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4. Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Team Page | Schedule | Roster

Help is on the way from the farm system, but it won't arrive soon enough

By Stephen Cannella

 

The unlikeliest of aces, Lopez emerged from the Tampa bullpen to become a Ray of sunshine for the starting rotation.  Chuch Solomon
ENEMY LINES
An opposing team's scout sizes up the Devil Rays
"He could use a little more seasoning, but Josh Hamilton has a chance to be Tampa Bay's first superstar. He has one of the quickest bats around. He can hit with power, and he can run. But it'd be a mistake for the Rays to rush him this year.... Gerald Williams is a decent player, but he's a guess hitter. If a pitcher throws a changeup or breaking ball on a fastball count, he won't hit it.... Felix Martinez is one of the best fielding shortstops around. He made a lot of careless errors last year, but he looks better. He gets to everything.... Vinny Castilla can hit, but only in Colorado. The Rays will be better off playing Aubrey Huff at third and dealing Castilla -- who is in great shape. Huff has a very quick bat with 20-home-run power, and he's disciplined. Steve Cox is the same way; he'll be a good hitter, but Tampa has to stop blocking their kids with older players.... John Flaherty is an O.K. starting catcher, but the guy I like is Toby Hall. He may not start the year in Tampa, but he throws well, and he has some juice in the bat. He's their future.... Ben Grieve can do one thing: hit. He doesn't have the instincts to be a good outfielder. It'll be rough on Williams in center, because Greg Vaughn in left can't play the outfield worth a damn.... Paul Wilson looks great. He has an average-plus fastball, and his mechanics are good again. The more he pitches, the more confident he'll be that his arm won't fall off.... Esteban Yan throws hard, but he's no closer. His fastball is flat.... Doug Creek is a perfect setup guy for one or two innings."
Soon after they were ordained, the New Testament tells us, the apostles "cast out many devils, and anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them." Three years after it was ordained, Tampa Bay's baseball team has cast out its devils: The club's new green-blue-and-black jerseys have dispensed with the d word and identify the team simply as the Rays. Now it's time for Step 2, the healing. Injuries ravaged the Rays in 2000. They got a combined 1 2/3 innings out of their top two starters, Wilson Alvarez and Juan Guzman; slugging third baseman Vinny Castilla made three trips to the disabled list and hit a paltry six home runs; and leftfielder Greg Vaughn spent three weeks in the summer on the DL and drove in only 38 runs over the season's final four months. "I don't want to think about what happened last year," says manager Larry Rothschild. "The one good thing that came out of it was some other players got chances to perform and get comfortable."

One of those was righthander Albie Lopez, who vaulted from the middle of the bullpen to the front of the rotation. Plucked from the Indians in the 1997 expansion draft, Lopez, 29, spent most of his five years in the Cleveland system as a starter, but Tampa Bay quickly made him a reliever. "Starting never crossed my mind last year," says Lopez. "I figured one day I'd take over for [then closer] Roberto Hernandez."

That changed on May 28 when, with the rotation in tatters (and sporting an American League-worst 6.81 ERA to that point), Rothschild handed Lopez the ball for his first start in three years. Lopez pitched five strong innings in a 14-4 win over the Mariners, and the Devil Rays had stumbled upon an unlikely ace. In 24 starts Lopez was 9-9 with a 3.88 ERA, seventh best among American League starters. In the second half only Boston's Pedro Martinez pitched more innings.

Lopez is a rarity, a power pitcher with a 95-mph fastball who relies more on ground balls than whiffs to get outs. Last year he began throwing his big overhand curveball consistently for strikes and finished with one of the league's best ground ball-to-fly ball ratios. He also helped stabilize a staff that kept the league's lowest-scoring team from utter disaster: After May 30, Tampa Bay had the league's best starters' ERA (4.52). "What impressed me was how Albie went after hitters," says catcher John Flaherty. "A lot of times we have to tell newer starters how to pitch guys, but Albie came in and said, 'This is how I'm going to do it.' He wasn't always right, but if you believe you're right, that's half the battle."

"I'd never be the pitcher I am today if I hadn't gone to the bullpen," Lopez says. "I learned not to waste any pitches, to be aggressive and be happy no matter how I got outs."

For a franchise that's half veterans on the downswing and half hot prospects still a couple of years away, Lopez is one of the few Rays of immediate hope. The Tampa Bay system boasts six players on Baseball America's list of the top 100 prospects in the game, tied with the Braves and Cubs for the most. Stud 19-year-old outfielder Josh Hamilton is the top-rated player on the list and could be a force in the Rays' lineup by the summer. But most of the young talent is at least a year away from making an impact in the big leagues.

That's not soon enough for a team full of fragile veterans, especially in the rotation. Alvarez and Guzman are still recovering from shoulder surgeries, meaning the Rays have $15 million tied up in two pitchers who aren't likely to give them more than 40 starts this season. On paper, the brittle trio of Castilla, Vaughn and first baseman Fred McGriff (946 home runs among them), plus newly acquired outfielder Ben Grieve (93 RBIs per year over the last three seasons), form a modestly dangerous lineup. It certainly can't be worse than it was in 2000, when the Rays hit .257, 10 points lower than the next worse American League team. "It was tough on our pitchers," Rothschild says of the pitiful output. "There were a lot of times they pitched well enough to win and didn't. Maybe it toughened them up."

The baptism by fire worked for Lopez. But the Rays, by any name, will have a devil of a time avoiding a fourth straight losing season.

Issue date: March 26, 2001


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