MANAGER JOEMADDON second season with Devil Rays
THE DEVIL RAYS made sure that Japanese third baseman Akinori Iwamurawouldn't get lost or be late during his first spring training in the U.S. Theyplaced him in a hotel across the street from the team's camp in St. Petersburg,and hired an interpreter to guarantee that he got to the right place at theright time. Now the club hopes the five-time Japanese Central League All-Starcan help Tampa Bay find its way out of the AL East cellar.
Though he is nota seasoned major leaguer, the 28-year-old Iwamura is a baseball Yoda in alineup that has only one other position player older than 25 (first baseman TyWiggington, who's 29). In nine seasons in Japan the 5'9", 176-pound Iwamurahit .300 with 188 home runs and 570 RBIs. His consistency at the plate is themost valuable asset he brings to a team that, with outfielders Rocco Baldelli,Carl Crawford and highly regarded rookie Delmon Young, is already loaded withpower and speed--only 11 teams in major league history have surpassed theDevils Rays' 2006 totals of 190 home runs and 134 steals in the sameseason.
As an added bonusIwamura, known as Top Gun back home because of his arm strength, was a six-timeGold Glove winner in Japan who will upgrade the left side of an infield thatcommitted a league-leading 55 errors last year.
Reaching acrossthe Pacific for talent--Tampa Bay signed Iwamura to a three-year, $7.7 millioncontract after paying the Yakult Swallows $4.55 million for his negotiatingrights--is the latest strategy in the club's bid to crack .500. In each of thefranchise's 10 years, it has finished with a losing record. In 2006 the DevilRays ranked last in the majors in winning percentage (.377, with a 61--101record), runs (689), batting average with runners in scoring position (.240)and on-base percentage (.314).
Yet the team'sbiggest weakness is the pitching staff, which surrendered the second-most hits(1,600) and had the fourth-worst ERA (4.96) in the majors. Lefthander ScottKazmir won 10 of 24 starts, and the rest of the rotation won 26 of 138. Atleast lefthander Casey Fossum looks healthy coming off shoulder surgery lastSeptember, and 25-year-old righthander James Shields shows promise. Tampa Bayrelievers had the league's third-highest ERA (4.94) and the highest battingaverage against (.295) last year. The bullpen was one area "we'd hoped toaddress this winter," says executive vice president Andrew Friedman,"but it didn't quite work out."
But second-yearmanager Joe Maddon says he already sees progress being made in Tampa Bay, whichbecame the first team in major league history to have a winning record at home(41--40) and still lose more than 100 games. "The biggest difference is ahigher level of confidence and calmness," says Maddon, who is the personmost responsible for that change in atmosphere. He has transformed theclubhouse into a classroom, encouraging player-taught workshops--Crawford, whohas led the league in stolen bases for three of the last four seasons hasshared his expertise on reading pitchers and taking a lead--and pounding homethe need for players to always be thinking about the game. The manager hasordered T-shirts that read tell me what you think not what you've heard."Corny becomes popular once you start winning," Maddon says.
Last week,feeling more comfortable in his new surroundings, Iwamura moved out of thehotel and into a town house that's 15 minutes away from Tampa Bay's springtraining complex. Now the question is, Are the Devil Rays ready to move ontoo?
a modest proposal...
Al Reyes isn't ahousehold name, but he came close to being one two years ago. The well-traveledrighthander (seven major league stops in 12 years) was the best pitcher in theCardinals' bullpen in 2005, when the team won the NL Central. Virtuallyunhittable for most of the season (only 38 hits allowed in 622/3 innings), hehad the misfortune of blowing out his elbow in October and missed the playoffs.His absence was a big factor in St. Louis's losing the NLCS to the Astros insix games. Following Tommy John surgery, Reyes (left), who missed all of lastseason, is trying to win a job in the Devil Rays' pen. With a 3.60 career ERAand nearly a strikeout per inning (333 K's in 3451/3), he could turn out to betheir best and most accomplished reliever by far. He should win a job--and beseriously considered for the closer role.
PROJECTED ROSTERWITH 2006 STATISTICS
|DELMON YOUNG (R)||RF||¬†||¬†||¬†||¬†|
|AKINORI IWAMURA (R)*|
Japanese Central League stats
|LH||J.P. Howell (R)*||267||1||3||33||1.56||5.10|
* New acquisition
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 77)
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49.6 Percentage of games last year in which the Devil Rays held a lead and thenlost the game. The actual count was an AL-record 60 losses in that situation,15 more than the next worst team in squandering leads (the White Sox). HadTampa Bay won just 10 of those games, it would have finished a franchise-best71--91.