It may be premature to light a victory cigar, but with nearly a
month of play behind them, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays have a nice
early lead over the ghosts of baseball expansion. The '61
Washington Senators and the '69 Seattle Pilots? Eating dust. The
'62 Houston Colt .45s and the '69 Expos? Sucking wind. The '62
Mets? Puh-leeze. They're bringing up the rear, just slightly
behind the '98 Arizona Diamondbacks, the National League
newcomers with the $30.8 million payroll, deluge of off-season
hype and 7-18 record at week's end.
Meanwhile, the Devil Rays are huffin' and puffin' atop the
Expansion Leaguenot to be confused with the American League
East, the division in which Tampa Bay actually playsan
imaginary conference in which the records of baseball's 14
expansion teams since '61 are compared on a regular basis by the
St. Petersburg Times. The Devil Rays were so hot at the start of
their first season that despite losing five of their last six
games through Sunday, they still stood at 11-11. Their 11 wins
in April is an expansion-club record, and they still had four
games to play before May.
"With free agency, the expansion equation has changed," says
Seattle manager Lou Piniella, who played on the '69 Royals, a
team that holds another expansion record the Devil Rays have
their eyes on: 28 days spent above .500. (As of Sunday they had
been above .500 for 22 days.) "Tampa Bay signed a veteran
starting pitcher [Wilson Alvarez], a proven closer [Roberto
Hernandez], Wade Boggs and Paul Sorrento. They were able to
trade for Kevin Stocker and Fred McGriff. They have some
experience over there."
Enough experience to, just possibly, lead this team to expansion
nirvana: an above-.500 finish for the season, something no
first-year team in baseballor for that matter, in the NBA, the
NFL or the NHLhas accomplished. Piniella's '69 Royals, it
should be noted, spent 152 days under .500 and finished the
season 69-93. Which is why Devil Rays rookie manager Larry
Rothschild, who last year was the pitching coach for the world
champion Florida Marlins, is keeping those victory stogies under
wraps. "There's nothing saying we can't play 162 games the way
we played the first 19," he says of the team's 11-8 start, "but
we might not get the same results. You're not going to hit every
night like we have."
Tampa Bay ranked a surprising second in the American League in
batting average (.302) at week's end, led not by Tampa natives
Boggs and McGriffboth of whom were over .300but by a
23-year-old third baseman snapped up from the Atlanta Braves'
minor league system, Bobby Smith. After Boggs went on the
disabled list with a strained right calf on April 18, Smith
stepped in and was hitting .362 at week's end, tops among AL
rookies. "I didn't expect them to hit as well as they did," says
White Sox manager Jerry Manuel, whose team lost four of its
first six games to the Devil Rays. "They have a good mix of
speed and power, and that's a better pitching staff than a lot
of staffs that have been around the majors for years."
Chicago's, for one.
With a rotation that features free-agent acquisition Alvarez
(3-2, 3.96 ERA) and 29-year-old rookie Rolando Arrojo (2-2,
5.40), who defected two years ago from the Cuban national team,
the Devil Rays are in the top half of the league in ERA and have
a bullpen that had not lost a game through Sunday. (The Mets are
the only other team in the majors who share the latter
distinction.) Hernandez has performed well as the closer, but
the biggest surprise is a setup man who's been unhittable:
Esteban Yan, a 23-year-old Dominican righthander taken from the
Orioles in the expansion draft, against whom opponents are
batting .027 (1 for 37) and have yet to score a run. "We aren't
in the top half of the league as far as names, but we're in the
top half as far as arms," says catcher John Flaherty.
Credit for that goes to Chuck LaMar, the team's 41-year-old
general manager, who, before he joined the Devil Rays, was the
assistant G.M. for player personnel for the Braves, the team
that has the mother of all pitching staffs. "People say there's
not enough pitching to support expansion," says LaMar. "I
disagree. Some of those 22 new pitching jobs have been filled by
quality prospects in need of an opportunity." LaMar selected 14
pitchers among his first 25 picks of the expansion draft, and
nine have already pitched for the Devil Rays. "With a payroll
under $26 million, you're not going to be able to buy enough
bats," LaMar says. "So we emphasized defense, pitching, foot
speed and athleticism."
Sure, it's early, but when the Devil Rays are ready to fire up
those victory cigars, they can do so in the majors' first
in-stadium cigar bar, an addition to Tropicana Field, which was
refurbished recently for $85 million (even though it was just
built in 1990). However, no one in the Tampa Bay organization is
getting ahead of the program. They're thinking five years.
That's how long it took the Marlins to win a World Series.
That's when LaMar and Rothschildassuming they're still
aroundwill light up.
Issue date: May 4, 1998