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Wednesday, February 12
Updated: March 14, 5:48 PM ET
Tampa Bay Devil Rays

By Gary Huckabay
Special to

The Numbers
2002 record:
55-106, .342 (tied for 29th overall)

Runs scored:
673, 12th in AL
Runs allowed:
918, 14th in AL
Run differential:
-245 (29th overall)

Starters' ERA:
5.31, 14th in AL
Bullpen ERA:
5.23, 13th in AL

Payroll (Opening Day):
$34.4 million (30th overall)
1.07 million (28th overall)

3-year record:
186-298, .384 (30th overall)

2002 in review
What went right?
Joe Kennedy pitched fairly well, looking brilliant in spots, acceptable in others, and might not have been completely overworked. Randy Winn patrolled center field admirably, and developed all facets of his offensive game, posting a .298/.360/.461 campaign before being shipped to Seattle as compensation for the signing of Louis Victor Piniella to manage the D-Rays.

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?
Space restrictions prevent an encyclopedic listing. Pretty much everything went wrong. The Rays finished dead last in the AL East for the fifth year in their five-year history. The hitting was atrocious, topped off by Greg Vaughn, the last of 2000's fearsome foursome of signings, hitting .163 for the season -- a less than ideal return on the $8,750,000 salary he earned for the year. Ben Grieve's slide matured into a clearly defined level of ability, one that displayed no trace of the promise he demonstrated in the minors or his first full season in the majors.

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.

Victor Zambrano
Starting pitcher
Tampa Bay Devil Rays
42 114 8-8 68 73 5.53

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:
1. Retaining the executive team. Chuck LaMar's performance as GM and Senior VP of Baseball Operations has been extremely poor. The D-Rays have yet to win 70 games in a season. The management team has tried once to "win now," undertaking the farcical strategy of building around four aging and/or overrated sluggers -- the Baseball Weekly cover showing Fred McGriff, Vinny Castilla, Jose Canseco, and Vaughn, aged 36, 32, 35, and 34 respectively at the time, is a perfect snapshot of the performance of this front office. The addition of former Pirates GM Cam Bonifay to the front office soon after he was justifiably terminated from his position in Pittsburgh hasn't notably improved things.

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
Three key questions
1. Will Lou Piniella have the requisite patience to build a team? This team isn't close to being competitive, much less contending. Piniella's not noted for his patience with young players. The Rays gave up their best player, Winn, to bring Piniella over from Seattle. Piniella's going to have to avoid the temptation to overwork the young pitchers who might excel in the future (Kennedy, Dewon Brazelton, Nick Bierbrodt), and focus on teaching at the major league level. That kind of change in mindset coming from a club that's been a model of success in recent history could be problematic, to say the least.

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.

Stats Corner
  • Joe Kennedy (above) tied for the club lead in victories in 2002 with eight. He also tied for second in the AL with five complete games.
  • Devil Rays pitchers set a major league record by hitting 94 batters. It marked the fourth time in the Rays' five seasons that they led the AL in hit batsmen.
  • The Devil Rays played in an AL-most 19 extra-inning games and were 9-10 in those contests.
  • Ben Grieve batted .278 (65-for-234) with 12 home runs on the road and .226 (56-for-248) with seven homers at home.
  • Can expect to play better
    Toby Hall. He should see more consistent playing time this season than last, which should allow him to establish some kind of rhythm at the plate. He's 27 years old this season, and his performance record in college and the minors demonstrates that he can hit for some average and power. He won't be an MVP candidate, but he should be able to significantly improve on a .669 OPS. Zambrano should regain some of the form he showed in 2001, and should improve on his 5.53 ERA.

    Can expect to play worse
    The very concept of some of these performances declining boggles the mind. The team as a whole may not be any better, but because of the loss of Winn there are no 2002 overachievers who will play for the 2003 Devil Rays.

    Projected lineup
    CF/RF Carl Crawford
    2B Marlon Anderson/Brent Abernathy
    1B Travis Lee
    C Toby Hall
    DH Aubrey Huff
    3B Jared Sandberg/Chris Truby
    LF Ben Grieve
    RF/CF Rocco Baldelli/Jason Conti
    SS Rey Ordonez

    Joe Kennedy
    Victor Zambrano
    Steve Parris
    Nick Bierbrodt
    Dewon Brazelton

    Lance Carter

    A closer look
    In an effort to improve the club, the Devil Rays made several player moves in the offseason. Can those moves realistically be expected to help the club, either in the short term or long term? Here's a look at the new D-Rays who can expect to see a reasonable amount of playing time:

    Rey Ordonez, shortstop, age: 32

    Year Team Games AB AVG OBP SLG OPS
    1996 NYM 151 502 .257 .289 .303 .592
    1997 NYM 120 356 .216 .255 .256 .511
    1998 NYM 153 505 .246 .278 .299 .577
    1999 NYM 154 520 .258 .319 .317 .636
    2000 NYM 45 133 .188 .278 .226 .504
    2001 NYM 149 461 .247 .299 .336 .635
    2002 NYM 144 460 .254 .292 .324 .616

    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

    Year Team Games AB AVG OBP SLG OPS
    1998 Ari 146 562 .269 .346 .429 .775
    1999 Ari 120 375 .237 .337 .363 .700
    2000 Ari/Phi. 128 404 .235 .342 .366 .708
    2001 Phi 157 555 .258 .341 .434 .775
    2002 Phi 153 536 .265 .331 .394 .725

    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 Baseball Prospectus is a registered trademark of Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, LLC.

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