Who are the best late-round draft picks in Rays history?
One in six: That's how many people eat the same lunch every day; that's how many iPhone users made the switch from Android; and according to a study by Baseball America's Matt Eddy, that's about how many MLB draft signees will make it to the major leagues.
With the 2017 draft beginning on Monday, the odds can seem daunting, especially for players outside the top few rounds. The Tampa Bay Rays pick fourth overall on Monday, and that selection has the greatest chance of amounting to a productive big-leaguer. By Wednesday — the third day of the draft, when teams make their choices in rounds 11 through 40 — most fans have tuned out the whole thing.
That's not to say, however, that no talented players can emerge in the later rounds. Through their history, the Rays have drafted and signed hundreds of players outside the top 10 rounds; several of them have made it to the majors, and a few of them have stuck around. These are the five players in that group with the highest career WAR (according to Baseball-Reference).
5. Stephen Vogt — 12th round (365th overall), 2007 draft; 6.2 career WAR
As a 22-year-old catcher who'd plied his trade for Division II Asuza Pacific University, Vogt didn't turn many heads come draft day. While he swung a hefty bat, many teams worried about his defense and development. But in the middle of their 10th consecutive losing season, the Rays could afford to take a flyer on him. One day after snagging David Price with the No. 1 overall pick, Tampa Bay brought in Vogt.
Unfortunately, he never caught on with the Rays, who weren't fond of his fielding. They shipped Vogt to the Oakland Athletics in 2013, and with consistent playing time in the Bay Area, his career took off. He's hit .257/.315/.418 across the past five seasons; over that same span, Rays catchers have hit .211/.271/.332 with the second-lowest OPS in baseball. For Vogt, the big-league talent was there, but the big-league dreams would be realized elsewhere.
4. Dan Wheeler — 34th round (1,024th overall), 1996 draft, 8.1 career WAR
Two years before they fielded an MLB team, and a year before the expansion draft, the Rays got their first chance to pick up domestic amateur talent. The best player they'd select that year was Wheeler, a second-team All-American as a freshman at Central Arizona Junior College. Instead of transferring to Arizona State for a chance to improve his draft stock, the 18-year-old righty signed with Tampa Bay, eager to get a head start in professional ball.
In spite of — or perhaps because of — his impatience, Wheeler would have to wait to make an impact for the Rays. He notched a 6.43 ERA in 71-1/3 innings from 1999 to 2001, punching his ticket to the waiver wire. As a reliever for the Houston Astros, Wheeler turned the corner; in 2005 and 2006, he put up a 2.36 ERA and 41 holds in 144-2/3 frames. The Rays reacquired him in 2007, and over the next three years, he'd tally a 3.24 ERA, 50 holds and 18 saves in 172-1/3 innings, helping the team win its lone pennant. Not bad for a guy chosen by a nonexistent team.
3. John Jaso — 12th round (338th overall), 2003 draft, 10.0 career WAR
Ever the quintessential Rays player — a defensively flexible, power-challenged on-base machine — Jaso was once an afterthought. He walked on at Southwestern College, a community college in Chula Vista, California, where he excelled at the plate yet didn't garner much attention from scouts. The Rays grabbed the 19-year-old catcher, who passed up a chance for a scholarship at the University of San Diego to go pro.
Like Vogt, Jaso would blossom on the West Coast, breaking out in 2012 for the Seattle Mariners. Like Wheeler, though, Jaso eventually returned to Tampa, in a trade that sent Ben Zobrist and Yunel Escobar to the Athletics. Now playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Jaso has a lifetime triple-slash of .262/.358/.407 and has spent time at first base, catcher and outfielder. The swashbuckling utility man has come a long way from an unwanted community college kid.
2. Kevin Kiermaier — 31st round (941st overall), 2010 draft, 18.7 career WAR
As Rays fans can attest, Kiermaier is possibly the best defensive player on the planet — over the past three seasons, he leads the majors by a mile in Defensive Runs Saved and is a narrow second in Ultimate Zone Rating runs. But coming out of Parkland College in Champaign, Illinois, Kiermaier had an uppercut swing that seemed to scare off many scouts. Despite hitting .430/.558/.805 in 258 college plate appearances, the 20-year-old outfielder didn't hear his name called during the first two days of the draft.
The Rays happily scooped up Kiermaier on day three, and the marriage has been a happy one. He's hit well enough — a .258/.316/.422 batting line in 1,575 plate appearances — to be a starter, and his glove, well, we've already covered that. Kiermaier's dominance is hard to understate: In 2016, he accumulated more WAR on a per-plate appearance basis than Mookie Betts, who finished second in MVP voting. Although Kiermaier's struggled to stay healthy, suffering a hand injury last year and a hip fracture this year, he's an elite player when he's on the field.
1. James Shields — 16th round (466th overall), 2000 draft, 28.8 career WAR
Before Stuart Sternberg turned the Rays into a contender, Vince Naimoli stumbled across a diamond in the rough. While Shields had shown off a polished arsenal at Hart High School in Newhall, California, injury concerns and a commitment to LSU scared off most teams. The Rays gambled on the 18-year-old right-hander, and the health scare turned out to be a false alarm, as Shields ranked ninth in the majors in innings pitched during his seven seasons in Tampa Bay.
In addition to supporting the Rays rotation for several years, Big Game James brought back a king's ransom when the team dealt him to the Kansas City Royals. Directly or indirectly, Shields has helped give the Rays their starting right fielder (Steven Souza Jr.), two of their starting pitchers (Jake Odorizzi and Erasmo Ramirez) and two of their top Triple-A hitters (Jake Bauers and Patrick Leonard). You wouldn't know it from watching him these days — he had by far the worst ERA among qualified starters last year — but Shields has been valuable for the Rays in the past, present and future.