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Rays need to rely on the draft

Finances have forced Tampa Bay into hoping its picks will be all-stars.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 2, 2002


ST. PETERSBURG -- The next big deal could be a lithe 17-year-old shortstop from Chesapeake, Va. A hard-throwing left-hander who doesn't have a high school team to pitch for in Surrey, British Columbia. Or a sweet-swinging outfielder from suburban Atlanta with Tampa ties.

Whether the Rays use the second pick of Tuesday's draft on B.J. Upton, Adam Loewen, Jeremy Hermida or someone else such as Houston left-hander Scott Kazmir, they will be making an investment -- a significant investment of around $4-million -- in the future.

More so than perhaps any other process in sports, or even in any profession, the baseball draft is about projection. And more so than perhaps any other team, the Rays need to get it right.

Lacking the funds to add stars at the major-league level and the depth to make major acquisitions through trades, the Rays view the draft as their primary -- and basically only -- way to acquire the impact players needed to become a competitive and eventually championship-level team.

"For a club like ours, I think it's the most important day of the year," general manager Chuck LaMar said. "It's that important to us and what we're trying to do."

In simplest terms, the Rays' basic philosophy is to draft elite athletes and develop their baseball skills, looking to land the players who can become superstars rather than average big-leaguers. It is a higher-stakes method that doesn't always work, and definitely doesn't work quickly, but the Rays are convinced it is the way they need to go.

"We need to keep signing athletes and we need to keep signing impact players," LaMar said. "You have to gamble. The attrition rate is so high, and the highest attrition rate of all is always the high school player that has the high ceiling. ... But that's how you get championship-type players. If 25 percent of the first-rounders are all that play in the major leagues, it's like going to a horse race. They're all gambles. There are no sure things. There's none.

"We have to keep gambling on athletes, keep gambling so that if a high-ceiling gifted kid does reach his potential he's got a chance to be a real good player, an impact player. Because what I've found at the major-league level is that you can get your hands on marginal players. And we've done an outstanding job of that here, by the way."

The Rays believe they have three of those impact players in outfielders Josh Hamilton and Carl Crawford, their top picks in the 1999 draft, and Rocco Baldelli, their 2000 first-rounder. Crawford is starring at Triple A and likely will join the Rays later this season, while Hamilton, who has been sidelined by repeated injuries, and Baldelli are at Class A.

While others from those drafts, such as Florida's Josh Beckett (the No. 2 pick in 1999 behind Hamilton), Oakland's Barry Zito (No. 9 in 1999) and Milwaukee's Ben Sheets (No. 10 in '99), are successful major-leaguers now, the Rays wait for what they hope will be a huge payoff.

Scouting director Dan Jennings and his staff will try again on Tuesday, when they start with the second and 43rd picks. But with only about one in 10 players signed making it to the majors, and only a scant percentage of those making an impact, the draft is a guessing game, with no way to know if a player will stay healthy, stay out of trouble, and stay focused after cashing his bonus check.

While the Rays are excited about Hamilton, Baldelli and Crawford, and have high expectations for 2001 first-rounder Dewon Brazelton, their 1996 first-rounder, Paul Wilder, was released without getting past Class A in six years, and their top 1997 pick, pitcher Jason Standridge, has yet to warrant more than three brief call-ups. (They didn't have a first-round pick in 1998.)

"It's an inexact science," LaMar said, "and it always will be."


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