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Rays’ 2011 resurgence shows Draft smarts prevail

The Tampa Bay Rays are proving that,
in spite of the notion that they are “baseball’s farm team”,
their recent run of success in the rugged AL East is no fluke.

GM Andrew Friedman has been criticized
(even by yours truly) for failing to pull off a big midseason trade
during the team’s 2008 and 2010 division-championship seasons.
Instead, he and manager Joe Maddon felt confident in the young core
they had in place. The result? 97 and 96 win seasons.

But it appeared this offseason would
be too much to handle. Carl Crawford, Matt Garza, Carlos Pena, Rafael
Soriano, Grant Balfour, Randy Choate, and Jason Bartlett all donned
different uniforms. The “replacements” the team brought in were
seen as just that – castoffs like Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta
to patch up the bullpen, and grizzled vets like Johnny Damon and
Manny Ramirez.

So it was likely no surprise that the
offense stalled, and the Rays got off to an 0-7 start. Done,
finished, left for dead. Instead, it’s May 31 and the Rays are just
1.5 games out of first place.

The Draft has been kind to Tampa Bay
in the past, and 2011 is no different. While the departed names were
impressive, it’s players like Evan Longoria, David Price, and James
Shields that have saved the Rays from returning to mediocrity.
Players like Matt Joyce and Sam Fuld, unknown names brought in via
trade, have made a very questionable offense into a productive one.
Fuld arrived via the Garza/Pena trade with the Cubs and has emerged
as a fan-favorite.

When the Rays’ brass gets to their war
room Monday in Seacaucus, N.J., they will be once again armed to
stock up for the future with a record 12 picks within the first 89
selections. Friedman knows as well as anyone the need to create
organizational depth with ownership having cut payroll drastically.
While Tampa Bay does not pick until 31, they will have plenty of
options in a pitching-deep pool.

In the meantime, pitching doesn’t
appear to be hampering the Rays. Price, a former first overall pick,
is having another Cy Young-caliber season, while former 4th-rounder
Jeremy Hellickson continues to emerge. Then again, you can never have
enough pitching.

If we’ve learned one lesson from
watching Tampa Bay scratch and claw their way into contention in a
seemingly underwhelming financial position in the league’s most
brutal division, it’s that when the Draft is done the right way,
anything is possible.

There is little doubt that Tampa Bay
is here to stay.

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