BOSTON — The baseball draft begins Thursday, and that can only mean one thing: Rays fans will spend the next few days muttering “Buster Posey.”
Posey, of course, is the one who got away, passed over in the 2008 draft by the Rays, who held the first overall pick. The Rays went with high school shortstop Tim Beckham, while Posey tumbled all the way to fifth, where the Giants took a flier on the catcher.
Beckham finally reached the majors last September and played in five games. By then, Posey had won a batting title, a National League MVP award and helped the Giants win two World Series titles.
Hindsight being what it is, it’s easy to say the Rays blew that one. But catchers have an awfully high washout rate among minor-league position players, and Posey is represented by Scott Boras, meaning the Rays would have had to pay a lot for someone who might not have panned out. It’s easier to see upside with a high school shortstop.
Still, what might the Rays have accomplished the past few seasons with an MVP-caliber player behind the dish?
OK, enough Posey vs. Beckham. Plenty of top-tier players have to wait a while to hear their names called on draft day.
But one thing that can’t be overlooked is the Rays’ farm system has not fed the big club as much as one might think for an organization that prides itself on player development.
Beckham is the only player from the 2008 draft to reach the big leagues. The 2009 draft has yet to produce a big-leaguer. Outfielder Kevin Kiermaier and reliever C.J. Riefenhauser are the only two from the 2010 draft to get called up, and they are the most recent players drafted by the Rays to reach the majors.
Opposing scouts familiar with the Rays’ farm system say there is a lack of major league-caliber talent at the top levels. That’s why the Rays have locked up catcher Ryan Hanigan, first baseman James Loney, shorstop Yunel Escobar and outfielder David DeJesus to multiyear deals and traded for infielder Logan Forsythe, who is under team control through 2017.
The prospects in the farm system are still years away.
“Our goal is not to see how fast we can get them to the big leagues,” Rays scouting director R.J. Harrison said. “Our goal is to try and have them ready when they get to the big leagues.”
It was easier when the Rays picked at or near the top of the draft. That’s where you find players like Evan Longoria and David Price. And the Rays have had some success at the lower rounds — Matt Moore in the eighth round in 2007, Desmond Jennings in the 10th round in 2006, Jake McGee in the fifth round in 2004.
Andrew Friedman, the team’s executive vice president of baseball operations, pointed out that some prospects were traded away to obtain some of the players on the current big-league roster. Yet, Friedman agrees that the farm system has been slow to turn out impact players and said the critics who maintain the talent down below is not what it once was is fair.
Friedman said what the farm system lacks in star players it makes up for in players who can add depth at the major-league level, such as Kiermaier and Riefenhauser and infielder Vince Belnome and lefty Jeff Beliveau, who both came to the organization in trades.
The Rays have three picks in the first two rounds — 20, 60 and 72. They have 41 picks in the 40-round draft.
They have another chance to find players who will make an impact in the major leagues.
“One of the things you have to learn is patience, especially when you take a lot of high school players,” Harrison said. “It’s great when you have guys who bust right through, but that hasn’t been the case with our kids. But we’re seeing progress now. I don’t make excuses, but if you were in a situation in the old days, if a guy was any good at all, he could push his way right through the minor leagues and we had to bring him to the big leagues because we were crappy in the big leagues, so there was more opportunity.
“It’s a tough road for the high school player, getting through the extended springs. Unfortunately in this business the attrition rate is more than you like. Some kids just can’t get off those back fields, they peter out. But we got some guys now that we’re seeing three, four years out, we’re starting to see what it was that made us take them and make the investment in them.”