The Tampa Bay Rays had their eyes on outfielder Johnny Davis for years.
They knew all about his speed, believed in his defense, and kept him in their reports.
It was in late July before the trade deadline when the Rays’ front office decided they needed a burner for a playoff push, and possible postseason run.
The Kansas City Royals did it with Terrance Gore during their World Series run. The Atlanta Braves acquired outfielder Billy Hamilton for his speed. Now, the Rays were looking for their sparkplug.
“We were assessing our roster right before the trade deadline, seeing how we could make it stronger, Rays scouting director Kevin Ibach said, “and adding elite speed was one of them.’’
They scoured their scouting reports, and the one name that jumped out was Davis. They raved about his speed and his 52 stolen bases in 2017 with the Brewers' Class AA team. But now he was in Mexico, and was just traded from Dos Laredos to Oaxaca. It was a little tougher to do some reconnaissance.
“We’ve been on the player for some time, and the one constant through all of our reports was the elite speed,’’ Ibach said, “but we found out Johnny was in Mexico, and things were cloudier south of the border. We had scouts down in Texas to lay eyes on him, confirm our reports, even provide video, making sure everything checked out good.
“Then, it was, 'How do we access a player like this?’ "
The Rays had to convince Oaxaca executives and Mexican League officials that they had serious interest in Davis. This wasn’t a situation where they wanted to just plug in a hole in the minors or provide a stolen-base threat at Class AAA. They wanted him to potentially join the big-league club.
By the time they finally made it happen, there were seven or eight Rays scouts and executives involved in the entire process, from the original scouts who saw him, to the executives who negotiated with the Mexican League officials.
“There was a lot of red tape and work to get it done,’’ Ibach said, “and it was magnified more because he just got traded. We had to work through a lot of issues and get on the same page with a lot of parties. We tried to lay it out that this was a sincere request. Without making any promises, this was a real opportunity for the player to showcase his skills and to potentially put himself on the radar for a September call-up.’’
The Rays signed him on Aug. 29, used him in six games at Class AA Montgomery and Class AAA Durham, simply as a pinch-runner.
“Everyone knew he was in the game for just one reason,’’ Ibach said, “and we really wanted to see how that speed played.’’
They came away convinced it was for real, called him up to the big leagues on Sept. 11, and on Sept. 13, watched him line a triple into the left-field corner in his first at-bat, speeding around the bases in 11.18 seconds.
It may have been late at night on the West Coast, but it didn’t stop the immediate text messages circulating on virtually every Rays’ executive cell phone, celebrating the moment.
“It just really made everyone so happy,’’ Ibach said. “We pride ourselves in being a team here, and just knowing how many people were involved in the process to get him, it was a special night.’’
Follow Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook: @Bnightengale