EVEN AS early aseight in the morning, when most of the young Rays hung sleepy-eyed over theirbreakfast, there was no mistaking the presence of Troy Percival, hired by TampaBay to be its closer, advice guru and clubhouse gadfly. "You guys have toget on the bus and get out of here," barked the 38-year-old Percival, whowas not scheduled for either split-squad road game that day in spring training."You're taking up all my air in here."
Good morning, Rays,this is your wake-up call. It is the season Tampa Bay will win (gulp) more than70¬†games for the first time in franchise history. Percival was brought innot only to help patch what was the worst major league bullpen in the past halfcentury (6.16¬†ERA), but also to help the Rays deal with these newfangledexpectations. Lest any of the young players get carried away with their pressclippings, Percival shrink-wrapped an enormous photo of himself on the hood ofthe BMW belonging to top pitching prospect David Price (and convinced him itcouldn't be removed for days). After reading a story comparing young startingpitchers Scott Kazmir, James Shields and Matt Garza with Tom Glavine, JohnSmoltz and Steve Avery, Percival worked out the next day in a jersey with thenames of all six pitchers in capital letters on the back.
All kidding aside,Kazmir, Shields and Garza are indeed the foundation of Tampa Bay's climb toward.500 and beyond--just as Glavine, Smoltz and Avery launched a winning era forAtlanta in the early 1990s. The Rays trio accounted for three of the six bestERAs in the AL last year among the 22 pitchers who were 25-and-under and madeat least 15¬†starts. Kazmir¬†(3.48) was also the league strikeoutchampion, Shields¬†(3.85) was the youngest starter in 40 years to recordfive times as many strikeouts as walks, and Garza¬†(3.69) was so good forMinnesota that the Rays traded hard-hitting outfielder Delmon Young to get himin November.
"At first I wasreally surprised to be traded because I thought, Wait a minute, how can theytrade me? I'm still cheap,'' says Garza. "But after five minutes talking to[Tampa Bay executive VP of operations] Andrew Friedman, I was excited. There'sa quiet confidence building here."
March 30, 2008
The Rays were agood team last season whenever they started Kazmir or Shields (35-30) anddownright dreadful when they gave the ball to anybody else (31-66). So a fullseason from Garza, a fierce competitor whom the Twins did not call up untilJune¬†28, is a big boost. "I was frustrated in Triple A, and I neverplan on going back again," he says. "I think the days when peoplethought of Tampa Bay as the doormat of the league are over. Guys would make aname here and get out. But now I can see guys will make a name and want tostay."
Of course Tampa Baymust hope Kazmir's tender left elbow, which will cost him at least his firsttwo starts, doesn't become a bigger issue. The Rays, though, do have more youngarms on the way, including Price, the No.¬†1 pick of the 2007 draft who maybe in the bigs by midsummer; 6' 9"righty Jeff Niemann; plus righty WadeDavis and lefty Jacob McGee, both of whom will begin the year inDouble¬†A.
And that pitchingstaff won't lack run support. Centerfielder B.J. Upton, who hit .300 as a22-year-old in '07, is at last locked into a position, third baseman EvanLongoria should contend for AL Rookie of the Year honors and Carlos Pe√±aprovides big-time power at the other infield corner. Almost forgotten in thewake of Pe√±a's 46¬†homers in '07 was that the Rays cut him in springtraining. "Greg Norton got hurt and we had to call Pe√±a quickly to ask himback," says senior vice president Gerry Hunsicker. "Otherwise he wouldhave been free to go anywhere."
And so, it wouldappear, the Rays finally found some luck--and now they have a plan. It startswith giving the ball to Kazmir, Shields and Garza as often as possible, and tothe dynamic Price when he's ready. If that's the case, Tampa Bay could get usedto winning.
CONSIDER THIS amodest proposal ...
With Rocco Baldellisidelined indefinitely because of extreme fatigue, the Rays should considertrading for Cubs rightfielder Matt Murton, who is buried behind KosukeFukudome, the Japanese import whom Chicago signed during the off-season. The26-year-old Murton is no star in the making, but he knows how to work a count(.365 career on-base percentage) and has a little power. PECOTA projects thathe would hit .288 with a .354 OBP in Tampa, figures that would make for a solidnumber¬†2 hitter behind Carl Crawford. Murton is also a better defensiveplayer than current rightfielder Jonny Gomes (left), who could shareat¬†bats in the DH role with Cliff Floyd. The Cubs are bereft of the youngpitching prospects with which the Rays are overflowing. A deal makes sense forboth sides.
Batting average of centerfielder B.J. Upton last season despite striking out154 times in 474 at¬†bats, or roughly one whiff every three trips. The23-year-old Upton benefited from his unusually high .399 average on balls heput into play. (League averages are typically closer to .300.) The young starwill be hard-pressed to hit .300 again unless he cuts down on thosestrikeouts.
[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
PROJECTED ROSTERWITH 2007 STATISTICS
MANAGER JOE MADDONTHIRD SEASON WITH TAMPA¬†BAY
|CLIFF FLOYD (New acquisition)||¬†||DH|
|WILLY AYBAR‚Ä† (New acquisition)||¬†||3B|
|JASON BARTLETT (New acquisition)||SS|
|ERIC HINSKE (New acquisition)||¬†||IF-OF|
|RH||Matt Garza (New acquisition)||83||5||7||7.3||1.54||3.69|
|RH||Troy Percival (New acquisition)||96||3||0||8.1||0.85||1.80|
|LH||Trever Miller (New acquisition)||270||0||1||8.9||1.47||4.86|
*Triple A stats‚Ä†2006 stats
WHIP: Walks plushits per inning pitched
PVR: Player ValueRanking (explanation on page 62)
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EXCERPTED FROM SI
MARCH 19, 2007
MORE THAN Elijah Dukes or Delmon Young, second basemanB.J. Upton is feeling the pressure to live up to his hype because the DevilRays have more premier infield talent in the pipeline. Power-hitting thirdbaseman Evan Longoria isn't far away, and shortstop Reid Brignac won the MVPaward in the California League. But enough on how good the baby Rays could bedown the road. "Now's the time to see what some of these kids can do in afull season." --Albert Chen
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The Rays were 31-66 last season when their top two pitchers didn't start; withGarza, the new No. 3, that'll change.