By Scott Garbarini, MLB Analyst (Sports Network)
2004 FINISH (70-91) - Fourth Place (NL West)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: RP - Casey Fossum; 3B - Alex Gonzalez; 1B - Travis Lee; SP - Hideo Nomo; DH - Josh Phelps; OF - Alex Sanchez
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: INF - Geoff Blum; OF - Jose Cruz Jr.; SP - John Halama; 1B - Tino Martinez; 2B - Rey Sanchez
PROJECTED LINEUP: Carl Crawford (LF); Julio Lugo (SS); Aubrey Huff (RF); Rocco Baldelli (CF); Travis Lee (1B); Josh Phelps (DH); Alex Gonzalez (3B); Jorge Cantu (2B); Toby Hall (C)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Dewon Brazelton (RHP); Mark Hendrickson (LHP); Scott Kazmir (LHP); Rob Bell (RHP); Hideo Nomo (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Danys Baez (RHP)
MANAGER: Lou Piniella
In 2004, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays reached a significant first in their brief and unsuccessful history, finally escaping from the basement of the American League East after producing a franchise-best 70 wins. Certainly finishing 21 games under .500 and more than 30 games out of first place isn't much to shout about, but last year’s performance may be a sign that the organization is finally headed in the right direction. The Rays do possess one of baseball's emerging stars in athletic outfielder Carl Crawford, one of its most underrated hitters in Aubrey Huff, and a farm system stocked with quality prospects who will soon be contributing to the big club. With last year's improvement and the team's growing collection of young talent, it appears Tampa Bay fans have much to look forward to in 2005.
However, the optimism that surrounded the Devil Rays prior to the spring has been tempered somewhat by a series of unexpected preseason events. The bad luck began when talented centerfielder Rocco Baldelli tore an ACL while playing baseball with his brother in October, an injury which will sideline him for at least the first two months of the regular season. Then a pair of projected starters, second baseman Roberto Alomar and rightfielder Danny Bautista, each announced their retirement during spring training. While Alomar’s departure wasn't entirely shocking or devastating, as the future Hall-of-Famer was in danger of being overtaken by youngster Jorge Cantu, Bautista is only 32 and was coming off a solid season with the Arizona Diamondbacks. His loss further weakens an outfield corps that was already thin due to Baldelli's injury and has sent general manager Chuck LaMar scrambling to find some extra bodies as the preseason comes to a close.
The Devil Rays still don't figure to be very good in 2005, as most of the major-league roster still consists of journeymen and castoffs, but it should offer a good luck towards the future. Fireballing lefthander Scott Kazmir, whom LaMar fleeced from the Mets for erratic Victor Zambrano last July, will enter the year in the rotation, while phenom B.J. Upton should take over at shortstop by midseason. Nineteen-year-old outfielder Delmon Young, the first overall pick of the 2003 draft, could make his big-league debut by year's end.
Tampa Bay has one of the AL's better offensive shortstops in Julio Lugo, who manager Lou Piniella terms the team's "heart and soul." Although his home run total dipped from 15 in 2003 to seven a year ago, Lugo drove in a career-high 75 runs and stole 21 bases. His defense is somewhat shaky, as he committed 25 errors, mostly on bad throws, and may be better suited to a shift to second, which will happen once Upton enters the fold. Upton proved his bat is major- league ready during a late-season audition, but the 20-year-old will start off in Triple-A Durham to work on his defense.
The Rays signed veterans Travis Lee and Alex Gonzalez to man first and third base, respectively. Lee spent the 2003 campaign with Tampa and put up respectable numbers (.275, 19 HR, 70 RBI), but missed virtually all of last season with a bad shoulder upon signing with the Yankees. He is an outstanding defensive first baseman who should greatly help out the young infielders. Gonzalez was once one of baseball's top shortstop prospects while with Toronto in the mid-90's, but has never hit consistently enough to justify that billing. He has pop, as evidenced by a 20-homer season with the Cubs two years ago, but strikes out a ton. Gonzalez should be fine defensively at third, but must improve last year's awful numbers (.225, 7 HR, 27 RBI) to keep his place in the lineup.
Second baseman Cantu burst onto the radar after bashing 22 home runs at Triple-A and batting .301 with 20 doubles in 50 games after being brought up in August. His defense is also a work in progress and he may be used in a utility role once Upton is ready or could shift to third if Gonzalez doesn't cut it offensively.
This is a crucial year for 29-year-old catcher Toby Hall, who has regressed at the plate since hitting nearly .300 as a rookie in 21 and whose game-calling has been questioned by Piniella. Hall has an outstanding throwing arm and is capable of more than his .255 average and eight home runs he produced last year.
Tampa has the makings of a pretty good outfield once Baldelli comes back, which likely won't be until June. He will again man center field with Crawford in left and Huff in right. The 23-year-old Baldelli doesn't walk much, but makes good contact and has hit .289 and .280 in his first two big-league seasons. A tremendous athlete and quality defender, Baldelli's power is emerging (he upped his home run total from 11 to 16 last year) and he stole 27 bases as a rookie, although his knee injury may hinder him from running as much.
There are no questions regarding Crawford's speed, as the 2004 All-Star has led the American League in steals the last two seasons, swiping 55 bags in 2003 and 59 last year. He made tremendous strides at the plate in 2004, posting career-bests in average (.296), homers (11) and runs scored (104) and should be one of the league's best leadoff hitters this season. Crawford will spell Baldelli in center to begin the year before moving back to his customary position in left, where his speed and athleticism make him a legitimate Gold Glove candidate.
The Rays traded rightfielder Jose Cruz Jr. to Arizona to make room for free- agent signee Bautista, but his chronic ankle problems led to his unexpected retirement. Now Huff, who the club wanted to use primarily as a designated hitter, will be the leftfielder to start the year and will likely settle in right when Baldelli returns. He won't make any highlight films in the outfield, but is better off there than at third base, where he had 12 errors in 86 games last year. Huff's bat will play anywhere. He just missed his third straight .300-plus season after hitting .297 in 2004, drove in over 100 runs for the second consecutive year and has smacked 63 homers over the last two seasons.
Speedy Alex Sanchez, who the D-Rays picked up in the spring after he was released by Detroit, will likely hold down right field to begin the year. The 28-year-old has plenty of ability as he batted a career-best .322 with the Tigers in an injury-shortened 2004 and finished second to Crawford with 52 steals the year prior. However, Sanchez has worn out his welcome with two organizations with his attitude and defensive lapses and will be on a short leash under Piniella's watch.
Young, the brother of Detroit outfielder Dmitri Young, is the Devil Rays' next future star. He hit .322 with 25 homers and 116 RBI in A-ball last season, but won't be rushed to the majors despite Tampa's outfield problems.
Tampa Bay's roster is filled with one-time prospects who haven't reached their promise, so free-agent Josh Phelps should fit right in with his new club. He belted 15 home runs in half a season as a rookie with Toronto in 2002, but his penchant for strikeouts and prolonged slumps has seen his status fade. Still, Phelps will turn just 27 in May and has the potential to hit 25 homers, which would give the lineup a power boost it badly needs.
Huff will be used as a DH when not playing the outfield, while reserve Eduardo Perez, who has made a nice living by bashing left-handed pitching, should also get some at-bats.
The Rays had only one pitcher, lefthander Mark Hendrickson, win 10 games last year, and this is an area that must improve if Tampa Bay is to make any progress in 2005. Former first-round pick Dewon Brazelton made good strides last season and will enter the year as the club's No. 1 starter. Brazelton, who finished 6-8 with a 4.77 ERA in 21 starts, was lights-out at Tropicana Field, where he went 6-3 with a 2.90 ERA, while twice taking a no-hitter into the late innings. However, he is 0-11 lifetime on the road and needs to exhibit better control of his pitches before being considered a top-flight hurler.
The 6'9 Hendrickson, who finished 10-15 with a 4.81 ERA in a team-best 30 starts, is a serviceable pitcher who has good command of average stuff.
Kazmir has the most potential of any pitcher in the Devil Rays’ short history. The smoke-throwing southpaw dominated the minors while in the Mets' system and showed flashes of brilliance in seven starts after Tampa brought him up in August, including a three-hit, nine-strikeout effort over six scoreless innings to beat the world champion Red Sox. Although he could use more polish, the Rays feel the 21-year-old has nothing more to prove in the minors and have slotted him as the number three man in the rotation.
Righthander Rob Bell did an admirable job for the Rays last season, winning a career-best eight games and flashing a respectable 4.46 ERA in 19 starts, He secured a starting spot with a strong spring. Bell can't be counted on past six innings, but has proven to be adequate.
Piniella would like to see former Dodger Hideo Nomo seize the rotation's final opening, which would provide a veteran presence to the club's young staff. The 36-year-old Nomo had a horrific season in LA last year, going 4-11 with an outrageous 8.25 ERA, and may be near the end of the line. Lefty Casey Fossum, acquired from Arizona for Cruz, and youngster Seth McClung, who is coming off Tommy John surgery, are candidates to take over if Nomo falters.
Tampa's starting rotation has plenty of question marks, but the bullpen is pretty solid and possibly the team's biggest strength. Danys Baez, picked up after the Indians non-tendered him following the 2003 season, was outstanding as the closer. The Cuban defector saved 30 games, including 18 straight during a midsummer stretch, and held opposing hitters to a .237 batting average. Lance Carter, who had 26 saves in 2003 but doesn't possess Baez's power arsenal, developed into a quality setup man, recording a solid 3.47 ERA in 80- plus innings. The righthander throws strikes and does a great job keeping hitters off balance.
Trever Miller (1-1, 3.12), cast off by Toronto prior to the 2004 campaign, emerged as one of the AL's better situational lefties and teams with fellow southpaw Bobby Seay to give Piniella two good options from that side. Jesus Colome, who can reach 100 miles per hour with his fastball, put together his best season in 2004 after finally showing the ability to control his blazing heater.
The Rays also return reliable middle reliever Travis Harper, who won six games and posted a solid 3.89 ERA, and would love to find a spot for Rule V draftee Angel Garcia, who would give the team another power arm out of the pen despite not having pitched above Single-A. Talented but inconsistent righty Jorge Sosa and Fossum are also in the mix for the final spots.
Sanchez won't be an everyday player once Baldelli makes his way back into the lineup, but he gives Piniella a proven fourth outfielder with game-changing speed. The club really missed Perez, who was lost for the year after tearing his Achilles after just 13 games. He is a quality hitter who can fill in at first base, as well as the outfield corners.
Backup catcher Kevin Cash is an excellent receiver, but owns a brutal .173 lifetime batting average. He replaces veteran Brook Fordyce, who the Rays chose not to re-sign.
Non-roster invitee Shane Halter, who can play all four infield positions, appears to have made the team as a utilityman. Baldelli's injury temporarily opens up a roster spot for an extra outfielder, with retreads Dee Brown and Chris Singleton the likely candidates.
Although the Devil Rays made some strides last year and have built one of baseball's best farm systems, this is still a bad team with a number of glaring holes right now. Offensively, Tampa Bay lacks power and strikes out way too much, which neutralizes the considerable speed the lineup possesses. The Rays also make too many errors in the field and lack dependable starting pitching. Yes, the future does offer some hope and Tampa may match last year's 70-win total, but the Rays will be lucky to crawl out of the AL East cellar for a second straight year.