A (Devil) Ray of Sunshine
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.