It Takes Time, Part II: Tampa Bay Rays

Yesterday, I compared the Pirates' current situation to that of the Royals, whose new GM Dayton Moore took over in 2006. Today I'll compare the Bucs to the Rays, whose GM Andrew Friedman started work in November 2005.

In some ways, this is a much more apt comparison. Unlike Moore, who came from the scouting-obsessed Braves organization, both Friedman and Huntington appear to be new-breed GMs who embrace statistical analysis as well as traditional scouting. And unlike Moore, who inherited a toxic waste dump of a big league roster, Friedman and Huntington each inherited rosters full of competent big leaguers.

That may seem like an odd thing to say about the Rays, who were comically bad for most of Chuck Lamar's tenure as Friedman's predecessor, but it's true. Here are the main players at each position for the 2005 Rays, along with their OPS+ or ERA+:

C Toby Hall 83
1B Travis Lee 101
2B Jorge Cantu 112
SS Julio Lugo 105
3B Alex Gonzalez 95
OF Carl Crawford 111
CF Damon Hollins 89
RF Aubrey Huff 98
DH Jonny Gomes 139

SP Scott Kazmir 116
SP Mark Hendrickson 74
SP Casey Fossum 89
SP Doug Waechter 78
SP Hideo Nomo 60
SP/RP Seth McClung 66
SP Dewon Brazelton 57

RP Danys Baez 152
RP Trever Miller 107
RP Travis Harper 65
RP Lance Carter 89
RP Chad Orvella 121
RP Jesus Colome 96

On paper, it would seem that the Rays had a decent crop of position players and a bad group of pitchers, and that's basically true, but not as true as these numbers make it look. The Rays' position players were bad defensively, which makes them less valuable, and their pitchers more valuable, than they appear. Friedman obviously had an opportunity to help the team a bunch by replacing that Nomo/McClung/Brazelton portion of the rotation with some decent starters, but beyond that, there wasn't much obvious cleanup for him to do, even though the Rays won just 67 games in 2005.

The hitters, in particular, are interesting, in that the weakest links are exactly the sorts of players Dave Littlefield always seemed to trot out. True, the '05 Rays, led by Gomes, Crawford, Cantu and a pretty good bench,  were much better at hitting than the '07 Pirates, but the parallels are still striking. Toby Hall was the Rays' equivalent of Ronny Paulino - not old, not young, and more of a disappointment than a disaster. Gonzalez wasn't very good, either, but he wasn't a problem. And Hollins was just the sort of stopgap Littlefield would've loved. (To be fair to Lamar and the Rays, Hollins wasn't Plan A like, say, Randall Simon was - Hollins only played so much because Rocco Baldelli missed the entire season with a torn ACL.)

So the main cleanup work Friedman had to do was fixing the rotation. Let's look at some of the moves he made in the 2005-2006 offseason:

December 7, 2005: Traded Brazelton to the Padres for Sean Burroughs.

December 21, 2005: Granted free agency to Trever Miller.

January 10, 2006: Signed Ty Wigginton as a free agent.

January 14, 2006: Traded Baez and Carter to the Dodgers for Edwin Jackson and Chuck Tiffany.

January 31, 2006: Signed Russ Branyan to a minor league deal.

March 19, 2006: Signed Al Reyes to a minor league contract.

April 6, 2006: Released Colome.

You wouldn't know it from what immediately happened - the Rays won just 61 games in 2006 - but Friedman showed serious smarts and creativity in his first offseason. The results he got were mixed, but he had exactly the sort of offseason you'd hope a GM in his position would have, planning for the future while also cheaply addressing problems with the major league roster.

Evan Longoria is a big part
of the Rays' bright future

Photo: Trigger 25.

Those who bemoan the Pirates' lack of established relief pitchers would do well to pay attention to what Friedman did here. The 2005 Rays had five competent relievers who threw 50 innings or more: Baez, Carter, Miller, Orvella and Colome. They got rid of four of them and yet didn't bother to try to replace them by signing anyone to a major-league deal. They dropped Colome, who ended up missing most of the 2006 season due to injury. They let Miller leave as a free agent. And they traded Baez and Carter for a pair of high-risk, high-upside pitching prospects in Jackson and Tiffany. Neither have worked out so far (Tiffany has been injured), and Jackson in particular should not have spent so much time in the big leagues the last two years, but it's worth remembering that, two years before the trade, he was widely regarded as one of the best prospects in baseball. Teams like the Rays need to take chances on players like that.

 

In the meantime, the losses of Baez, Carter and Miller don't matter a bit anymore. Baez was terrible for the Orioles last year; Carter was out of baseball; and Miller was mediocre for the Orioles. (Colome was decent for the Nationals, but by my math, he would've been eligible for free agency after 2006 anyway.) The point is that players like Baez, Carter and Miller - or, if you prefer, Salomon Torres, B.P. Chacon, and probably even Damaso Marte) just do not matter in the long term. They're irrelevant, and it was a much better idea for the Rays to take a fliers on Jackson and Tiffany than to hoard mediocre relievers. Instead of, say, keeping Baez, they signed Al Reyes for nothing. He joined the Rays for the 2007 season and pitched better than any of the more expensive guys they got rid of.

In addition to his tinkering with the pitching staff, Friedman tried to find a quick fix at third base. (Gonzalez had left as a free agent just before Friedman arrived.) He ended up acquiring three players for almost nothing. First, he took a flier on Burroughs, a former top prospect who'd worn out his welcome in San Diego, for the cost of Dewon Brazelton, another former top prospect, but one who had no real chance of ever becoming the great pitcher he believed himself to be. Friedman then signed Wigginton, a reliable player with low upside, to a very cheap major-league contract. (Note to Dave Littlefield: signing Wigginton to a cheap deal in case a couple of high-upside gambles don't pay off is a great idea. Trading an actual asset for Wigginton is a terrible idea.) Friedman also grabbed Russ Branyan for free after he'd posted terrific numbers in a part-time role for Milwaukee the previous year.

This was a very good strategy. Friedman didn't just sign a Chris Stynes to a cheap contract and hand him the job. Instead, he grabbed several guys cheaply, at no cost to the future of the franchise, and let them play King of the Mountain. Wigginton won, and the Rays were rewarded with a 112 OPS+.

In his first offseason, then, Friedman successfully addressed a huge hole at third base and grabbed a couple of high-upside future options to patch up the rotation. The rotation options haven't worked out, but he had the right idea. And he completely ignored the bullpen, probably figuring, correctly, that the 2006 Rays bullpen was completely irrelevant to the long-term goals of the franchise.

The '06 Rays won fewer games than the '05 Rays, but not for the obvious reasons. The teams had the same Pythagorean records, so they were probably about equally talented. The bullpen Friedman ignored was no worse in '06 than it was in '05, and the rotation was much better, mostly because of the emergence of another steady starter in James Shields.

Meanwhile, several players from the starting lineup who'd been mediocre in 2005 were suddenly terrible in 2006 - and, again, there's a lesson for the Pirates in here. Hall's OPS+ dropped from 83 to 68; Lee's dipped from 101 to 76, and Hollins' went from 89 to 77. As if it weren't clear enough already, this is why you don't sign a Randall Simon or a Chris Stynes and expect them to maintain their levels of production from the previous year. If they slip even a little, they're just disastrous. In this case, though, the failures of Hall, Lee and Hollins weren't really Friedman's fault, since he was probably given a very tight budget to work with in the 2005-2006 offseason. And anyway, the Rays were only letting Hollins play because they were waiting for Baldelli to return from injury, which he did in June 2006.

It wasn't just the mediocre vets who sunk the 2006 Rays, however. Another problem was that poor plate discipline caught up to Cantu, who had played so well in 2005. Also, Gomes batted just .216. The Rays' two best hitters in 2005 thus became liabilities in 2006. Unfortunately, though, flops by young players just come with the territory when you're a team in the Rays' position.

Friedman made a number of moves in-season:

June 20, 2006: Traded Joey Gathright and Fernando Cortez to the Royals for J.P. Howell.

June 27, 2006: Traded Hall and Hendrickson to the Dodgers for Dioner Navarro, Jae Seo, and Justin Ruggiano.

July 12, 2006: Traded Huff to the Astros for Ben Zobrist and Mitch Talbot.

July 31, 2006: Traded Lugo to the Dodgers for Joel Guzman and Sergio Pedroza.

Again, this looks to me like very good general managing, although the results have been mixed. Gathright, a speedy outfielder with limited upside, wasn't going anywhere with the Rays, so Friedman traded him for Howell, a young starting pitcher. Getting anything at all - much less a real catching prospect in Navarro - for a couple of chumps like Hendrickson and Hall was a huge coup, although Navarro has failed to develop with the Rays and could probably use more time at Class AAA. Huff was fading, and Talbot could wind up being a productive member of the Rays' rotation for a couple years. Zobrist has played well in the minors, but never in the majors. Guzman was a very high-upside prospect who's been a big disappointment for the Rays. Pedroza is a young power hitter who could still help the Rays if he moves quickly.

Again, though, note that none of the players Friedman traded away have anything to do with the long-term health of the team. He still improved the organization by making these trades, because nothing of long-term value was lost. But I thought Guzman and Navarro, in particular, would turn out better than they have. The Rays are probably just going to end up with a collection of role players from these trades, and we should probably expect the same if the Pirates trade Xavier Nady or Marte. That's depressing, but it doesn't mean it's not the right thing for them to do.

The Rays' 2006-2007 offseason initially seemed rather quiet, but it ended up having a big impact on the franchise:

October 31, 2006: Granted free agency to Hollins.

December 7, 2006: Lost Josh Hamilton to the Cubs in the Rule 5 draft.

December 15, 2006: Signed Akinori Iwamura from Japan.

January 2, 2007: Traded a PTBNL to the Reds for Brendan Harris.

February 1, 2007: Signed Carlos Pena to a minor league deal.

Losing Hamilton was a huge blow, but it was probably understandable given all the Rays had been through with him. And the Rays more than made up for it by acquiring Pena, who ended up being one of the best hitters in the big leagues in 2007, for free. They also got Harris, who was a fairly effective starting shortstop for them in '07, for nothing.

Still, the Rays were mostly in a holding pattern that offseason. They didn't make any big trades, because they'd gotten rid of many of their veteran stopgaps at the deadline a few months before.

In 2007, the Rays won 66 games and improved their Pythagorean record by two games from the previous year. More notably, though, they were much younger than they'd been in previous years. None of the five starters who pitched the most innings for them (Shields, Kazmir, Jackson, Andy Sonnanstine and Jason Hammel) were over 25, and none of their starting position players were older than 29. B.J. Upton broke out in a big way and former top overall pick Delmon Young was solid for a 21-year-old rookie, although Navarro flopped badly and Baldelli continued to struggle with injuries.

Overall, 2007 was a very promising year for the Rays, in that they were relatively competitive despite using some very young players. Oh, and there's this:

Tampa Bay Devil Rays Top 20 Prospects for 2008

All grades are extremely preliminary and subject to change.

Evan Longoria, 3B, Grade A
David Price, LHP, Grade A
Jacob McGee, LHP, Grade A
Wade Davis, RHP, Grade B+
Reid Brignac, SS, Grade B+
Jeremy Hellickson, RHP, Grade B+
Desmond Jennings, OF, Grade B+
Jeff Niemann, RHP, Grade B
Eduardo Morlan, RHP, Grade B
John Jaso, C, Grade B

This is one hell of a conglomeration of talent.

We've heard for years about the talent in the Rays' minor league system, but now, many of their youngsters (Upton, Kazmir, Shields, Carl Crawford) are finally proving themselves at the big-league level, and interesting rookies aren't going to stop arriving anytime soon.

The Rays' big moves this offseason have been to dump problem child Elijah Dukes on the Nationals and trade Young, Harris and a prospect to the Twins for Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett and Morlan. Bartlett is a good defensive shortstop who should help the Rays' pitchers out a bunch, but the real prize is Garza, a potential ace.

I wasn't a huge fan of that trade because I think it's generally crazy to trade someone with Young's upside, but between Garza, Price, McGee, Kazmir, Shields, and the rest of the Rays' young pitchers, it's almost difficult to imagine scenarios in which they don't have one of the best rotations in baseball in a couple years. Their starting pitching depth is superb. Add that to Upton, Crawford, Longoria (maybe the second best prospect in the minor leagues behind Jay Bruce of the Reds), and perhaps Pena and Baldelli, and the Rays should have a very good, very young team, perhaps as soon as 2009. It actually wouldn't be a huge shock if the Rays finished .500 or better this year.

If that happens, we should be optimistic, because if the Rays can put up a .500 record in the AL East, they'd easily be a playoff team in the NL Central. If it doesn't, the Rays will wait around another year for more of their minor league players to make an impact in the majors. Either way, they're probably eventually going to be pretty good.

Friedman inherited a much more interesting team than the one Huntington got, it's true. There aren't any Crawfords, Uptons, Kazmirs or McGees in the Pirates' system. Still, though, with intelligent if unspectacular trading and high draft picks, Friedman seems to have finally changed the Rays from perennial cellar dwellers to something far more interesting.

The Rays' example shows, however, that it's very hard to trade non-superstar veterans for impact talent. You can get a star that way occasionally, and you have to trade the Danys Baezes in order to take chances on youngsters who might develop, but for the most part, you have to draft impact players. Since the Pirates don't have much in the way of impact talent, they'll need a couple of good drafts before they can accumulate enough to get to where Tampa was right before Friedman took over. So, still, it will probably be at least four years before the Pirates can acquire enough top-tier talent to contend. In the meantime, though, we can keep an eye on the Rays, who have one heck of a talented young team.

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