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Rays preparing to dominate draft

While Rays scouting director R. J. Harrison was at a college baseball game on Friday night, a scout from a different organization approached and made a defeatist proclamation about the upcoming Major League Baseball draft: "Nobody's going to get anybody because you're taking everybody."

It only seems that way.

Thanks to MLB's quirky draft rules -- in which teams that lose valued free agents are granted additional picks -- the Rays have 12 of the first 89 selections in the draft that begins June 6, including 10 of the first 60 in what could be one of the two or three best pools of amateur talent in the past decade.

"We can't take 'em all," Harrison said. "We've got a lot of picks, but we don't have as many as we're being linked to."

Speculation has run rampant in scouting circles over what the Rays plan to do with their unprecedented haul, which it owes to losing Rafael Soriano, Carl Crawford, Grant Balfour, Brad Hawpe, Joaquin Benoit, Randy Choate and Chad Qualls to free agency. Obviously teams will scout many multiples more players than they will ever select, but one can forgive a rival team's scout for packing up and leaving a high school or college game upon the arrival of someone representing the Rays organization.

Consider the Tigers' plight: It lost its first-round pick to the Red Sox after signing Type-A free-agent catcher Victor Martinez and didn't net any additional picks for losing free agents. Detroit makes its first selection at No. 76 -- that's one slot after the Rays make their 11th pick of the draft.

And then there are the Angels, who make the first selection at No. 17, seven slots before the Rays' first pick . . . and then don't pick again until No. 104, at which point Tampa Bay will have made 12 picks. Los Angeles did not lose any rated free agents, and it signed Type-A free agent Scott Downs, a reliever who pitched for the Blue Jays last year, thus surrendering its second-round pick to Toronto.

The Type-A and B designations are derived from a statistical formula created by the Elias Sports Bureau. Teams that lose a Type-A free agent receive the first-round pick of the club that signed that player -- provided the former team offered him salary arbitration -- and a new draft pick that's inserted into the sandwich round between the first and second rounds. (One exception is if the team that signs the player has its initial selection among the first 15 non-compensation picks, which are protected; in that case, it loses its second-round pick.)

Teams that sign Type B free agents don't lose a pick, but the club that lost the player is granted a compensatory selection in the sandwich round.

In any other sport in which each team gets one pick per round, 60 picks ought to cover three selections for each team. Instead, the Rays have 10 selections in what are called the first and sandwich rounds. Their first pick isn't until No. 24, which begins a stretch in which the Rays will make a selection every 3.7 picks. The exact sequence is 24, 31, 32, 38, 41, 42, 52, 56, 59, 60, 75 and 89.

The sheer volume of picks provides Tampa Bay with an unprecedented chance to restock their farm system. If the Rays so choose, they can even hedge their bets like never before with a combination of quick-to-the-majors prospects that can help extend the parent club's recent winning ways while also filling the lower rungs of the minor leagues with high-upside, long-development players, too. For a club like the Rays who can't afford to sign high-priced free agents, scouting and development is the organization's backbone for player procurement.

"This is obviously unique," Harrison said. "I don't know that many clubs ever had this many before the second round. I've been here since we started -- last year was the 15th draft I've been involved in with this club -- and last year was the first year we ever had an extra pick."

In other words the 2010 draft was a warm-up act, as Tampa Bay received two supplemental picks. But it was akin to preparing for a marathon by running a 5K.

The story of the Rays' rise to prominence has been written many times, of their front office infused with Wall Street talent who turned the moribund franchise into a two-time American League East champion despite one of baseball's smallest annual payrolls. Of course, to make such a jump, they are highly protective of their proprietary methods, and the Rays rarely call attention to themselves.

That front office is not prone to overstatement but even executive VP Andrew Friedman recognize the unique opportunity presented to his team, telling the St. Petersburg Times, "Because of our revenues and the competition we face, the amateur draft is arguably more important to us than to any other club, and this year's draft is easily the most important in our history."

As for just who the Rays might take, Harrison says they are "trying to condense our energies to that group of players that we think have a pretty good chance of being the guys that we'll select from," he said. "And the thing is, we just get to take more of them. From 24 to 60 they're calling our name a lot."

Harrison, who was promoted to scouting director when the franchise came under new ownership and management before the 2006 season, said he'd have to wait until after the draft to determine whether there was more pressure in choosing No. 1 overall -- as the Rays have done four times in their short history -- or in making such a high volume of picks.

The Rays have long been major players on draft day, historically owing to their prime real-estate at or near the top of the first round. They picked in the top eight in 10 consecutive drafts after not winning more than 70 games in any of the previous seasons. They cashed in on B.J. Upton (No. 2 overall in 2002), Jeff Niemann (No. 4 in '04), Evan Longoria (No. 3 in '06) and David Price (No. 1 overall in '07), all of whom are still with the team.

Likewise they missed on Dewon Brazelton (No. 3 in '01) and Wade Townsend (No. 8 in 2005), though both those picks were made under the old executive team. It is too early to rate 2008's No. 1 overall pick, high school shortstop Tim Beckham, who is 21 years old and in his first season of Double-A ball.

Draft picks in the first few rounds can get pricey, and this year's bounty could cost an estimated $12-15 million in signing bonuses, which could be a problem for a club on a shoestring budget. But the Rays haven't skimped on player development and, as mlb.com reported before the season, they recognized a while ago that they were likely to lose a significant number of free agents who might return additional draft picks and began saving money two years ago.

Harrison did allow that the franchise has bolstered its crew on the road by deploying special assistants Rocco Baldelli, who recently retired after a seven-year career spent almost entirely with the Rays, and Dave Eiland, who spent the previous three seasons and the Yankees' pitching coach, to scout hitters and pitchers, respectively. That's in addition to the three men already cross-checking nationally, three regional supervisors and their area scouts. But otherwise, Harrison said, the organization isn't doing anything drastically different in preparation for the first Monday of June.

"We're not going to get up all wound up and create something out of this, other than to stick with our process and evaluate our players properly," he said.

The process by which the Rays make those selections may not be differ radically from years past but the impact those new players have on the franchise's fortunes just might be.

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