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Posted: Tuesday May 20, 2008 8:38AM; Updated: Tuesday May 20, 2008 4:54PM
Tom Verducci Tom Verducci >
INSIDE BASEBALL

The Bizarro Supermen (cont.)

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The Rays have shot up the standings with pitching and defense and a high-energy attack led by Carl Crawford.
The Rays have shot up the standings with pitching and defense and a high-energy attack led by Carl Crawford.
J. Meric/Getty Images

The shift toward emphasizing younger players was dramatically evident during last week's Yankees-Rays series. New York features seven regulars who are 32 or older. Two of them (third baseman Alex Rodriguez and catcher Jorge Posada) were on the disabled list, and four others were hitting below their career averages (outfielders Johnny Damon and Bobby Abreu, shortstop Derek Jeter and first baseman Jason Giambi). The Yankees scored only six runs in the four games, hit only one home run and stole no bases (they ranked last in the league at week's end) and showed little range defensively.

The Rays, meanwhile, ran the bases aggressively, chased down just about anything airborne in the outfield, turned key double plays and shackled New York hitters with power pitching. In short, Tampa Bay looked nothing like anything seen before in the franchise's history. Gone are the name (Devil Rays), uniform (so long, green, turquoise and yellow), worst bullpen in more than half a century (6.16 ERA last year) and loser's attitude. ("We've always been concerned about the lack of professionalism in the past," Maddon says.)

The remaking of the Rays actually began last July, when the club used the trading deadline to get a jump on the 2008 season. "Overhauling the bullpen was daunting," says GM Andrew Friedman, who shipped infielder Ty Wigginton to Houston for reliever Dan Wheeler.

In September the Rays sent scout Larry Doughty to file a report on free-agent-to-be reliever Troy Percival, then with the Cardinals. "He was raving about him," Friedman says. Friedman and Maddon recruited Percival with a visit to his California home in November, convincing Percival that the Rays were ready to take a leap forward but needed his veteran influence. On Nov. 30 they signed Percival to a two-year, $8 million contract. "The first day of spring training Percy walks in with his cup of coffee and starts talking to people, walking around the room, getting on guys. We never had that before," Maddon says. "Nobody ever did that. Guys just did their own thing."

The chatty Percival keeps players loose and humble. For instance, he promised to fine pitcher Matt Garza, who was obtained in a trade with the Twins, $500 every time he acted like a jerk on the mound, though Percival used a more colorful term.

"What's the matter? Nobody in Minnesota ever said you acted like a [jerk]?" Percival asked him.

"Uh, yeah, they did," Garza admitted.

The Rays went 18-8 in spring training. Says Friedman, "Guys like Percy and Cliff Floyd were able to tell these guys, 'We've been to the playoffs, and we're just as talented as those teams.' Now it's a matter of learning how to win. Spring training games are usually worthless, except for us. Spring training had more value to us than anybody else. The team for the first time started to think about challenging to play in October. And now they believe it."

The Rays also added lefthander Trever Miller to the bullpen and bumped closer Al Reyes to setup duty to make room for Percival, who has backed up his clubhouse chatter with 11 saves in 13 opportunities and a 0.53 WHIP at week's end. They also sealed a leaky infield by getting sticky-handed shortstop Jason Bartlett in the Minnesota deal with Garza (for outfielder Delmon Young) and moved third baseman Aki Iwamura to second base to make room for Longoria, who figures to be a franchise fixture. Says one AL GM of Longoria, "I think he's the most impressive young player that's come up in the past couple of years. I'd take him over anybody. And he's going to be a 40-home-run hitter."

The turnaround has been stunning. The Rays were the worst defensive team in the league last year, as measured by defensive efficiency, a Bill James-created measure of how well teams turn batted balls into outs. This year the stats say they're the second-best defensive team in the league. The bullpen is fourth-best, cutting its ERA by nearly three runs (3.38). And with a hard-throwing rotation of Kazmir, 24; Garza, 24; Shields, 26; Edwin Jackson, 24; and Andy Sonnanstine, 25, and last year's No. 1 overall pick David Price, 22, on the way, the Rays "are winning in a way we believe is sustainable," Friedman says.

Maybe the Rays were overdue to win anyway. After all, they have drafted no lower than eighth for nine consecutive years -- and they have the first pick overall again next month. But the revenue sharing system, a provision of the 2002 labor deal, and the boom in new revenue streams such as satellite television and radio and digital media, have allowed every team a better chance at securing its young players. Meanwhile, power, the most expensive commodity in the game, has been deemphasized with the crackdown on performance-enhancing drugs.

The Rays may be a new phenomenon, but parity is not. Since the labor deal went into place in 2003, 20 of the 30 teams have reached the playoffs. And even if Tampa Bay -- which was 25-19 through Sunday after never having been more than three games over .500 in its existence -- doesn't reach the postseason, it has hope for the first time. Just about everybody gets a turn on the carousel and a shot at the brass ring. Since 2002 every team in baseball has been in first place on May 15 with only four exceptions: Toronto, Pittsburgh, Colorado and Washington.

The Rays, who'd never been in first this late before this year, did their best to act as if they've been here before. Maddon, for instance, who has a sign saying got wine? above his office doorway, stuck to his mellow postgame selections: a 2005 Napa Valley Merlot one night, a 2004 Napa/Sonoma Cabernet blend the next, after an extra-inning win against previously unscored-upon Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.

"You're looking for a growth moment?" Maddon said. "There's one right in front of your face tonight."

On such nights anything seems possible in baseball. "Be who you are and say what you feel," reads the framed quote beneath the Cat in the Hat portrait behind Maddon's desk, "because those who mind don't matter, and those who matter don't mind."

The Rays all of a sudden matter. It is a baseball world imagined by Selig, if not Seuss himself.

 
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