Rays set for infusion of new talent

Word of warning to the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox: Tampa Bay is not about to go away any time soon.

The Rays are no financial match for the two storied AL East franchises. Tampa Bay, however, has shown that it can go head-to-head with the big spenders on the playing field.

The Rays have won two of the past three AL East titles, advancing to the World Series in 2008. They have done this despite a payroll that ranked among the lowest in the big leagues, thanks to a scouting and player development department that has done an excellent job of finding and refining young talent.

The Rays have even remained competitive this year despite an offseason of free-agent defections, and Tampa Bay’s talent base is about to receive the biggest infusion of potential top amateur talent in baseball history.

The Rays, thanks to compensation for free-agent losses, have a record-setting 12 selections in the first two rounds in this year’s first-year player draft, which begins Monday.

In addition to their own first-round selection — No. 32 — and second-round selection — No. 39 — the Rays also have:

• Boston’s first-round pick, 24th overall, and the 41st pick as compensation for the Red Sox signing Carl Crawford.

• New York Yankees’ first-round pick, 31st overall, and 38th pick as compensation for the Yanks signing Rafael Soriano

• No. 42 pick in the supplemental round and Oakland’s second-round pick, No. 75 overall, for A’s signing Grant Balfour.

• 52nd pick overall for San Diego signing Brad Hawpe.

• 56th pick for Detroit signing Joaquin Benoit.

• 59th pick overall for Florida singing Randy Choate.

• 60th pick for San Diego singing Chad Qualls.

But, those picks will carry a price.

If the Rays are able to sign the dozen draft choices and simply give them the same bonus money as the players selected in the same slots a year ago, Tampa Bay would spend $11,465,000 on the first two rounds. The Rays would become the first team in history to spend $12 million total on draft signing bonuses; only five teams have even reached $11 million in bonuses.

Washington spent $11,927,200 on the 2010 draft headlined by Bryce Harper, the draft’s top pick overall who received a $6.25 million bonus, and fourth-round pick A.J. Cole, who signed for $2 million.

The Nats also spent $11,511,500 on the 2009 draft featuring No. 1 pick Stephen Strasburg, who received $7.5 million, and right-hander Drew Storen, Washington’s second pick in the first round that year, who was given a $1.6 million signing bonus. Pittsburgh’s 2010 draft carried an $11,900,460 price tag, including $6.5 million for high school right-hander Jameson Taillon, the No. 2 pick overall, and $2.25 million for high school right-hander Stetson Allie.

Toronto spent $11,594,400 on the 2010 draft, although the only seven-figure bonuses were $2 million for No. 1 pick Deck McGuire, a right-hander from Georgia Tech, and $1.15 million for fifth-round pick Dickie Joe Thon, a shortstop from Puerto Rico and son of former big leaguer Dickie Thon.

And Kansas City spent $11,148,000 on a 2008 draft that included $6 million for No. 1 pick Eric Hosmer, a high school first baseman who has already arrived in the big leagues.

History has not been kind to teams with an inordinate amount of draft selections, but the Rays appear to have learned from the mistakes of others.

Instead of trying to devise a unique approach, the Rays are keeping the same approach this June as they have had in the past.

"We’re still going to focus on the best player available," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "We’ve spent a lot of time, (scouting director R.J. Harrison) and his staff has done a tremendous job evaluating these players, getting the information on their makeup and everything, so that collectively we can put them in order, and I can’t see a reason why we would stray from that."

And who can argue with the Rays’ way?

This season has been a perfect example of the solid developmental approach of the franchise, which features 17 home-grown players on its roster, including all five members of the starting rotation.

After an offseason in which the Rays lost first baseman Carlos Pena, outfielders Carl Crawford and Brad Hawpe, plus pitchers Rafael Soriano, Chad Qualls, Grant Balfour, Randy Choate and Joaquin Benoit to free agency, Tampa Bay rebounded from a season-opening struggle to find itself battling once again for the AL East.

If they can avoid the pitfalls of previous teams with draft windfalls they could add significant depth to a farm system that already is ranked the second best in baseball by Baseball America.

That is a big if, however.

Discounting 2007 and 2010 Toronto and 2009 Arizona, because it is too soon to evaluate the long-range impact of those drafts, there have been 11 teams with at least seven selections in the first two rounds of a draft. They have produced only three All-Stars: Rondell White (1990 Montreal), Brian Roberts (1999 Baltimore) and Nick Swisher (2002 Oakland).

Montreal arguably had the best draft in 1990 when in addition to Rondell White, the Expos signed left-handers Gabe White and Chris Henry, right-handers Tavo Alvarez, Ben Van Ryn and Stan Spencer, and third baseman Shane Andrews.

Oakland used its top two picks in 2002 for Swisher and right-hander Joe Blanton, both of whom were projected to be first-round picks. But then Moneyball took over, the A’s tried to save money, and the return of their five other selections in the first two rounds was marginal.

San Diego’s only big-leaguer out of its 1999 draft bonanza was right-handed pitcher Mike Bynum. None of the 11 drafts, however, had less success than the 1991 Houston Astros, who not only failed to sign John Burke, they did not have any of the top players out of the first two rounds get to the big leagues.