Money, draft picks swapped for brains, guts when building Rays roster

ST. PETERSBURG — This is a column about baseball and forward thinking. So naturally, we’ll start with football and the past.

Forty-some years ago, NFL coach and Texas legend Bum Phillips described Don Shula in this way:

“He can take his’n and beat your’n, or he can take your’n and beat his’n.”

And, now, here is the segue:

The Rays began the month with zero homegrown players on their 26-man active roster. None. Zip. Nada. They’ve since activated Josh Lowe and Taj Bradley from the injured list but still have fewer homegrown players than any team in the majors. Even teams with enough money to buy any free agent they want have triple the number of homegrown players as the Rays.

And yet, Tampa Bay has five consecutive postseason appearances and the third-most wins in the majors since 2019. How? Aren’t farm systems supposed to be the lifeblood of an organization? Isn’t the draft and international scouting the only way low-revenue teams can compete?

Apparently, not for the Rays.

They will take your’n and beat you anyway.

Now, there are some extenuating circumstances here. The Rays have some pretty important homegrown players under contract (Wander Franco, Shane McClanahan, Brandon Lowe, Jonathan Aranda, Taylor Walls) who are not on the active roster due to injury or other reasons.

And, it’s not as if the Rays do not care about the draft or international scouting. But, because of their recent success, they’ve not had the opportunity to pick at the top of the draft. In the last decade, half the teams in the majors have had four or more picks in the top 10. The Rays have had one.

In other words, this isn’t like Tampa Bay’s initial run of success from 2008-13, when the core of their roster was built around high draft picks such as Evan Longoria, David Price, B.J. Upton and Jeff Niemann following years and years of losing.

This time, the Rays managed to retool with minimal input from first-round picks. They’ve whiffed on some (Casey Gillaspie and Garrett Whitley), they’ve hit big on others (McClanahan and Josh Lowe), they’re waiting for a couple to arrive (Carson Williams and Xavier Isaac), and they’ve traded more than a few (Matthew Liberatore, Seth Johnson, Alika Williams and Greg Jones).

There are a lot of reasons why the Rays are different from most franchises in this way, but two stick out:

1. The Rays do a better job of finding under-utilized players than anyone else. Particularly players who are out of options or facing a roster crunch in other organizations. That’s how they got Harold Ramirez from the Cubs, Luke Raley from the Dodgers and Ben Rortvedt from the Yankees in recent spring deals. That doesn’t even include low-profile deals for Jeffrey Springs, Zack Littell and Garrett Cleavinger.

2. They’re not zealously devoted to their own prospects like some teams.

Go back and look at Baseball America’s organizational prospect lists in recent years, and you’ll see what I mean. Liberatore was Tampa Bay’s No. 5 prospect in 2019 and the Rays traded him in the Randy Arozarena deal. Joe Ryan was No. 9 in 2020, and they dealt him for Nelson Cruz. Jesus Sanchez was No. 6 in 2019, and he was flipped for Nick Anderson and Trevor Richards. Johnson, Williams, Jones, Kyle Manzardo and Vidal Brujan are others.

Some of those trades have worked out brilliantly and others not so well. But the larger point is the Rays are not afraid to fail.

They have enough faith in their scouting department to pull the trigger when it comes to finding a trade target. And they seem to do better scouting professional players than amateur players, because the analytics are more reliable once players get in the professional ranks.

Teams that have been picking at the top of the draft in recent years (Orioles, Tigers, Royals) all have 11 or more homegrown players. Teams with a high payroll (Mets, Phillies, Rangers, Angels) have 10 or more free agents on their roster.

Meanwhile, of the 26 players on the active roster, the Rays have acquired 16 in trades. That’s tied for the most in the league with the Marlins (and new president of baseball operations Peter Bendix, who was Tampa Bay’s general manager the past few seasons).

The point is the Rays, once again, have found different routes to success than most teams.

They haven’t tanked and rebuilt. They haven’t gone on crazy shopping sprees. They’ve just been willing to remake the roster whenever a good opportunity is presented to them.

It may make for a lot of turnover in the clubhouse, but it translates into a lot of wins in the standings.

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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