RHP Jose Veras (3.8)
RHP Juan Salas (.4)
RHP Doug Waechter (.4)
RHP Brian Stokes (.2)
IF Yurendell de Caster (0)
RHP Seth McClung (0)
In 2009, Josh Hamilton started the All-Star Game, and Carl Crawford won MVP. A decade earlier, they started their pro careers in Princeton, W. Va.
Hamilton was the No. 1 overall pick and the kind of talent a young franchise needed to become a contender, and Crawford was a star athlete signed away from a commitment to play quarterback at Nebraska. For two years, they formed what’s likely the best outfield in Rays minor league history.
With four future major leaguers — although one of them made it as a pitcher — Princeton’s offense was actually just league average with a .733 OPS, 13 points below the average. In 56 games, Hamilton hit 10 homers and stole 17 bases in 20 attempts with a .972 OPS, making him one of the league’s best players. Despite being extremely raw (Baseball America $), Crawford batted .319 and stole 17 bases.
As good as Hamilton was, he was only third on the team in home runs. Isrrael Osorio led the team with 12, and Yurendell de Caster hit 11. De Caster’s major league career was unremarkable — he only batted twice — but he hit the ball that sent the Netherlands to its second stunning upset of the Dominican Republic in the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
A hitter not quite as productive as them was infielder Juan Salas. He had varying degrees of success as a hitter in the organization until 2004, when he became a pitcher.
On the mound, he burst onto the scene in 2006 when he pitched 48 innings before allowing an earned run (BA $). He made his major league debut that season and ranked as high as No. 12 in the organization, but a performance-enhancing-drug suspension and visa problem in subsequent seasons kept him from ever getting on track.
After Tampa Bay drafted Hamilton and Crawford in 1999, it thought it was getting building blocks for its future pitching staff too. Doug Waechter was a third-round pick and eventually ranked No. 3 in the system. Seth McClung was a fifth-round pick and ranked as high as fifth. Nondrafted free agent Brian Stokes made his pro debut that season and later became a top-30 prospect himself.
Of course, fans from the Devil Rays era don’t have fond memories of any of those three. Stokes had a little success with the Mets, but they were the kind of pitchers the team had to move away from to become the franchise it did.
The best future major leaguer on that staff never even pitched for Tampa Bay — Jose Veras. He was not particularly good while in the organization and eventually left in minor league free agency. He reached the majors with the Yankees in 2006 and finished his career with a 3.91 ERA in 440 appearances with eight different teams.
Despite having two future star outfielders and a bunch of major league pitchers, the 1999 Princeton Devil Rays finished 25-45, the second-worst record in the league. Their 6.30 ERA and 11.9 BB% were both last in the league.
No other Princeton season comes close to matching this group’s WAR so far. Kevin Kiermaier carried the 2010 team to 26.2, but it’s up to him to add a significant amount to that total at this point. The 2012 squad with Blake Snell and Omar Narvaez will accumulate more, but catching Crawford and Hamilton may be too much to ask.
It may not be too much to ask for the 2018 Princeton Rays. They haven’t accumulated any WAR yet, but it’s only a matter of time. That team has four top-100 prospects — Rays pitchers Shane Baz and Shane McClanahan, Cardinals pitcher Matthew Liberatore, and of course Wander Franco, the top prospect in the game.