Baseball BeatAugust 22, 2005
A (Devil) Ray of Sunshine
By Rich Lederer

Don't look now but the Tampa Bay Devil Rays have won five games in a row, the longest current winning streak in the majors. Fluke? I think not. The Devil Rays (23-12) have the second-best record since the All-Star break, trailing only the more highly publicized Oakland A's (24-12).

Yes, the franchise with an all-time record of 502-753 (.400) is not only the hottest team in baseball but perhaps on the verge of becoming one of the best. Incredibly, this is the same team that had an even worse record in the first half (28-61) than the Kansas City Royals (30-57).

A telltale sign of whether the Devil Rays are for real will be revealed in the final six weeks of the season. To wit, Tampa Bay plays 32 of its final 38 games against ballclubs with winning records, including seven vs. Boston (71-51) and Cleveland (68-56), and six vs. Los Angeles (71-53), New York (67-55), and Toronto (63-60). Five weeks ago, these five teams--all seeking playoff berths--were wringing their hands in anticipation of facing the then lowly Devil Rays during the stretch run. Not now though.

Tampa Bay has undoubtedly made the most of its run differential (176-165) during the past 35 games, winning four more contests than its Pythagorean record would suggest was reasonable. The team is 7-1 in one-run games since the All-Star break, an unsustainably strong pace that is likely to even itself out over the course of the season. However, if the Devil Rays can split their remaining games, the franchise known more for its futility than anything else can match its all-time best win total of 70 reached last year.

I realize that it would be difficult to get overly excited about a ballclub with back-to-back 70-win seasons, but I think the Devil Rays are in the midst of putting together a highly competitive team over the next three-to-five years.

With an average age of 27.4 years, Tampa Bay sports the second-youngest roster in baseball. The Devil Rays also have the second-lowest payroll ($37,975,067), giving the front office a lot of room to compete for free agents as well as flexibility to make trades should owner Vince Naimoli decide to get serious for the first time since TB broke into the league as an expansion club in 1998.

Looking ahead to 2006, the Devil Rays could field a talented lineup highlighted by Jorge Cantu (.319/.352/.481 in the second half), Carl Crawford (.289/.312/.481), Jonny Gomes (.279/.388/.550), Aubrey Huff (.277/.314/.538), and Julio Lugo (.317/.373/.463), plus newcomers B.J. Upton and Delmon Young. Rocco Baldelli, who has spent the year recovering from knee and elbow surgeries, and Joey Gathright figure to battle for the center field spot with perhaps the odd man out becoming trade bait in a package to add depth to the team's starting rotation.

Cantu, 23, leads the team in doubles (30), home runs (19), RBI (81), and on-base plus slugging average (.815). He can play first, second, or third base and figures to be one of the starting nine next April.

Crawford, 24, is on pace for 191 hits, including 30 doubles, 17 triples, 16 homers, 98 runs, 85 RBI, and 44 steals in 50 attempts. The 6-foot-2, 219-pound speedster with developing power could become one of the elite players in the league if he can cut down on his strikeouts and learn to draw more walks. Crawford still makes too many outs, an important stat that receives far too little attention inside and outside the game.

Gomes, 24, has slugged 17 home runs in 214 at-bats, a rate of one HR per 12.6 AB. Only Manny Ramirez (12.4) has hit homers at a more prolific rate than the 6-foot-1, 205-pound rookie. The fiery Gomes does more than just swing for the fences as he has reached base 14 times in his last 25 plate appearances.

Upton (.303/.391/.501), who turned 21 on Sunday, has 56 extra-base hits, including 17 HR, to go with 70 BB and 37 SB in 485 AB for the club's Triple-A Durham affiliate. Young (.336/.386/.582 with 20 HR and 25 SB) put up outstanding numbers in Double-A and the 19-year-old is holding his own (.294/.312/.444) since being promoted to Durham last month. Like Crawford and several other Devil Rays, Young needs to improve his pitch selection and plate discipline in order to reach his full potential.

The starting rotation is led by Scott Kazmir, the hard-throwing lefthander who joined the Devil Rays last year in one of the organization's most lopsided trades ever. He leads the team in IP (146.1), ERA (3.94), SO (134), and K/9 (8.24). Moreover, the 21-year-old is 4-1 with a 2.42 ERA in seven starts since the All-Star break.

The signing of Joe Borowski, on the heels of being released by the Cubs, has solidified the bullpen. Since joining the Devil Rays, the veteran reliever has not allowed a run in 16 appearances. Over a span of 17 1/3 innings, Borowski has allowed only six hits. Danys Baez has recorded a save in 21 of Tampa Bay's last 30 victories and leads the majors with 15 saves since the All-Star break.

After a long dryspell, things appear to be looking up in Tampa Bay. Granted, the Devil Rays are in a tough division, but they just might have the best combination of talent and youth per payroll dollar of any team in baseball.


Zambrano for Kazmir might be the most lopsided trade to work out in favor of the Rays, but us Rays fans can only hope that it's more lopsided in the long-run than the two expansion draft trades the team made (Stocker for Abreu and Young the elder for Kelly)...

Still, for the team to compete for .500 next year, the pitching needs to show that it's not a fluke right now, and not just the relief corps. Kazmir has improved as the season has worn on, and Fossum has been solid all year, but Waechter and McClung have shown dramatic improvements which may be somewhat misleading since, other than HR rates and BB rates, there isn't much in their peripherals to show that they've improved. While there's some improvement, I doubt the gain are as large as they seem. Some of it is probably just regression to the mean. If they can manage to sign a decent free agent pitcher in the offseason (considering the pickings, that might be difficult) and if Jason Hammel can contribute, then a winning record might be attainable, but while the offense looks fairly set next year, there are still a lot of 'ifs' on the defensive side of the game...

I know Elijah Dukes is having a good year in the high minors. Do you think he will ever contribute in the majors or will he follow one of Gathright or Baldelli out of Tampa for the right price?

Kazmir gives the Rays a left-hander with considerable upside, while Fossum offers the team a solid middle to back of the rotation type starter.

Waechter has pitched better since he returned in July, but the jury is still out on him. I am always skeptical of flyball pitchers with low strikeout rates. He throws strikes but needs to induce more groundball outs to become a more dependable starter.

McClung throws hard and appears to have a high ceiling. He just might be coming into his own after undergoing Tommy John surgery a couple of years ago.

Speaking of big, hard-throwing right-handers, let's also not forget Jeff Niemann. If healthy, Niemann could anchor the staff for many, many years although he may not contribute much until 2007, at the earliest.

In the meantime, A.J. Burnett would fit in very well at the top of the rotation. Even though he will command at least a four-year, $40M contract in the off-season (and possibly as much as $50M given the shortage of top-notch free agent starters this winter), the Devil Rays could pay the freight. That said, I certainly don't expect them to sign Burnett, but he is the type of pitcher who could make a difference.

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As far as Dukes is concerned, my partner Bryan Smith likened him to Milton Bradley in a recent article that I linked to above. Both are big, strong, multi-talented, switch-hitting center fielders playing for their hometown teams with off the field issues that plague them from time to time. I wouldn't be inclined to trade Dukes now. He is only 21 and his value is likely to be even higher a year or two from now. Besides, he may end up taking over CF by 2007.

Chad Orvella has been quietly effective for the D-Rays this summer. With the exception of a couple of appearances -- one in which the manager inexplicably allowed him to absorb a pounding in his third inning of work -- Orvella has exhibited good control and a willingness to pitch aggressively.