25 February 2003

Tampa? I Hardly Knowa!

I can't believe I'm spending this much time and effort on the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Jayson Stark has a puff piece about the D-Rays, particularly the parallels between them and their Super Bowl-Winning NFL Counterpart, the Buccaneers. As I see them, the parallels are as follows:

1) Both teams hired a new field boss away from another team. (Lou Piniella from Seattle and John Gruden from Oakland)

...Did I mention that they're both in Tampa Bay?

Stark sees it a little differently, I guess, but then that's kinda what we've come to exect. Stark compares the current D-Rays team to the Seattle Mariners in charge of which Lou Piniella was placed prior to the 1993 season. That team had been bad, this team is bad. Sweet Lou turned them around, so why can't he do the same with this club?

Well, a few reasons: first of all, the major league talent the 1993 Mariners had is an order of magnitude better than what I see on the Devil Rays' current roster. They had some established, productive players like Ken Griffey, Jay Buhner and Edgar Martinez on that roster, plus role-players like Dave Magadan, Rich Amaral and Pete O'Brien, Omar Vizquel (who managed to provide needed infield defense without totally sacrificing any offensive contributions) and some rising prospects like Tino Martinez and Bret Boone. The pitchers weren't bad either with Randy Johnson and a decent supporting cast (Erik Hanson, Dave Fleming, Chris Bosio, Jeff Nelson, Norm Charlton, Ted Power). While obviously much of this is retrospective name recognition, I expect that you will be hard-pressed to find such a familiar list of names from the 2003 D-Rays' roster ten years from now.

Stark quips, "Ten years ago, the Mariners were also a laughingstock of a franchise, playing in a lifeless domed stadium, barely drawing a million people, coming off a 98-loss season, looking back at one winning season in the history of the franchise."

Makes them sound pretty similar, right? Except that the one winning season the Mariners had came just two years before Piniella was handed the helm. Their pitching (and injuries to it) did them in in '92, dropping the team ERA from 4th to 10th in the 14-team AL, while run scoring remained about the same. But there was talent, and suffucient run support, to help turn the team back around. Some, like Stark, would argue that the early '90s Mariners had been heading the wrong direction, and that Piniella righted that ship, so he could right this one. The problem is that the analogy doesn't hold up. From '88 to '91 the mariners had won 68, 73, 77 and 83 games, a nice gradual increase, and an apparent indication that the team was already headed in the right direction, before the bump-in-the-road known as 1992 came along (64-98). Piniella just came along at the right time, and kept the team heading in the right direction. It took a while for everything to click, but by 1995, they were in the playoffs. They were hardly a laughingstock, just having an off year in '92.

These Devil Rays have no such track record. The last (their only) five years, they've lost 99, 93, 92, 100, and 106 games. If anything, the trend is downward, and there's no indication that they're plugging holes or making any concerted or intelligent effort to repent from the baseball sins that have created the trend. They've relied way too much on free agency, losing draft picks in the process. Not that they'd have done much with them anyway. The Devil Rays draft picks have largely not amounted to much, typically because of their insistence upon blowing their early-round picks on high school pitchers and toolsy outfielders. On the other hand (where I still have five fingers...) Seattle's picks in the late 80s an early 90s were quite productive, giving them stars and role players (Ken Griffey, Alex Rodriguez, Erik Hanson, Tino Martinez) as well as surplus talent they could afford to trade to fill holes (Mike Hampton, Shawn Estes, Bret Boone).

Piniella seems to recognize this disparity: "If you ask me what my rotation is, I don't know. I'll tell you Joe Kennedy will be in it. That's about it. And if I look at my bullpen, I can tell you Lance Carter is going to be out there. Outside of that, we've got to fill in the blanks."

Piniella's team has more blanks than a revolver in a spaghetti-Western.

Supposedly, the expectation is that this team will be ready to contend in about two or three years when:

1) They're finally rid of some of the cumbersome contracts that have albatrossed them for the last few years (Greg Vaughn, Ben Greive, etc.)

B) They're due for some nice chunk of the new revenue-sharing money.To the tune of like $20 million.

iii) Their Young Toolsters will be maturing into Actual Baseball Players. And...

IV) The Beatles reunite to tour with Karen Carpenter and Nirvana.

Why so harsh? I'll tell you:

1) and B) Sure they'll get more money, but other teams who make more dough than Tampa still can't win first prize in a Spell Your Own Name Contest. Payroll isn't everything. Just ask the Mets. Or the Dodgers. Or Baltimore.

iii) It takes more than Tools to make successful Baseball Players. It takes good coaching, good direction, baseball skill development. Just ask Ruben Rivera. Or Jose Guillen. Or Pat Watkins. Or Shawn Abner.

IV) The Tampa Bay Devil Rays will never contend for anything until there's a change of leadership or of leadership philosophy.

Give them more money? Won't matter, they'll find some other way to squander it.

Give them better draft picks? Won't matter, they'll use them on the wrong kinds of players.

Give them better players? Won't matter. They'll either misuse them, misguide them, or trade them for more toolsy prospects.

The problem with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays is not Greg Vaughn or Wilson Alvarez or Vinny Castilla or Roberto Hernandez or even Rey Ordonez and Travis Lee. The problem is in the front office. Chuck LaMar has all but run this team into the ground, with no real indication that he'll be turning things around any time soon. How a guy in charge of a baseball team can see what people like scouting director Cam Bonifay have done in Pittsburgh or what SS Rey Ordonez has done in NYC and still want them on his team is simply beyond me. And how such a person manages to retain his position, year-after-nine-years, has to be up there with Noah's Ark and Fabian's singing career on the list of The Great Mysteries of Human Civilization.

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