The Money Pit
The Rays’ entire payroll this season will be about $10 million less than they paid in salary and bonuses to Matt White, Bobby Seay, Josh Hamilton, Vinny Castilla and Juan Guzman — a quintet that has given them eight home runs and one win.
The Rays opened 2004 with the largest payroll increase (51 percent) in baseball, yet their $23 million payroll was MLB’s lowest — and less than the Yankees paid in luxury taxes. They’ll go into ’05 with a similar increase, but much of it will be eaten up in raises.
Grable, Hayworth or Garbo?
In a St. Petersburg Times interview, bench coach Don Zimmer, the 74-year-old grizzled gerbil, said ESPN is the only thing he watches on TV. Asked if his preference was Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera or Jessica Simpson, he replied, “Who do they play for?”
The Expos/Nationals anarchy back-burnered talk of contraction over the winter, but MLB’s eye is still on this franchise. Says Bud Selig, “I think the Devil Rays right now, with their (new) ownership, the new system and everything else, are positioned right — and sometime in the future they’re going to have to think about a new stadium.” Contrary to announced figures, actual attendance often dwindled into the 2,000-3,000 range last September.
Among active players with 3,000 plate appearances, Rays third baseman Alex S. Gonzalez owns the third-lowest career batting average at .242. The team’s other choice out of free agency to fill the hot corner was reportedly Tony Batista, whose .251 mark is 11th-lowest. The Rays pursued a trade with Colorado for .246-hitting catcher Charles Johnson (fifth-lowest). They traded away Jose Cruz Jr. (.250; 10th-lowest); six other former Rays are in the bottom 20. Also on the roster are Kevin Cash and Brandon Larson — the active players with the lowest AVGs with a 300-PA minimum.
I am who I am
The image of managing general partner Vince Naimoli as boorish and disconnected was buttressed by an incident in which, according to newspaper and police reports, he berated an officer for pulling over his wife after she ran a red light. Red-faced and waving his arms, he bellowed, “Do you know who I am? I’m Vincent Joseph Naimoli, owner of the Devil Rays!” and then dropped names of the police chief and city council members.
On Dec. 17, the New York Post blared, “Unit About to Land in Bronx.” In Seattle, the Post-Intelligencer declared, “Mariners Sign Beltre in Big-Spending Sequel.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution told the world, “Braves Deal for Hudson.” And in the St. Petersburg Times, the headline peeped “Bell Returns to Rays.” That would be Rob. Not Buddy, not George, not Cool Papa, not even David. And so it goes for this impoverished — some would say miserly — franchise. Managing general partner Vince Naimoli claimed that the 2004 team “either met or exceeded everyone’s expectations.” Aubrey Huff was more realistic: “Seventy (wins) is a step up, but it’s still a joke...You’re going to have to spend and go out to get players in the offseason...It’s feeling like it’s groundhog day here every day and nothing ever changes.”
The gap between what good pitching costs and what the Rays are willing to pay is widening. They never have had a legitimate No. 1 guy, so again they’ll just lob a bunch of arms at the wall and see what sticks. The lone pitcher with ace-type stuff is 21-year-old Scott Kazmir, heisted from the Mets for Victor Zambrano. His durability is open to question and he has control issues, but few batters catch up to his lefty heat. Streaky soft-tosser Mark Hendrickson is the only returning 10-game winner, yet he’s a No. 4 or 5 on a good team. Dewon Brazelton had some nice moments, but 80 pitches into a game and four months into a season, he runs out of gas. The Rays think Bell may be a late bloomer. He lacks consistency and a pitch to put away left-handed hitters. Other contenders include smoke-throwing Jorge Sosa (who needs command, an “idea” and a second go-to pitch) and 24-year-olds Doug Waechter (5–7, 6.01) and Seth McClung (coming off Tommy John surgery).
The harvest of Danys Baez out of the 2003 non-tender pool was an astute move; GM Chuck LaMar gambled correctly that the Cuban defector’s failures in Cleveland were more due to lack of experience than nerve. He doesn’t dominate, but he’s more than adequate. The set-up corps is the team’s deepest unit. Jesus Colome has as much arm strength as anyone and began to hint at command. His year ended early with a bad shoulder. Travis Harper and former closer Lance Carter are rubber-armed strike-throwers. Sosa can be a power set-up man if he doesn’t crack the rotation. Angel Garcia, the first pick of the Rule 5 Draft, could stick. Trever Miller and Bobby Seay are viable situational lefties.
He strikes out too much and his defense is flighty, but Julio Lugo’s speed and pop make him one of the AL’s better shortstops. “Lugo is basically our heart and soul,” says manager Lou Piniella. Dazzling shortstop prospect B.J. Upton can hit right now, but he’ll open the year in Durham mending holes in a glove that’s made 100 errors in 273 professional games. Roberto Alomar, a Piniella favorite, was signed to play second base, at least as the left-side platoon with gap-hitting youngster Jorge Cantu. Alomar, however, is 37 and four teams in the last three years couldn’t wait to replace him.
Alex S. Gonzalez was signed for third base, a position at which he’s seen nary an inning in a decade. The veteran ex-shortstop “has a chance to give us 20 homers,” says Piniella. However, like many Rays, his on-base percentages and strikeout rates are horrific. Defensive specialist Travis Lee returns for another tour of duty at first base but if he can't be healthy by Opening Day look for Josh Phelps to man the position.
Huff is the team’s solitary complete hitter. He adjusts to being pitched around, doesn’t strike out much and gets runners home. With some protection, he’d be almost Pujolsian. He played both corners with discernable improvement last year but, in a perfect world, he’d be the Rays’ DH. In ’05, Huff — who Piniella wants to be more of a leader — will play left field to start the season thanks to the knee injury suffered by Rocco Baldelli. Soon-to-be-superstar Carl Crawford will move from left (where Piniella considers him the best in the biz) to center. He is a two-time AL stolen base leader and a possible batting champ who has the physique to hit many more homers. Jose Cruz Jr. was traded to Arizona for Fossum; free agent Danny Bautista will take his place in right field . Bautista is a good glove man, but yet another low-OBP guy without a lot of power. Fleet rookie Joey Gathright could factor in.
In a mild surprise, the club offered arbitration to Toby Hall, who has started most of the past three seasons. He controls opponents’ running games, but he doesn’t do pitchers many favors as a game manager, and he has been stubbornly adjustment-proof at the plate despite terrific hand-eye coordination.
The Rays might as well have let their pitchers hack last year; their DHs batted .222. Enter former Blue Jays/Indians prospect Phelps. He is a one-tool player, but his power is substantial. “We think he’s a 25-plus home run guy,” says LaMar. Other DH types include Eduardo Perez (whose nearly season-long Achilles injury was a tough loss in 2004), and rookies Matt Diaz and Jonny Gomes (who have little left to prove in Triple-A).
Piniella has been the best thing ever to happen to the Devil Rays, but he is exasperated by the lack of talent and may look for a way out on or before his 2006 contract expiration. With things this bad, it is astonishing that LaMar is baseball’s fourth longest-tenured GM. His player personnel approach has been conservative and uncreative. Many peers find him exasperating to deal with, and his farm system has been middle-of the-road — road kill, actually, from a pitching standpoint. Naimoli might be a short-timer. Wall Street investor Stuart Sternberg became majority owner last May and could eventually pull the daily strings. “Things were messy, but I like messy,” he said. He’ll love the Rays.
By the time other recent expansion teams reached this point, the Marlins and Diamondbacks boasted world titles, and the Rockies had three winning seasons. What the Devil Rays have is exactly what they had in 1998: a rumor that the team is about to improve. The front office characterizes last year as “progress” because the Rays set a team record for wins and skulked out of the basement for the first time. In reality, they had one more win than their previous best and finished further out of first place than their second team in ’99. So there’s little motivation to expect a breakthrough. And given the team’s track record, fans have been left wondering if tomorrow will ever come.