Burke Badenhop, the Tigers' 19th round pick out of Bowling Green in 2005, began his professional career with Oneonta, the club's short-season Class A team in the New York-Penn League. As a college senior with no negotiating leverage, he signed for a mere thousand dollars -- "$635 after taxes," he recalled -- and his one splurge was treating himself to an iPod Mini, which he fondly remembers was "all the rage at the time."
For the summer Badenhop, a righthanded pitcher, moved into a dormitory at Hartwick College, a small school on a hill perched above Oneonta. Across the hall was Will Rhymes, a second baseman selected in the 27th round out of William & Mary, and around the corner was an outfielder picked in the 12th round out of Florida Southern named Matt Joyce.
The three Tigers farmhands were hallmates that summer and minor league teammates for two and a half seasons, starting with Oneonta in '05, with full-season Class A Western Michigan in '06 (where they won a league title) and with Double-A Erie for about half of '07 -- all successful teams with a combined .619 winning percentage.
Now, after five years and three very different baseball journeys, Badenhop, Rhymes and Joyce have forged an unlikely reunion in the big leagues with the Rays.
"I would say this is probably about as random as it gets," Badenhop said.
If the three Tigers draft picks had risen the ranks of their original organization and made the majors with Detroit, no one would bat an eye.
Had all three been included in the same trade -- such as when Badenhop was one of five players traded to the Marlins in Dec. 2007 for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis -- and reached the big leagues with their new team, that wouldn't be too unusual.
But, instead, all three arrived independently: Joyce was traded to Tampa Bay for starter Edwin Jackson in Dec. 2008; Badenhop was traded for a minor league catcher, Jake Jeffries, in Dec. 2011; and Rhymes signed as a free agent in Jan. 2012 after the Tigers declined to tender him a contract the previous month.
Now all three are playing for the 38-31 Rays, who are 3 1/2 games behind the Yankees in the AL East. Joyce, who was recently put on the 15-day DL with an oblique strain, was an All-Star in 2011 and has been Tampa Bay's best hitter in this season with an .899 OPS that's almost 80 points higher than any teammate's; Badenhop has a 3.34 ERA in 32 1/3 relief innings; and Rhymes is batting just .221 but has played well defensively at both second and third base.
"It is kind of funny how we've come full circle here," Rhymes said. "It's so rare for three or four guys from a draft class to reach the majors, much less all end up in a different organization here, together."
On top of that, none of the three played in a major college conference, was drafted higher than the 12th round or received top prospect billing in the minors. Just the fact that all three became big leaguers is noteworthy, as such mid- and late-round draft success is out of the norm.
"We're really happy if one guy [drafted after the 10th round] makes the major leagues that has any kind of impact," said Andrew Friedman, Tampa Bay executive vice president of baseball operations.
The likelihood of a 12th-round pick reaching the majors is only 13 percent, while a 19th-round pick's chance is 11 percent and a 27th-rounder has made the majors only three percent of the time for players drafted between 1989 and 2007, according to research by Major League Draft Services.
Thus, there's only a 0.04 percent chance all three would make the big leagues, much less doing so together for a different organization.
For starters, that's a testament to the Tigers' amateur scouting. The 2005 Oneonta Tigers boasted 10 future major league players, the most of any NY-Penn League club that summer; the average among the 14 short-season clubs that year was five. It's a reminder of the fierce winnowing process from the low level of the minors to the big leagues.
But the circumstances of all three later joining the Rays is also yet another example of a creative front office finding contributions from less heralded players.
"The Rays do a good job of getting guys who may be undervalued other places," Rhymes said. "Or maybe people get here and they help you establish yourself or put you in a position to succeed. Whatever it is -- I don't know which one comes first -- here they do a good job of finding undervalued people or developing them."
There never was a moment when the Rays scouted the Tigers' farm system and concurrently coveted all of these players, but each has filled a role.
"It was happenstance," Friedman said, calling their acquisitions "isolated cases."
Entering the 2009 season, the Rays had a surplus of starters, so they began shopping Jackson early in the offseason. The best match proved to with the Tigers -- Jackson was an All-Star that season and Joyce followed suit with the Rays two years later.
(Another small-world Tigers farm system story: Joyce's first All-Star game at bat last year came against the Braves righthander Jair Jurrjens, who was Joyce's roommate at Double A Erie in 2007.)
While making most of his starts batting third or fourth in the Rays' lineup this year, Joyce has batted .277 with 19 homers, 75 RBIs, 13 steals and a .825 OPS last year; this season he's batting .279 with 11 homers, 34 RBIs, two steals and a .899 OPS that ranks 12th in the AL, just ahead of the Blue Jays' Jose Bautista.
"With Matt we felt like he was a guy who had a chance to hit in the middle of an order, was a plus defender and really fit in well with what we were trying to do," Friedman said. "We felt like he could be a really good player on an American League East team."
The Rays acquired Badenhop just before last December's deadline for teams to tender contracts to their own players. A righthanded reliever with a good sinkerball, Badenhop was seen as a good fit for a Tampa Bay bullpen that lacked a groundball specialist, especially given the team's perennially good infield defense (though they've made an uncharacteristically high number of errors this season).
According to Friedman, Rhymes was a player Tampa Bay had "admired from afar" for his versatility, decision-making and his high contact rate, which the club thought would complement a lineup that otherwise had a lot of "swing-and-miss."
Rhymes showed additional versatility as a messenger, running to the bullpen two weeks ago when the dugout phone was not operational. "That was not in our scouting report," Friedman said with a laugh. (Nor did Friedman scout Rhymes as a youth, even though they played in the same Houston-area Little League; Friedman, who played college ball at Tulane, is six and a half years older than the 29-year-old Rhymes, so the two never overlapped.)
Rhymes has struggled at the plate this year -- he has a .221/.286/.242 batting line despite entering the year with a .341 OBP in two seasons with the Tigers -- but has made 27 starts, 16 at his primary position of second base and 11 more at third base in place of the injured Evan Longoria.
While all first-year minor league teammates are prone to fantasizing about their futures together in the big leagues, for these three it actually came true -- but 1,200 miles father south than they could have known.
"It's something that's really remarkable," Joyce said. "To have one guy you played in Oneonta rookie ball with is pretty unbelievable, but to have two that you came up through the minors with. We weren't top-10 round draft picks.
"You see yourself growing up in that organization and playing with the guys around you. [You ask,] 'Where does he fit in? Can I play this position and maybe he can play there?' But nothing's guaranteed.
"You just never know. Yeah, you talk about it here and there, but it's almost so far into the future and so out of reach that it's just like a dream."