Wednesday, July 19, 2006

1998 Expansion Pt. 2

Tampa Bay Devil Rays
The Tampa Bay Devil Rays have set new standards for mismanagement and incompetence in the game of baseball. You have to go back to pre-World War II (the Browns, the Phillies, etc.)to find franchises that were mismanaged so spectacularly for so long. It's more shameful that this mismanagement took place in the modern era; it took place in the most competitive environment in baseball history. So, to put it another way, the Devil Rays failed miserably in the era in baseball history in which it was the hardest to be a miserable failure. While most teams are able to bounce back from ineptitude, not so the Devil Rays. The sad part is that because the D-Rays have no history or established fanbase (unlike the Pirates or Royals, for example), no one really cares.
Most of the blame for the franchise's incompetence can be laid at the feet of two men: former owner Vince Naimoli and former GM Chuck LaMar. Both men held their position from the franchise's inception through the 2005 season, after which Naimoli was forced out as owner and LaMar was subsequently fired. Despite the presence of new ownership and a seemingly competent new GM (Andrew Friedman), it's a huge uphill climb for the franchise, out of the gutters of history and towards respectability in perhaps the toughest division in the game.
Naimoli was the man behind the group that finally brought big-league baseball to the Tampa-St. Petersburg area. The area had served as the "other woman" for disgruntled franchises for years; any team threatening to leave town would cite Tampa as its possible destination, with several teams even going a long way towards consummating the deal. But it would always turn out to be so much lip service, as teams such as the White Sox, Mariners, A's and Giants all ended up back where they started. Tampa Bay was stuck with nothing, until finally awarded a franchise in the AL as part of the 1998 expansion.
The franchise (not surprisingly) got off to a rough start. After hiring Florida pitching coach Larry Rotschild as manager, the Rays went on to make a surprisingly weak showing in the expansion draft. While the Diamondbacks were at least able to make off with some quality parts for their franchise, it was the D-Rays that ended up with the over-hyped, over-rated and under-achieving players (for the most part). Their first pick (the first pick in the expansion draft) was young Marlins pitcher Tony Saunders, who had just made a name for himself as part of the 1997 World Championship team. Saunders wasn't a bad pitching prospect, but he was far from being the most valuable player available in the draft. The team's next pick (4th overall) was Quinton McCracken, whose only talent was as a base stealer, and even then, not a very good one. (Through 2005, McCracken was a 276/337/375 career hitter in 954 games with just 87 stolen bases). The Rays ended up with many other underwhelming talents, such as Miguel Cairo, Esteban Yan, Mike DiFelice, Bubba Trammell, and Brian Boehringer. The Diamondbacks, meanwhile, were able to grab Brian Anderson, Jeff Suppan, Karim Garcia, Cory Lidle, Tony Batista, Omar Daal, David Dellucci, Damian Miller, Joe Randa, Russ Springer, and several others. It may be the best example of one team beating another at an expansion draft.
The Rays were able to nab two pretty valuable players in the draft. Their third pick (6th overall) was Astros prospect Bobby Abreu. The Astros failed to protect the 23-year-old multi-talented prospect, and the Rays wisely nabbed him. They then turned around and completed perhaps the worst trade in franchise history, sending Abreu to the Philadelphia Phillies for shortstop Kevin Stocker. The Rays' rationale was fairly simple: they needed a shortstop. This failed to explain why: a) they felt that their only way to solve that problem was to trade away a man who would eventually become one of the best all-around players in the game and b) they targeted perhaps the worst shortstop in baseball. It's unforgivable that the Rays would trade away Abreu; it's depressing that they would do it for so little in return. Stocker was a bad hitter and indifferent defender who hit 208/282/312 in the Rays' first season; Abreu was, through 2005, a career 303/411/512 hitter with 190 career homers, 241 career stolen bases, and a Gold Glove (undeserved though it was).
The Rays nearly matched that by trading away Dmitri Young, the second-best player they got in the draft. Young was a 24-year-old prospect coming off his first full season. He hit 310/364/481 as a member of the Reds and looked like a solid outfield prospect (which he was). The Rays took him in the draft . . . and then traded him right back to Cincinnati for utility outfielder Mike Kelly , who hit 240/295/401 in 279 ABs with the Rays in 1998 before getting released the following year. The Rays even traded away serviceable pitching prospect Jason Johnson to Baltimore for two players you never heard of.
The only player taken in the expansion draft who would contribute significantly to the Rays for any length of time was outfielder Randy Winn. Winn was a young outfield prospect in the Marlins system that the Rays took with the 58th overall draft pick. It took Winn a while to get established in the majors, but after hitting a dismal 273/339/401 with the club in 128 games in 2001, he broke out with a 298/360/461 performance in 2002. He would be the club's representative at that year's All-Star Game. But, with his arbitration salary rising and free agency looming, the club traded him to the Mariners for Antonio Perez and the "rights" to negotiate a contract with manager Lou Pineilla.
But the real splash the club made in the preseason was on the free agent market. Despite having no one on the team who could realistically support him in the lineup, the Rays bought Tampa native Fred McGriff from the Braves, primarily as a hometown gate attraction (the team's personnel moves would often be motivated by this dubious desire). They also signed washed-up third baseman Wade Boggs, also for gate appeal -- especially since Boggs was chasing down 3,000 career hits. The team's purely cosmetic moves included a series of uniforms known as the "rainbow uniforms," uniforms that looked less like baseball uniforms and more like mood rings.
Other than McGriff, only two other players on the team were making more than $2 million. They were both free agent pitchers: starter Wilson Alvarez and reliever Roberto Hernandez. The Rays paid Alvarez $9 million over his two years spent there, during which Alvarez posted above-average ERAs, despite averaging barely 150 innings per year. After 1999, Alvarez left the majors and didn't return to the team until 2002. For 2000 and 2001, the Rays paid Alvarez $9 million a year -- for 0 innings of work. He only got $8 million in 2002, when he posted a 5.28 ERA in 75 innings of work.
The other big-free agent was established closer Roberto Hernandez. Hernandez had gained fame as the White Sox closer on the team's 1993 AL West Champion team. On the verge of free agency, however, the White Sox traded him to the Giants at the 1997 trade deadline. Hernandez pitched well in both places, notching an ERA of 2.45 overall with 31 SV and 82 K in 80.2 IP. The club saw fit to reward him with a 5-year contract that paid him about $28 million. Hernandez pitched well for them -- posting above-average ERAs each year he played for them -- but they soon realized the folly of spending such a large chunk of your budget on a closer who doesn't have many games to actually close. They traded him to Kansas City after three years.
The inaugural Rays were a bad team -- 63-99, last in the AL East -- but not as bad as you may think. They did sport the AL's worst offense by far (3.83 runs/game, whereas every other AL team scored more than 4.4 R/G) but they had a surprisingly potent pitching staff. Their team ERA of 4.35 was 4th-best in the league, and their .699 defensive efficiency (measure of team defense) was 3rd in the league. This resulted in 751 runs allowed; only the Yankees and Red Sox allowed fewer.
It wasn't just a surprise that an expansion team had fielded such a good pitching staff (probably the best ever for a first-year expansion team), it was a surprise that the Devil Rays did it with an otherwise unimpressive group of hurlers. The team's best starter was Rolando Arrojo, a 30-year-old signed out of Cuba in 1997. Arrojo's 14-12 W-L record reflected poor run support; his 3.56 ERA and 65:152 BB:K ratio in 202 IP reflected a good pitcher. Not only did the Rays get Saunders' one good season (4.12 ERA) and above-average work from Alvarez, they got surprisingly adequate work out of a group of no-names filling out the back of the rotation and managed to cobble together a genuinely good bullpen. Behind Hernandez were useful pitchers such as Jim Mecir (3.11), Albie Lopez (2.60), Esteban Yan (3.86) and Rick White (3.80). So while the offense was (other than McGriff) an abject failure, there were signs that maybe this wasn't going to be such a bad team after all.
The team carried that vague sense of optimism into 1999, signing free agents Jose Canseco and Bobby Witt. The Canseco signing was a success (279/369/563), but Witt was a dud (5.84 ERA in 15 starts), and the rest of the pitching staff regressed. Arrojo and Saunders proved to be one-year wonders, and no one on the pitching staff was able to replace them. The team allowed 5.64 R/G in 1999, second-worst in the league. Their 4.77 runs scored/game was a slight improvement, but only enough to move the team up to a 69-93 finish (still in last). On the plus side, Boggs got hit #3000 on August 7, then retired after the season.
The real "story" of the 1999 season, though, was Jim Morris. Morris' life was seemingly written by Hollywood screenwriters, and indeed, it would eventually be adapted into a Disney film called The Rookie, starring Dennis Quaid. Morris was a 35-year-old high school baseball coach who bet his team that if they won the big game, he would try out for the majors. They did, and he did, but the surprising thing was that he actually made the team. Granted, it was the Devil Rays, but Morris' stuff was indeed deemed major-league ready, and he even managed to strike out the first batter he saw. He ended the year with a 5.79 ERA in just 4.2 innings of work which, while not good, at least proved that he was at least able to survive in the majors. After throwing 10.1 good innings in 2000, Morris left the majors. It was a great story for the team, which needed some sort of good news with a roster that showed no life.
Having not enjoyed great success in the amateur draft, LaMar and Naimoli did what every other desperate front office does -- they signed a big free agent. They convinced themselves that what the team needed was an impact bat, so they signed free agent Greg Vaughn and traded for third baseman Vinny Castilla. Vaughn hit well (254/365/499), but he alone wasn't enough to salvage the lineup, of course, whereas Castilla was a terrible failure -- his OBP orbited an abysmal .250 in one and a half seasons with the team before mercifully being traded to Houston.
The pitching staff was atrocious once again, with only some uncharacteristically good pitching from Albie Lopez and Bryan Rekar keeping the team from utter disaster. Steve Trachsel, another free agent signed before the season, got off to a decent start -- so the Rays traded him to Toronto for the immortal Brent Abernathy.
LaMar seemed inept at handling a ballclub, and Naimoli was displaying a complete disregard for his team's fortunes (both on the field and on the books), even when compared to other MLB owners. While Naimoli was, in the early years at least, willing to spend some money on free agents, it was almost never spent wisely; and when it was, it was just a drop in the bucket when it came to reversing the tide of awfulness.
When it comes to blaming managers versus blaming the front office, the simple question is: who has the power to fire whom? So naturally skipper Larry Rotschild was canned after the 69-92 2000 season. He was replaced by former Royals skipper Hal McRae. There were even some allegations of financial misconduct made against Naimoli by some of the other stockholders; Naimoli dismissed the allegations, but he was replaced as team CEO.
With the 2001 version of the team treading water, management looked to get rid of its big contracts. After releasing the terrible Castilla, the team set its sights on McGriff and Vaughn. McGriff was dispatched to the Cubs in July for a pittance -- Manny Aybar and Jason Smith -- that was clearly meant to disguise the good ol' "salary dump." Vaughn proved much harder to trade, as his contributions at the plate didn't come close to matching his $8 million+ salary. With his performance plummeting, the club finally just released him in the spring of 2003. DH Canseco went off to the Yankees via a waiver-wire deal in August.
The worst deal of all, though, was the 3-team deal that saw closer Hernandez go to Kansas City. As part of the deal, the Royals got Hernandez from T.B. as well as Angel Berroa and A.J. Hinch from Oakland. Oakland got Cory Lidle from the Rays as well as Johnny Damon and Mark Ellis from K.C. All the Rays got was former Rookie of the Year Ben Grieve, who stopped hitting as soon as he set foot on Tropicana Field. This is why teams stopped joining in on 3-team deals with Billy Beane.
With the roster now manned entirely by cheap no-names, the Rays suffered their first 100-loss season, an even 62-100. The club reached its lowest point in 2002, when the no-names fizzled to a 55-106 record. After the season, the volatile McRae got the boot, replaced by Seattle manager Lou Pineilla. Pineilla's reputation as a great manager finally brought some optimism to the area, although many wondered how the equally volatile skipper would handle a young, losing team with a miniscule payroll.
As far as the aforementioned "young talent" goes, the Rays were finally seeing some of it reach the majors, the result of several years of high draft picks. In 2002, future star Carl Crawford took over the everyday left fielder's job. Although he only hit 259/290/371, Crawford would have a breakout year in 2004, hitting 296/331/450. Crawford's diverse list of talents coupled with his high batting averages covered the fact that he was a corner outfielder who most certainly wasn't hitting like one (289/320/421 career hitter), base-stealing aside. The Rays recently signed him to a long-term contract extension, not a good sign of things to come, especially when the franchise has so many younger, cheaper options in the minors.
Also popping up in 2002 was Aubrey Huff. Huff's defensive liabilities meant he would spend most of his Tampa Bay career as a DH, but Huff was (and still is, so far at least) the best hitter developed by the team. Huff went on a 3-year tear from 2002-2004 of hitting about .300, posting an OBP of about .360, and averaging nearly 30 HRs a year. But after a big slump in 2005 (261/321/428) and a slow start to 2006, the club traded the soon-to-be free agent to Houston for some prospects.
After the disappointing 2002, ownership again made the manager the scapegoat, and McRae was gone. This time, though, the front office had big plans for his replacement. Lou Pineilla had expressed frustration with his situation in Seattle, intimating that he would like to move back east, closer to his home. It was first thought that he would be heading to the Mets, but it turned out that the Devil Rays, very close to Pineilla's Florida home, landed the star skipper. It was hoped that the combination of Pineilla and the young blood coming up from the minors would be enough to get the team out of last place.
2003 was a success only in the W-L sense. The team went 63-99, a slight improvement over 2002 that at least avoided another 100-loss season. More good news emerged from the farm system in the persona of center fielder Rocco Baldelli. Despite the fact that Baldelli, now 24, has only played 2 full seasons (for a 285/326/425 career hitting line) the combination of his "scrappiness" and versatility made him seem like a superstar in Tampa Bay. The club committed itself to Baldelli, even though the native Rhode Islander missed all of 2005 and part of 2006 due to injuries.
The other key acquisition for the lineup was shortstop Julio Lugo, obtained from the Astros after allegations of spousal abuse in Houston. Whatever Lugo's legal status, he proved a good enough hitter for his position (276/340/400 career), stealing a few bases along the way and providing fine defense at short. Lugo is perhaps the most underrated shortstop in the game, as his $3.25 million 2005 salary might suggest. Lugo will likely be traded away as he approaches free agency and the Rays try to turn prospect B.J. Upton into a shortstop (more on that later).
On the pitching side of the equation, the Rays were basically awful; the only solid contributions they got were from hurlers like Victor Zambrano, Tanyon Sturtze, Jeremi Gonzalez and Joe Kennedy; poor pitchers who happened to have one or two good seasons with the team. The bullpen, while not really awful, was usually a work in progress with players quickly revolving in and out.
In 2004, the team decided to look for some modest free agents to supplement the team. Some of them turned out well (Tino Martinez, 262/362/461; Jose Cruz, Jr., 242/333/433). They even signed free agent closer Danys Baez to a contract. Baez would give the team a decent enough closer, until being traded to Los Angeles prior to the 2006 season. Other than Baez, however, the pitching staff was the same group of non-contributors; the team's 5.23 runs allowed/game was better than only Cleveland and Kansas City. However, the Rays got some good luck and some unexpected contributions that resulted in a 70-91 record, a franchise-best. They also managed another first: 2004 was the first season in which the D-Rays did not finish last. They finished 4th, 3 games ahead of Toronto.
Modest success though it was, the team expected to take another step forward in 2005, especially with top minor league prospects such as B.J. Upton and Delmon Young getting closer and closer to the majors. Instead, the team tumbled back into last place, at 67-95. The lineup was an all-around disappointment, with Lugo, Crawford, and rookie Jonny Gomes (282/372/534) the only major contributors. There was also the ascension of talented second baseman Jorge Cantu (286/311/497), but Cantu's power (28 HR, 117 RBI) was countered by his woeful plate discipline (19:83 BB:K ratio).
Conspicuous by his absence was top prospect B.J. Upton. Upton was massacring AAA pitchers, and although he was barely 21 years old, he was clearly ready for the majors. The problem was that Upton was, nominally a shortstop. But Upton's defense at the position was beyond dreadful. Instead of simply shifting him to a different position and getting his potent bat in the lineup, the Rays insisted (despite all the evidence to the contrary) that Upton could become a shortstop, even hiring Ozzie Smith to work with him on his defense. Upton's poor defense early in 2006 just bears out the notion that he is not a major league shortstop. If the Rays hadn't painted themselves into a corner by signing the vastly inferior Crawford and Baldelli to long-term contracts, they could simply shift Upton to the outfield and be done with it. Suspicions rose when the team chose not to bring Upton to the majors as part of their September call-ups. This despite the fact that he was the best major-league ready prospect they had. Upton accused the team of keeping him in the minor leagues to avoid starting the clock on his arbitration status. The team denied it, but the general consensus -- especially among those familiar with Vince Naimoli -- is that Upton was exactly right.
Strong though the minors were in hitting prospects, there was little help on the horizon for the pitching staff. The Rays helped themselves by pulling off the best trade in franchise history. As the 2004 trade deadline approached, the New York Mets were on the fringes of the playoff race. Instead of accepting the fact that they weren't October material, the Mets made several awful trades that lost them valuable prospects and did nothing for them in 2004. The worst of which was the trade that sent New York's top pitching prospect, Scott Kazmir, to Tampa Bay in exchange for Victor Zambrano. It was a stupid trade to end all stupid trades. Not only was Kazmir a brilliant young pitcher, Zambrano was a decidedly un-brilliant 29-year-old coming off back-to-back seasons of allowing more than 100 walks. True to form, Zambrano was a failure in New York, while Kazmir took over as the ace of the Tampa Bay staff (although it's not like anyone else was challenging him for that title).
Kazmir struggled in his brief 2004 stint with the team, but broke out in 2005 with a fine season: 3.77 ERA, 186 IP, and 174 K against just 12 HR allowed. The only troubling aspect was his 100 walks allowed. But so far in 2006, Kazmir has not only matched his 2005 quality, he has done so with a sharply reduced walk rate.
It was becoming clear that in spite of the promising players in the farm system, the front office was not able to put together a winner and wasn't even able to fully exploit the talent they had. Owner Ebenezer Naimoli in particular was more interested in saving as much money as possible, quality be damned. Pineilla made it clear that he was on his way out, and 2005 would prove to be his last season with the club.
But those weren't the only changes on the horizon. Pressures against owner Naimoli had been growing for years, especially since he refused to fire the obviously unqualified Chuck LaMar from his GM post. The overthrow was finally completed in the 2005 offseason, with Stuart Sternberg replacing Naimoli as managing partner of the team. Sternberg, showing a keen grasp of what was wrong with the team, fired GM LaMar and hired young Andrew Friedman as his replacement. Not only that, but Sternberg hired former Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker to act as a sort of co-GM/advisor to Friedman. He sought to combine Friedman's youthful spirit and business acumen with the veteran Hunsicker's baseball sense. Whatever the result of this arrangement will be, it's a far cry better than the Naimoli/LaMar duo.
Friedman said all of the right things upon his hiring; without specifically insulting LaMar or Naimoli, he spoke of the shameful past the team had suffered through and a desire to perform more than a cursory overhaul of the team. He also announced that parking at Tropicana Field would be free the following season and even looked into the possibility of changing the team's name.
The Rays decided against a familiar name in their managerial search, hiring longtime Angels coach Joe Maddon to take the helm in 2006. Maddon was very well respected in the Angels organization and also showed an open mind when it came to solving the team's big problems.
The Rays have several quality young players in the majors, and several more on the way in the minors. But the front office has a terrifically difficult job ahead of them, especially when it comes to building a competitive pitching staff behind Kazmir. Hopefully they will resist the temptation to look for a quick fix and keep good on their promise to solidify the franchise from the ground up. It won't be an easy job, but luckily for them, expectations are low. If they could manage a winning season, or simply a season with less than 90 losses, it would be a pretty significant accomplishment. The bar has been set so low that Sternberg, Friedman, and Hunsicker can only improve upon the team's horrific past.

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