In 2007, the Rays had the best farm system in baseball, according to both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus. I have an annual tradition of going over these farm systems one decade later in the hopes of putting into perspective what it means to have such a strong collection of young talent. I will commence this year’s version now.
But, first: It doesn’t take more than a glance to notice something about the Rays system that year. A large percentage of the decade’s great busts came from it. Delmon Young, probably the worst position player ever ranked no. 1 on a BA Top 100, was on it. So was Reid Brignac, who was rated the 11th best prospect in all of baseball at BP that year, and who now holds a very narrow career True Average lead on Jeff Mathis. So was Joel Guzman, who peaked as baseball’s fifth-best prospect. So was Wade Townsend, a no. 8 overall pick. Also Elijah Dukes, a bad person. And, perhaps shy of busts but still melancholic reminders of the perils of trying, Jeremy Hellickson (who peaked at no. 9 on a BP 101) and Jeff Niemann (no. 25). I’ve just told you seven of the 30 players on that year's Rays top 30, and that doesn’t include all the many lower-half names who never get past Double-A.
And yet: This is the fourth year we’ve done this, and the Rays absolutely got more out of their farm system than any of the other three. It’s sort of amazing, and if not amazing, it’s incredibly fun, or at least unlike any of the other three. Rather than go year-by-year, as we traditionally do, lets focus on three particular decisions that the Rays made that ended up making all the difference.
Decision 1: Trading the no. 1 prospect
The theme here, which I’ll state up front, is that the value a team gets out of a system is not exclusively, or even primarily, tied up in the talent itself. Rather, a large share of the ultimate value comes from the decisions a team makes with that talent.
Delmon Young was a bad baseball player. Nobody really knew that yet—when Tampa Bay traded him after his rookie season, it was a shock, and Kevin Goldstein made the case that the Twins had won the deal because they had received the best player in the swap—but he turned out to be bad. He produced 3.4 career WARP, of which 2.2 came after the Rays traded him. To find a worse no. 1 overall prospect, you have to go back at least as far as Rick Ankiel (2000), and maybe back to Brien Taylor (1992). But, again, nobody knew that. Young had just come off a good rookie year; even for players coming off terrible rookie years, a team will rarely look to trade him.
In our three previous retrospectives of elite farm systems, we’ve seen the 2004 Brewers, 2005 Angels and 2006 Diamondbacks wring value out of their very best prospects in different, but basically the same, ways:
*The Brewers kept Rickie Weeks until he was a free agent, with a late extension to postpone his free agency. They kept Prince Fielder until he was a free agent. They got a lot of value out of their careers: Combined, about 30 WARP*, plus two compensation picks (Clint Coulter and Mitch Haniger) for Fielder.
*The Angels kept Casey Kotchman for most of five years, by which time it was clear he wasn’t going to turn into anything better than he was. They traded him at the deadline to lease Mark Teixeira for three months. They kept Dallas McPherson (and, also, no. 6 Brandon Wood, who was a year away from being an “elite” prospect) until, basically, the bitter end. McPherson and Kotchman produced a total of 1.7 WARP, plus the 3.0 WARP Teixeira brought. Teixeira also gave them two compensation picks, Tyler Skaggs and Randal Grichuk**.
*The Diamondbacks kept Justin Upton and Stephen Drew for six and seven years, respectively, with Upton having signed an extension in the meantime. The two produced 31 combined WARP for their clubs. Drew was traded for scraps. Upton was shopped around forever, then traded for scrappers. Arizona nets another five or so wins from that trade (from Martin Prado, Nick Ahmed and Randall Delgado), and has Brandon Drury left from it, too.
So, in summation: 15 or 20 wins of value from your top overall prospect is a pretty good get, on average. You might even have a few lotto picks left over at the end. What the Rays did in trading Young was unprecedented at the time, and it’s a big part of the reason they’re a contender today. The Delmon Young trade tree:
——-> MATT GARZA (8.5 WARP) then traded for
—————-> HAK-JU LEE (0 WARP)
—————-> ROBINSON CHIRINOS (0 WARP)
—————-> CHRIS ARCHER (10.1 WARP)
—————-> SAM FULD (1.1 WARP)
—————-> BRANDON GUYER (3.4 WARP)
——-> JASON BARTLETT (8.2 WARP), then traded for
—————-> COLE FIGUEROA (0 WARP)
—————-> BRANDON GOMES (0.8 WARP)
—————-> CESAR RAMOS (2.4 WARP), then traded for
—————————->MARK SAPPINGTON – Double-A
—————-> ADAM RUSSELL (0 WARP)
We’re giving Young 85 percent credit for the trade—Brendan Harris was a disastrous defensive shortstop coming off a fluke offensive year, but he was something—which means Young brought back 28 WARP, and counting. Even had Young produced 28 WARP in his career, he’d by now be making $20 million per year and well out of the Rays’ price range. But in fact, the Rays paid all of these guys combined less than $20 million. And they still have Archer, an ace signed for the next four years at just $22 million guaranteed, with two silly-cheap club options after that. The best bet is that this ends up netting the Rays about 35 or 40 total WARP, then they’ll trade Archer in a few years and keep the math running in perpetuity.
Which is an amazing return on a top prospect, but especially so considering that Delmon Young was a historically giant bust.
Decision 2: Keeping the no. 2 prospect.
Ah, but that’s only one of the Rays’ top two prospects from that year. The other one wasn’t a bust. Evan Longoria has produced, to date, 39.3 WARP for the Rays, which is enough to make him more valuable than Fielder, Upton, Drew, Weeks, and, of course, Kotchman and McPherson.
But Longoria the prospect didn’t turn out to be valuable just for the performance, but for the contract he agreed to a few days into his big-league career. That contract included enough club options that would have carried the Rays’ control all the way to this season, 2016. The Rays have paid him, to date, $33 million for those 39.3 wins, and had Longoria busted like Delmon Young they would have been on the hook for only $17 million.
Everybody gets good deals on their prospects that turn into stars. That’s the whole point. But compare Longoria to Weeks, Fielder, Upton and Drew’s first nine years of value (either direct or indirect) to their teams:
- Longoria: $33 million, 39.3 wins
- Fielder: $35 million, 22.5 wins
- Weeks: $44 million, 18 wins
- Upton: $32 million, 18 wins
- Drew: $20 million, 18 wins
Imagine a scenario where Longoria doesn’t sign that extension. He’s making the minimum in 2008, 2009 and 2010. He’s a super 2 after that, and plays under arbitration-guided salaries in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014. Then free agency after that, covering 2015 and 2016 (and beyond). Fielder’s earnings would be a good comp for his salary expectations, except that Fielder wasn’t a super 2, so add maybe another $10 million for that, plus the $23 million Fielder got in his first year after free agency. That gets Longoria to 2015, with the Rays having saved about $35 million. The original extension gave the Rays an $11.5 million option on the 2016 season, so—compared to Fielder’s $23 million in the second year after free agency—that tacks on an additional $11.5 million in savings. Call it $50 million saved, and that’s relative to the already market-suppressed wages that pre-free agency players get.
I could have just told you that Evan Longoria was worth a ton and got paid very little. But the decision to sign him to that extension made him worth a ton, and he got paid $50 million less than very little. Good move. (It also doesn’t hurt that the Rays were able to leverage that deal to sign Longoria to a further-team-friendly extension after that. That deal could still turn out sour, but there’s some chance that Evan Longoria will play 15 years with the Rays and be “under”paid for all 15 of them.)
Christina Kahrl wrote about the deal at the time, and while this doesn’t really have much to do with the point of this article, this was a beautiful paragraph—if, ultimately, one that ended up being too optimistic about baseball in Florida:
The challenge in Tampa Bay is related to this point, because as much as signing Longoria for a long time to come is rendered obvious, defensible, and wise by the unyielding convictions formed by men and women who see him play and who evaluate his performance, the act itself is every bit as important for its place in the laborious reinvention of a franchise. The Rays aren't kidding around-they're going to spend what it takes, study what they should, do what they must, all so that they can kill the increasingly tedious Yankee/Red Sox minuet deader than Elvis, then dance on the grave of competitive imbalance. That's not going to happen now, and it's not going to happen merely because they made a rational business decision in signing Evan Longoria. It's going to happen because their commitment to Longoria is a symptom of genuine ambition to build a championship-level ballclub, and they're in a position to package that-their adamantine determination, their deathless patience, their readiness to bury the devilish embarrassments of their Naimoli/Veeck past, and the increasingly obvious possession of the flower of a generation of young talent-as a way to tell a previously indifferent fan base that this is something they might want to be a part of. It isn't something you capture in mere marketing, it's something you create through rational action, and as it yields success, it will earn faith. By the time the Rays are ready, like Sallow's finally-ready band of juggers, they'll be playing in front of a full house that's rocking with just the tiniest bit of disbelief.
Decision 3: Trading the no. 8 prospect
The Wade Davis trade, as it is apparently now to be known, was not about Wade Davis. Nonetheless, Wade Davis was a substantial part of it. The Royals saw him, perhaps controversially, as a starter, and they also saw him, totally uncontroversially, as a player who was signed for the next four years at just $23 million. You don’t have to be much of a starter to be worth that, so Wade Davis had value. Between him and the PTBNL Elliot Johnson (our no. 20 prospect from this class!), we’re giving the Rays’ Top 30 credit for 35 percent of this trade’s return. (James Shields would get the other 65 percent.) Now, to this trade tree:
——-> WIL MYERS (2.1 WARP), who was then traded for
—————-> RENE RIVERA (0 WARP)
—————-> BURCH SMITH
—————-> TRAVIS OTT
—————-> STEVEN SOUZA (0.8 WARP)
——-> JAKE BAUERS (Double-A)
——-> MIKE MONTGOMERY, traded for
—————-> ERASMO RAMIREZ (2.3 WARP)
——-> PATRICK LEONARD (Double-A)
——-> JAKE ODORIZZI (3.8 WARP)
Now, again, we’re only giving Davis and (snicker) Johnson 35 percent credit for this trade, and in turn we’ll only give Myers 90 percent credit for the Souza trade***, but those reduced portions still add up to 3.0 WARP at almost exclusively MLB-minimum salaries, and more importantly about a billion years of club control ahead. Souza won’t be a free agent for five years; Odorizzi for four more years; Ramirez for four more years; and Bauers, BA’s no. 4 prospect this year and one of our “Interesting” guys, is still in Double-A—is still, in fact, only 20 this year. Which means that, as with the Young trade—even moreso than the Young trade—the potential value of this prospect tree stretches out eight or nine more years, and that’s without assuming any of these guys will get traded or leave compensation picks behind.
This one I bring up not because it’s been successful at the level of the Young or Longoria decisions, but because it’s a little bit of a stand-in for the Rays’ ability to cash out almost every piece of this top 30 in some way. Near as I can tell, only four guys—Niemann, Guzman, Matt Walker, Shawn Riggans—in the top 20 left without the Rays getting something in return. When Hellickson left, they got Justin Williams (another “Interesting” guy on our list this year) and Andrew Velazquez (who at least one BA writer ranked in the top 150 this year). When Akinori Iwamura left, they got Jesse Chavez—who was immediately flipped for Rafael Soriano, whose departure gave the Rays Mikie Mahtook, who produced 1.4 WARP in limited play during his rookie 2015 season. John Jaso brought back Josh Lueke, regrettably, but all the same. Jeff Ridgway brought back Willy Aybar, regrettably, but all the same. In all, these 30 prospects produced 38 new players, including the most recent addition, Corey Dickerson.
Which is how the Rays got 120 WARP out of their farm system in the first nine years, more than the Brewers’ 74, or the Diamondbacks’ 99, or the Angels’ 105. But more than that, the reason I can say with total confidence that they got the best yield from their top-ranked farm is what remains a full decade later:
· Chris Archer, six years club control
· Jake Odorizzi, four years
· Erasmo Ramirez, four years
· Corey Dickerson, four years
· Steven Souza***, five years
· Desmond Jennings, one year (forgot to mention him! He was no. 30)
· Brandon Guyer, three years
· Mikie Mahtook, six years
· Evan Longoria, eight years and $105M remaining; this year, at $11.5 million, is the final year secured by his first extension.
and no fewer than six live bodies in the system today, including no fewer than two actual prospects:
· Jake Bauers, 19 last year at Double-A
· Justin Williams, 19, High-A
· Andrew Velazquez, 20, High-A
· Travis Ott, 20, Single-A
· Mark Sappington, 24, Double-A
· Patrick Leonard, 22, Double-A
The kicker: Alex Cobb was in the system but didn’t make the top 30. Even without him, and even excluding all the years in Evan Longoria’s second extension, the Rays could conservatively top 150 WARP with this group. Why we’d bet conservatively, after seeing what they did with the 30 they started with, I have no idea.
Last year, I concluded thusly:
Each year we do this, we get a surer sense of what a club with the best farm system in baseball can expect: Around 100 wins above replacement, most of it at sub-market prices, peaking three to seven years after the rankings come out, but some remnants of that value lasting into the next decade. (The Angels, for instance, just added Andrew Heaney for Howie Kendrick, a member of their 2005 top 30. So their tree is still alive.)
But we also have a surer sense of what that club can’t expect: A dynasty, a run of dominance, or even a single World Series appearance. The best farm system in the world will get you 15 or 20 extra wins in a good year. Don’t knock that, obviously, but just as we tend to be disappointed even by the prospects who turn out very, very good (like some of the guys on the Diamondbacks list), we probably tend to be disappointed even by the farm systems that turned out to be very, very good. Two GMs were fired for not doing more with these 30 Arizona prospects.
The Rays are the first team to really disprove that conclusion. They got to the World Series, for starters. Their GM was given (by the Dodgers) the biggest contract ever because of what he did with these 30 prospects. No, there’s no dynasty. But if you ever start to wonder how much the Rays had to do right to overcome their finances, to make four postseasons in eight years, to have a cumulative record 117 games over .500 in that stretch, well, here you go: All of this.
*From the asterisk on, all WARP totals exclude negative WARP seasons.
Thanks to Ben Lindbergh for research assistance.