Waiting is the Hardest Part
Tom Petty has a song that proclaims “The waiting is the hardest part.” I think it is beyond safe to say the Tampa Bay Rays know the saying and perhaps the song quite well.
The long wait on Major League Baseball to grant the area a team, then the first season, then for the aging slugger obsession to fade out. Then for a rebuilding process that never really happened, and then finally waiting for a change in ownership. The latter happened in November 2005, but, until this year, it was more waiting, although this was different; this was reshuffling assets, this had direction and purpose.
Mainstays like Aubrey Huff, Julio Lugo, Danys Baez and Toby Hall were shipped out within a season without big-named replacements, leaving some fans wondering how much this new regime actually cared about winning. Sure, the days of Brian Meadows closing and Tomas Perez playing shortstop are terrifying in their realness, but all along the prophecy of B.J. Upton and Delmon Young soon taking over helped to soothe our qualms.
They took chances on players who others were tired of waiting on. Greg Norton, Ty Wigginton, Carlos Pena, Hee Seop Choi, Al Reyes, and the list goes on of former top prospects or useful parts that were casted aside from bigger organizations. Not too many players were willing to play in Tampa at any costs, and especially not at the price the Rays offered.
Although winning is finally here, the residuals from the waiting game are stamped all over this team with 18 of the 25 players currently on the active roster (no Carl Crawford or Evan Longoria) being acquired by Andrew Friedman. Many of the success stories from this year arise from foresight and the willingness to withhold temperamental judgments. Despite the public’s rage at not acquiring big names or making “statement moves” Friedman and company decided they wouldn’t back down.
There’s Grant Balfour, the fiery Australian with one pitch that he uses 89% of the time. Acquired in a trade, which is a common theme for this roster, Balfour worked through control issues in triple-A Durham following his designation for assignment in March. Upon his return, he looks less the guy who walked 7.30 per nine last year and more like a 13 strikeout per nine relief monster that has a 3.57 K/BB ratio.
On most nights Balfour is blazing his fastball to Dioner Navarro, the emotionally tested catcher who the Rays chose not to replace this past off-season despite a .641 OPS. Navarro was more than a tad bit unlucky last season with 17% of his batted balls being line drives that resulted in only a .253 BABIP. Navarro was named to the American League all-star team this season, his second full season since Friedman acquired Navarro, Jae Weong Seo, and Justin Ruggiano for Toby Hall and Mark Hendrickson in mid-2006.
Joey Gathright and Fernando Cortez were dealt for J.P. Howell who had such a contrast in AAA and MLB statistics that most were labeling him a quadruple-A player. Thankfully Howell’s absurdly high BABIP regressed while Howell has been getting more grounders and solidifying himself as one of the go-to relievers for Joe Maddon.
Of course Maddon himself is a symbol of the patience exhibited by this franchise. A team looking to make a statement to the fan base that losing isn’t acceptable could’ve easily declined Maddon’s dual options for this season and next. After all Maddon guided teams had finished with the worst record in the league both of the past two seasons, but the Rays persisted that Maddon was indeed the man to lead this team through its transition.
The Rays are now looking at perhaps the most rewarding of waiting projects with Rocco Baldelli. He will probably never reach Josh Hamilton status, but Baldelli was one of the original Rays golden children. As a 21 year old rookie he amazingly broke into a Lou Piniella starting lineup and didn’t perform too bad. Yet as we all know Baldelli’s body has nearly derailed his once great potential down to just shy of 130 games since 2005.
Before this year waiting is all the Rays and their fans ever really had. When Troy Percival signed with the Rays for less money part of his reasoning was feeling as if this team had a legitimate playoff shot; most took this as sugar coating his desire to be a closer. Cliff Floyd would follow not too long after using some of the same key words. Ace Scott Kazmir made the boldest of statements in spring training by stating this team would definitely compete for a playoff position. Most rolled their eyes and said “We’ll see.”
Seeing is believing, patience is a virtue, and the Rays are in first place in late August.