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Tamp Bay DAVIL RAYS
Jeff Pearlman
March 29, 1999
In the land of the aged, this team has become another home for senior citizens
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March 29, 1999

Tamp Bay Davil Rays

In the land of the aged, this team has become another home for senior citizens

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By the Numbers

1998 Team Statistics (AL rank)

1998 record: 63-99 (fifth in AL East)

BATTING AVERAGE

.261 (13)

OPP. BATTING AVG.

.261 (4)

RUNS SCORED

620 (14)

ERA

4.35 (4)

HOME RUNS

111 (14)

FIELDING PCT.

.985 (2)

When Quinton McCracken was a baby, he once picked up a rattle and banged it against his head repeatedly until he fell unconscious. When he came to, he looked an uncle in the eyes and gurgled, "Coo. Coo." That's the Tampa Bay outfielder's story and the reason, he says, that almost everyone who knows him calls him Coo Coo.

We, however, have a different theory regarding that moniker, based on this statement: "This team can compete for a playoff spot," declared Coo Coo (with a straight face) in early March. "I really think so."

Last season McCracken—who strained his right knee in pre-spring training conditioning but who should be ready by Opening Day—was an unfortunate participant in the worst lineup in baseball. The Devil Rays ranked last in the majors in runs scored and second to last in home runs. Once-dangerous hitters like Wade Boggs, Fred McGriff and Paul Sorrento all produced well below their career norms. Starting shortstop Kevin Stocker hit .208, starting catcher John Flaherty hit .207, and a very old and boring expansion team lost 99 games. During the winter the Tampa Bay front office, in an effort to keep the budget around $30 million, signed 34-year-old slugger Jose Canseco and absolutely nobody-else (unless utility infielder and Rule V pick David Lamb counts as a somebody). If you believe the Devil Rays even have a shot at escaping the American League East cellar in 1999, you're nuts. Psycho. Insane. One-hundred percent certifiably Coo Coo.

Better days, however, are surely ahead for Tampa Bay—if only because it might be humanly impossible for the team to be as odious as it was last season. No way pitcher Tony Saunders, the club's first pick in the 1997 expansion draft, loses 15 games again. No way Wilson Alvarez, a two-time 15-game winner, loses 14. No way Boggs, a career .329 hitter, bats .280, nor fellow veterans McGriff and Sorrento, both former 30-home-run guys, hit fewer than 20 round-trippers for a second straight year. "Last season was a very unique situation for our veterans," says Devil Rays general manager Chuck LaMar. "They were on an expansion team, and they put extreme pressure on themselves to succeed. No one here thinks that will happen again."

The free-agent signing of Canseco, who's coming off his most productive campaign since 1991, will at least make Tampa Bay a more entertaining team to watch. In puny Tropicana Field he could go deep 50 times. However, the aging free swinger will not solve the problems of a team that struck out nearly seven times a game in '98 (third worst in the league) and has become too dependent upon players born when Florida still belonged to Spain. Four key offensive players (Boggs, McGriff, Canseco and Sorrento) are at least 33. Aside from the 28-year-old McCracken (179 hits, 76 runs scored and 18 assists), Tampa Bay's only young impact players are Saunders, shortstop Miguel Cairo and third baseman Bobby Smith (55 RBIs in 370 at bats), all of whom are 24.

As their personnel decisions indicate, the Devil Rays are in no hurry to embark on a youth movement. Despite hitting 11 homers and driving in 34 runs in only 182 second-half at bats, 27-year-old Bubba Trammell will take a seat on the bench to make room for Canseco in the lineup. Even the very talented Smith will occasionally sit so that Boggs can get the 78 hits he needs to reach the 3,000 mark. "Wade's getting his 3,000th hit in a Devil Rays uniform is very important to us," says LaMar. "There are ways we can play Bobby regularly and allow Wade to make history."

Unlike McCracken, Tampa Bay manager Larry Rothschild knows better than to make irrational playoff predictions. However, he does believe that his pitching, which was fourth in the league in ERA in 1998, is good enough to keep the Devil Rays competitive most nights. The top three starters are especially solid. Cuban defector Rolando Arrojo was 14-12 and made the All-Star team as a 30-year-old rookie last season; Saunders lost 15 games only because he received the league's lowest run support; and the hard-throwing Alvarez is healthy again after battling shoulder problems for much of '98.

The rest of the pitching staff boasts some decent arms. Jason Johnson has had an impressive spring, Albie Lopez has developed into a capable setup man, and Esteban Yan has a 96-mph fastball and a really cool name. The closer is Roberto Hernandez, who last year evoked few memories of his White Sox days, back when his pitches weren't hit quite so often. Last season he blew nine save opportunities. If Hernandez returns to form—and at age 34, that's a huge if—Rothschild's staff will be even more of a force.

But not enough of a force for the Devil Rays to win more than 70 games in baseball's toughest division. You'd have to be Coo Coo to think otherwise.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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