Rays banking on big returns from prospects gained in recent trades
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Matt Silverman has remade the Tampa Bay Rays this offseason in ways almost no one expected. Change is a reality of winter life within each franchise, from Seattle to Miami and all points in between, but there’s a young and different feel to how the new president of baseball operations has conducted business.
Silverman has gone far beyond making minor adjustments to a roster that went 77-85 last season. He recognized as such after he was part of a massive three-team, 11-player deal in December that sent Wil Myers to the San Diego Padres, when he said, "We’re testing the definition of ‘tweak’ with the number of changes we’ve made."
A strategy has come into focus with each headline trade, whether it’s dealing Joel Peralta to the Los Angeles Dodgers or Jeremy Hellickson to the Arizona Diamondbacks or Myers and Ryan Hanigan to San Diego or Ben Zobrist and Yunel Escobar to the Oakland Athletics: Cut payroll from a franchise-high $80 million last season and add muscle to the developmental system, become leaner and gain pieces to mold in order to believe in tomorrow.
There’s no telling how most of the new names bound for various minor-league levels will turn out. There’s promise in Daniel Robertson and Boog Powell, Andrew Velazquez and Justin Williams, Jake Bauers and Burch Smith, plus more. But promise only goes so far.
The Rays are banking on this influx of youth, when each individual piece is ready for the majors, to usher in a new era that makes choices of the recent past a foundation for a healthy future.
That’s the Rays’ way of life, as shown by David Price’s trade last July, when Andrew Friedman was the point man making personnel decisions. Still, the past three months have felt like a blur.
"We all have to work harder at it and do better, because as you guys have been with us for all these years, you know we’re competing in the American League East. When things are equal, they’re not," said Mitch Lukevics, the Rays’ director of minor league operations, after watching some of Tampa Bay’s top prospects participate in a Wednesday workout at Tropicana Field. "There’s no crying in baseball. We have to figure it out."
The race to discover what the Rays will be in this new era has taken on urgency of late. There have been intriguing major-league-ready additions gained through headline trades like catchers John Jaso (from the Athletics) and Rene Rivera (from the Padres). But these moves largely seem to be about the future, with future gains in mind and future judgments to be made.
"They made a lot of trades to get a lot of young talent," said Velazquez, gained from the Diamondbacks. "Just some of the guys in this locker room, it’s awesome to be a part of that young talent and the future of the team. I’m sure I could speak for everybody else, we’re just going to play good baseball and make our way up."
But what will the Rays see when those faces arrive?
It’s interesting to consider the best-case scenario: A roster full of top-level depth molded within Tampa Bay’s system, with those young players under team control for many years in order to draw as much from them while possible before they perhaps become too expensive and go the way of Price, Zobrist and Matt Joyce. Silverman has said the Rays are focused on contending next season, and that very well may be the case, but results from future campaigns will be the most accurate gauge of recent trades that moved Tampa Bay from its status quo.
"One thing I know is that it’s proven," Bauers, gained from the Padres, said of the Rays’ strategy. "They did it before. … It’s proven, and I’m excited to be a part of the new group. And hopefully, we can continue the trend.
"Sometimes, management feels that changes need to be made in order to win games. And I guess that’s what they felt this year."
As such, many "hellos" are in order. Truth be told, the Rays’ system needed an injection of top prospects, something that became obvious with draft mishits of the recent past.
Are additions from recent trades enough? Likely not. Tampa Bay must become better at honing homegrown talent, but there are reasons to be optimistic with the progress of some, like right-handers Alex Colome and Taylor Guerrieri.
"Obviously, a lot of different changes," left-hander Matt Moore said. "But as everyone has kind of spoken to, we have a great opportunity to build on the character and the culture that we have here. Either way, I think it’s up to us to make sure that it’s a positive."
In time, the Rays will show if it’s possible to create new momentum with an old, familiar approach. They have no other choice but to succeed or the alternative is far from kind.
Part of what made them such an appealing story in recent years was their ability to evolve but compete, renew but preserve a winning identity, change on the field but remain firm near the top of the AL East. Now youth has arrived, and a fresh chapter waits to be written.