What If: Josh Beckett | The Process Report

What If: Josh Beckett

Sometimes, often whenever Josh Beckett is on the mound opposing the Rays (and having arguably the best start of his career), I wonder how the world would look if the Rays had selected him instead of Josh Hamilton. I have no illusions of championships, or of Beckett still being a Ray in this alternative reality. In actuality, I think the Rays may have ruined Beckett, costing baseball one of its finest pitchers over the last decade.

Heading into the 1999 draft, the Rays held the first pick and had to decide between Beckett and Hamilton. Beckett had the archetypical demeanor and stuff expected from a native Texan. A hot fastball, and at times, hotter temper that made Roger Clemens look like a pansy. Hamilton was different. A soft-spoken outfielder from North Carolina, he could have doubled for Roy Hobbs when he stepped into the batter’s box and smoked pitch after pitch over the fences. When choosing between two players with perceived equal abilities and upside, always take the position player. The Rays did just that.

In hindsight, Beckett would have netted the Rays more value, even if it meant trading him for Hanley Ramirez years later. He would have become the best pitching prospect in franchise history, perhaps even beating Scott Kazmir—should Kazmir have become a Ray in this alternate reality. Yet, the Rays did not have the best history of developing and nurturing young pitchers back in this time. If Beckett had progressed like he did with the Marlins, then 2002 would have marked his first 100-plus innings season in the major leagues.

During that 2002 season, the Rays inserted their own best pitching prospect into the rotation for good. Joe Kennedy, a suave lefty who dominated the minor leagues, would become Hal McRae’s chew toy. The Rays would finish 2002 with 55 wins, with a season opening sweep of the Tigers representing the only time they would be three or more games above .500. By the end of the first half, the Rays were 28-57 and had a negative run differential in the 120s. Yet McRae, none the wiser, had Kennedy on pace to throw more than 230 innings, asking him to complete five games and throw over 110 pitches more than 15 times. Kennedy would only throw two more complete games throughout his far too short career, and after suffering from shoulder issues, would find himself en route to another team as part of the Mark Hendrickson trade.

The next time the Rays had their hands on a talented young lefty it was Scott Kazmir, who I touched on in-depth recently. Kazmir broke into the majors under Lou Piniella at the tender age of 21. Last season, with the Rays in a pennant chase and David Price already having close to a season under his belt, Joe Maddon asked him to toss 110-to-119 pitches on 24 occasions. In 2005, with the Rays having nothing to play for, Piniella had Kazmir throw 110-to-119 pitches 22 times.

Those are damming cases against McRae and Piniella, but Larry Rothschild was no protector of pitchers either. On July 28, 1998, he had Rolando Arrojo on the mound. Technically a rookie, Arrojo had been the ace of the Cuban baseball team and acquired in a big offseason signing—one that worked out decently for the Rays, making it a rarity. The start would mark Arrojo’s 22nd of the season, and in the previous 21 he had 140 2/3 innings pitched, a 3.07 earned run average, and three strikeouts for every walk.

Arrojo worked through the first in effortless fashion, recording three outs on 12 pitches. A rocky second inning resulted in 33 pitches, and he would throw 52 more pitches to get through the fifth. All told, he was at 97 pitches when he came out for the sixth inning. The Rays were trailing 4-1 as Arrojo completed the sixth, running his total to 109 pitches on the game. Rather than go to the bullpen, Rothschild allowed Arrojo to take the mound once more, where he would deliver 17 more pitches, bringing his total to 126. Rick White finally entered in the eighth and the Rays would lose the game 4-1. With Arrojo’s outing complete, he had thrown nearly 240 pitches in a seven-day span.

The Rays mishandling of pitchers extends beyond abuse. They rushed countless arms, like Ryan Rupe, Dewon Brazelton, and Seth McClung and gave up too quickly on Kennedy and Chad Gaudin. Step one was to get the player to the majors, step two to burn ‘em while they had ‘em, and then step three was to get anything—really, just about anything—in return when they ditched them. Perhaps Beckett would have been different, with the natural talent to adapt to the majors quickly and the physicality to avoid duress from large workloads, but probably not.

The Hamilton selection became a lacuna in the franchise’s history, and a joyless one at that, but at least he was responsible for his own destruction. To watch the organization pulverize Beckett’s potential into a pile of dust would have been more disturbing.

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