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2006 Team Reviews: Tampa Bay Devil Rays

With the regular season over, it's time to take a look at what went right and wrong for each team in the league. In reverse order of record -- or as close as we can get to it anyways -- we'll be posting team reviews authored by myself as well as a slew of some of my favorite team bloggers. For this first entry, we have the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

What started out fairly promising ended with the worst record in baseball, as the Devil Rays were one of two teams to lose 100 games on the season. The reasons for optimism heading into the year were essentially the same things that sunk the chances for success. Jonny Gomes, who was hitting .305/.453/.732 the first month of the season, injured his shoulder -- eventually shutting down his season for surgery -- and hit only .191/.287/.350 over his next 303 at-bats. Scott Kazmir was carrying the rotation in the early going, and eventually had to shut it down mostly to avoid injury. The team could not win a game on the road in the second half, and finished with 61 losses away from Tropicana.

Julio Lugo's .291 Equivalent Average was replaced by Ben Zobrist, who was acquired in the Aubrey Huff trade with the Astros. Zobrist only had a .195 EqA and amassed -8.2 VORP in only 194 plate appearances. B.J. Upton took over at third base for the injured Ty Wigginton, and struggled just as much, accumulatig -8.0 VORP in 185 PAs. Not everything was negative on the offensive side of the ball for the Rays though.

Carl Crawford once again improved his game, hitting .305/.348/.482 (.281 EqA) with above average defense. His Zone Rating of .878 was well above the average for left field of .857, and he finished the year with 6.11 runs above average. Rocco Baldelli came back from his serious leg injury and put together the best season of his career: .302/.339/.533 (.285 EqA) and an .872 ZR in center (league average was .870). Ty Wigginton surprised a great deal of analysts and fans with the strongest showing of his career, hitting .277/.333/.502, although with poor defense at the hot corner. Wigginton's ZR of .651 was far below the league average of .775 for third basemen, and he was -9.66 runs below average. His .272 EqA helped make up for some of that, but the Devil Rays wouldn't be hurting themselves if they tried to move him this winter.

B.J. Upton's struggles in 2006 -- both in the minor leagues (.268/.373/.387 at Triple-A Durham) and the major leagues (.240/.297/.287 for Tampa) -- would have concerned Rays fans a bit more before Evan Longoria was drafted, and summarily dominated all competition. Longoria hit .315/.360/.597 at three levels combined, and Kevin Goldstein at Baseball Prospectus had this to say in his September 18 Monday Morning Ten Pack:

Longoria will likely begin next year back at Montgomery, but at this rate, the Devil Rays are very close to being forced into a second difficult decision regarding B.J. Upton.

Longoria was regarded as the top hitting talent in the draft, and it looks as if he may be even better than initially thought. Of course, one half-season of data does not set a career arc, but it's encouraging, especially with Upton's struggles. The Rays will have the first overall pick in the 2007 draft, so the flood of talent should continue.

The front office had a fantastic year, adding a great number of potentially useful young pitchers and one of the top Dodger hitting prospects in Joel Guzman without giving away anything of value. Andrew Friedman proved himself to be very capable in his first year as General Manager, and the Rays fanbase has to love that after watching the organization zig and zag in futility for almost a decade prior.

The offense only put together a .255/.314/.420 showing collectively, but that looks great in comparison to the .286/.358/.452 line the pitchers allowed. The rotation and bullpen both had their share of problems; the rotation allowed a .281/.352/.450 line, while the 'pen managed .295/.368/.455. The rotation's Run Average was 5.40, and they struck out 6.69 batters per nine, with a K/BB of only 1.65. That includes Scott Kazmir's 10.14 K/9, 3.14 K/BB and 3.67 RA in 144.7 innings pitched. James Shields was fairly promising, with a 4.98 RA, 2.74 K/BB and 7.51 K/9 in 124.7 innings, although his 1.3 HR/9 is somewhat worrisome. Although he struggled in the majors, J.P. Howell -- acquired for Joey Gathright, who there was just no room for in Tampa -- pitched very well for the Durham Bulls, and could slot in behind Kazmir and Shields in 2007. As a staff, they walked over four batters gave up 1.25 per nine innings; not exactly a formula for success.

The bullpen was awful, with no reliever worth even a single win above replacement. Ruddy Lugo came closest, with a WXRL of 0.881, and Shawn Camp came the next closest at 0.749. A great deal of the trouble in the bullpen comes from using the wrong relievers situationally. Lugo was the most effective guy out of the pen, but his leverage value was well below 1.00 at 0.77, whereas guys like Tyler Walker -- worth a sad 0.024 WXRL -- had a leverage of 2.18. Seth McClung was another pitcher used in the wrong situations in relief, with a 1.46 leverage despite WXRL figures barely above replacement. This is an area that the Rays will need to fix if they ever plan on finishing anywhere except fourth or fifth; the plethora of hitting talent is welcome and necessary, and the rotation finally seems to be putting itself together somewhat, but the pen is awful in a way I can't even describe.

This winter, there isn't a great deal that the Rays can do to help their organization in the lineup or rotation. The price for league average pitchers remains high, and the Rays already have plenty of talent on the offensive side of the ball, but there are a good number of relievers they could snatch up to attempt to make the pen effective. Friedman is most likely best off continuing exactly what he has been doing, which is sending off spare veteran parts in exchange for useful players with upside. Longtime catcher Toby Hall was dealt to the Dodgers along with Mark Hendrickson in exchange for Dioner Navarro and the aforementioned Jae Seo. Navarro hit only .244/.316/.342, but as mentioned previously, the Rays are taking players with upside, and Navarro's plate patience is worth the effort. Not to mention that Hendrickson has almost pitched himself off the Dodgers playoff roster on various occasions throughout the year. The same goes for Seo, Edwin Jackson and Chuck Tiffany.

Overall, it was a disappointing year for the Rays and their fans. But there is hope for the future, in the form of an intelligent front office -- something the Rays have never had -- as well as the influx of talent within the organization. With Delmon Young's initial success in the majors -- .328/.346/.492, although lacking in walks, is impressive for a 20-year old's debut; the 2.8 Pitchers per Plate Appearance is extremely worrisome though -- as well as a young ace the Mets would really like to have back heading into the playoffs this year, and all of the previously mentioned potentially productive players, the Rays future looks promising, although it may not be their immediate future.