Five Questions: Tampa Bay Devil Rays

1. Why weren’t the Rays able to continue their improvement from 2004?

To sum up the Devil Rays’ season, the team lost 95 games and played like it.

Of 14 American League teams, the Devil Rays finished 13th in wins, 13th in run differential, eighth in runs scored, and 14th in runs allowed. The offense clearly outpaced the defense. Befitting a young team, the Devil Rays hit for an excellent average (.274, third in the AL) and stole bases well (second in the AL with 151 steals at an excellent 75.5% success rate). Surprisingly for a young team they even held their own in the power department (a .151 ISO was eighth in the league and not far off the league average). They struggled to draw walks (13th in the league), and if there was an “undoing” to the offense, this was it. Again, this profile is entirely consistent with a promising but youthful offense.

Where it does get pear-shaped for the Devil Rays is when the opposition is at the plate. Devil Rays pitchers allowed a horrendous 615 walks and 194 home runs; in a year in which the AL pitchers overall had the fewest walks since 1911 and the fewest home runs allowed since 1995, the Devil Rays bucked the trend and got worse in both categories.

It is an oft-repeated truism that principal skill in baseball is controlling the strike zone. If there is one feature where the deepest traditional wisdom and the most cutting-edge sabermetrics meet, it is at this point. No speed of foot, no dazzling breaking ball, no prodigious power of bat or arm is as important as the ability to make a hitter swing at your pitch, or the ability to make a pitcher throw you yours. All of the hard work, all of the hustle and aggressiveness and swagger that Lou Piniella wanted to bring to the Devil Rays was useless because this central ability was missing.

In addition, the Devil Rays’ defense couldn’t give the pitching staff the support it needed. The Devil Rays were poor in every facet of team defense, finishing 13th in errors, 13th in fielding percentage, 12th in defensive efficiency (the ability to turn a ball hit in play into an out), and 12th in double plays despite having a very large number of runners on first. However, led by Toby Hall they did cut off the opponents’ running game well, nailing 40% of basestealers and only allowing 68 stolen bases.

The double plays just killed Tampa Bay. A double play is the defensive equivalent of the home run; it has about the same run impact defensively that a dinger has offensively. And the Devil Rays were easily the worst in the league at getting them when everything is factored in. Looking at the Devil Rays’ large number of runners on first, and taking into account their relatively few strikeouts, when you add everything up, the Devil Rays were turning about 10% fewer double plays than anybody, and the Twins, White Sox, A’s and Indians were turning about 50-60% more.

All of these problems, of course, are very familiar ones. Home runs allowed, walks allowed, walks drawn, poor defense? Aside from the defensive problems, these were the same problems that killed the 2004 Devil Rays. These were the same problems that killed the 2003 Devil Rays. What the Devil Rays did in ’05 was swap defense (which had been good) for power (which had been awful). The trade-off didn’t help. Damon Hollins, Jonny Gomes, Jorge Cantu—these guys hit for more power but don’t play enough defense.

What’s more, the Devil Rays failed to bring in players that could help them with their central weaknesses. Instead of bringing in some pitchers who would keep the ball in the strike zone, they signed Hideo Nomo and Casey Fossum. Instead of bringing in players who could get on base, they signed Travis Lee and Alex Gonzalez and Josh Phelps, and brought up Hollins. What do all these guys have in common? They were cheap, cheap, cheap.

Defenders of the Rays’ outgoing management, if any exist, will counter that the Devil Rays need to build with youth and play young players. I don’t disagree at all; in fact, the playing of young and promising players is the one positive that came out of the Devil Rays’ 2005 season, since Scott Kazmir, Doug Waechter, Chad Orvella, Cantu, Gomes, Carl Crawford, and even Joey Gathright and Seth McClung all clearly have talent.

But in the major leagues, young players can’t play at every position; in fact, the Devil Rays of 2005 were not a notably young team. The Devil Rays had a lot of veterans. Most of those veterans were players from whom the youngsters couldn’t learn anything, other than how to grow to early middle age while playing major league baseball. It’s ridiculous to think that a team with promising young prospects would bring in Gonzalez, the starting shortstop and poster boy for the Never Improved One Iota Ever team. When they brought in a retreaded veteran starting pitcher, the type of player who might be able to teach a thing or two to the rookies, it was a guy who employs a translator.

I can’t even express my disdain for the outgoing management and ownership and their unwillingness to make a real investment in their young talent beyond paying them a signing bonus and telling them to report to Princeton or Durham. Or their unwillingness to make a real investment in their team, their stadium, or for that matter their own reputation. Good riddance, from baseball fans everywhere.

2. How has the change of ownership changed the team’s future?

It gave them one, for a start. Stuart Sternberg has come in saying all the right things, and the fact is that the outgoing regime was marked by its previous actions. Vince Naimoli may have been the most contemptuous owner in the major leagues, which is sort of like being the drunkest guy at Ozzfest or something. Serious competition, at any rate.

But for now, the organization appears to be stuck in neutral. Curiously, the Devil Rays have elected to split their GM role between newcomer Andrew Friedman (a baseball neophyte with a Wall Street background) and veteran baseball man Gerry Hunsicker. The arrangement seems transitional, as if Hunsicker is around to transfuse his baseball wisdom into the kid, and then to dry up and blow away. The planning for 2006 seems to be equally transitional, which is why there’s hope for the future, but sadly not a lot for right now.

On the field, the central motif of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, cheapness, is once again the order of the day. Tampa Bay should have by far the lowest payroll in the American League once again. The players brought in are possibly cheaper than ever, with Sean Burroughs, Ty Wigginton, Russell Branyan, Shawn Camp, Chad Harville and Japanese reliever Shinji Mori the highlights. Young pitcher Edwin Jackson, who is a top talent whose star is somewhat on the wane, is the most intriguing new Devil Ray and has the most potential.

Sternberg has made some great off-field moves, including committing to the same sort of improvements to Tropicana Field that the Blue Jays brought last year to the SkyDome/Rogers Centre (a spruce-up which created a much, much better baseball atmosphere) and to a name change for the 2007 season. The on-field moves, though, are yet to come. For fans, that wait may be the most frustrating wait yet.

3. What do the Devil Rays need to do to get over .500?

I discussed above the inept defensive performance of the Devil Rays in 2005. There’s some reason to believe that the return of Rocco Baldelli will help here; Baldelli has a reputation as a fine defender, and Hollins performed fairly poorly in the crucial center field job for much of the year. However, problems remain. Cantu didn’t get the job done at second base, contributing to the double play weakness outlined earlier. Nick Green replaced him and wasn’t any better. Gomes is not a good outfielder, and with Aubrey Huff still a Ray at press time, either Huff or Gomes will have to be pushed into the outfield, creating another defensive soft spot.

Huff, believe it or not, is a worse first baseman than he is in the outfield, even though in the outfield he’s largely limited to catching what’s hit straight at him, which he can do, provided it’s not hit too high or too low. Or too fast. Now they are talking about playing him at third base, where he’s made some good-looking plays this spring, but where over the long term his abilities will probably be stretched to the breaking point.

The few players that the Rays brought in are not, generally speaking, strong defensively. Defensive improvement will have to come from within, perhaps a tall order considering that top prospects Upton and Young do not point to being top defensive contributors. Gathright had a relatively good half-year with the glove, but the man he would likely replace in the Rays lineup is Crawford, who is a fine defender himself. Joe Maddon has talked a lot in the spring about improving the Tampa Bay defense, but playing Huff at third and Cantu at second with Delmon Young in the outfield won’t do this.

In order to get to .500, the Devil Rays will need to improve on 2004 by 150-200 runs, and it won’t matter which way they do it. Clearly, it’s easiest to improve the worst pitching staff in the majors than to turn a pretty good offense into a terrific one. So if you’re looking for an improvement to .500, it’s likely going to be consolidation from the hitters and finding a number of young or new pitchers who “get” it. The way to improvement is as simple as that, and given that pitchers like McClung and Waechter are still around and still possessed of talent, the possibility is there. It would be a lot more probable if there was any veteran talent on the pitching staff that looked sure to put in a solid performance, but there isn’t any.

Of course, if the Devil Rays get those performances, they will have to deal with over a third of their schedule against the Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays.

4. What will the Rays be doing with their boatloads of good prospects?

The Devil Rays have too much young talent.

What a pleasing little problem to have! Already blessed with several of the best young hitters in the majors (Crawford, Baldelli, Cantu, Gomes) they now face a rush of young players with apparently bright futures—B.J. Upton, Delmon Young, Wes Bankston, Reid Brignac, Elijah Dukes.

Of course, you can only use so many of those players, particularly when they seem to be moving rapidly to the right side of the defensive spectrum. If you really wanted to, you could probably play eight of those players on your team in two years’ time, with Brignac at short, Upton at third, Cantu at second, Bankston at first, Gomes at DH, and Crawford, Baldelli and Young in the outfield. But would such a lineup be defensively sustainable? Already, Cantu looks challenged at second, and Upton is perhaps headed to the outfield.

Translating young talent to the majors has always been a Devil Rays problem, especially with pitching. The Devil Rays have never developed a successful pitcher at the major league level, despite an abundance of talent. They also haven’t developed any truly elite hitters, although their track record with batters is somewhat stronger. But the fact is that the Devil Rays have had excellent minor league talent for many years now and have yet to see much of that talent establish itself in the majors.

In theory, that presents the Tampa front office with an opportunity—trade some of those good young prospects before they reach the majors for established players who can step in and fill some of the obvious holes in the Rays roster, like an actual third baseman with a bat, or a couple of starting pitchers who can last six innings. Think of such a move like the hedging of financial risk, the replacement of potential upside (but also potential downside) through exchanging it for an asset that has a more certain return. Adding in the fact that what the Rays have seen so far in their 10 years of existence is mostly prospects’ downside, it seems like a no-brainer.

The Devil Rays, though, haven’t ever done that, and I think the reason why is that they have always been committed to a policy of cheapness in all things. Established players in their good years come with a higher price tag than unproven rookies who might be good one of these days. They raise performance, but they also raise expectations and have a tendency to pack up and leave at the end of their contract if you try to pay them the minimum salary. Twenty-two-year-old rookies and 36-year-old washed-up veterans don’t come with those problems.

An organization that was committed to winning ballgames wouldn’t field a team of seven kids and three retreaded journeymen. Playing a raft of 21-year-old kids, no matter how talented, is usually a recipe for oblivion. It’s a strategy of closing your eyes and hoping rather than executing a plan. The day that the Devil Rays trade an Upton or a Cantu or even a Young for a star player in the prime of his career is the day you’ll know they are committed to winning ballgames.

5. Who is Joe Maddon, and what will he likely be doing?

Maddon is the new manager of the Devil Rays, and he arrives after 31 years in the Angels organization, the last 12 as coach and twice interim manager. It’s dangerous to try to analyze a man’s character based on press reports of him. But it’s clear that Maddon is impressive, both in terms of resume and in person. He’s quirky, smart, enthusiastic and full of ideas. The players seem to love him unreservedly for his cool personality, his unconventional nature, and his desire to help.

Maddon’s comments to the media so far have centered around the importance of mental preparation and fundamentals, both of which are crucial to a young team and to building success. If Earl Weaver was fanatical about making veteran Orioles teams practice fundamentals assiduously, the benefits should be obvious. The work that Maddon is having his Rays do in March (and throughout the season, if his words about in-season drills are to be believed) will pay dividends in August and September.

If I were a Devil Rays fan, I’d probably love Maddon’s oft-stated emphasis on “playing the game properly.” The Devil Rays have talent; it seems intuitive to think that if they play the game without making mental mistakes, their physical and athletic talent will carry them through. As a Devil Rays neutral, though, I’d make one comment. “Playing the game properly” is a useful goal for a young team, but it does not address this team’s most pressing problem: the pitchers aren’t good enough. Pitching well is the game’s most mentally and intellectually challenging task; it is about much, much more than mere physical execution. I’d be more sanguine if Maddon demonstrated more concern on that front.

He has spoken about the importance of the strike on the 1-1 count, which is nice as far as these things go but doesn’t address a central Rays weakness, which is that their pitchers didn’t throw enough strikes on any count. Of course, he’s also said silly things like not being concerned if runners get thrown out stealing; this team hits home runs well but doesn’t get on base well, and they can’t afford to toss away base runners.

Maddon’s pitching coach, Mike Butcher, has already helped correct some technical flaws in some of the D-Rays’ pitchers, possibly confirming my amateur diagnosis that the Piniella regime wasn’t paying close enough attention to the team’s young pitchers. Both Kazmir and McClung, for example, have already benefited from technical adjustments by Butcher. However, fans should proably be concerned about Butcher’s own past as a pitcher with talent but not enough concern about throwing strikes. The sins of coaches tend to be revisited in their players, or at least in their coaching.

In one sense, Maddon has inherited the toughest job in the majors; in another sense, he’s got the easiest. In terms of delivering results, no one has a tougher position than Maddon, who is supposed to teach a very talented group of players how to play in an environment where nobody’s ever been able to learn much of anything. On the other hand, Maddon certainly arrives with the lowest expectations of any manager in recent memory. If even Piniella couldn’t find any success in the Devil Rays job, Maddon certainly won’t be expected to. This situation is the kind of place where managers make a professional reputation as a miracle worker.

There is no question that an unconventional approach and personality is almost a prerequisite in order to be a great manager. Most of the game’s legendary bench bosses have been men of rich and varied character; think of John McGraw, Miller Huggins, Leo Durocher, Casey Stengel, Sparky Anderson, Weaver, Whitey Herzog, Tommy Lasorda. In our own time, Ozzie Guillen seems to have started plowing his own furrow in this regard. Maddon appears to have the makeup in order to be a fine manager; 2006 won’t be the year to show this. Once he gets he horses, though, it will be interesting to see what he can do.

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