If you search FanGraphs and looking for players who performed the best while on the Tampa Bay Rays, the usual names appeared at the top of the list.
There is the embattled Wander Franco, who prior to being placed on the restricted list by the Rays in August, he been generating an average of 0.035 fWAR per game he appeared in. That mark is just above Evan Longoria’s average of 0.034, making those two players decisively the best in franchise history.
Then, in a three tie for the third, there were two usual suspects, plus a third that would more stunning if he wasn’t the featured subject of this article: Tommy Pham, Ben Zobrist, and
So how did a career journeyman and utility bench player find his way into the annals of Rays history as one of the best performers in team history, let’s inspect his career.
Graffanino was born in Amityville, New York (yes...that Amityville, New York), in 1972. In high school he quickly made a name for himself as one of baseball’s premier prospects and he would eventually be selected by the Atlanta Braves in the 10th round of the 1990 draft (the same draft in which they took Chipper Jones #1 overall).
Also, side note: Tony Graffanino’s legal last name is actually Graffagnino, but after numerous mishaps with minor league announcers, he dropped second “g” to alleviate the issue. For the purposes of this article, I will continue to identify him as Graffanino, as that is what he went by during his career.
Once in the organization, Graffanino took some time to develop but finally mad his big league debut in 1996. An excellent fielder and decent with a the bat, Graffanino was solid for the Braves in his first full season in 1997, but struggled in 1998. He failed to make the Braves Opening Day roster in 1999 and was subsequently released to allow him to seek out more opportunity elsewhere.
That opportunity came when the Tampa Bay Devil Rays signed him to a minor league deal. He was shredding in Triple-A Durham when the Devil Rays finally called him up at the end of July.
Once on the active roster, Graffanino was immediately penciled in as the team’s starting second baseman. He took the opportunity and ran with it. Although Miguel Cairo quickly reclaimed second base once activated from the IL, Graffanino forced manager Larry Rothschild to find playing time for him.
For three weeks after his promotion, Graffanino hit .321/.345/.554, registering a 124 wRC+ while mainly serving as the team’s starting second baseman.
However, he was relegated to part-time duties soon later and his performance struggled. From August 19th through September 18th, he played in just 13 contests and started just 10 of those games ( he didn’t start a game at all from September 11th through the 18th). Then, during the final weeks of the season, Kevin Stocker went down with an injury and Graffanino was given the starting shortstop job; Graffanino was glorious.
From September 19th through October 2nd, Graffanino hit .447/.533/.632 over 45 plate appearances.
Although he wasn’t as comfortable at short as he was at second, Graffanino just wanted to showcase his talents and do whatever he could to earn a starting spot in 2000.
“I’m probably a better second baseman than I’ll ever be at shortstop but if I have to play short to win an everyday job, I’ll do it. I’ll do whatever. I just want to play every day, that’s the bottom line. I told Larry (Rothschild), ‘Just let me know where my best chances are next year and I’ll work on it.’“
Unfortunately, despite his late season emergence, Graffanino didn’t win a starting spot in 2000. During an off-season that saw the Devil Rays acquire the like of Vinny Castilla and Greg Vaughn in an attempt to rejuvenate their lineup, the team failed to identify the pieces they already had internally that could help propel the club to a better season.
Graffanino was benched; Kevin Stocker and Miguel Cairo were still the team’s starting middle infielders with veteran Ozzie Guillen primarily serving as their relief. This left Graffanino without a role on the team and he was left on the bench most days.
Despite being on the active roster for the first five weeks of the season, Graffanino played in just 12 games and started only five of those. Given his limited playing time, Graffanino was given just 22 plate appearances, in which he hit .300/.364/.350; he would be designated for assignment on May 13th after more than a full week of riding the bench.
Graffanino would clear waivers and be sent to Triple-A Durham, but didn’t stay there long as Tampa Bay eventually traded him to the Chicago White Sox for RHP Tanyon Sturtze.
Overall during his Tampa Bay tenure, Graffanino hit .313/.364/.473 with 2 HR over 164 plate appearances, registering 113 wRC+ all the while playing exceptional defense up the middle and thus giving him that gradual fWAR accumulation that puts him next to the greatest players in franchise history.
After his Rays tenure was over, Graffanino succeeded at most of the stops along his journey throughout the Major Leagues. He spent the bulk of his time with the White Sox, with whom he accumulated 4.7 fWAR over 234 games spread from 2000 through 2003.
He made his way to Kansas City, Boston, Milwaukee, and Cleveland following his White Sox tour and did everything that was needed of him at each stop along the way.
He finished his playing career in 2009, having played in parts of 13 seasons with seven different organizations; he went to the postseason four times while with the Braves, White Sox, and Red Sox.
Since retiring, Graffanino has still stuck around the game in a different capacity, serving as a chaplain for various teams, most recently the Wilmington Blue Rocks, the High-A team for the Washington Nationals.