All right. Are you ready for this? As the All-Star break approaches, the Tampa Bay Rays have the best record in baseball. That’s right. At 49-32, they’re a half-game ahead of Boston, the Cubs, and Anaheim. Whoa. Is this one of the signs of the apocalypse?
Perhaps, now that the “Devil” is gone from their team name, Someone Upstairs is shining down on them. More likely, however, the Rays have assembled a team from the old-fashioned formula of strong pitching and defense, and a roster that mixes savvy vets with promising youngsters. They’ve acquired these guys through smart drafting and trading, and a shrewd analysis of the free-agent market, not to mention just a smidge of luck and plenty of hard work and hard-nosed baseball.
They have some of the best young arms in baseball, including Scott Kazmir, part of The Trade in 2004 that sent him (and Joselo Diaz, currently stinking up the joint in the PCL) to the Mets in exchange for Victor Zambrano (No Longer In Professional Baseball) (NLIPB) and Bartholome Fortunato. James Shields was drafted in 2000, and Andy Sonnanstine in 2004. They traded for Matt Garza—ridding themselves of troublemaker (and extra outfielder) Delwyn Young—and Edwin Jackson, giving up Danys Baez and Lance Carter (both NLIPB). That’s some good swapping and drafting right there, and that’s their current rotation.
In the pen, they have veteran closer Troy Percival, out of baseball for a year before they took a chance and signed him to a two-year deal worth $8M. He’s responded with 19 saves in 21 opportunities, seventh in the AL in spite of a brief DL stint. They traded infielder Ty Wigginton for setup man Dan Wheeler (1.93/.938 ERA/WHIP), spare outfielder Joey Gathright and minor-league infielder Fernando Cortez to Kansas City for J.P. Howell, currently leading the AL relievers in IPs and Ks. They signed lefty specialist Trever Miller (making $1.6M and giving 3.92/1.36 back) and righty Gary Glover ($1.075M, 3.34/1.52). More smart trading and signing.
Probably the only guy they miss out of that bunch is 2B/3B Ty Wigginton, who’s doing well for himself with the Astros. Problem was, he didn’t have a spot on the Rays. They’d signed Japanese star Akinori Iwamura, who’s producing at the top of their lineup to the tune of .276/.346/.375, a line flattened by a .210/.300/.257 start in March and April, with 46 R and 23 RBI. Aki moved from third to second this season to make room for superstar callup Evan Longoria, currently mashing the ball at a .270/.342/.579 clip (.309/.379/.609 in June), with 41 R and 47 RBI, while playing Gold Glove defense.
They brought Carlos Pena back for a thrifty $6M and, while he hasn’t matched his phenomenal .282/.411/.627 2007, he’s done adequately, his .227/.332/.423 line dragged down by nagging injuries. Trade acquisition Dionier Navarro at catcher has been fantastic, hitting .317/.368/.444 while calling the game for the Rays’ pitching staff. And their shortstop Jason Bartlett—part of the Garza trade—is probably the only offensive disappointment, but very strong on defense.
But the heart of the Rays has always been their outfield. In spite of the loss of Gathright and Young, as well as Rocco Baldelli’s chronic injuries, they can still run farm products Carl Crawford (.278/.321/.410 with wheels and a great glove in center and B.J. Upton .286/.399/.415 at age 23 and one of the real five-tool prospects in the game) out there, along with trade pickup Gabe Gross, farm product Jonny Gomes, or free agent DH/1B/OF (and 2002 ROY) Eric Hinske. Hinske’s giving back his $800K salary with .267/.351/.533 numbers, while fellow DH Cliff Floyd, when he’s healthy, can put up .255/.345/.571 to go with a $2.75M one-year contract.
Both Hinske and Floyd can provide veteran leadership, too, no small trick, and Joe Maddon is simply working magic with this perfect mix of team chemistry. But the awesome deal-making and talent-spotting of the Rays organization is what has helped them accomplish this amazing feat. Unheralded hero Andrew Friedman—the Executive VP and former Director of Player Development, promoted after the timely firing of Chuck LaMar—works with Gerry Hunsicker, Senior VP of Baseball Operations and former Astros GM. This two-headed monster, along with team president Matthew Silverman have maintained a low profile while putting together one of the biggest surprises in baseball.
OK, so the Rays’ resurgence isn’t a sign of the apocalypse. But perhaps this is: the Seattle Mariners have won three in a row, won two of their last three series, and are now a mere half-game behind the Padres and last year’s NL World Series-representative Rockies for the worst record in baseball. The last shall be first, the first shall be last, and the Mariners may not suck as much as we thought they did.
Better crawl into those fallout shelters now.
Keywords: Akinori Iwamura, Anaheim Angels, Andrew Friedman, Andy Sonnanstine, B.J. Upton, Boston Red Sox, Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Chicago Cubs, Cliff Floyd, Colorado Rockies, Dan Wheeler, Dionier Navarro, Eric Hinske, Evan Longoria, Gabe Gross, Gary Glover, Gerry Hunsicker, J.P. Howell, James Shields, Joe Maddon, Matt Garza, Matthew Silverman, San Diego Padres, Scott Kazmir, Seattle Mariners, Tampa Bay Rays, Trever Miller, Troy Percival