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Stingless Rays aim for 2002
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
It has been one of those years when nothing has gone right for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Not that some of the sluggos that were brought in to appeal to the WWF wing of the Tampa Bay baseball audience were Chuck LaMar's idea of a baseball team. Bringing in bashers like Greg Vaughn and Vinny Castilla to join Jose Canseco and Fred McGriff was an attempt to broaden interest in a region where baseball is an afterthought. It didn't work.
"No one could have survived losing the first four starters in the rotation," says one opposing general manager. But Wilson Alvarez and Juan Guzman blew out, Ryan Rupe and Dan Wheeler went backwards in their development and returned to the minor leagues and Steve Trachsel, "who we signed to be our No. 5 starter and eat up 200 innings became our No. 1," says LaMar. Then Castilla broke down and Jose Canseco, as usual, didn't play much. Kevin Stocker aged and Miguel Cairo slipped, so the defense couldn't help what became a patchwork starting staff.
But when the trading deadline passed and the Devil Rays turned towards the final third of the season, lo and behold, there was light at the end of the tunnel. They stood a chance to pass the Orioles. Through August 1, they were 29-26 over their past 55 games. Albie Lopez has found himself in the starting rotation, Bobby Smith and Steve Cox are developing, and they had hard-hitting third baseman Aubrey Huff and right-handed pitcher Travis Harper coming up out of the minors.
Just as important, LaMar made three deadline deals that brought in more talent. He shipped middle reliever Rick White and designated hitter Bubba Trammell to the Mets to get their future leadoff hitter in left fielder Jason Tyner and pitcher Paul Wilson. With Trachsel, LaMar was able to get his future No. 2 hitter in second baseman Brent Abernathy from the Blue Jays. For Jim Mecir -- who LaMar calls "the best eighth-inning pitcher in the game" -- he got Jesus Colome from Oakland, a fireballer who has thrown 100 mph and is a future closer or starter.
"We've still got a long way to go here," says LaMar, "but I still believe we could have been .500 had our starting pitchers been healthy and that we can build past that next season. But what's really important is that at the deadline next season we'll have a lot of players in their final years of contracts and we can really build for the future as we develop what we now have." Indeed, Roberto Hernandez, McGriff, Castilla and Guzman are among those he could be marketing, presuming they're all healthy and playing for new contracts.
Compared to Arizona, which has gutted its system trying to win this season with a veteran team, Tampa Bay's 2002 vision is extremely encouraging. By then, Rupe, Wheeler, Harper, Matt White, Bobby Seay, Colome and perhaps Wilson -- if he keeps coming back from his arm injuries -- should be set in the majors. The Rays should have Huff or Damian Rolls at third, Abernathy at second, Cox or Huff at first, Tyner leading off with Gerald Williams in center.
And by then, the big boys should be arriving. Outfielders Carl Crawford (.312, 49 steals) and Josh Hamilton (.301, 13 home runs) have shown so much skill and maturity in the South Atlantic League that they may finish 2000 in Double-A, start 2001 there and perhaps be at the big-league door sometime in 2002. Kenny Kelly, another outfielder, is at Double-A and coming along as well. And there are many who believe the Mets' duo of Alex Escobar and Brian Cole is the only set of outfield prospects in the class of Crawford and Hamilton.
To anyone who knows LaMar and his core beliefs in athletic talent and scouting, the anticipated development of the franchise isn't a surprise. There are a lot of questions about the franchise itself, but that's not the primary concern of the baseball side of the operation. For all their problems this April and May, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays are right about where they should have realistically dreamed of being in their third season -- about two years from bursting out of the tunnel into the light.
What if ...
Borchard's $5.3 million eclipses the mark of $3.96 million the Devil Rays paid Hamilton in 1999. Corey Patterson ($3.7 million from the Cubs) and Josh Beckett ($3.625 million from the Marlins) own the next-highest signing bonuses.
"In some ways, this was like Jerry Reinsdorf signing Albert Belle before the new Basic Agreement was signed," says one GM. "It's wild." It likely assures that Team USA juniors like Cal third baseman Xavier Nady won't get signed, and may end up playing in some independent league.
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