Thursday September 24th, 2009

Joe Maddon, the Tampa Bay Rays manager, rarely makes a motivational misstep, and the quotation printed on the lineup card that was posted in the team's clubhouse on a recent afternoon seemed particularly appropriate. It read:


Carlos Peña, the Rays' leading home run hitter and a constantly upbeat clubhouse presence, had just been lost for the season after a pitch from CC Sabathia broke two of his fingers, and that seemed to ensure what finally became official on Tuesday: that the Rays would not be participating in the postseason, as they haven't during 11 their 12 years of existence. The baseball gods had dealt them their cards for 2009, and, as the quotation from Nehru suggested, Maddon wanted to make sure that his players finished out the season as strongly as they could, despite their disappointment.

That the Rays would be displeased with a 78-74 record on Sept. 23 would have seemed laughable two years ago, but that was before they surprised everyone by reaching the World Series last October, and in so doing became the very model of a small-market franchise. A lot has continued to go right in 2009. The Rays have received unexpected breakout seasons from shortstop Jason Bartlett (whose OPS has jumped from .690 to .876) and second baseman Ben Zobrist (who has hit 24 home runs, nine more than he had mustered over the parts of three seasons that had comprised his career before this year), and they've benefited from a career year from Carl Crawford. Those three players made the All-Star team, and along with fellow All-Stars Peña and Evan Longoria led an offense that improved on last season's output -- it scored 4.78 runs per game in '08 and is averaging 4.95 runs in '09. The Rays also continue to play stellar defense: Their Ultimate Zone Rating is currently baseball's second-best, after they led the league last year.

So why, then, are the Rays on track to win 83 games, 14 fewer than they did in 2008? Some of it, general manager Andrew Friedman points out, has to do simply with the year-to-year rhythms of the sport. "There is a natural ebb and flow to these things," Friedman said. "This team battled all the way through [this season] and just fell short. We didn't always perform; we didn't get clutch hits or execute big pitches like in '08." This is true: The Rays' record in one-run games, for instance, was 29-18 last year and is 18-24 this year. But there are other reasons for the Rays' falloff; at least four of them, in fact.

Starter Matt Garza has performed similarly to the way he did in '08, his first as a Ray -- rather amazingly similarly, in fact. Last year Garza had an ERA of 3.70 and a WHIP of 1.24. His ERA and WHIP this season? 3.70, and 1.24. The problem for the Rays has been that each of their other incumbent starters has declined, in some cases significantly. James Shields' ERA has risen from 3.56 to 4.09; Scott Kazmir's ERA jumped from 3.49 to 5.92, before Tampa Bay traded him to the Angels on Aug. 29; and Andy Sonnanstine, a pleasant surprise in '08 (13-9, 4.38 ERA), currently sports the league's second-worst ERA (6.82) among pitchers who have thrown at least 80 innings. While the Rays' bullpen has also been shakier -- especially recently -- than it was in '08 (the 'pen's ERA was 3.55 last year, 3.90 this season), it has been a lack of consistent starting pitching that has turned the staff from one of the league's best into one that sits firmly in the middle of the pack.

The Rays acquired then 22-year-old Edwin Jackson from the Dodgers for a couple of middling relievers back in 2006, and this season, at age 25, Jackson has developed into one of the best starters in the American League: He's 13-7 with a 3.25 ERA, and is allowing fewer than one hit per inning. Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, Jackson is now the No. 2 starter for the Detroit Tigers, to whom the Rays dealt him last December in exchange for Matt Joyce. While the Rays could have undoubtedly used Jackson this year, the 25-year-old Joyce appears to be developing into a solid outfielder (he has hit .273 with 16 home runs and 14 stolen bases in Triple-A Durham), and the trade, at least in the short-term, does not appear to have been the Rays' major mistake last winter.

That would be the acquisition of designated hitter Pat Burrell, to whom Friedman gave a two-year, $16 million deal on Jan. 5, when other proven veterans such as Bobby Abreu and Adam Dunn were still on the market. Abreu ended up signing with the Angels for the bargain price of $5 million for one year, and Dunn -- who struggles as a defender and would thus make for an ideal DH -- signed with the Nationals for two years and $20 million, just $4 million more than the Rays gave Burrell. Abreu's OPS is currently .817, and Dunn's is .966, the fifth-best in baseball. Burrell, meanwhile, has hit just 14 homers and driven in 62 runs, and his .711 OPS would constitute the worst of his 10-year career. The Rays, operating as they do with limited financial resources, cannot afford to be anything but perfect in their offseason player personnel moves. Their moves this past winter appear to have been far from perfect.

Upton seemed to be a future five-tool superstar back in 2007, when, as a 22-year-old, he hit .300 with 24 home runs, 82 RBIs and stole 22 bases in just 129 games. His power stroke, hampered by a torn labrum in his shoulder, deserted him last season -- at least until the playoffs, when he hit seven homers in 16 games after clubbing just nine in 145 during the regular season -- but he made up for that by becoming a much more selective hitter (his batting average dropped to .273, but his on-base-percentage only fell from .386 to .383).

The thought was that after undergoing shoulder surgery during the offseason, he would put everything together this year. That has not happened. Upton has yet to regain his power stroke (he has 10 home runs in 134 games so far), and he's no longer drawing many bases on balls (just 52 of them). As a result his OBP in '09 is a miserable .307, and his .669 OPS is the worst among the 59 outfielders who currently qualify for the batting title. Upton remains a superb center fielder -- his UZR of 11.6 ranks behind only the Mariners' Franklin Gutierrez -- but his fielding has not made up for his struggles at the plate.

In July 2008 the Rays were legitimate contenders to acquire the Indians' Sabathia or the Pirates' Jason Bay at the trade deadline; they ended up with neither. This past July they were contenders for the services of Indians' catcher Victor Martinez; they didn't get him, either. In fact, for the second straight year the Rays allowed the deadline to pass without making a major move, despite the fact that they continue to possess the game's richest farm system.

"We will always be opportunistic if we can improve our club," Friedman said. "But in our situation, we can't lose sight of the balance we have to strike between the present and the future. Our goal is to sustain a competitive team for many years, and the way we are going to do that is with our own young talent. We were pretty aggressive in conversations we had the past two years, but weren't able to line anything up that we felt like was in the best interests of the organization."

That philosophy has proven to be a good one for a club that has baseball's sixth-lowest payroll -- by necessity, due to its small market and a fickle fan base that came out in blue-Mohawk-wearing, cowbell-ringing droves during last year's playoffs, but this season has given the Rays only a modest attendance bump (from an average of 22,259 in '08 to 23,815 in '09).

The organization would surely have regretted sacrificing any part of their future for Martinez this season, as his contributions would not possibly have been enough to close the current 12 1/2-game gap between the Rays and the wild-card-leading Boston Red Sox. The Rays' white-knuckled grip on their prospects appears to have set them up to "sustain a competitive team," as is Friedman's worthy goal, for years, due to a core that remains young and cheap, a number of starting pitchers (including David Price, Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis) who have demonstrated great promise as rookies in 2009, and a farm system that remains fecund and boasts potential stars such as outfielder Desmond Jennings, pitchers Jake McGee and Jeremy Hellickson and second baseman Sean Rodriguez, whom the Rays acquired from the Angels in the Kazmir trade. It must be noted that Tampa's system is already thinning slightly, as the Rays' transformation into a competitor means that they will no longer have one of the draft's top few picks -- if not the top pick, with which they were blessed in 2003, '07 and '08 -- each and every season.

Of course, the Rays happen to play in the American League East, a division that's also home to two clubs -- the Yankees and the Red Sox -- with the financial wherewithal to sign several of the game's most expensive free agents every offseason, and, if need be, to add more short-term-rental stars at every trading deadline. The reality for the Rays is that if they are to not merely compete with their wealthy division-mates, but to top them, they will have to have one of those seasons in which everything clicks perfectly, or nearly so.

Last year, in which they reached Game 5 of the World Series against the Phillies, was one of those seasons, and the Rays will always wonder whether the mid-season addition of Sabathia, even at the cost of some down-the-road success, might have provided that one extra boost to win them an improbable championship. Most seasons in the years to come, however, will likely look a lot like this one, in which a few unpleasant developments -- a down year by the starting pitchers, a slump by the center fielder, disappointing production from a key free-agent addition -- will leave the Rays competitive but unable to sustain a run past the Yankees or Red Sox, who can afford to spend money, and lots of it, to address their own unpleasant developments.

That the long-moribund Rays have become a competitive franchise at all represents a terrific accomplishment. But those playoff cowbells and that blue hairspray will likely gather dust on high shelves in the closets of fans throughout the Tampa area until another rare and special season like 2008 comes along, when the Rays are dealt a full house and play it perfectly. The economic realities of modern major league baseball mean that the Rays' margin for error will continue to be playing-card-thin. There will, in other words, be a lot more 2009s in the Rays' future than there are 2008s.

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