Monday, July 17, 2006

7 Reasons to Care about the Devil Rays.

“Did you know they have a baseball team in Tampa Bay? It’s true.”
-, nearly every time it mentioned the Devil Rays since 2002

It’s been a running gag for years for a franchise that has become a running gag for major league baseball.

The deck was stacked against the Devil Rays from the beginning. They are an expansion team that plays in an indoor monstrosity (always a solid way to hold down revenue). Their fan base consists of retirees (who are always known for their free-spending ways) and they share that fan base with another expansion team. As the finishing touch, they were placed in the American League East, a division with the top two spending teams in major league baseball. Ok, guys - ready, set, compete!

Not too surprisingly, they’ve floundered. They tried building around speed. They tried signing aging sluggers. They bought a coaching legend. They’ve still never had a .500 record. In fact, they’ve never finished within 10 games of .500. They’ve finished last in their division every year of their existence except one.

This year they’re on pace to continue every one of those depressing trends. And yet, there are reasons for Tampa Bay’s fans to start banging their walkers in excitement. There are also at least seven reasons for Twins fans to care about the Devil Rays, starting with…

7. The Sale – With all the success that the Rays’ franchise had had, you’ll be shocked to hear that they were owned by a cheapskate owner named Vince Naimoli. Whoulda thunk? But in May of 2004, a huge stake in the franchise was bought by a new ownership group led by 45-year-old Wall Street investor and “baseball junkie” Stuart Steinberg.

6. They’re trading aggressively – Steinberg inherited a minor league system loaded with prospects, but a front office loaded with stagnation, so he cleaned house. New GM Andrew Friedman has been far more aggressive than his predecessor in trading players while they still have some value for other teams, mostly for young pitching. Within the last month he’s traded Joey Gathright (who was crowded out of TB’s talented outfield) to the Royals and Aubrey Huff (who becomes a free agent this offseason) to the Astros for three talented pitching prospects.

5. They would be an ideal trading partner for the Twins – The Devil Rays wouldn’t make a great trading partner for the kind of deal that is most commonly mentioned on sports radio around here – dumping Kyle Lohse, Shannon Stewart or Torii Hunter - but they’re almost a perfectly complimentary organization. The Twins minor leagues are loaded with young pitching that the Devil Rays need, and the Devil Rays organization is loaded with top-shelf hitting talent that the Twins could use. Could the Twins pry away infielder B.J Upton for Boof Bonser and Kevin Slowey? That’s not the kind of deal that happens at the trading deadline, but the two teams are a great fit for an offseason deal.

4. They’re rebuilding like the Twins – Ok, maybe “re”-building isn’t correct, since it implies there was something built in the first place. But Tampa Bay is no longer following in the footsteps of the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays, who have thrown around money without a plan so they can finish in third place behind two teams spending at least $40 million more. The Devil Rays are trying to build a core of youngsters who will become stars, and then fill in the gaps, much like the Twins did in 1999 and 2000.

3. Their outfield is fun to watch – The Devil Rays outfield has a chance to become special, like when the Royals outfield consisted of a young Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye and Carlos Beltran. In center field is 24-year-old Rocco Baldelli who has 30 home run/30 stolen base potential. In right field is 24-year-old Carl Crawford, who already has 13 home runs and 32 stolen bases this year. (By the way, the Rays have contracts with both players through at least 2010). They should be joined later this year by baseball’s #1 prospect Delmon Young, who is just 20 years old and will likely end up being better than either of them.

2. Their AAA Club is reminiscent of Animal House – Young and their minor league talent might have a chance to shine if Dean Wormer doesn’t catch him and the rest of the Deltas violating their double-secret probation. So far this year, Upton has been arrested for DUI, Elijah Dukes has been suspended for 15 games for an “unspecified action”, and Young has been suspended for fifty games for throwing his bat at an umpire.

1. They’ve got Don Zimmer – How can you not love 75-year-old Don Zimmer, who is a little like a mascot for Major League Baseball, complete with muppet-like features. “Zim” left the Yankees staff after the 2004 season and became a Senior Baseball Advisor for the Devil Rays. He doesn’t travel with the team, which is a shame, because he has some history with baseball in our state. In 1965, Jim Kaat struck him out to deliver the Twins first American League pennant. Second, it was during his time playing with the St. Paul Saints that he was hit in the head by a pitched ball, which resulted in the celebrated metal plate in his head.

Hmmm. Or maybe he’s not so disappointed that he can’t come back to visit…

On the Hill

Tampa Bay: Scott Kazmir (10-6, 3.27 ERA)
- 2005: 10-9, 186 IP, 174 K, 3.77 ERA
- 2006: 115.2 IP, 108 H, 125 K, 44 BB, 12 HR
- He’s having his breakout season and getting plenty of attention for it. That’s unusual for a player in a small market, but New York Mets fans closely watch Kazmir because the Mets traded him two years ago in one of the few deals where Tampa’s management looked like geniuses. As the Mets search high and low for pitching, Kazmir’s success (which resulted in an All-Star appearance last week) is salt in Mets fans’ wounds.
- Kazmir is 22 years old and is second in the AL in strikeouts. Looks like the Rays have their future ace.

Minnesota: Francisco Liriano (10-2, 2.12 ERA)
- 2005: 1-2, 24.2 IP, 33 K, 5.70 ERA
- 2006: 93.1 IP, 68 H, 108 K, 26 BB, 8 HR
- Everyone thought he’d be good, but this is just silly. He’s the best pitcher in the American League right now, and nobody’s particularly close, not even Johan Santana. If the second half of the year is anything like the first, the only thing that can keep the Cy Young away from him is some quibbles about how many innings he’s pitched.
- His last start was not good. If it points to a second half where he’s human, the Twins are done. No pressure, kid.
- Please, god, keep this kid healthy.

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