2004 Tampa Bay Devil Rays Preview
Tuesday, March 23 2004 @ 12:57 PM EST
Contributed by: Craig B
I awoke this morning to find that my newspaper was not, as I am accustomed, on my front step.
Or rather, one very small piece of it was. Since my newspaper delivery unit has not yet (apparently) been programmed to realize that high winds can blow an unsecured pile of newsprint all over Christendom, I faced the unattractive prospect of walking up and down the street collecting my Hamilton Spectator (Tuesday edition) from my neighbours' front yards.
Instead, I left my erstwhile paper to its windblown fate and bought a National Post (variety is the spice of life) at the newsagent's in the train station on my way to work. And what should I see on the front page of the appallingly named "Arts & Life" section, but a huge banner headline trumpeting...
THE NEW MENUDO
Menudo, you see, are back, with a whole new lineup, and are apparently better than ever. To one who has, over the last 25 years, seen several ever-shifting incarnations of this Puerto Rican pop music phenomenon it is comforting to see that the torch still burns bright. It also provides the ideal metaphor for the 2004 Tampa Bay Devil Rays. For like our fine-feathered teen popsters, the Devil Rays are indeed back, indeed with a revamped lineup, and are indeed apparently better than ever. But amidst all this sunny optimism, there is a fly in the ointment.
Because you see, exactly like Menudo, the Devil Rays totally suck ass, have always sucked ass, and are likely to continue to suck ass well into the future. Indeed.
So much for the new dawn.
|63 wins, 99 losses||715 runs scored, 12th in AL|
|5th and last in AL East||852 runs allowed, 11th in AL|
|Pythagorean record : 68-94|
|Players Acquired||Players Lost|
|Danys Baez||Marlon Anderson|
|John Halama||Travis Lee|
|Mark Hendrickson||Rey Ordonez|
|Trever Miller||Ben Grieve|
|Damian Moss||Joe Kennedy|
|Brook Fordyce||Brandon Backe|
|Geoff Blum||Adam Piatt|
|Jose Cruz, Jr.|
|Fred McGriff (minor league contract)|
|A thousand or so washed-up veterans|
The Devil Rays finished 2003 at 66 runs below average by the Runs Created method, and scored 28 runs fewer than RC would predict, indicating that they were slightly unlucky (or poor in the clutch). The blame for Tampa's offensive struggles can be mostly thrown on the bench. Tampa's nine primary starters generally did not hit well (all figures are RCAA):
For a total of -16 runs. But the Tampa bench and part-timers were uniquely awful... only one player managed even a league-average offensive performance - the redoubtable Rey Ordonez. Ben Grieve, Jared Sandberg, and Jason Tyner all had offensive winning percentages over .450, but the rest of the bench was terrible. Javier Valentin, Damion Easley, and a changing cast of thousands (or more properly, cast-off of thousands) totalled nearly 50 runs below average between them, sinking the Devil Rays offense. That's a lot of negative production for a group of players without much playing time.
The Rays have gone out into the market and addressed their offensive weakness aggressively. The Rays' offense was bad from top to bottom except for Aubrey Huff, so it made sense to address as many problems as the budget would allow while being mindful of the fact that Josh Hamilton and Jonny Gomes and a still-improving Carl Crawford are a short way away from contributing yet. Jose Cruz, Jr. is a fine addition to the team and should bolster the middle of the lineup.
The very worst offensive sinkholes in the Devil Rays lineup will be gone, but the jury must remain out on whether the replacements will simply be old wine in new bottles. Hall and Martin and Valentin and Easley were all terrible, and will all be gone, but the prospect of at-bats going to Brook Fordyce, Rey Sanchez, Geoff Blum, and Rob Fick instead isn't the most encouraging thought. If Tino Martinez finally succumbs to old age and turns in a poor performance at the plate, the Devil Rays may well be worse offensively in 2004 than they were in 2003.
Around the infield, the offense is in big trouble. Tino Martinez isn't the hitter he once was, and if he slips in his age-36 year it could get ugly. Rey Sanchez is a big offensive donut at second base, and while Julio Lugo hit very well last year (an extremely astute free pickup by Chuck LaMar) he can't carry much weight in an offense. Damian Rolls still hasn't hit much at the major league level, with just a .301 OBP in 213 major league games.
New addition Jose Cruz Jr. will help protect Aubrey Huff's big bat in the DH slot, but without a breakout season or two the Devil Rays will struggle to score more runs.
Defensively, the Devil Rays are relatively indifferent, with a few strengths and a few weaknesses. One thing that appeared to hurt the club in 2003 was the constantly shifting cast of infielders, but generally the defense heading into 2003 is solid, with three plus defenders in Lugo, Crawford and Cruz, plus Rocco Baldelli - a talented centerfielder who hasn't quite put it together yet. The problem is that the Devil Rays have so many problems in other areas that defense should be the last thing to address.
The starting outfield of Cruz, Baldelli, and Crawford will catch quite a few flies into the gap and should help out the pitching staff. The likely infield of Rolls, Lugo, Sanchez, and Martinez should be solid, more so up the middle than on the corners. Toby Hall isn't a great defender behind the plate, but can get the job done, and his throwing is really quite good.
The Rays pitching staff was actually a pleasant surprise in 2003, as a staff that had threatened to be the worst in baseball actually managed to hold its own, finishing 11th in the league but a long way from the basement. The biggest surprise was not even that the staff prospered (relatively speaking, and with one notable exception) but that the Devil Rays' pitcher development strategy (throw thousands of young arms at the wall and see if any stick to it) finally paid some dividends. After chewing up and spitting out dozens of young pitchers in the franchise's six short years, the Devil Rays got excellent starting performances from Jorge Sosa, Victor Zambrano and Jeremi Gonzalez. Another young pitcher, Doug Waechter, had some very impressive performances in a brief cameo and gave every indication of having rotation potential.
Of course, along the way the Devil Rays' opposition ate their way through young starters like Yogi Bear through a picnic basket. Dewon Brazelton (1-6, 6.89), Nick Bierbrodt (0-2, 9.68), and Jason Standridge (0-5, 6.37) all spent time in the rotation being shelled, and veterans Jim Parque (1-1, 11.94), Steve Parris (0-3, 6.18) and Rob Bell (5-4, 5.52) had no more success.
Finally, there was the talented young lefty Joe Kennedy, who suffered disaster after disaster en route to a 3-12 season and a 6.13 ERA. Now dispatched to Colorado to be replaced by "Lurch" Hendrickson, Kennedy's sudden loss of effectiveness (both his hit and home run rates soared) put the biggest damper on the staff, as he was run out time and again in an attempt to put him back on an even keel.
The worst Devil Rays pitchers are gone, long gone in some cases. Their replacements are coming off of better years, but there is a lurking menace behind that sunny outlook. Almost without exception, the Devil Rays' pitchers are coming off career seasons, and even young players snap back from career years at least as often as consolidate them.
Tampa Bay's projected staff, with 2003 ERA and career figures:
Zambrano 4.21 - 4.48
Gonzalez 3.91 - 4.41
Sosa 4.62 - 5.01
Hendrickson 5.51 - 4.94
Waechter 3.31 - 3.31 in 6 career games (career minor league ERA of 4.08)
If this rotation can stay healthy and together, they might be the best pitching top-to-bottom pitching staff that this horrible franchise has ever seen. The problem is that the rotation still isn't very good. There is no #1 or #2 starter, except in name only, and Victor Zambrano is liable to fall apart at any time because he's so wild. Having led the AL in walks, HBP, and wild pitches is a sure sign that you could use a little more control, and if that is your best pitcher all is not necessarily as it should be. Also, the fact that those top three pitchers had better figures in 2003 than the rest of their short careers may well have been a fluke, which would mean problems for the year ahead.
In the bullpen, the 2003 Devil Rays got some great performances and can hope for more of the same in 2004. Two of the faces are actually new, with Al Levine's 2.90 ERA having decamped to St. Louis, and Danys Baez and Trever Miller arriving from Cleveland and Toronto. I think this is a net gain for the Devil Rays (Levine being unlikely to recapture lightning in a bottle); though it is still unlikely for the team to repeat its excellent bullpen performance in any case, you'd rather have the guys who did it for you than a bunch of guys who were indifferent elsewhere. The pen was solid top to bottom, and the Rays' bullpen will be young, cheap, and improving. Travis Harper, Lance Carter, and Jesus Colome are all relatively inexperienced, and while they're not young guys by any stretch (this year they will be 28, 29, and 27 respectively) they are all solid already and may improve as they learn the demands of big-league pitching, and learn the hitters as well. Chad Gaudin, on the other hand is young, and has great potential.
The Devil Rays' chances at hitting a team-record 70 wins all come down to pitching. If the starters can stay healthy and the deadwood stays out this year, they have a reasonable shot. Otherwise, (and this is more likely), it will be deja vu all over again.
Honestly, it is very difficult to say much that's useful or intelligent about the Devil Rays that is also in any way original. This franchise has never topped 70 wins; never finished out of the basement; only once finished better than 29 games out of first; and has finished 34, 48, and 38 games out of first in the last three years. The problems the franchise has had boil down to three: they have had bad hitters; they have had bad pitchers; and they have been incompetently led.
Last year, in a Devil Rays preview for Baseball Primer, David Peng and I discussed a "to-do" list of fifteen points for the Devil Rays manager and GM. That list, boiled down to its essentials, was a call to play the young players, blood the prospects, throw the dead wood in the trash, and take it on the chin if necessary while remaining positive and trying to source talent from anywhere and everywhere to plug gaps.
The incredible thing was that the Devil Rays just about did it right. Their management did (literally) nearly the best they could - and the team lost 99 games. And it's not going to get much better. The Devil Rays could be the most improved team in the AL East (though I'd vote for Baltimore by a hair over Tampa and Toronto) and still finish last by miles, maybe as much as 20 games out of fourth. Will the fans keep coming back, or will they abandon this team to its fate in droves? At a certain point, the lure of promising young players goes out, and while Rocco Baldelli is a talent, he's not a future Willie Mays, and he's easily the best young player the Devil Rays have (ever) produced. For the future, when the group of talented young prospects reaches their prime in three or four years, the Devil Rays may challenge for the playoffs. For the present, it won't happen. Lou Piniella thinks the Devil Rays won't finish last - "that's for sure". He's dead wrong.
The Devil Rays will fight it out with their shadow for fifth place in the AL East. So it goes.