Would you believe me if I told you that the Tampa Bay Devil Rays had the third highest team batting average in 2005 with a .274 average?
Or what I claimed their .425 slugging percentage was tenth best in the Majors, tied with the White Sox and ahead of Philadelphia, St. Louis, and the Angels?
What if I said their team on-base percentage, while low at .329, was just .001 lower than Billy Beane’s Oakland Athletics and significantly better than the World Champion White Sox?
For team with an eight-season mark of 518-775, good for a .401 winning percentage, these numbers are a bit hard to believe. These can’t be the same Tampa Bay Devil Rays that have never won more than 70 games in a season. Oh, but they are. And 2006 could be the year of the Devil Rays’ first winning season.
A quick trip to the Devil Rays’ official home page at DevilRays.com does little to inspire much hope in the few fans that consider themselves the Tampa faithful. The Web site proudly proclaims that this is a team under construction. The logo, the familiar if odd rainbow Devil Ray, seems doomed to extinction as the team recently announced plans to drop the Devil and maybe the Ray after 2006.
Meanwhile, the team’s tagline for the upcoming season is Rebuilding the Dream. I don’t know who’s original dream it was, but it certainly has been a nightmare so far. It seems that the new ownership groups wants to change all of that, and they have the pieces to do so.
The Devil Rays are in a somewhat similar position heading into 2006 as the Indians were at the start of 2005. After a strong second half that saw Tampa Bay end the season on a 39-34 run, the Devil Rays head into 2006 with the same lineup featuring a core of strong young players, a solid farm system, and some live, if untamed, arms in the bullpen.
In the outfield, the Rays have Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, who missed all of 2005 due to injuries, and some combination of Aubrey Huff, Jonny Gomes, and Joey Gathright. Gomes was one of the true surprises of 2005 hitting an astounding .282/.372/.534 with 21 home runs in 101 games. While Huff played below his usual All Star level, he finished with a strong second half, slugging nearly .100 points higher after the All Star break than before. This is a potent outfield.
Around the horn, the Devil Rays have Travis Lee or maybe Huff at first, star-in-the-waiting Jorge Cantu at second base, Julio Lugo, this off season’s most sought-after short stop, and Sean Burroughs or Nate Green at third. Cantu, at 23 in 2005, slugged .497 with 28 home runs and 117 RBIs. While his OBP of .311 is low, this power hitter could emerge as the game’s top offensive second baseman. As free agency nears, Lugo’s name will probably pop up in rumors throughout the season. But for now, he will open the season at short for the rebuilding Devil Rays.
Where the Devil Rays fall short is on the mound. Despite their impressive offense, the Devil Rays were 29th in team ERA with a 5.39 mark. Their staff allowed a Major League-leading 615 walks while giving up 194 home runs. But for these problems, the staff should improve in 2006.
Scott Kazmir, the team’s ace, just turned 22 and can deal. He had a 3.77 ERA last season while striking out 174 in 186 innings. His high walk total – he allowed 100 last year – should decrease as he refines his control. Mark Hendrickson, Casey Fossum, Seth McClung, and Doug Waechter all showed flashes of talent last year. If pitching coach Mike Butcher could harness the talent, he would have a decent staff.
Their bullpen is loaded with potential as well. Chad Orvella blew through the Minor Leagues, and after making the jump from AA to Tampa Bay, he could be closing for the Devil Rays this year. His Minor League K/9 IP was over 13. Reports out of training camp say that Shinji Mori has a filthy slider. After years of success in Japan, he may be a key setup man in the Tampa bullpen.
Meanwhile, the Devil Rays with a Major League roster age of just 27, have a Minor League system stocked with even younger (and in some cases better) talent. They have the number one prospect in the Minors in Delmon Young and another top 10 player in B.J. Upton had he qualified for the list. Their pitchers are still a few years away, but half of their top 10 prospects according to Baseball America are hurlers. Furthermore, they landed Dodgers prospect Edwin Jackson this winter. While Jackson has yet to mature into the next Big Thing as many thought he would, for a team in need of arms, the Devil Rays can never have too many hurlers.
With this deep Minor League system, the Devil Rays could turn two of their most sought-after players into proven arms. Julio Lugo could very well be traded this season to make way for B.J. Upton. Joey Gathright may be on the way out too. If Tampa Bay trades these two players, I would expect them to receive some prized arms in return.
The Devil Rays have long been the doormat of the American League East. With a new ownership group in place looking to attract families and new fans to the stadium while changing the marketing image of a dormant team, 2006 could be the year that Devil Rays begin to challenge the big guns in the American League East. While the playoffs are still a pipedream, the role of spoiler and that elusive .500 mark are within sight.