The Devil Rays finished out of last place for the first time in team history in 2004, but still lost 91 games -- the seventh straight year the team topped 90 losses.
Their top picks are starting to come of age, but youth will not be served this season
Throughout the Devil Rays' dismal seven-year existence -- their standard for success is so low that last September, after the team finished out of the American League East cellar for the first time, players celebrated with a champagne toast -- the franchise has touted its young talent as a reason for optimism. This season Tampa Bay will once again be an onlooker in the division race. But the way its core of kids is coalescing, the organization that has never won more than 70 games could be competitive in the near future.
"We can turn this around sooner than people think," says leftfielder Carl Crawford, Exhibit A in the Devil Rays' case for success through drafting and development. "Scott Kazmir and Dewon Brazelton are going to be great pitchers, and [former Rice righthander] Jeff Niemann is going to be up here from the minors. [Shortstop prospect] B.J. Upton's bat is ready, and Delmon Young [the No. 1 overall pick in 2003], what can you say about him? He showed everything in camp. We've got guys who are anxious to show what they can do, and this thing's ready to jump."
Crawford, 23, comes by his rose-colored lenses honestly: He has already made his great leap forward, becoming an electric and effective player as well as the face of the franchise. A second-round draftee in 1999 (outfielder Josh Hamilton, the No. 1 pick that year, is evidence of the downside to Tampa Bay's preference for drafting high-ceiling high schoolers), Crawford has always set mouths agape with his innate athleticism; he declined a football scholarship to Nebraska and a basketball scholarship to UCLA. He's among the league's most aggressive swingers and naturally quickest base runners, and batting leadoff last season he hit .296, led the AL in steals for the second straight year with 59, led the majors in triples with 19 and was selected to the All-Star team for the first time.
Crawford continues to ignore the statheads who preach plate discipline and on-base percentage. In 1,515 major league at bats he has 70 walks and an on-base percentage of .315; the 3.49 pitches he saw per plate appearance last season ranked near the bottom of the league. "I've never been a person who takes pitches," he says, taking practice cuts with a bat as he speaks. "I've never seen myself passive at the plate. I can't go up there thinking, I'm going to get a walk today so I can hit my on-base percentage. I'll see more pitches, but if I'm seeing the pitch I want, why wait?"
After centerfielder Rocco Baldelli tore his left ACL while playing ball in his backyard in November, the Devil Rays had planned to relocate Crawford to center; though the club acknowledged that he had inferior arm strength to Baldelli's and needed to improve his ability to track balls and make quicker releases, Tampa Bay felt that Crawford's raw ability would compensate. But spring signee Alex Sanchez proved himself in center, returning Crawford -- who had accepted the position switch willingly, but not without trepidation -- to his comfort zone in left. "I thought Crawford was the best leftfielder in baseball," says manager Lou Piniella. "The only reason we contemplated moving him was because of the injury to Baldelli. Now we have a centerfielder to fill that spot in Sanchez."
The Devil Rays' pitching success will depend heavily on Brazelton, 24, a righthander who will be the Opening Day starter, and Kazmir, 21, a lefty for whom the Mets were pilloried all winter for trading. Brazelton possesses a mid-90s fastball and a hard changeup that mimics a splitter, but he has a lifetime 5.34 ERA, has yet to learn a major league quality third pitch and has never won outside Tropicana Field. Kazmir, who rocketed from Class A to the majors last year, is a raw, two-pitch pitcher like Brazelton, and workload is an issue -- he has not exceeded 135 innings in a professional season. "Overall I think we're a better team," says general manager Chuck LaMar. "How much better depends greatly on the development of our young starting pitching."
Tampa Bay still has a long way to go, but its strategy of loading up on high school draftees is starting to pay dividends. There's reason for hope, which is a feeling the franchise has seldom experienced. -- Daniel G. Habib