19 February 2003

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays are bad.

(How bad are they?)

They're so bad that...

...their lineup has less pop than an empty soda bottle.

...their batting practice pitchers have a 0.00 ERA.

...members of their infield defense are being sent to Iraq to try to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

... closer Esteban Yan is so bad at saving things that Tupperware won't let him endorse their products.

...their pitching staff allowed more homers than the doorman at a Simpsons Impersonation Convention.

...Louie Anderson has more plate discipline than these guys.

...their hitters ask Christopher Reeve for tips on walking. (ouch)

OK, OK, enough with the jokes. Everybody know that the D-Rays suck, and have since their inception in 1998. They've tried "proven" veterans, unproven rookies, development, free agency, trades, incantations, but mostly they've tried wandering aimlessly without any coherent plan, and... (surprise!) ...it hasn't worked. Amazingly, they still have fans, such as David Bloom, whose Devil Rays Blog will be linked here as soon as I get a chance to update them. Some more concrete measures of how bad this team was:

...nobody pitching more than 21 Innings had an ERA under 4.30. The AL average was 4.47.

...no pitcher with more than three decisions finished the season with a winning record.

...Greg Vaughn's .163 season marked the lowest BA by a non-catcher with at least 250 At-Bats in this century! (Note: Catchers' offensive contributions used to be considered secondary, so it was not uncommon for a Bill Bevens or a Bob Uecker or a Les Moss to hang around for a while without any indication that they knew what they were doing with that piece of ash they were handed three times a game.)

ESPN's Hot Stove Heater on the Devil Rays details some of their inneptitude, and more importantly, what to expect this year. My hero, Rob Neyer has argued that they aren't "historically bad" but in a way they are, or could be. It's been over two decades since an American League team lost 100 games in three straight seasons (the expansion '77-'79 Blue Jays had a better excuse), but the Tampa front office has all but sealed the team's fate in supplanting Toronto for this (dis)honor.

This is a team that Chuck LaMar has run since the start, and has never shown any indication that he knows how to draft players, sign free agents, or make decent trades, and yet he still has his job. To this, erstwhile Pirates GM Cam Bonifay, himself showing little evidence that he knows how to properly run a franchise, was hired in an assistant-to-the-innept-GM role last year. Results have not been surprising. Let me see if I can sum up the team philosophies for each season they've been around:

1998: The Devil Rays: We're an expansion team! Nobody expects us to win...so we won't.
1999: The Devil Rays: Did we mention that Wade Boggs plays for us?
2000: The Devil Rays: We're gonna slug our way to the...umm, basement.
2001: The Devil Rays: We've got an All-Star! ….whaddaya mean every team gets one?
2002: The Devil Rays: Did we mention that Wade Boggs used to play for us?
2003: The Devil Rays: Our new manager's SO good, we don't need good players!

And so they've gone out and assembled possibly one of the worst teams that will ever set foot on a major league baseball field. They took an "offense" that scored the third fewest runs in the AL last year, got rid of Randy Winn, arguably their best player, as compensation for new field marshal Lou Pinella. They released Steve Cox, a 28-year old hitter with some power (47 extra base hits) and patience (60 walks) and then sold him to Japan. Well, a baseball team in Japan. They lost two of their three top innings-munching pitchers (Paul Wilson and Tanyon Sturtze) to free agency, as well as Steve Kent, Wilson Alvarez, and their "closer", Esteban Yan. Actually, there's good news and bad news about this. Make that Bad News and Worse News.

The Bad News: The pitchers they lost went 24-53 with a 1.52 WHIP and a 5.10 ERA in 709 Innings last season. That horrendous 5.10 ERA is actually better than the team's MLB-worst 5.29 ERA in 2002.

The Worse News: Their replacements on the roster (Blake Stein, Jim Parque, Bob Wells, Steve Parris and the newly-signed Wayne Gomes) went 9-16 with a 1.74 WHIP and a 6.67 ERA in 227 innings. Now, of course, not all of those pitchers' 700+ innings will be eaten up by these five, as they have all been signed to minor league contracts, and aren't guaranteed to make the team. Ironically, GM Chuck LaMar had this to say about the Gomes signing:
``Well, this kid showed up yesterday and he wouldn't leave. So, because of that, we're giving him an opportunity. He's got some major league experience and we'll let him compete.''
He’s got some major league experience? How about ‘He’s got a lower 2002 ERA than all but two guys with at least 20 innings pitched last year who are still on our roster’? I’m not saying that Wayne Gomes is going to save the franchise or anything, but losers can’t be choosers, y’know?

The other pitchers expected to assume the bulk of the remaining workload aren't much more promising:

Victor Zambrano allowed 68 walks and 15 dingers in only 114 innings of "major league" work, to go with a nifty 5.53 ERA. He’s expected to improve on those numbers, but there’s not really much of anywhere to go but up from there.

Nick Bierbrodt apparently has some talent, but spent most of last year rehabbing from a gunshot wound in the non-pitching arm. Here’s what Baseball Prospectus’ Will Carroll had to say about him in the Tampa Bay Team Health Report:

”Being shot, I hope, is one of those fluke things that mean nothing in an injury history. For the Rays, it's not. Another rotation candidate, Nick Bierbrodt, was also shot[BoS: theother was Delvin James} , also at a restaurant. (Note to Rays: room service.) Bierbrodt was in the minors after losing complete control of his pitches, but reports indicate that Piniella has tabbed him for a starting slot, so we'll hope he can find the plate again. Still, past history plus the shooting plus Piniella equal a red light. “
Dewon Brazelton, despite an apparently talented arm as the D-Rays’ fourth best prospect, has exactly 18 innings of experience above AA ball, so expect some growing pains there. Also, he is a major injury risk, according to Will Carroll, so his best hope for future health is to suck enough that Piniella won’t overwork him and then pitch better when Piniella gets frustrated and quits, around June, hopefully to be replaced by someone other than Terry Francona.

Others expected to play a role this year include Jesus Colome, who was injured in an auto accident in the Dominican Republic that killed three people in the other car. He was cleared of any wrongdoing in the accident, but had the gall to say,

“This could affect my career because I don't know whether I feel OK to play this season”

First of all, three women just died: nobody cares how your career is going to be affected.

Secondly, Colome was 2-7 with an 8.27 ERA in 32 games last season. He allowed 91 baserunners in 41.1 innings. His opponent averages of .341/.446/.524 mean that his opponents generally hit like Mike Sweeney when they faced him. How much less OK could he possibly be this year than last? If anything, the accident may help him pitch better. Like to a Boeing ERA, say, 7.27. A whole run improvement!

On the other hand (where, in case you haven’t heard, I have five fingers), the Devil Rays have brought in quite a few players for offensive “help”:

Pos Name Age 2002 EqA MLB Pos EqA
C Jorge Fabregas 33 .165* .246
1B Travis Lee 27 .259 .287
2B Marlon Anderson 29 .250 .259
3B Chris Truby 29 .239 .264
SS Rey Ordonez 32 .226 .256
INF Jay Canizaro 29 .210 .256
OF Ryan Thompson 32 .272 .280
1B/OF Lee Stevens 32 .243* .287
(* approximate EqA for two different teams)

Eight guys, only one (Travis Lee) at an age where he might reasonably be expected to improve a little, none with an EqA above the the league average for his position, at least not with any significant playing time (Thompson's .272 was amassed in fewer than 150 plate appearances.

This might be the worst lineup ever assembled, if it ever got to play. Thankfully it won’t. Thompson is a one-time super prospect who probably won’t make the team, given all the hotshot young outfielders they currently have to evaluate (Josh Hamilton, Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, and Jason Conti), not to mention Greg “The Human Black Hole” Vaughn, who isn’t young, but won’t be paid $8.5 million just to chew sunflower seeds on the bench). Lee Stevens probably won’t make the club either, since they’ve already got Aubrey Huff and Travis Lee to play the 1B/DH/OF roles (though if Lee Stevens did make the team, along with Travis Lee, and if they could get Cecil Travis as a coach and bring up young Stevenson Agosto, you’d have the makings of a good Laugh-In! joke.)

Anywho, these guys are all in camp for a tryout, with the expectation that Anderson and Truby will platoon with incumbents 2B Brent Abernathy and 3B Jared Sandberg, respectively. You would imagine that at least two of the five OF/DH spots would end up in a platoon situation as well, meaning that the D-Rays’ roster will burn up 9 or 10 semi-regular players on four positions. That’s a good way to make sure you have a nice, shallow bench.

Some people may be screaming “No, the D-Rays are following the Braves’ model, valuing infield defense over offense to help develop the young pitching!” (Baseball Prospectus got such a letter, but didn't even see fit to offer a response, given how ridiculous it was.)

Indeed Travis Lee and Rey Ordonez have excellent defensive reputations at their respective positions, though in reality they both saved only about half a dozen defensive runs more than an average player at their own positions, good for less than one win, combined, in 2002. And their offensive contributions more than made up for that. Besides, the Braves’ model isn’t really an accurate notion, since the pitchers who became the backbone of that staff in the early ‘90s (Glavine and Smoltz) all had success before Sid Bream, Rafael Belliard and Mark Lemke became regulars, or before they joined the team (Maddux). Only Steve Avery’s arrival at stardom coincided with the so-called defense focus, and those Braves generally had enough offense, especially in the outfield (David Justice, Fred McGriff, Ron Gant, Terry Pendleton, Lonnie Smith, even Otis Nixon) to compensate for the offensive slackers.

The D-Rays won’t have that kind of production out of their outfield, or anyone else whose name doesn't rhyme with "chaw-free snuff". Not this year, not if Hamilton can't stay healthy and Baldelli, Conti and Crawford don't learn some plate discipline, a skill the Tampa organization does not seem to value, it seems. How else would you explain the influx of players like Lee Stevens and Rey Ordonez and the jettison of Steve Cox to Yokohama, a player who showed real promise in the minors, racking up homers and doubles like breasts in a Joe Bob Briggs movie review and walking almost as often as he K'd (both were a lot). He'll probably become the next Roberto Petaguine or Tuffy Rhodes, and it will serve the Devil Rays right. So while they're tilting at the windmills of infield defense, even the Phillies managed to figure out that you can't play Travis Lee and Marlon Anderson everyday and expect to get the damsel. Um, pennant.

Anyway, Rob Neyer is still right, so far. There have been a lot of teams worse than this five-year stretch by the Tampa Bay Americans, but this sixth year could really be something special. We're talking unexplored territory here. We're talking a team OPS under .600. We're talking 120+ losses. We're talking mathematical elimination from AL East contention earlier than any team in history.

Like, yesterday.

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