Five Questions: Tampa Bay Devil Rays

As if it ever was, 2004 is not a good season to be a Tampa Bay Devil Rays fan. While the team has made a few additions to gradually improve themselves, they have some company in this division. New York and Boston rule the division, each having payrolls that more than quintuple the team we’ll see on Tropicana Field this year. Toronto has improved themselves, and Peter Angelos threw millions of dollars to improve the Orioles. While the Devil Rays can say they improved themselves, Jose Cruz just doesn’t compare with Alex Rodriguez, Curt Schilling, Miguel Tejada, or even Miguel Batista.

This organization has always been a little slow. While I’m shocked that Chuck LaMar still has a job, it’s possible Devil Ray ownership has forgotten about their club. And as for LaMar, he spends each off season ignoring the fact that his team gives up an insane amount of runs each year. No, Damian Moss and Mike Williams don’t count as improvements, and the Devil Rays must use their farm system to build a staff. The last time the team drafted a pitcher first was Dewon Brazelton, and that hasn’t gone so well.

Lucky for the Devil Rays, help is on the way. The team has had one of the top two selections in the last two drafts, signing amateur players B.J. Upton and Delmon Young to big bonuses. They have the fourth pick in the upcoming draft, and will likely use it on pitching. Tampa must be realistic about their goals: 2004 is not their year. Nor is 2005, 2006, or 2007. But looking down the road, the team is assembling the right group of players to finally put Tampa on the Major League Baseball map.

1) Historically, how are the Devil Rays in terms of other expansion teams?

In 1998, Major League baseball expanded to thirty Major League teams by adding the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays. While fans in Phoenix have been treated to a World Series championship, those unfortunate Tampa followers can’t buy a win. Frustration is quickly mounting in Tampa, I mean, they’ve already survived talk of contraction. But this expansion hopelessness is part of the process, and it’s the Diamondbacks, not the Devil Rays, that are the exception.

Currently, fourteen of the thirty Major League teams debuted after 1960. After six years, six of these organizations had a combined winning percentage under .400. Remember, this means that three-sevenths of the expansion teams averaged less than 64.8 wins a season in their first six years in the league. The fourteen ranked by win percentage:

TEAM             W%
Diamondbacks   .539
Rockies        .484
Royals         .478
Angels         .477
Marlins        .450
Expos          .440
Brewers        .428
Astros         .414
Mariners       .399
Devil Rays     .393
Rangers        .393
Blue Jays      .381
Padres         .368
Mets           .331

Believe it or not, there have been worse than the Devil Rays. The Padres and Mets futility has been well-documented, 66 wins is the most for either team in their first six seasons. Toronto and Texas both got off to disastrous starts only to see their fates improve gradually. The Astros’ number is deceiving — the team was between 64 and 72 wins their first seven Major League seasons.

So when did the sub-.400 teams get some winning? Toronto had a winning record the next year, and won the division in their ninth season. Seattle fans waited all the way until their 15th year, nine more years to get a winning team. The Rangers and Padres both had winning record within four years, and the Mets in their eighth season, not only reached .500, but also won the World Series. Devil Rays fans have a reason to hope, and should pray they don’t suffer Seattle’s fate.

2) Can the Devil Rays’ wild starter learn control?

Only twelve times in history has a pitcher walked over 100 men, hit over 20 batters, and thrown 15 or more wild pitches. While the event didn’t receive a lot of press last season, Victor Zambrano joined that illustrious group with his 2003 performance. The amazing thing about the Devil Ray is that he was the first to do it since 1900, the definition of a wild pitcher. In fact, Zambrano won the “wildness triple crown” in 2003, leading his league in each of the aforementioned categories.

While Zambrano gets into trouble walking way too many guys, he doesn’t allow a lot of hits. Of pitchers throwing more than 180 innings last year, Zambrano gave up the fifth least amount of hits. His H/9 was also good enough for fifth in the American League, which indicates very good stuff. But while walking 100 guys normally coincides with high strikeout totals, Zambrano’s K/9 was only 6.31.

In the last sixty years, only seven pitchers have come close to Zambrano’s walk and hitting totals and his strikeout and hit rates while in Victor’s age bracket: Tony Cloninger (1969), Jose DeJesus (1991), Walt Masterson (1948), Allie Reynolds (1943), Don Schwall (1962), Earl Wilson (1962), and Bobby Witt (1992). The best comparison is Earl Wilson, who had a very similar line to Zambrano’s a year ago:

                   W    L     ERA   ERA+     IP     H     SO     BB
Zambrano 2003     12   10    4.21   108   188.1   165    132    106
Wilson 1962       12    8    3.90   106   191.1   163    137    111

Eerily similar season, and it happened at the same age as well. This comparison bodes very well for Zambrano, as Wilson had 40 wins in 1966 and 1967 combined. Another good comparison who just missed the above list is Russ Ortiz, who had similar troubles as a 25-year-old in San Francisco. Ortiz, while receiving fantastic run support, has won 88 games in his six-year career, including topping the 20-win mark in 2003.

Although it’s possible Victor Zambrano becomes the next Jose DeJesus, his better comparisons are Earl Wilson and Russ Ortiz, which should look very appealing to Devil Ray brass.

3) Will Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli give the scouts a win over the sabermetricians?

Someone forgot to tell Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli that you have to walk before you run. See, Baldelli and Crawford have started their young careers out with contact and speed, not utilizing the base on balls option that stands before them. It is this that holds Crawford from becoming a great leadoff hitter, and what makes the DiMaggio-Baldelli comparisons silly.

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Both Crawford and Baldelli were blessed with amazing God-given speed. Lou Pineilla used this well last year, getting more than eighty stolen bases between the two combined. But Lou should have first been preaching the means to get on base, the walk. Crawford is one of only seven active players to have more stolen bases than walks, but his ratio is by far the most dramatic. Baldelli had only three more walks last season, and is destined to join this group should he not improve his ways. Do these guys not realize they could steal more bases if they walked more?

A significant problem for both Crawford and Baldelli is how batting average dependent they are. Baldelli’s 184 hits is the fifth most for any player under 25 with an OBP under .330. Crawford’s 177 ranks third on a similar list but the OBP cutoff being .310. This represents a group of players that struggle to walk, but have the ability to make consistent contact.

Rocco did something very unique last year on his quest to achieve an OPS under .750. Baldelli showed both average (.289) and power (51 XBH), but lacked the walks and home runs necessary for a high OPS. Yes, he’s the Moneyball anti-Christ. Only two other hitters accomplished Baldelli, and funny enough, one is Terrence Long. The other, Roberto Kelly, works as a very good Baldelli comparison. Kelly teased scouts for years, but proved a .290 career batting average is only good on the surface. Baldelli should follow a similar path, staying at the same level or even gradually improving before taking a hard dive later in his career.

For the Devil Rays to be expecting a lot from these players is wrong, a prolonged slump would leave them with a disastrously bad season. But lucky for LaMar, there is offensive help on the way in Tampa…

4) Who and what does B.J. Upton profile to be?

Pardon the Devil Rays if they are a little skeptical, this is the organization that had high hopes for Josh Hamilton. They are pouring millions of dollars into Upton’s bat, and his success is key to this organization. In Aubrey Huff, Delmon Young and Upton, the Devil Rays have three potential superstars for the future.

Yes, Upton’s defense is scary. 56 errors at any level is unacceptable, but Upton’s defensive tools are thought of highly. He could turn into the next Derek Jeter on defense, which is not exactly a compliment (I’m sorry McCarver).

But it’s on offense where Upton shines. In the last 25 years, twenty shortstops have had seasons with on-base percentages over .375. Of this group, twelve were in the minor leagues during their age nineteen season, which Upton had last year. B.J. would rank third on this list of extra-base hits, coming in right after Alex Rodriguez and Jay Bell. Upton is fourth in stolen bases behind Rafael Furcal, Jose Offerman, and Julio Franco.

Due to Upton’s power/speed combination, I’m inclined to compare him to the last name, Julio Franco. At age nineteen, Franco spent the year hitting .321 in the Carolina League, mixing in 42 extra-base hits and 44 steals. The super prospect has had a long career, but has left the prophecies of his youth unfulfilled. Franco did go as far to win a batting title, and improve the plate discipline that had plagued him in his minor league days.

One fundamental difference between Franco and Upton’s age 19 season was plate discipline, as Upton walked forty more times than Julio. In fact, the only name on the top 20 list that tops him is Jeff Blauser, who saw his plate discipline drop a bit in the Major Leagues. It will be Upton’s ability to either improve upon his discipline like Franco and Derek Jeter have, or instead suffer the Blauser consequence.

Anyways, B.J. Upton is a big-time prospect. There is no one player that compares well, he’s a more powerful Jeter, a quicker Trammell, or a smarter Franco. But you put those three together, and you have a franchise player.

5) Can Tino Martinez bring anything to the field this year?

Tino brings leadership that we need… We had good leadership last season, but your leaders need to be on the field.”
– Chuck Lamar, Devil Rays GM

It was all too predictable. Who could acquire Tino Martinez without mentioning leadership? Unfortunately for the Devil Rays, leading by example is the best form of leadership, and Tino just can’t hack it anymore. So the real question here is, who would try to acquire Tino Martinez?

No other position in baseball draws the offensive expectations that first base does. This player should be a key run producer, a sole power source. Martinez has done a wonderful job of masking his offensive skills, leading GMs to believe he’s a viable option at first. Tino Martinez has six 100 RBI seasons in his career, which makes subpar GMs (i.e. Chuck Lamar) drool. Tino is seen as a run producer, but instead is the product of good teams. His teams have been over .500 every year since 1994, more a testament to his ex-teammates than to Tino.

Despite the RBIs, Martinez is a terrible offensive first basemen. In the last 25 years, only five first basemen have five or more sub-.800 OPS seasons. As you might expect, Tino Martinez is on this list. Oh, but he’s a winner, right? By using Win Shares, a Bill James statistic quantifying a players contributions, Tino falls quite short. Last season 11 Win Shares, the fourth-worst total of MLB 1B regulars, contributing only 3.6 wins to an 85-win team. By comparison, Travis Lee had thirteen Win Shares.

Furthermore, Martinez sports terrible splits of late. Martinez is very platoonable, hitting only .237/.302/.411 against southpaws in the last three years. Tampa has platoon options, but will Lou Piniella actually bench his veteran? Also, Martinez was awful hittting away from Busch Stadium since becoming a Cardinal, hitting .260/.333/.417 in 2003 and .236/.301/.388 in 2002 away from home. Will this trend continue, or will Tropicana produce Busch-like results?

Yes, I concede that Tino Martinez came cheap. Tino (with 93% of his salary paid) for a minor league reliever with no Major League experience? What Chuck LaMar has failed to realize is that players come cheap for a reason. It wasn’t Evan Rust that was particularly attractive to Walt Jocketty, it was losing Martinez. Some GMs can realize that veteran leadership doesn’t win games, runs do.

In Closing…

The Devil Rays are going to have a rough year. The infield of Martinez, Lugo, Rey Sanchez, and Geoff Blum should be the league’s worst, and the pitching staff has no depth. Tampa has to play too many games against AL East rivals to think about breaking the seventy win barrier. The team’s focus should turn to the minor leagues, and laying the proper foundation for a ninety-win team. Forget Lou Piniella’s guarantee the team won’t finish last, they’ll be in last by at least ten games.

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