New regime gets first chance at draft
Rays staff has preference for college talent
ST. PETERSBURG -- One facet of professional baseball Devil Rays fans have grown familiar with is the June First-Year Player Draft, given the team's annual position at or close to the top selection.
This year's draft will be no different with the Rays selecting third on June 6. The big difference will be the team running the show at draft headquarters.
Andrew Friedman is the team's executive vice president of baseball operations -- which equates to general manager with other clubs -- making him the top baseball executive. Scouting director R.J. Harrison will be "quarterbacking the draft" according to Friedman.
Though the process of grading and evaluating talent is complex, Friedman's draft philosophy is simple.
"We are focused on taking the best players available," said Friedman, noting the futility of trying to draft players to fill specific needs within the organization. "If we focus on a specific need now, with the lag when a guy's drafted and expected to get to the big leagues, at the end of the day if you overcompensate one direction then you end up waking up four years from now [with an imbalance in another direction]. So we're just trying to balance it to where we get the best player available and diversify our strengths as much as possible."
Friedman said the organization is out trying to get as many looks at the top prospects as possible.
"Guys who we're going to make significant investments in, to better complete the picture for us," Friedman said. "And that's one thing we've really focused on. Not just our amateur guys. We've had some of our pro scouts, who may be better in pitching or better at looking at position players, go see some of the amateurs. It's something that we take very seriously and for us we're not always looking to hit a home run with our picks, but we're looking for as many quality Major Leaguers as possible."
Looking at this year's field, Friedman cited college pitching as the strength of the draft.
"Over the course of the first two rounds you're going to see a lot of college pitching taken," Friedman said. "The position players, both college and high school, are definitely not as strong as the college pitching."
Among the top five possibilities are college pitchers, a list that includes Cal right-hander Brandon Morrow, North Carolina left-hander Andrew Miller, Washington right-hander Tim Lincecum, and Houston right-hander Brad Lincoln. Long Beach State third baseman Evan Longoria is the top-ranked position player.
Friedman said it was an "over simplification" to declare whether the organization had a preference between high school and college players.
"But all things being equal, we'd rather take the college player than the high school player," he said. "But it's not ever that easy, there are a lot more variables to consider. With a college guy, for the most part they're that much quicker to the big leagues. Again, assuming all things are equal in the talent level between the two players, so it's not that easy to just apply a tried-and-true method. We review it on a case-by-case basis and depending on what other teams are doing will help dictate what we do."
Here's a look at how Tampa Bay's past three No. 1 picks are doing:
2005 -- Wade Townsend, RHP, Rice University, (eighth overall).
Townsend appeared in 12 games for Class A Hudson Valley, making 10 starts for the Renegades and allowed just four hits and one earned run through his first five outings, but was touched for 22 runs over his next seven starts for a 6.40 ERA. He underwent Tommy John elbow surgery on Nov. 21 and is expected to be back and ready by Spring Training.
2004 -- Jeff Niemann, RHP, Rice University, (fourth overall).
He appeared in 11 games between Class A Visalia and Double-A Montgomery in 2005 and had minor surgery on his right shoulder in October. Currently, he is finishing the rehab process and the Rays expect him to be pitching competitively again by the middle of June.
2003 -- Delmon Young, RF, Camarillo High School, Calif., (first overall).
Young is currently serving the remainder of a 50-game suspension for throwing his bat and hitting an umpire. On the basis of his 2005 season spent at Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham -- when he hit a combined .315 with 26 doubles, seven triples, 26 home runs, 99 RBI, and 32 stolen bases -- he was named Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year. Before his suspension, Young was hitting .333 with 12 stolen bases; he is due back from his suspension on June 19.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.