By Doug DeBiase, MLB Analyst (Sports Network)
2003 FINISH (63-99) - Fifth Place (AL East)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: SP - Paul Abbott, RP - Danys Baez, 3B - Geoff Blum, SS - Deivi Cruz, OF - Jose Cruz Jr., 1B/OF - Robert Fick, C - Brook Fordyce, SP - Mark Hendrickson, RP - Todd Jones, 1B - Tino Martinez, RP - Trever Miller, OF - Eduardo Perez, INF - Rey Sanchez, RP - Mike Williams
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: 2B - Marlon Anderson, SP - Joe Kennedy, 2B/SS - Rey Ordonez
PROJECTED LINEUP: Carl Crawford (LF); Julio Lugo (SS); Rocco Baldelli (CF); Aubrey Huff (DH); Jose Cruz, Jr. (RF); Tino Martinez (1B); Geoff Blum (3B); Toby Hall (C); Rey Sanchez (2B)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Victor Zambrano (RHP); Jeremi Gonzalez (RHP); Mark Hendrickson (LHP); Doug Waechter (RHP); Damian Moss (LHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Danys Baez (RHP)
MANAGER: Lou Piniella
The Tampa Bay Devil Rays finished last in the American League East for the sixth straight season in 2003 -- meaning that they have never finished out of the basement in their entire existence. Despite finishing dead last in their division, the Devil Rays have genuine hope for this season and the future. It all starts at the top with manager Lou Piniella. In his first season as Tampa Bay's skipper, Piniella led the Rays to a 63-99 record and season-series wins over Baltimore and Toronto.
The young players that upper management boasted about for the last few years started to make impacts, including rookie center fielder Rocco Baldelli, who hovered around .350 for the first part of the season and challenged for AL Rookie of the Year honors. Aubrey Huff batted .311, hit 34 homers and drove in 107 runs, all despite not having a set position to play in the infield and outfield. Left fielder Carl Crawford made several highlight plays in the outfield and can cover a lot of ground with his speed. He also showed tremendous potential on the base paths by stealing an AL-high 55 bases.
Those young players, along with veteran acquisitions such as first baseman Tino Martinez, right fielder Jose Cruz Jr., closer Danys Baez and third baseman Geoff Blum give the fans and the organization something to get excited about. Piniella used last season to see how his team would respond to certain situations. Now, Piniella wants his young squad to use the lessons it learned from last season and try to build towards a .500 team in 2004.
The entire infield was overhauled in the offseason as several veterans were added to provide steady defense for a young pitching staff.
On the corners are newcomers Martinez at first base and Blum at third. Both have seen better days, but they are Piniella's kind of players as they show up to the ballpark everyday and never complain. Martinez, the owner of four World Series rings with the New York Yankees, went through a down season at the plate in 2003 by posting just 15 home runs and 69 RBI. His home runs were the lowest since 1991 and his RBI were the fewest since 1994. However, Martinez will be expected to hit between 20-to-22 homers this year for his former skipper in Seattle.
Blum, who is a switch-hitter, could be counted on to start most of the time at third base so youngster Damian Rolls can come off the bench and play several infield positions. Blum batted .274 and smacked 10 home runs last year.
If Rolls gets the nod, he'll try to improve on his offense numbers from last season when he hit .255 with seven homers and 46 RBI in 107 games. Rolls also has the ability to play other positions, including the outfield.
Up the middle will be last season's shortstop Julio Lugo, who will remain there for this season. Rey Sanchez, who was acquired as a free agent in the offseason, will move from shortstop to second base, a position he played regularly while with the Boston Red Sox in 2002.
After being released by Houston early last season, Lugo came to Tampa and finished with career-highs in home runs (15) and RBI (53). Lugo does not have a strong arm defensively, but the Devil Rays didn't want to move him to second base, as previously thought.
The 36-year-old Sanchez spent the last half of 2003 with Seattle after being traded from the New York Mets. The change of scenery proved to be beneficial to Sanchez, who hit safely in 34 of 44 starts for the Mariners. The limited power that was in Sanchez's bat is gone, but he can still range far into the hole and take away base hits.
Behind the plate this season again will be Toby Hall. Last year, Hall batted .253 with 12 homers and 47 RBI -- not exactly the power numbers that the Devil Rays are looking for from their catcher. Hall, who appeared in a career-high 130 games last season, has failed to make adjustments at the plate and has seen his average dip every year since he batted .298 in the last half of the 2001 season. But his adjustments defensively have opened the eyes of the organization. He led the majors by throwing out the highest percentage (41.3) of base stealers last season.
The future success of the Devil Rays lies in the outfield with a wealth of young talent. Baldelli exploded onto the scene in 2003 and hovered around .350 for the first few months before the long haul of a major league season caught up with him and wore him down. The 22-year-old batted .289 with 11 home runs and 78 RBI. Baldelli, who finished third in AL Rookie of the Year voting, led all AL rookies in batting average, stolen bases (27), hits (184), multi-hit games (53) and triples (8). He has tremendous speed, as he has been timed at 3.84 seconds getting from the right side of home plate to first base. Baldelli can also use that speed in center field to cover lots of ground and track down fly balls.
Crawford, who is also 22, has all the makings that Piniella wants in a leadoff hitter, but impatience at the plate last season angered the manager at times. Crawford hit .281 last season in the leadoff spot, but drew just 26 walks while striking out 102 times. When Crawford did get on base, he had 55 steals and was thrown out just 10 times.
The two youngsters in Baldelli and Crawford will be able to learn a lot from free agent Cruz Jr. In the past four seasons, Cruz has averaged 26 homers and 76 RBI. Last season in San Francisco, he smacked 20 home runs and collected 68 RBI while finishing second in the National League with 18 assists. Cruz won a Gold Glove for his play in right field last season with the Giants and will help to organize and set up the outfield in certain game situations. The Devil Rays are hoping that hitting coach Lee Elia can mold Cruz back into a 30-home run hitter, as he was with Toronto in 2000-01.
One person that will not see a lot of time in the outfield, but still a lot of time at the plate is Huff. He played in his first full season at the major league level in 2003 despite not having a set position everyday. Huff still banged out a franchise-high in RBI. He should be able to put up even better numbers this season after having a full year to tune his skills. Plus, knowing what position he will be in coming to the park everyday will rest him mentally and physically.
The starting five is still a patchwork bunch. Several pitchers shuffled in and out of the lineup last season, as Victor Zambrano and Jeremi Gonzalez emerged basically by default as the club's two best starters. Despite that fact, Piniella feels there are several young arms in the minors that could help fill the positions this season.
Zambrano recorded a respectable 12-10 mark on a team that had trouble producing runs last season. He had an impressive June when he won four games and posted a 2.36 ERA. But he struggled after that and mixed good outings with bad ones. Piniella believes that Zambrano has the best stuff on the team, but the worst command. He ranked fifth in the AL in opponents batting average (.237), but led the league with 106 walks. Zambrano's fast ball tops out in the low 90s and that will keep him at the top of rotation this season due to a lack of power arms on the roster.
Gonzalez was signed to a minor league deal before last season and wasn't given much consideration to make the team. But a midseason call-up gave him the chance to pitch in the majors again after injuries ruined his career with the Chicago Cubs. The righthander made the most of the opportunity by making 25 starts and yielding a team-low 3.91 ERA among starters.
Another young pitcher that will compete for the No. 3 spot in the rotation is Mark Hendrickson. The 6'9" lefty was obtained in a trade with Toronto during the offseason and should eat up innings. As a rookie last season with the Blue Jays, Hendrickson made the most starts (30) since Phil Huffman started 31 for the club in 1978. Hendrickson finished second among AL rookies in wins (9) and innings pitched (158 1/3).
The other two remaining spots will be up for grabs among Doug Waechter, Damian Moss, Paul Abbott, John Halama, Dewon Brazelton and Rob Bell. Waechter made an immediate impact last season by tossing a two-hitter in his first major league start last September. However, he struggled with control the rest of the way, but the organization is still high on giving him a shot to win a starting job this spring. Brazelton, a former No. 1 pick, got knocked around after being rushed into a starting role last season. He did respond in fall ball, though, by posting a 5-0 record and a 2.77 ERA.
Several hurlers -- young and old -- started the spring vying for the closer's role, but now it seems the job will go to Danys Baez to start the season. The Devil Rays made it a point to sign him away from Cleveland in the offseason. Baez made 25 saves last season, but also blew another 10 opportunities, which tied for tops in the majors.
By signing Baez, Tampa Bay was able to move Lance Carter back to his preferred setup role. Carter, the team's lone All-Star representative in 2003, nailed down 26 of 33 save opportunities last season. Despite the strong performance, Carter struggled with control at times, which led to a 4.33 ERA. Carter doesn't have an overpowering arm and averaged just 5.35 strikeouts per nine innings in 2003. But that doesn't bother Carter as he prefers to use change-ups to keep the hitters guessing.
Travis Harper led the Devil Ray relievers with 93 innings pitched and recorded a team-best ERA (3.77) among hurlers with at least 50 innings of work. Harper is more suited for long relief, due to the fact that he can eat up a lot of innings to save other relievers from having to pitch.
Jesus Colome led the Devil Rays with 8.39 strikeouts per nine innings last season. He worked on his control last season and lowered his walk total per nine innings.
Veteran setup man Halama was brought in from Oakland in the winter. He will likely be the team's left-handed setup man and should help tutor the young arms on the team.
Jorge Sosa, a converted outfielder, is still learning on the job, but did display some brilliance when he shutout Seattle, 1-0, last September. Sosa was also competing for a starting job, but will likely be in the bullpen along with veteran Mike Williams and lefthander Trever Miller.
The Rays can't afford for any one of their starters to go down with an injury for a long period of time. The bench will be thin and full of young players, but they will be able to play a variety of positions. Rolls, who started at third base for much of the last half of 2003, can be expected to play several infield positions if needed. He also has some power in his bat and can come in to pinch hit when the game is on the line. Deivi Cruz came over from Baltimore in the offseason and will provide depth on the bench. Cruz got off to a slow start last season, but turned it on in May, hitting .270 with 12 home runs and 54 RBI. Other players on the bench will include Robert Fick, Antonio Perez, Eduardo Perez and catcher Brook Fordyce.
The Devil Rays gave their small fan base a reason for hope when they expanded their payroll this offseason. But that hope is tempered with the fact that the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox are in the same division and shelled out more cash -- nearly $100 million more -- during the winter.
After six years of poor play and bad player investments, Tampa Bay finally seems to have a plan to build towards the future. The young players are finally starting to prosper and should be aided by the tutelage of veterans such as Martinez and Cruz Jr.
The Devil Rays improved by eight wins last season with a squad full of young players, who are more experienced this season. The addition of the veterans will help on the field, but more importantly off the field, as they show the youngsters what it takes to win. However, getting out of the basement of the AL East will be a tough task.