One of the more interesting themes being discussed this offseason is whether the Tampa Bay
Devil Rays are finally getting their ship righted and headed for glory in the not too distant future. You see it here in a nice article by Joe Henderson.
I did an interview with the Drays bay wesbite about a month ago, but one thing I didn’t mention was that I hung out on the Devil Rays usenet group a bit in the late 90s. I found the team absolutely fascinating in their wrong-headedness. If you don’t remember, the team’s business plan appeared to be to acquire a bunch of veteran/past their sell-by date players (from the area if possible) and then hope fans would support a team they “knew” instead of one that was actually on track to win baseball games sometime soon. I found this interesting for it’s sheer incompetency. It was an expansion franchise seemingly abandoning taking the important early steps of building a winning infrastructure.
And win they did not. As we now sit in 2008, one thing the brutal mismanagement of the LaMar/Naimoli era did is give them lots of high first round draft picks (and hgih in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th etc.) and that’s really helped them build a good looking farm system. But as much as I’m pulling for them to take the Yankees and Red Sox down a few notches and make the AL East a five team division again, there’s a lot of caution to be urged here. I don’t think it’s quite as simple as waiting a few years and then conquering.
As much as David Price is as good looking a College Pitching prospect as you’re likely to see in some time, he’s still a guy who hasn’t thrown a professional pitch. His control at Vandy wasn’t bad but it wasn’t great either. They don’t always turn out the way folks hope and to complicate things a bit, his option clock starts immediately due to his contract. Longoria, of course, looks like the real deal.
But there’s a lot of distance to be traveled from “good future” to “good team” and it’s not an easy one. There’s a lot of that still there with the Rays. There’s a lot of guys who “ought to be good someday” but sometimes that doesn’t work out, and sometimes it does, but not for you. Dan Wheeler is a pretty good Major League relief pitcher, but not for the Devil Rays. Young pitchers (the strength of the Devil Rays system) will break your heart in a thousand different ways. The Mets rotation of the future of Jason Isringhausen, Paul Wilson and Bill Pulsipher wound up nothing of the sort: Pulsipher never really turned out, Wilson had his moments but not really with the Mets and Isringhausen became a pretty good reliever with someone else. There is a such thing as a pitching prospect, but there’s a lot of good reasons why folks occasionally claimed there wasn’t. Even successes are often fleeting and/or minor like Mark Prior.
I think the biggest key with the Rays short term will be a guy like Andy Sonnanstine. The Rays have guys with “stuff” coming out of their earholes, and yet there’s no evidence a guy like Edwin Jackson will be a better pitcher than Sonnanstine. If they wind up with an either or decision, will they go with the stuff or the stats? The thing is with Andy, he’s done something in the major leagues that suggests he might be able to pitch there. The Rays really have to make sure this is something they heed going forward.
The Rays also have some pretty serious long term issues at 2B, C and possibly SS. All of the second basemen in the Rays system last year hit like complete crap, and Dioner Navarro remains a maybe as to his long term usefulness. Iwamura did not dazzle as a defensive third baseman, how’s he going to do at second? I like Ben Zobrist as much as the next stat geek, but he’s fast approaching the point where he’s going to stop getting chances and his glove is nothing special for a middle infielder. If the Rays could simply put 9 outfielders in their lineup (or eight and Longoria) things might be different.
All I’m saying is that there’s a lot of work still to be done, and if it isn’t done or done poorly, the ascendancy of the
Devil Rays is far from a given. And they are in the toughest division in Baseball to accomplish it.