When Stuart Sternberg bought the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in the mid-2000s, he got a team name (which would soon be changed), a stadium lease (which strangled attendance and any hopes of relocating) and the best prospect in baseball.
Delmon Young had just been picked first overall in the 2003 MLB draft. In his first year as a pro, he hit .322 with 25 homers as an 18-year-old in Class-A. In his second, he was Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year, and by the start of 2006 he was atop BA’s prospects list. The first good Rays team would be built on his talent.
Prospects are always uncertain, but prospect writers know what they’re doing: The top 50 names on that year’s prospect ranking have made 74 All-Star teams and produced, on average, more than 16 WAR (and counting) in their careers. The median player, by career WAR, is Billy Butler, an All-Star who retired with almost 1,500 major league hits.
And then there’s Delmon Young:
1. Justin Verlander, 62.5 WAR
2. Ryan Braun, 45.0 WAR
3. Troy Tulowitzki, 44.1 WAR
35. Ian Stewart, 3.0 WAR
36. Dustin McGowan, 2.5 WAR
37. Delmon Young, 2.4 WAR
He retired with as many career WAR as Mike Trout had this April. In his career he had a fine season or two, some huge postseason hits, starred in a GIF and played long enough to assure his family’s financial security for a few generations. But for what everybody thought Young would be, he was a flop.
But, in a way nobody probably saw coming, he paid off. Every good Rays team has been built on his talent. Young is the trunk of one of the best active trade trees in baseball, and last week that tree sprung two promising new shoots.
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On Sept. 26, 2002, the final game of the Yankees’ home schedule — against the Devil Rays — was rained out. The Yankees were in a race with Oakland for the best record in the American League, and they held the tiebreaker. If they finished a half-game behind Oakland, then on the Monday after the season ended they would make up the game against Tampa and try to win it.
But it turned out to be unnecessary. The Yankees swept the Orioles in Baltimore on the final weekend of the season, matched the A’s win total (in one fewer game), and with the tiebreaker they clinched home field. The Devil Rays went home for the winter with a final record of 55-106, tied for the worst in baseball with the Detroit Tigers, who also had a rainout that was never rescheduled. The Devil Rays “won” the tiebreaker for the first overall draft pick by having a worse record than Detroit in 2001. It was one of those easy years. Everybody knew who the first pick should be: Delmon Young. The Devil Rays took him.
Five years after that rainout, Young had just finished his rookie season — disappointing power, few walks, bad defense, but he finished second in Rookie of the Year voting — when Devil Rays GM Andrew Friedman offered him to the Twins. It was an audacious proposal, with Young under contract for five more seasons and just weeks past his 22nd birthday. But “for Friedman and the Rays, this was a unique opportunity, one that transcended the usual protocols for low-revenue, rebuilding teams,” wrote Jonah Keri in The Extra 2%. “The Rays were overloaded with young outfielders. What they sorely lacked were young starting pitchers with ace potential.”
Young and shortstop Brendan Harris would go to Minnesota. Right-handed starting pitcher Matt Garza and shortstop Jason Bartlett would go to Tampa Bay. The deal was announced in late November. Young’s career as a Devil Ray was over, having produced 1.8 Wins Above Replacement. (He briefly would return as a Ray, in 2013, but we’re excluding that stint from our math.)
Young: 1.8 WAR
Total trade tree WAR: 1.8
Garza and Bartlett helped lead the now-just-the-Rays from last place in 2007 to first place in 2008, the first team other than the Yankees or Red Sox to win the AL East in more than a decade. They made it to the World Series with the second-lowest payroll, and Garza and Bartlett were both crucial.
For three seasons, in fact, the Rays were great and Garza and Bartlett were great. From 2008 to 2010, Tampa Bay averaged 92 wins, tied for fourth in the majors. Bartlett was the 45th most valuable position player in baseball, with 10.3 WAR; Garza was the 35th most valuable pitcher, with 8.5 WAR. Neither was eligible for free agency, and together they earned just $7 million for those 19 WAR. (Young and Harris were worth 1.0 WAR in those three years.)
These guys: 18.8 WAR
Total trade tree WAR: 20.6 WAR
By the winter of 2010-11, both players had reached arbitration and would be paid closer to their actual value. So the Rays traded them both. For Bartlett, San Diego sent the Rays:
Bartlett never had another season above replacement level, so you might just say off the top that the Rays “won” the trade. Gomes, Ramos and Russell were all sometimes effective relievers for Tampa Bay, making a combined 376 appearances with a combined 3.83 ERA. Ramos was eventually traded for a young pitcher named Mark Sappington, but Sappington never developed. Figueroa, who rose through the minors to play 23 games for the Rays, now works in the Rays’ front office, so theoretically the trade tree continues with his intellectual contributions. But we’ll stop our accounting at the chalk lines.
These guys: 1.3 WAR
Total trade tree WAR: 21.9 WAR
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Garza, meanwhile, was one of the hottest trade topics of that offseason, and the Cubs ultimately gave four prospects and Sam Fuld to get Garza’s final three seasons before free agency.
“Andrew Friedman didn’t just ditch dollars, he landed solid swag,” Christina Kahrl wrote for Baseball Prospectus at the time. Of one prospect in particular, Kahrl wrote: “Chris Archer’s upside is that he winds up being a perfect one-for-one replacement for Garza in the rotation over the full span of his service time.” Which actually undersold it just a little bit, especially after Archer signed an early extension that would keep him under club control for almost a decade.
In all, the Rays got:
Sam Fuld, 2.2 WAR as a Ray, left as a free agent
Robinson Chirinos, 0.2 WAR as a Ray (then purchased by Texas)
Hak-ju Lee, who never made it to the majors as a Ray and left as a FA
Brandon Guyer, 4.4 WAR as a Ray, then traded to Cleveland for two young players (Nathan Lukes and Jhonleider Salinas) still in Tampa Bay’s system
Chris Archer, 12.1 WAR as a Ray
These guys: 18.9
Total trade tree WAR: 40.8
Even assuming nothing comes of Lukes or Salinas, there’s no reason to think this trade tree has stopped producing. When the Rays traded Archer at the deadline last week, they got back pitcher Tyler Glasnow and outfielder Austin Meadows, both of them recently top prospects: Meadows was No. 70 on Keith Law’s rankings this year (after ranking ninth in 2017). Glasnow, whose rookie status expired last year, was 25th on the 2017 list. Neither has quite the shine he used to have, but Meadows is 23 and Glasnow 24, and each could plausibly turn into something useful, something good or something great. Glasnow won’t be a free agent until after the 2024 season; Meadows won’t until after 2025. One way or another, both will probably be traded before then, and the tree will continue.
Glasnow has pitched twice for the Rays. He threw 60 percent strikes as a Pirate, but has thrown 70 percent strikes as a Ray, while averaging 98 mph with his fastball. He has struck out 14 batters in seven innings, walking only one. His WAR is positive.
These guys: 0.2
Total trade tree WAR: 41.0
Delmon Young was not, as it turned out, the best prospect in 2006. He was the cautionary tale, the warning about getting too excited about a prospect or assuming too much before he’s done it in The Show.
But potential is potential, and there turn out to be a few ways to get a lot out of potential. For the Rays, drafting Young turned into something special:
1. Justin Verlander, 62.5 WAR
2. Ryan Braun, 45.0 WAR
3. Troy Tulowitzki, 44.1 WAR
4. Jon Lester, 43.6 WAR
5. Delmon Young trade tree, 41.0 WAR
6. Andrew McCutchen, 40.5 WAR
That trade tree outproduced Ryan Zimmerman and Justin Upton, Matt Cain and Jered Weaver, and any number of other stars from the prospect class of 2006, and it ought to keep producing into at least the mid-2020s, more than two decades after Young was drafted. Maybe we should discount the trade tree’s total by some fraction, since Brendan Harris was also in the original deal. But on the other hand, almost all of the post-Young wins came from pre-arbitration players making far less than their market value. All these seasons combined cost the Rays about as much as Justin Verlander made in his final season with Detroit.
You can’t build a franchise on one player. The Rays haven’t made the playoffs since 2013, and the fact that they traded Chris Archer is the admission they won’t do it this year, either. But they discovered one neat trick to stay afloat, and now the float goes on.