ST. PETERSBURG -- Never do the Rays take the June First-Year Player Draft lightly.
"It's still very important," Rays scouting director R.J. Harrison said. "The better the prospects are that we can put in the organization, the better chance we have for some guys to pop through.
"This is about adding as many guys with the ability to potentially help us at the Major League level or help us acquire guys from [another team]. This is what it's all about. It's exciting and very important for what we do. And we're going to do the best job we can at it."
The 2014 Draft will take place from today through Saturday, beginning with the Draft preview show on MLB.com and MLB Network today at 6 p.m. ET. Live Draft coverage from MLB Network's Studio 42 begins at 7 p.m., with the top 74 picks being streamed on MLB.com and broadcast on MLB Network. MLB.com's exclusive coverage of the second and third days will begin with a live Draft show at 12:30 p.m. ET on Friday.
MLB.com's coverage includes Draft Central, the Top 200 Draft Prospects list and Draft Tracker, a live interactive application that includes a searchable database of Draft-eligible players. Every selection will be tweeted live from @MLBDraftTracker, and you can also keep up to date by following @MLBDraft. And get into the Draft conversation by tagging your tweets with #mlbdraft.
Given the importance the Rays put on the Draft, they are constantly evaluating the process in the hopes of coming away with better results.
"I would like far better results than we've achieved," said Andrew Friedman, Rays executive vice president of baseball operations. "But I think the work ethic and the passion level is really high and we're continuing to kind of refine our process in something that is incredibly difficult, forecasting 18-year-olds and how they will be at 23, 24, 25 years old.
"I think we're continuing to refine that and get better and better. But it's obviously something that's critically important to our overall vitality and we'll continue to put a lot into in terms of resources and time and energy to make it better."
In particular, the organization appears to have a talent gap derived from under-performing players from the 2008, '09 and '10 Drafts.
"I definitely think we have a void of obvious star-caliber players coming up," said Friedman, who added: "I do think we have a lot of depth in our system. And with depth, there are pleasant surprises that come from that. ... But it's not nearly as good as we want it to be."
Friedman allowed that the organization has left itself open for criticism with with the prospect they have harvested from the Draft. Tim Beckham, the Rays top pick of the 2008 Draft, is the last player selected by the Rays in the first round to reach the Major Leagues. And the Rays have received ample criticism for drafting the infielder with the first overall pick of that Draft.
"I don't think the criticism is unfair," Friedman said. "We have expectations to do far better than we have done. And it drives us every day to get better on this front with changes that will prove beneficial year in and year out. It's tough, but that being said, it's everything for us. So we have to figure out a way to be better than we've been."
Friedman noted that the organization's thought process concerning the Draft "has been more to go big and shoot for upside" due in part to being a low-payroll team at the Major-League level.
"Obviously when you do that, there's a lot of downside that comes with it," Friedman said. "There's a lot of high-risk, high-reward strategy.
"Whereas the potential star-caliber player is incredibly difficult for us to access [at the Major League level] -- whether it be the trade front or the free-agent front -- that definitely factors in [to their strategy of taking chances to uncover impact players]. I'd say [if the Rays were] resource neutral, our philosophy might be a little bit different. But we're not resource neutral, so that has kind of been our operating philosophy. It hasn't changed. It's just continuing to refine it, really appreciate what limiting factors there are for certain guys and what their upside is, more than an overall philosophical change."
Constantly evaluating the evaluators of the talent is part of trying to improve how they draft.
"I think anything you do, whether it's player development or the Draft, you just try to stay as current as you can," Harrison said. "Try to pay attention to where the Major Leaguers are coming from. And react to that. I try to preach it to our scouts out in the area. Examine yourself, examine the Draft every year.
"If there's guys coming from your territory who are doing well in the Minor Leagues or getting to the Big Leagues, why did or didn't we have these guys in? That's the ongoing process from me all the way through our whole staff to continuously look yourself in the mirror and say how can we get better. How can we put ourselves in a position to put better prospects into our organization?"
The Rays will have the 20th overall pick and will also have the 60th and 72nd picks on the first day of the Draft.
"We have some ideas about what might be there," Harrison said. "But it's so unpredictable and our experience has been the past couple of years that the best thing you can do is just be prepared as well as you can and react when the time comes.
"The true thing is that we're trying to get the best players we can every year. ... But it's baseball. There's still scouting. It's still getting out there and being as thorough as we can. And we always continue to do that. We try to evolve each year and stay current as well."
In about 50 words
Harrison gave a high ranking to this year's pool of potential players to be drafted.
"There's probably fewer high school position players than in past years," Harrison said. "It's a pretty good crop of high school pitchers. And it was a really pretty good crop of college pitchers ... And there's some college position players that we're fairly intrigued by."
Offense seems to be tougher to find at the Major League level these days, which prompted a question to Harrison if he's seeing that lack of offense reflected at the amateur level as well.
"I talked to some college guys this year, they basically said the same thing," Harrison said. "They said, 'Where are the hitters?' You know. And when you run into one, they stick out like a sore thumb, guys that have been impactful in college baseball.
"I don't have any explanation for it. I don't think it's because the pitching is so much greater. I think the pitching at the amateur level is the same. Some years a little bit stronger than others. ... I think at the amateur level, with the [metal] bats becoming a little bit more like wood, not as live as they used to be, essentially, what we're getting now is the good hitters are still good hitters and the other guys, they're not so good."
An interesting possibility the Rays might take with their first-round pick (20th) is University of Indiana catcher/first baseman Kyle Schwarber.
For starters, Schwarber has power, which is an attractive quality considering the lack of it throughout the organization. In addition, he knows how to work an at-bat. Though his catching might not be up to speed with his bat, he is adequate enough behind the plate to project as an everyday player who can play first base and DH and serve as a solid backup catcher.
Rays bonus pool
Under the Collective Bargaining Agreement, each team has an allotted bonus pool equal to the sum of the values of that club's selections in the first 10 rounds of the Draft. The more picks a team has, and the earlier it picks, the larger the pool. The signing bonuses for a team's selections in the first 10 rounds, plus any bonus greater than $100,000 for a player taken after the 10th round, will apply toward the bonus pool total.
Any team going up to five percent over its allotted pool will be taxed at a 75-percent rate on the overage. A team that overspends by 5-10 percent gets a 75-percent tax plus the loss of a first-round pick. A team that goes 10-15 percent over its pool amount will be hit with a 100-percent penalty on the overage and the loss of a first- and second-round pick. Any overage of 15 percent or more gets a 100-percent tax plus the loss of first-round picks in the next two Drafts.
The Rays have a total to spend of $5,848,400, which averages out to $531,673 for their 11 selections in the first 10 rounds.
The Rays' Draft playbook won't veer from the simple idea that a team can't select players based on needs throughout the system, rather they must select the best available player when the time comes to make a selection.
The Rays once believed they would never run out of outfielders. After all, they had Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, Josh Hamilton, and Elijah Dukes at various levels of the organization. Nobody could have forseen how that group would thin itself out in years to come.
"The next thing you know we're having to go look for one," Harrison said.
While the Rays will clearly have an abundance of selections who are pitchers, because pitching is the lifeblood of any organization, they won't otherwise draft by position.
The trend for the Rays will be the same for most every organization in that pitchers will dot their selections throughout the course of the draft.
Having a farm system stocked with quality arms is critical to winning at the Major League level.
Due to the attrition rate of pitchers, the Rays select right-handers, left-handers, big ones, short ones, skinny ones and heavy ones all in the name of re-stocking the organization's pitching depth. As Friedman has noted on many occasions: "We can never operate in a fashion where we have to go to market for starting pitching."
* RECENT DRAFT HISTORY *
Luke Maile has size -- 6-foot-3, 220 pounds -- and can hit, which makes his stand out for a catcher, particularly since he can play defense as well. The Rays selected Maile in the eighth round in 2012 out of the University of Kentucky. Currently he's at Double-A Montgomery.
The Rays selected outfielder Kevin Kiermaier in the 31st round of the 2010 Draft. Currently, he is in his third tour with the Rays this season, and he made an impact each time with his glove. Rays manager Joe Maddon is one of many who say Kiermaier is the best fielding outfielder in baseball.
"This guy's a Major League outfielder for many years to come and he can impact a game with his defense," Maddon said.
Kiermaier has improved greatly on offense. Once the offense arrives, so will he.
In The Show
Looking back to the 2006 and '07 Drafts, the Rays have sent five of their Top 10 picks from those years to the Major Leagues: Evan Longoria, Alex Cobb, and Desmond Jennings in '06 and Matt Moore and David Price in '07.
The Rays' recent top picks
2013: Nick Ciuffo, C, Gulf Coast Rookie League
2012: Richie Shaffer, 3B, Double-A Montgomery
2011: Taylor Guerrieri, RHP, Suspended and recovering from Tommy John surgery
2010: Josh Sale, OF, Class A Charlotte
2009: Levon Washington, IF/OF, Did not sign (Class A Carolina, Indians organization)
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less