Over the past 20 or so years, the Cardinals have been one of the most successful organizations in baseball. A large reason for that, especially recently, is their skill (or luck) at drafting and developing players. What if they needed to build a team from scratch though? Keep the Cardinals’ organization intact, but remove the players. They have a good foundation, but need to field a baseball team in two years through drafts, free agency, and an expansion draft. How would they do?
This is just a roundabout way of connecting the Cardinals to a topic I want to write about that is completely not about the Cardinals. In the 1990s, four teams were added to the MLB and needed to start their teams from scratch. In 1994, the MLB approved the expansion of the MLB to 29 and 30 teams, which included the team I will talk about, the Tampa Bay Rays (formerly the Devil Rays).
The Rays offseason for the 1998 season, their first ever, actually started in 1996. They signed a failed hitter, Victor Zambrano, in March and converted him to starter. Though not particularly good, he was eventually traded for Scott Kazmir, who outperformed Zambrano in the middle of his first full season with them. That’s a good decision that pays off in 8 years, but for 1998, it wasn’t much help.
The Rays needed to field a major league team in two years, so naturally their strategy in the 1996 MLB draft was to draft four high schoolers with their first four picks. None of them ever played for the Rays and just one even played for a major league team period and his debut was in 2008. They drafted four pitchers who made it to the majors and combined for 229.2 IP with 0.4 WAR, with all the positive WAR coming from 71.1 IP from Dan Wheeler over three seasons of part-time reliever work. Their best pick was Jared Sandberg, who had 1.8 fWAR in 401 PAs at 24, but his traditional stats were bad and he struck out a third of the time, so after 156 PAs of 93 wRC+ and 0.8 WAR, he never played in the majors again. Total fWAR contribution form 1996 draft: 2.9 fWAR
They were relegated to signing international free agents, undrafted free agents and picking up players released by other teams until the 1997 draft. I’m guessing because of some weird rule they were able to exploit, they signed the 12th overall pick of the 1996 draft, Bobby Seay, in November. Seay didn’t pitch anymore than 22 IP in his three seasons for the Rays. They signed Bartolomé Fortunato, who wasn’t good, but was in the Kazmir trade for some reason. They signed Rick White, coming off two solid seasons as a swingman for the Pirates at 25 and 26, who was granted free agency for some reason and didn’t play in the majors in the intervening two years before being solid with the Pirates. They signed IFA Rolando Arrojo, the #37 prospect in baseball at 31-years-old, who was good for one year and suffered from injury and performance issues the rest of his short career.
In the 1997 MLB draft, the Rays drafted all high school players for their first five picks, with their first college player taken in the 7th round (they had no 4th round pick). Three of the five players made the majors, but they received 80.1 IP of 6.39 ERA ball from two of them and one plate appearance from the other. They drafted Toby Hall, their eventual starting catcher for four years, but he had 3.6 fWAR total in those four years. Total fWAR from 1997 draft: 3.2 fWAR with pretty much all the positive WAR from Hall.
The expansion draft was in November of ‘97, which essentially meant that the Rays needed to fill their entire roster with the exception of Arrojo and White. They filled one OF slot by making a pretty dumb move. They traded for 27-year-old Mike Kelly, who was an average hitter spread across four seasons with less than 500 total PAs, but had 151 great PAs the year before. They made what had to be a handshake agreement to send the Reds whatever player they drafted from them in the expansion draft, which turned out to be Dimitri Young, #29 prospect by Baseball America just a year ago. Horrible process here, and even though Young wasn’t what people thought he could be, he still had two league average seasons in 1998 and 1999 that the Rays could have used. Kelly was replacement level in 300 PAs and out of baseball soon after.
I won’t list the rules of the draft, but each team had 14 picks in the 1st round, 14 picks in the 2nd round and and seven picks in the 3rd round. They could pick anyone except for the 15 players protected by each team, and each additional round would have more protected players. They could not pick players from the same team twice in a round. I’ll try to summarize the draft and not go over every pick.
- 1st pick, Tony Saunders, LHP- Never a top 100 prospect, Saunders started 3 total games in AAA before jumping to MLB in ‘97. At 23, solid rookie season, but little control. He had 3.2 fWAR season in 1998, but completely lost it at 25 and was out of baseball that quickly.
- Quinton McCracken, OF - Rays did not get the memo about how Coors Field in the 90s worked, so that’s why their second pick was a replacement player.
- Miguel Cairo, 2B - He was not a good hitter in AA or AAA, but the Rays must have hoped, at 24, that he could learn how to hit with his defense. Turned into a utility player cause he couldn’t and the defense was only a little above average.
- Rich Butler, OF - Great numbers in minors, but consistently old for level. Power didn’t translate to majors.
- Bob Smith, 3B - #79 prospect by BA before ‘96 season, taken off list after poor offensive showing. ‘97 was a rebound in AAA, plus was still 23. 2.4 fWAR season in ‘98 proved to be fluke thanks to .360 BABIP and huge defensive numbers that weren’t repeated.
- Bubba Trammel, OF - Never got a starting role, but was a 121 wRC+ hitter in 2 and half seasons as a bench player before being traded.
- Dennis Springer, SP - Surely there are better options than a bad 33-year-old starter who pitched his first full season the year before? -1.0 fWAR year in one year with Rays
- Mike Duvall (2nd round), LHP - Drafted without playing a single game in AAA, posted mediocre 6.5 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, and 1.22 WHIP. Also reliever only.
- Jim Mecir, RHP - 70 innings of replacement production and was 28 as a reliever. Gave the Rays 4.2 bWAR in 2.5 seasons as a reliever. Only outperformed most everyone else they drafted. Makes sense.
- Kerry Robinson, OF - Yes, they drafted him from the Cards. He got released and bounced around before coming back to Cards.
- Steve Cox, 1B - #87 prospect by BA before 1996 - Just never hit enough for a 1B
- Randy Winn, OF - He didn’t actually break out until 2002, and the Rays traded him for manager Lou Piniella after his 4.6 fWAR season. Yeah. This happened. 2003 wasn’t that long ago.
- Aaron Ledesma, SS - The offensive environment in the 90s was crazy, but I still got to give it to this guy for having a .324 average and a 92 wRC+ in ‘98.
- Herbert Perry, IF - This guy didn’t play at all in 1997 and played in 15 total games in 1998 cause of injuries. Replacement level in ‘99, selected off waivers after just seven games in 2000, and then... he has a 2.9 fWAR season with the White Sox. That is just unlucky.
You can see sound logic in most picks. There’s a couple former top 100 prospects who lost their shine and were still pretty young, which is a pretty ideal use of the pick since most top 100 prospects won’t be available. Saunders put together one good season with them, but his third season suggests injuries to me, which is not the Rays’ fault. Most of the people they drafted where 25 and younger. They seemed to pick names out of a hat with pitchers, but I don’t know who was available, so hard to judge them on that.
Here’s the thing though. They drafted better than the list I provided because they also traded some of their picks. All of them were bad. The aforementioned Kelly-Young trade was one of them. Okay I lied. One of them is inconsequential. They traded a quad-A 26-year-old SS and a reliever for a bad catcher in 30-year-old John Flaherty. They also drafted and traded Bobby Abreu. Abreu was the #38 prospect in baseball before the 1997 season. At 23, he had a 92 wRC+ season in 59 games for the Astros and lost his prospect status. They traded him for Kevin Stocker, a 28-year-old SS, who had a 1.4 fWAR season in 149 games played in 1997. Previous to that season, he had 1.5 total fWAR - thanks to a -1.4 fWAR season in 1995 - in four seasons with the Phillies. They traded Bobby Abreu for this guy. You can call this hindsight, but there’s no reason to trade FOR Stocker anyway! Ugh I’m not even a Rays fan but this makes me mad.
The Rays made three other moves on the same day as the expansion draft. They purchased Fred McGriff from the Braves, which does not seem like a thing that would happen now. They signed catcher Tim Laker and reliever Roberto Hernandez. Before the offseason proper kicked in, they used three of the 35 players they drafted to acquire their starting catcher and starting SS. They purchased 34-year-old McGriff, pretty well past his prime at that point. They had Cairo for 2B and Bobby Smith at 3B. They traded for Kelly, so he would factor into the OF picture, plus they drafted quite a few of them. They had two starting pitchers, Saunders and Arrojo, who could be penciled in and they signed their presumed closer in Hernandez, plus White was a good swingman. That was about all you could count on for pitching and even White hadn’t pitched in a couple years.
They signed 28-year-old Wilson Alvarez, coming off a 3.8 fWAR season to make a third spot in the rotation certain. They signed 33-year-old Dave Martinez, coming off a 2.6 fWAR season. They signed 32-year-old Paul Sorrento, who was a 1B coming off a 2.3 fWAR season, so presumably they wanted him at DH. They signed 39-year-old Wade Boggs, coming off a 2 fWAR season. McGriff was coming off a 1.4 fWAR season and “rebounded” to 3.1 fWAR, although it’s pretty much all in fluky defense as he had a 110 wRC+ in ‘97 and 111 wRC+ in ‘98. The rest of the free agents did not really work out as planned. Alvarez, Martinez, Sorrento, Hernandez, and Boggs combined for 11.9 fWAR in 1997. They combined for 3.3 fWAR in 1998. And again, McGriff wasn’t actually better either.
And that is how the Rays went 63-99 despite a free agent splurge that indicated they expected to compete at the least. They didn’t draft well in the amateur draft, though that was unlikely to ever impact the 1998 season, but drafting high school players for the first few picks pretty much guaranteed that. (1998 draft was Aubrey Huff and... not really anything else) They drafted okay in the expansion draft, but their best picks were traded for worse players. And they signed a bunch of old guys in free agency. Alvarez at 28 should have worked out better but the rest? Yeah that’s on them. It’s pretty easy to see why it took them 10 years to have a winning record. This is an incredibly slow start.
*Couple notes: first, sorry this wasn’t about the Cards. I just am really, really interested in the expansion teams and how they were compiled. Secondly, sorry it’s so long. This could very easily have been twice as long and I did my best.