Tampa Bay Rays Prospects Who Never Lived Up to the Hype
A large part of the Tampa Bay Rays success has come from getting tremendous value out of their draft picks.
Success was not always a word used to describe the team.
The Rays experienced plenty of losing seasons in the organization’s first 10 years of existence. The losing ways of the Devil Rays allowed the team to be at the top of the draft more often than not. To the team’s credit, they have made a lot of great selections with their prime draft positions.
Success stories such as Carl Crawford, James Shields, David Price and Evan Longoria have enabled the Rays to take their homegrown talent and turn a low-budget team into an annual contender.
Not every player taken has panned out as expected for the Rays. There are plenty of examples of players that were hyped after being drafted but never panned out for the team.
Players taken in the first two rounds of the draft and high-profile acquisitions need to perform for struggling franchises.
Here is a look at 10 prospects that never lived up to their expectations for the Rays.
10. Jeff Niemann, RHP
Draft Year: 2004, 1st Round (4th pick)
Highest Baseball America Prospect Ranking: 20 (2005)
Rays Career Stats: 97 G, 4.08 ERA, 544.1 IP, 409 K, 177 BB
Standing a towering 6-foot-9, Jeff Niemann was expected to be a powerful right-handed pitcher when the Tampa Bay Devil Rays drafted him with the fourth overall pick of the 2004 First-Year Player Draft.
After making the selection, Rays director of player personnel and scouting director Cam Bonifay told Paul Smith from MLB.com what the team saw in Niemann.
We feel he has the potential to be a fine pitcher. We see him as a power starter. He's a proven winner with the abilities and tools to become a successful Major Leaguer. He has displayed the ability to be a high-ceiling guy. We're happy with our selection.
Niemann was on pace to being a solid starter for the Rays. In his rookie season in 2009, he finished 13-6 with a 3.94 ERA. He also showed the ability to go deep into games with two complete-game shutouts.
In 2012, he began to suffer a string of injuries starting with a fractured leg in May that would put him on the disabled list. In his first start back from the leg injury, he left a game early against the Toronto Blue Jays with tightness in his right arm.
In 2013, he started the season in the bullpen but had surgery to repair the labrum and rotator cuff in his shoulder.
The Rays outrighted Niemann from the 40-man roster at the conclusion of the 2013 season.
Players Drafted Later: Jered Weaver, Stephen Drew, Billy Butler, J.P. Howell
9. Rocco Baldelli, of
Draft Year: 2000, 1st Round (6th pick)
Highest Baseball America Prospect Ranking: 2 (2003)
Rays Career Stats: 457 G, .280 BA, 53 HR, 239 RBI, 59 SB
Rocco Baldelli was the first star drafted by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. When he arrived to the majors in 2003, he was leaving a favorable impression with a lot of people.
Albert Chen from Sports Illustrated reported on an interesting comparison made by then Devil Rays owner, Vince Naimoli in spring training prior to Baldelli’s rookie season.
In spring training Devil Rays owner Vince Naimoli called Baldelli a "young DiMaggio," a pronouncement that Baldelli says "you can't take too seriously." Of course it's preposterous to compare a player with fewer than 200 career at bats with Joe DiMaggio, but the skin-deep resemblances are undeniable. Baldelli is a right-handed-hitting centerfielder, wears number 5 (the number he wore in the minors), and has Italian roots on his father's side and glides through the outfield with the grace of a skater on ice. Naimoli, the grandson of an Italian immigrant, even asked Baldelli to wear number 56, in honor of DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak in 1941, during spring training.
Baldelli would never get the opportunity to prove the comparison accurate or not. A mysterious illness that affected his muscles and energy level led him to retire in 2011 at the age of 29.
Just prior to his retirement announcement, he told Marc Topkin from the Tampa Bay Times that he had no regrets about how his career ended.
I don't regret anything. You know what's sad is that I love to play, and I really didn't get a chance to do it as much as I wanted to.
But I don't live angrily; I live kind of happy. Why would I look at the negative aspects of everything that I've been through and live the rest of my life talking about those things that aren't the important things to me? The important things to me were all the wonderful things I got to do.
Players Drafted Later: Chase Utley, Adam Wainwright, Kelly Johnson
8. Reid Brignac, SS
Draft Year: 2004, 2nd Round (45th overall)
Highest Baseball America Prospect Ranking: 17 (2007)
Rays Career Stats: 256 G, .227 BA, 10 HR, 67 RBI, 8 SB
Kevin Goldstein from Baseball Prospectus projected Brignac in a 2007 scouting report to be a good offensive player and a possible liability in the field.
The Good: After an impressive full-season debut, Brignac lived up to breakout predictions with a California League MVP campaign, then capped it with a strong late-season showing at Double-A. In the mold of the modern, big shortstop, Brignac consistently squares up balls and drives them into both gaps. He has a very good arm at shortstop, wants to stay there despite defensive concerns, and works as hard on his glove work as he does on his hitting.
The Bad: Brignac remains a below-average defender up the middle, lacking any consistency with the glove, and he's slow and mechanical on the double play. He has the arm for third base, where the Devil Rays are crowded, as well as right field, where the Devil Rays are, once again, crowded. He changes his approach against southpaws, sacrificing his power and focusing solely on contact.
As Brignac advanced his way to the majors, the opposite became true. He developed into a good defensive shortstop and could not hit major league pitching.
Players Drafted Later: Dustin Pedroia, Hunter Pence, Jason Vargas
7. Matt Bush, RHP
Draft Year: 2004, 1st round (1st pick by the San Diego Padres)
Highest Baseball America Prospect Ranking: Never ranked in top 100
Rays Career Stats: No major league stats
Matt Bush was drafted with the first overall pick by the San Diego Padres in 2004. That was the last highlight of his career. He struggled as a minor league hitter and the Padres converted him from a shortstop to a pitcher.
Alcohol abuse and a series of destructive decisions had Bush out of baseball in 2009.
The Rays offered Bush a chance at returning to baseball when they signed him to a minor-league deal in 2010.
Alcohol problems returned for Bush and he was arrested for DUI hit-and-run in 2012. He agreed to a plea agreement and was sentenced to four years in prison.
A lot of expectations and hype come with being a first overall draft selection. Never making it beyond the Double-A level is certainly a disappointment from the talent side.
6. Wade Townsend, RHP
Draft Year: 2005, 1st Round (8th pick)
Highest Baseball America Prospect Ranking: Never ranked in top 100
Rays Career Stats: No major league stats
The Rays released Wade Townsend in 2009 after drafting him in the first round of the 2005 First-Year Player Draft.
Townsend was college teammates with former Rays pitcher Jeff Niemann at Rice. The pair helped Rice win the 2003 NCAA Championship.
Due to injuries and surgeries, Townsend only pitched in 69 minor-league games in his brief career. He finished his minor league career with a 7-21 record and a 5.68 ERA.
Double-A was the highest level he pitched at in the Rays organization.
Players Drafted Later: Andrew McCutchen, Alex Gordon, Jacoby Ellsbury
5. Jason Standridge, RHP
Draft Year: 1997, 1st Round (31st pick)
Highest Baseball America Prospect Ranking: 47 (2000)
Rays Career Stats: 0-5, 21 G, 6.38 ERA, 67.2 IP, 37 K, 38 BB
When a pitcher is drafted in the first round, he is expected to eventually win at least one game for your major league club.
That was not the end result for Jason Standridge and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
Standridge finished 0-5 after only starting nine games for the Devil Rays from 2001-2004 after being drafted 31st overall in the 1997 First-Year Player Draft.
Players drafted at the end of the first round are often the best player available at the time. Even then, there are expectations for those players to eventually be contributing members of the organization, if not a star.
Standridge was neither.
In four seasons with the Devil Rays, he appeared in 21 games and finished with a 6.38 ERA. His performance certainly did not live up to the expectation of being the 47th best prospect in the 2000 Baseball America prospect rankings.
Standridge left the team as a free agent in 2004. After the Devil Rays, he spent time with the Cincinnati Reds, Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers over three seasons. He finished his career with a 3-9 record and 5.80 ERA over 80 games.
Players Drafted Later: Jeff Weaver, Rick Ankiel
4. Tim Beckham, SS
Draft Year: 2008, 1st round (1st pick)
Highest Baseball America Prospect Ranking: 28 (2009)
Rays Career Stats: 5 G, .429 BA, 0 HR, 1 RBI, 0 SB
Tim Beckham has proven to be a very bad selection for the Tampa Bay Rays so far.
The Rays selected Beckham with the first overall pick in the 2008 MLB June Amateur Draft. He is one of only three players drafted in the first 16 picks of that draft to have played fewer than 100 career MLB games.
Beckham’s expectations included him being listed by Baseball America as the top high school prospect in the nation.
He has not developed into an effective offensive player in the minor leagues, never finishing a season with an average above .275.
In May 2012, Beckham was suspended for 50 games after a second positive drug test.
In 2013, he put together a good season in Triple-A Durham finishing with a .276/.342/.387 line and his first call to the majors.
Just when things seemed to be turning around for Beckham, he tore his ACL in the offseason and will miss most, if not all, of 2014.
What separates Beckham from the rest of this list is that his chapter with the Rays still has pages to be written. If he comes back from injury, he still has the chance to put together a decent career. He will likely still fall short of first-pick expectations, but he has the potential to decrease the disappointment and remove the bust label from his legacy.
Players Drafted Later: Buster Posey, Brett Lawrie, Pedro Alvarez, Ike Davis, Eric Hosmer
3. Matt White, RHP
Draft Year: 1st Round, 1996 (7th by San Francisco Giants)
Highest Baseball America Prospect Ranking: 4 (1997)
Rays Career Stats: No major league stats
The expectations for Matt White started when he was named the Baseball Player of the Year coming out of high school in 1996 by both Baseball America and the USA Today. He had a career 0.65 ERA coming out of high school and chose to bypass college for what seemed like a promising shot at major league baseball.
White was drafted seventh overall by the San Francisco Giants in the 1996 June First-Year Player Draft, but would end up with Tampa Bay.
White’s agent Scott Boras used a clause, which was closed the following year, in the CBA that required teams to tender offers to drafted players within 15 days of the draft to retain their rights. White was one of four players granted free agency through the rule.
He would eventually sign a $10.2 million deal with the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the most for an amateur player at the time.
They were excited to sign White and had high expectations for what they believed was a player worth the fortune that was spent.
"This was literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Naimoli, who outbid Yankee owner George Steinbrenner for White. "This is never going to happen again."
Said Tampa Bay General Manager Chuck LaMar, "We think he was the most talented player in the 1996 draft."
Shoulder injuries would eventually force White to retire at the age of 27 in 2006, though, he last pitched in a game in 2003. He shared his frustration with the decision with Marc Topkin from the St. Petersburg Times.
I exhausted every possibility to try to come back. I felt like I lived up to my end of the bargain. It's unfortunate what happened on the field with the injuries. To not be able to do what you can do is frustrating.
Triple-A was the highest level White pitched at.
2. Dewon Brazelton, RHP
Draft Year: 2001, 1st Round (3rd pick)
Highest Baseball America Prospect Ranking: 57 (2002)
Rays Career Stats: 8-23, 54 G, 5.98 ERA, 253.0 IP, 136 K, 142 BB
The 2001 MLB draft started off with Joe Mauer and Mark Prior being selected. They were followed by one of the biggest draft busts in history, Dewon Brazelton.
Coming out of Middle Tennessee State University, Brazelton had enormous potential. He was a first-team All-American and the Sun Belt conference Pitcher of the Year after going 13-1 with a 1.44 ERA.
Brazelton was probably one of the most poorly handled prospects, from a baseball perspective, in Rays history. He was rushed to the majors, making his debut just over a year after he was drafted. He struggled early and often and the team did not help much to make him successful.
First, the team tried to adjust his mechanics but he never got them right. His fastball, curveball and changeup never became effective pitches at the major league level.
Then, he was demoted to the bullpen after showing up late due to taking the wrong train to Yankee Stadium followed by a poor performance. He would ultimately get sent all the way down to Single-A Bakersfield soon after the incident.
It is hard to envision the combination of being rushed before being ready and the strict environment of a Lou Piniella team helping a young pitcher gain confidence through adversity.
Players Drafted Later: Mark Teixeira, David Wright, Gavin Floyd
1. Josh Hamilton, of
Draft Year: 1999, 1st round (1st pick)
Highest Baseball America Prospect Ranking: 1 (2001)
Rays Career Stats: Never played in the majors for the Rays
Josh Hamilton is the most successful player on this list but none of his success came with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The Rays drafted Hamilton with the first overall selection of the 1999 MLB Draft.
Everything about him made him a smart selection as the top pick. He was such an exceptionally gifted prospect—he could have been drafted as a pitcher or a position player.
In high school, Hamilton had a 7-1 record as a pitcher with 83 strikeouts. His arsenal included a fastball that registered 96 mph on the radar gun. At the plate, he had a .556 batting average with 11 home runs, 34 RBIs and only four strikeouts.
Hamilton’s career with the Rays never got off the ground.
Starting with a back injury from an auto accident in 2001, things spiraled downhill quickly. He would later develop an addiction to cocaine. Hamilton was out of baseball from 2004 to 2006 due to drug abuse and suspensions.
Hamilton eventually made his major league debut with the Reds on April 2, 2007, eight years after he was initially drafted by the Rays. After one season with the Reds, they traded him to the Rangers.
In his five seasons with the Rangers, Hamilton was a five-time All-Star and won three Silver Slugger Awards. His best season came in 2010 when he won the American League MVP award.
Hamilton has put together a very respectable career overall and has made tremendous strides to overcome the demons that almost ruined his career. However, to the team that drafted him, he never lived up to his hype.
Players Drafted Later: Josh Beckett, Barry Zito, Brian Roberts, Alex Rios