5 Tampa Bay Devil Rays An out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new plan offers hope--just not for this year

March 25, 2002

What's manager Hal McRae's thumbnail take on 22-year-old lefty
Joe Kennedy, who started the 2001 season in Double A and, after
a June call-up, finished with a 7-8 record for Tampa Bay? "He
showed a lot of composure, and he has a decent idea of how to
pitch, but he has to get better," says McRae.

How about 26-year-old catcher Toby Hall, who batted .298 in 46
games after he was summoned from Triple A? "He's a young player
who has to get better."

Sense a pattern? Ask about virtually any player on the Devil
Rays' roster, the youngest in the majors, and McRae responds,
"He has to get better." What other spring theme could there be
for a team that lost the most games (100, a total matched by the
Pirates), hit the fewest homers (121), scored the third-fewest
runs (672) and had the fifth-highest ERA (4.94) in the majors in
2001? As it begins its fifth season, Tampa Bay still hasn't
cracked the 70-win barrier.

Midway through last season's train wreck Tampa finally ditched
its misguided plan of stocking the lineup with veterans and
turned things over to prospects. "We got into the free-agent
market before we were ready," says G.M. Chuck LaMar.

First baseman Fred McGriff, 38, and righthander Albie Lopez, 30,
were traded. Third baseman Vinny Castilla, 34, and outfielder
Gerald Williams, 35, were released. (Outfielder Greg Vaughn, 36,
hampered most of last season by hamstring and shoulder injuries,
was shopped, but LaMar couldn't move him.) In their place came a
wave of kids like Kennedy, Hall, 24-year-old outfielder Jason
Tyner and 23-year-old lefthander Nick Bierbrodt (3-4 in 11
starts). The results were encouraging. After a 38-77 start, the
Rays went 24-23 down the stretch.

The most significant development was Hall's emergence. A good
hitter but a mediocre third baseman at UNLV, Hall was converted
to catcher after Tampa Bay drafted him in the ninth round in
1997. "At first I thought it was crazy--why would I want to put
gear on and get beat up?" he says. "Now that I see the third
basemen in the big leagues, I know I wouldn't be able to sniff
them."

The Devil Rays were confident Hall could handle major league
pitching; he hit better than .300 in three of his five minor
league seasons, and he hit 19 home runs for the Durham Bulls en
route to being named MVP of the International League last year.
His defensive play was a pleasant surprise. He threw out 11 of
38 would-be base stealers after his call-up and impressed the
Tampa Bay brass with his pitch selection and smooth handling of
its young staff. Hall was promoted on July 26; Tampa Bay's 4.12
ERA after the All-Star break was the American League's fourth
best. "He has presence behind the plate; his pitch calling is
great," says righthander Tanyon Sturtze, 31, who started
regularly in the majors for the first time in his 12-year pro
career and led the Devil Rays with 11 wins.

The best Tampa Bay can hope for this season is the continued
development of the kids. The good news is that the farm system
hasn't been depleted by the major league youth movement:
Outfielders Josh Hamilton and Carl Crawford and righthander
Dewon Brazleton are on the horizon for 2003. In the meantime
LaMar will whittle the payroll even further. As soon as he can
find takers, Vaughn (team-high $8.75 million salary this year)
and catcher John Flaherty ($3.25 million) will be dealt. "By the
end of the year we'll have one of the two lowest payrolls in
baseball," LaMar says.

That falls in line with the five-year plan that LaMar says he
had when the team was born in 1998: to have a lineup built
around youth, with the veterans brought in for (attempted)
respectability in the early years weeded out. "We thought we'd
at least have a winning season by now," LaMar says.

He'll have to wait on that one. --S.C.

COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Over the final two months of last season things began looking up for Hall and the revitalized Devil Rays. COLOR PHOTO: RICK STEWART/GETTY IMAGES ALVAREZ

In FACT
Devil Rays pitchers open the season on a major-league-record run
of 152 straight starts without a complete game.

ENEMY LINES
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Devil Rays

"This team is still weak offensively but is improved overall.
They're headed in the right direction.... Steve Cox is going to
be a pretty good hitter. He doesn't pull the ball much, but he
can hit with power to left center. He's strong defensively,
too.... The outfield is not one of their strong points. It's not
an outfield that will give you run production, and it's not a
good defensive outfield either. Ben Grieve leaves a lot to be
desired. He plays rightfield, but he doesn't have a
rightfielder's arm, and he doesn't cover much ground. He didn't
have a good year with the bat last year, and I haven't seen it
come alive this spring.... The best centerfielder they've got is
Jason Conti. He's a line drive hitter who can really track it in
the outfield. They keep waiting for Randy Winn to develop. I
don't see him blossoming. He doesn't have good instincts in the
field or on the bases. His bat doesn't fit any of the three
outfield positions, unless he learns how to bunt, slash and chop
the ball to use his speed. Jason Tyner is a Punch and Judy
hitter with very good speed, but Conti runs every bit as well,
maybe even better.... Esteban Yan is their closer, but I think
they have two guys who are a hell of a lot better than
Yan--Jesus Colome and Victor Zambrano. Both have closer's
stuff.... The rotation is better than they've had before. Wilson
Alvarez has looked pretty good this spring. He's got his
curveball almost back to where it was before he got hurt [May
2000 rotator-cuff surgery]. Unless he breaks down again, he's
going to be a big part of their rotation."

THE LINEUP
projected roster with 2001 statistics

PLAYER B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
BATTING ORDER

LF Jason Tyner L 195 .280 0 21 31
2B Brent Abernathy R 250 .270 5 33 8
RF Ben Grieve L-R 142 .264 11 72 7
DH Greg Vaughn R 114 .233 24 82 11
C Toby Hall R 107 .298 4 30 2
1B Steve Cox L 159 .257 12 51 2
CF Randy Winn S-R 223 .273 6 50 12
3B Jared Sandberg R 253 .206 1 15 1
SS Chris Gomez* R 263 .259 8 43 4

BENCH

OF Jason Conti[2] L-R 259 .324 14 70 5
IF Russ Johnson R 276 .294 4 33 2

PITCHER PVR W L IPS WHIP ERA
STARTERS

RH Tanyon Sturtze 120 11 12 6.6 1.43 4.42
LH Joe Kennedy 148 7 8 5.9 1.33 4.44
RH Paul Wilson 184 8 9 5.5 1.43 4.88
LH Wilson Alvarez[3] 174 9 9 5.7 1.49 4.22
LH Nick Bierbrodt (R)* 199 5 6 5.3 1.65 5.55

PITCHER PVR W L S WHIP ERA
BULLPEN

RH Esteban Yan 96 4 6 22 1.20 3.90
RH Victor Zambrano 177 6 2 2 1.09 3.16
RH Jesus Colome 196 2 3 0 1.27 3.33

[1]New acquisition (R) Rookie B-T: Bats-throws IPS: Innings
pitched per start

WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched PVR: Player
Value Ranking (explanation on page 154)

*Combined AL and NL stats [2]Triple A stats [3]1999 stats

Manager
Hal McRae
second season with Tampa Bay

2001 record
62-100
fifth in AL East

IN THE FIELD
with defensive ratings

Golden Glover

Sturtze

Good Leather

Tyner
Winn
Cox
Abernathy
Gomez
Sandberg
Hall

Iron Hands

Grieve

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)