|Wednesday, February 12
Updated: March 14, 5:48 PM ET
Tampa Bay Devil Rays
By Gary Huckabay
Special to ESPN.com
2002 in review
Aubrey Huff emerged as a solid tweener at the infield corners and DH, putting up the only D-Ray slugging percentage over .475. No one caught Ebola. No player appeared in a film with Pauly Shore. Copious amounts of oxygen were converted to carbon dioxide -- a boon for our plant kingdom friends.
What went wrong?
Toby Hall failed to develop offensively, and was part of an ineffectual, hacking offense that included seven players who got significant playing time and posted a .305 on-base percentage or lower. The posse of Chris Gomez, John Flaherty, Carl Crawford, Toby Hall, Brent Abernathy, Jared Sandberg, and Vaughn combined for 2,600 plate appearances, and drew an aggregate 167 walks.
A number of other offensive contributors were equally horrid, but didn't play quite as much. Andy Sheets, Felix Escalona, Jason Conti, Jason Tyner, and the rest of the D-Rays bench weren't exactly lighting things up. Super-hyped prospect Josh Hamilton continued to suffer injury woes. Farmhands Delvin James and Nick Bierbrodt suffered serious injuries -- from gunshot wounds.
On the mound, things weren't considerably different. Exactly zero Devil Rays pitchers posted an ERA under 4.00 in 25 innings of work or more. D-Rays pitchers that had shown some semblance of promise before the season, like Victor Zambrano and Jesus Colome, were ineffective throughout the season. The top three starters in the rotation -- Kennedy, Paul Wilson, and Tanyon Sturtze, combined to allow 368 runs. The pitching was consistently and thoroughly dreadful throughout the season.
The standings tell the story -- the Orioles finished the season with a historic 4-32 collapse, and still finished 11½ games ahead of the Devil Rays, who tied the Tigers for the worst record in the majors with 55 wins.
In retrospect, the critical decisions were:
2. Continuing to draft high school players. The first six Devil Rays picks in the 2002 draft were kids out of high school -- B.J. Upton, Jason Pridie, Elijah Dukes, Wesley Bankston, Mark Romanczuk, and Cesar Ramos. The Devil Rays don't have a good record of being able to teach baseball skills to young athletes. These picks are risky, and absent a noteworthy improvement in the D-Rays development system, and ill-advised investments. At least only the last two were pitchers -- drafting high school pitchers is the baseball equivalent of buying a Lotto ticket.
Looking ahead to 2003
2. Can the Devil Rays player development organization turn athletes into ballplayers? Tampa Bay youngsters like Carl Crawford and Josh Hamilton have gotten a tremendous amount of hype -- in part because the major league club has been so awful that writers have looked elsewhere for stories -- but they haven't performed particularly well on the field. The Devil Rays organization appears to have a blind spot when it comes to developing hitters with plate discipline.
In addition to his injury problems, Hamilton's on-field performance hasn't been overwhelming by any means. Yes, he's flashed some power and might be able to hit for average, and his athletic tools are prodigious, but he's drawn fewer than 60 unintentional walks in over 1,000 minor league plate appearances. Crawford has similar numbers through over 1,500 professional plate appearances. At some point, the D-Rays need to have some production from their player development system if they're going to contend.
3. Will owner Vince Naimoli clean house? This organization is systemically broken. Bringing in Piniella might have some positive effect on the on-field performance of the club. But is that necessarily a good thing? If Piniella has the best year ever by a manager, and every player on the roster plays to the very top of their ability, and everything breaks right, and every tactical move works perfectly, maybe the Rays can win 75 games. That would be nothing short of an instant-induction-to-the-Hall-of-Fame job by the manager. But would it necessarily be good for the Rays?
This organization doesn't have the talent to contend, and like the 1997 Tigers, a one-year shot of mediocrity might give them the delusion they're headed in the right direction. Naimoli and the executive team need to take a hard look at the organization, identify what's working and what's not, and make moves to fix the problems and change the direction of the franchise. Maybe that can happen with LaMar at the helm, or maybe not, but it has to be done. A 55-106 team that brings in Rey Ordonez needs an intervention.
Can expect to play better
Can expect to play worse
A closer look
Rey Ordonez, shortstop, age: 32
Ordonez is one of the worst offensive players ever to step on a major league field. He can't hit for average, has no power, doesn't draw walks, and can't steal bases well enough to make the attempt worth the risk. And yet, the Devil Rays, who finished ahead of only the Tigers and Orioles in runs scored in the 2002 American League, thought his potential defensive contribution warranted his acquisition from the Mets.
A little defensive help couldn't hurt. The Rays allowed the most runs in the AL last year, easily surpassing the Royals and Rangers for that dubious honor. It's understandable that GM Chuck LaMar and company would want to tighten up the defense behind a young pitching staff. Is the tradeoff likely to help?
Using the metrics from Baseball Prospectus, probably not. Ordonez's offensive contribution last season came out to about two runs less than a replacement level shortstop -- a typical minor league veteran or waiver wire pickup available for little or no cost. Using the same metric, Tampa Bay shortstop Chris Gomez was worth about 13 runs more than a replacement shortstop last year. That's a 15 run negative swing on the offensive side of the ball.
How about what he saves with the glove?
In 2002, Ordonez was right in the middle of the pack among MLB shortstops in Range Factor, in a tightly packed bunch of a half dozen guys, including Jimmy Rollins, Miguel Tejada, and Omar Vizquel. In terms of Zone Rating, he was slightly better than average, finishing behind guys like David Eckstein, Mike Bordick, and Alex Rodriguez. Ordonez is an exciting defender to watch, and he's a quality major league shortstop with the glove -- we at Baseball Prospectus rated him as seven runs better than an average defender. But there's almost no chance that any being other than Ozzie Smith in his prime could be good enough with the glove to make up for Ordonez's bat.
Travis Lee, first base, age: 27
Lee's been remarkable as an offensive player, both for his consistency and his lack of development. It's possible that manager Lou Piniella can work with him to unlock some of the potential that was so prominent when Lee came out of San Diego State, but there's not a lot of mystery in those stat lines. The best the Rays can hope for is that Lee finally breaks out under Piniella, and they can move him for prospects at the All-Star break.
There's no rhyme, reason, or coherent plan to the Rays' player moves. A look at the list of players acquired this offseason by the Rays includes a number of players who, at best, are stopgaps or waiver wire pickups -- but there's no one waiting to come in after the stopgap. This organization is hopelessly marooned, and bringing in Jay Canizaro, Blake Stein, Jorge Fabregas, or a hundred other replacement-level contributors isn't going to help. This organization needs an entirely new leadership team and direction, preferably under a general manager from the front office of a successful club.
It's going to be another long year for Rays fans, but if the club can make the dramatic changes that need to be made -- starting at the top -- the fans can feel good about the future starting in 2004. If ownership won't do what's necessary, the downward attendance trend will continue, and the very viability of the team and the market will be in question.
You can check out more work from the team of writers of the Baseball Prospectus at baseballprospectus.com. Baseball Prospectus is a registered trademark of Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, LLC.