Five Questions: Tampa Bay Devil Rays

1. Why doesn’t anyone ever take the Devil Rays seriously?

I’m as guilty of this as anyone. Before last season, my preview of the Rays at Batter’s Box contained an extended rumination on the pop phenomenon that is Menudo. The Baseball Gods smote me for my irreverence, ensuring that the Rays actually finished ahead of my beloved Blue Jays. So this year, let me assure you: it would be a mistake to overlook the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

2. Why not the Rays? Why not now? Can they win? Can they contend?

Yes.

I’m saying that for two reasons: first, in the immortal word of Joaquin Andujar, “youneverknow”; and second, when you look at history’s “Miracle Teams” you notice something: they’re always very young. And the Rays, along with the Tigers, were the youngest teams in the American League last year.

This is best illustrated by looking at the three “miracle teams” of the 1960s: the 1961 Reds, the 1967 Red Sox, and the 1969 Mets. All three teams came from nowhere to win pennants, and by “nowhere” I mean exactly where the Rays are now – the ’60 Reds, for example, had the same .435 winning percentage as the ’04 Rays.

In the New Historical Abstract, Bill James took a look at the common denominators of these three “miracle” teams. According to his analysis, what happened to these teams to cause them to leap over the rest of the league was as follows:

1. The team makes some good trades.
2. The team comes up with some young players.
3. The team’s existing young players come through big.
4. They can have guys having career years.

James mentions a fifth factor that applies now, free agency, that didn’t apply in the 1960s. If a sixth factor, a fine manager, is a prerequisite (I think it is), then the Devil Rays are well set, as Lou Piniella is generally seen as one of the best.

What’s noticeable about James’s analysis, though, is that he doesn’t talk about a key factor regarding points 1 and 4: it’s usually younger players who are the positive players brought in in trades, or who have the career years in question. This brings up a key factor in the Rays’ 2005 chances, which is that unlike most young teams on the upswing, they got even younger over this offseason. Younger, and very likely better. Look at who’s in and who’s out for the Rays (now that we can ignore Roberto Alomar and Danny Bautista, who were brought in in the offseason only to unexpectedly retire this spring). Rey Sanchez is out at second base, to be replaced by Jorge Cantu. Tino Martinez is out at first base, to be replaced by Travis Lee. John Halama is out as a starter, to be replaced by Scott Kazmir. Rob Fick is out at DH, to be replaced by Josh Phelps. The less said about Alex Gonzalez, the better.

Even the bad news is good news: centerfielder Sanchez, signed as a stopgap while Rocco Baldelli recovers from an injury, has been suspended 10 days as the first player to fall afoul of the new steroid guidelines. If Sanchez can hit the ball a little harder, he’d be a much more valuable player. (Sanchez denies taking steroids).

3. Which young players are likely to step up and be the keys to a winning Rays team?

The Devil Rays don’t, at least by the looks of it, have the frontline star power of the three 1960s “miracle teams”. The Reds had Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson and a raft of talented arms. The Red Sox had Yaz, along with George Scott and Tony Conigliaro. The Mets had Seaver and Koosman on the mound. What the Devil Rays have is a ballyhooed young arm in Kazmir, two solid young outfielders who have yet to make “The Leap” in Carl Crawford and Baldelli, and one top-of-the-line hitter in Aubrey Huff, but no superstars. There’s any number of ways in which those four players could put together a terrific group of seasons and push the Devil Rays over .500. I have just finished watching Kazmir pitch extremely well in his first start of the year against the Blue Jays; despite getting squeezed on the outside corner, he was pitching very confidently.

Even after those four, it’s not hard to see several young players who could potentially come through big. Second baseman Cantu (how lucky the Rays were to back out of their commitment to the offensively and defensively crumbled Alomar) has star potential and swings a big bat. The potential of DH Phelps is enormous – he has always had 40-homer potential. Dewon Brazelton, once a top five draft pick, will have the chance to show he belongs. Michael Restovich, newly acquired and freed from the logjam of young outfielders in Minnesota, should get many more chances in Tampa.

4. Why haven’t the Rays improved themselves via spending significant money on free agents?

I’m darned if I know.

James’s fifth factor, as it often has in Tampa Bay, remains the most elusive of all of them. If the Rays had only made a free agent splash like their Florida cousins did in signing Carlos Delgado, talking up their chances here would be so much easier. The fact remains, that this franchise has for several years now tried to get by on the extremely cheap end of the salary scale. As long as the Devil Rays remain committed to that, their chances of winning will remain fairly remote despite their depth of young talent. If there was one acquisition which had the potential to pay enormous benefits, though, it would be the signing of Hideo Nomo, who will pitch at the back end of the Devil Rays rotation. Until a meltdown last year, Nomo has been an extremely solid starter his whole career, with occasional flashes of #1 capability. If Nomo can turn in a solid year in Tampa, the Rays will not only look extremely smart, they will have a much better pitching staff.

As long as the Devil Rays remain uncommitted to winning, they’re not likely to be able to put together a winning formula. As the $28 million payroll, lowest in the majors, would indicate, the Devil Rays remain uncommitted to winning. Piniella, after bold talk last season of .500 or more and contention, has backed off this season and pointed to 77 wins as a goal for the season. It’s disappointing to see a young team with so much promise being sold so short by its management, but as long as they’re in the AL East, personally I won’t mind. Winning now was never likely, but as the “miracle teams” analysis shows, in Tampa it’s possible. Why not embrace it?

5. Are the Devil Rays the worst expansion team ever?

Last year the Rays won 70 games for the first time in their seven-year history, but given the team’s peculiar history they’re actually not doing too badly. The fact is that this team was sunk from the beginning with the idea that they could build through signing older free agents who would be happy to play out their pre-retirement years among Florida’s golf courses. That proved elusive; a pair of 69-win seasons represented the high-water mark of that plan, which was followed by a rebuild from the ground up. A proper rebuild, oriented towards youth and player development. That rebuilding is now in its fifth year, and paying dividends.

The Rays obviously suffer when compared with their cousins in Florida, who have two world titles to show for their occasional pains, and to a lesser degree when compared with their expansion mates in Arizona. But otherwise, the Rays (especially if you ignore the three-year hiccup at the beginning) are pretty much on schedule. The Houston Astros (nee Colt .45s) took eight years to crawl out of the second division. The Mets also took eight years. The San Diego Padres took ten years, and didn’t even play .400 baseball until Year 7 – certainly a much worse record than Tampa’s. Even the Blue Jays, who were seen as an expansion model, took seven years. It took the Mariners 15 years to break .500.

Historically, then, the Devil Rays have been fairly typical in their pattern of futility as an expansion franchise. What has obscured that is the relative success of the Marlins and Diamondbacks, and even the Rockies, thanks to the better opportunities afforded by the free agent period. Of course, the Rays haven’t taken advantage of that. If you’re looking for a reason why Tampa look like an old-fashioned expansion team, look no further than that. The good news is that even by those standards, there seem to be better days ahead.

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