If the Tampa Bay Rays are battling for the AL East title in four or five years, it'll probably mean they capitalized on their unprecedented opportunity in this week's MLB first-year player draft.
Extra picks awarded to them for their massive losses in free agency have given the Rays a record 12 of the first 89 selections and 10 of the first 60, including three first-round choices.
Overall, the Rays will select 60 players in the three-day draft, which begins at 7 p.m. Monday (MLB Network). That's the most for any team since the draft was confined to 50 rounds in 1998.
Although having a plethora of high picks in baseball isn't the same as it is in the NFL, where players are generally older and don't go to farm systems, the Rays enter this draft with at least the potential of adding several players who will eventually help their major-league club either directly or through trades.
And because the Rays can't compete with the rival Yankees and Red Sox for expensive free agents and have to rely heavily on a system that allows teams to control the contracts of players during the early years of their careers, this draft may be the most important in franchise history.
"Scouting and player development have almost become a cliché in the game today ... but definitionally, it's more important for us than any other team in baseball," Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "It's critical for our future success."
Friedman allows that "actuarially," the returns from a big draft "aren't phenomenal." In fact, the returns for past MLB teams with similar bounties of picks weren't much better than with typical allotments.
As Baseball America executive editor Jim Callis outlined in the magazine's draft preview edition, 14 teams have had seven or more choices in the first two rounds, including the 2007 and '10 Blue Jays and '09 Diamondbacks, whose crops can't be evaluated yet, and they've produced a total of three All-Stars.
The 1990 Montreal Expos held the record previously for most picks among the first 100 with 11. Seven reached the majors, but only outfielder Rondell White, taken 24th overall, and pitcher Gabe White, the 28th pick, had significant careers. Rondell White made one All-Star appearance in 15 years, and Gabe White spent 11 years as a lefty reliever.
The 1997 Expos, with nine of the first 74 picks, landed only two major-leaguers in forgettable pitchers T.J. Tucker (of River Ridge High) and Bryan Hebson, although the 2002 Oakland A's, with nine of the first 98 choices, did net current Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher and current Phillies pitcher Joe Blanton.
Swisher and the Baltimore's Brian Roberts (1999 Orioles draft) are the other two All-Stars from teams that had at least seven picks in the first two rounds.
Boosting the Rays' chances with their bounty is the depth of this draft. While not extraordinary at the top, it's considered possibly as good overall as the class of 2005 that produced Ryan Zimmerman, Troy Tulowitski, Justin Upton and others.
And the Rays are doing everything they can to improve their odds of being right. To their already highly regarded network of scouts, cross-checkers and supervisors, they have added recently retired outfielder Rocco Baldelli and former Yankees and Rays pitching coach Dave Eiland as talent evaluators.
"Rocco has always had a feel for this," Rays director of scouting R.J. Harrison said. "Since he was a kid in the big leagues, every time I would come in and watch batting practice, he would want to sit in the dugout and ask how the draft is going.
"Same thing for Dave. He has that optimism of a pitching coach. He looks at a young guy and envisions being able to get his hands on that guy and being able to do this or that."
With so much riding on this draft, the Rays are under pressure not only to choose the right players, but also to sign them.
While the club signed its top nine picks (and 18 of its top 19) last year, first- and second-round choices LeVon Washington and Kenny Diekroeger didn't sign in 2009. The Rays received compensatory picks, but they did not get the players they wanted.
Friedman left no doubt the Rays have made the 2011 draft class a priority, even while some experts are predicting the signings could cost the club up to $15 million.
"This was something that didn't just sneak up on us," Friedman said. "I'm very confident that with the guys who actually want to go out and start their pro careers, we'll be able to sign them."
The Rays will make their first pick at No. 24, which is a compensatory pick for losing Carl Crawford to the Red Sox, and they could be in position to select touted Alonso High pitcher Jose Fernandez.
The 6-foot-4, 235-pound right-hander, who fled Cuba with his mother and sister three years ago, has a mid-90s fastball and an arsenal of complementary pitches.
"There's no secret there's a big right-handed pitcher over here in Tampa that the whole industry knows about," Harrison said. "He's a good prospect. And certainly, we've seen him, we've scouted him and we've done a good job evaluating him."
The Rays will have consecutive picks at Nos. 31 and 32 and then choose at 38, 41, 42, 52, 56, 59, 60, 75 and 89. Ten of those selections are compensatory picks.
Friedman said the Rays will adhere to their organization philosophy of choosing the best available players without regard to organizational weaknesses, although he hinted they might be more bold in some instances with so-called high-ceiling players.
"You talk about this a lot, viewing it like a portfolio with some higher risk, some lower risk, and in most years, you can just talk about in theory," he said. "This year, we at least have the opportunity to do that, but it depends how the draft board shakes out."
However the draft board shakes out, Rays selections will be all over it.