If the Tampa Bay Rays are for real – and I believe they are – they are a more remarkable story than they appear to be. The Rays, a last-place team for nine of the first 10 years of their existence, have staged one of the best starts to an American League season in the last half a century.
The Rays’ 31-12 record before Sunday matched the fifth best 43-game start since 1961, according to Major League Baseball.
But even the impressive record doesn’t tell the entire Rays’ story. To put that in perspective, you need to understand the Rays’ parentage. The Rays were created and operated in their first eight years by Vincent Naimoli, who would easily win a vote as the worst living owner or ex-owner of a baseball team.
That Stuart Sternberg, Naimoli’s successor, and his neophyte staff have been able to overcome the deep, deep hole Naimoli put the Rays in is one of the most impressive developments in modern baseball history.
It’s not a new story because it was told when the Rays shockingly played in the World Series in 2008. But it’s relevant again because of what the Rays have done this year.
Many teams that reach an unexpected height, such as the World Series, suffer a relapse the next season and for seasons to come. The Rays didn’t get back to the playoffs last year, but they approached this season, as well as the off-season, with a determination and a focus that might have been missing last year.
“I don’t think anyone was complacent coming into spring training last year but showed wear and tear of ‘08,” Gerry Hunsicker, a club baseball executive, said. “Once they got a taste of that everyone came in with greater determination and more desire not to let that happen again.”
Hunsicker, former general manager of the Houston Astros, is the Rays’ senior vice president for baseball operations. He is probably more critical to what the Rays do than he gets credit for.
He is the baseball brains of the organization. When Sternberg, an investment banker, became the principal owner in October 2005, he was a baseball neophyte. He hired Andrew Friedman, also an investment banker and a baseball neophyte, to be the general manager.
Hunsicker had just left his job as Houston’s general manager, having grown weary of his conflicts with the owner, Drayton McLane Jr., and he was ready to take a job where he wouldn’t be the general manager. The Rays’ setup was perfect for him. It has turned out to be perfect for the Rays, too.
The Rays are in their current position because they have succeeded in doing things other teams have tried but failed to do. The Rays are a low-revenue team. Other low-revenue teams have been unable to build a contender the way the Rays have. The Pirates, for example, have a string of losing seasons that predates the Rays’ existence.
Most teams acknowledge that the best way to build a good pitching staff is to develop their own pitchers. Most teams just talk about it. The Rays have done it.
The Rays have a starting rotation that is almost entirely home grown. Matt Garza is the lone exception, and the Rays acquired him from Minnesota when he had less than a full year in the majors. The other starters – David Price, Jeff Niemann, James Shields and Wade Davis – were all Rays’ draft choices.
The rotation is also young; Shields is the oldest at 28.
The Rays are the only team in the American League with an earned average under 3.00. Their 2.81 entering the weekend was the lowest in the majors and a whole run better than the A.L.’s next lowest. Their opponents’ batting average, .227, was 19 points lower than the league’s next lowest.
Taken by itself, the starting corps is even more impressive. Its 2.61 e.r.a was best in the majors, more than a run better than the A.L.’s next best, and its .221 opponents’ batting average was 22 points lower than the next lowest average.
“You have to give the scouting department credit for these guys,” Hunsicker said. He specifically cited Shields, a 16th round draft choice in 2000 as an example of the scouts’ good work. “R.J. Harrison has been our scouting director. He’s a seasoned veteran and a very solid evaluator. I give him and his staff a lot of credit.”
Current credit belongs to Jim Hickey, who is in his fourth season as the team’s pitching coach. Like Hunsicker and Friedman, a Houston native, Hickey has a Houston background. He was the Astros’ pitching coach when Hunsicker was the general manager and worked in the Astros’ organization for 16 years.
Hunsicker, however didn’t want to take sole credit for hiring Hickey.
“We had a relationship,” Hunsicker said. “It was a shock. It happened right after the season.”
In the market for their own pitching coach, Friedman and Hunsicker discussed Hickey. “It’s kind of like the chicken and the egg,” Hunsicker said. “When he got fired, was it Andrew saying what about Hickey or me going to Andrew and saying we ought to consider Hickey? We were both aware of him. I endorsed him, but in the end it was Andrew and Joe Maddon’s decision.”
Hickey turned out to be the right man for the Rays’ job.
“He relates to players,” Hunsicker said of the 48-year-old former minor league pitcher. “He seems to have a personality that can get along with most personalities. Being able to relate to seasoned veterans like Clemens and Pettitte, he seems to have a knack of connecting with most players.
“He doesn’t try to push his way on everybody or mostly one size fits all approach. He analyzes each guy. They know he grew up at a time when they cared about them and helped them through their problems.”
Hickey’s young lions will be around for a long time, but the team is playing this season with an immediacy because two of their veteran position players, left fielder Carl Crawford and first baseman Carlos Pena, and closer Rafael Soriano, can leave as free agents after the season.
“Those are three pretty big holes to fill if they don’t return,” Hunsicker said.
No negotiations are ongoing with any of the players. “The parties have agreed we’ll hold off during the season,” Hunsicker said,
The Rays, on the other hand, spent what they felt was necessary money during the off-season. They opened the season with $72 million payroll.
“We went over budget, kind of robbed Peter to pay Paul,” Hunsicker said. “Our budget was $58 million, and we put emphasis on this year so we robbed from next year’s budget and maybe the year after that.”
The Sternberg group, neophytes though they might have been at the outset, have operated the Rays in a winning, intelligent way. That’s 180 degrees from the way Naimoli ran his Devil Rays.
“We don’t see him here anymore,” a front office employee said,
JOCKETTY JOCKEYING WITH CARDS FOR FIRST
After the Cincinnati Reds supplanted the St. Louis Cardinals in first place in the National League Central last week, I called Walt Jocketty, the Reds’ general manager, to find out his reaction to the unexpected development. Jocketty, after all, had a special interest in it beyond his team’s level of play.
It’s far too early to be anointing the Reds division champions, but I figured Jocketty had to be pleased because the Cardinals fired him as general manager for no good reason a year after the Cardinals won the World Series.
“Actually I was fired when we were still defending champions,” Jocketty said, meaning his dismissal came before the Boston Red Sox won the 2007 World Series.
Why did the Cardinals fire Jocketty? They said they wanted to become more “strategically oriented.” I believe the Cardinals ownership got caught up in the fad of the day, the desire to be statistically oriented as opposed to scouting oriented.
Jocketty preferred his style of operation and was unwilling to adapt to the system. Why not stick to his system? It had just won the World Series.
When Jocketty was summoned to a meeting with top club executives, “I thought they were going to negotiate a new contract,” he recalled.
The 59-year-old Jocketty was not unemployed for long. The Reds named him general manager six months later.
“The goal when I came here was to turn this franchise around as quickly as we could,” he said. Ownership was dedicated to turning things around. They are Cincinnati natives and wanted to get back to where the Reds used to be.”
Does Jocketty think the Reds are good enough to stay with the Cardinals for the rest of the season?
“When we started spring training and then at the start of the season, I told the team this,” he said. “I’ve got a pretty good idea what it takes to win and I thought we have the talent to win it. The starting pitching was a little shaky at the start of the season, but it’s coming around. We’ve proved we can score runs. We have shown an ability to come back late in games and win them. I think we’re a good enough team to challenge for the division title.”
Before we forget, did he have any special thoughts on bumping the Cardinals from first?
“I do,” he said, taking a diplomatic approach, “but I don’t want to dwell on it.”
MO AND PAP IMPLODE IN TANDEM
Not that they face each other from 60 feet 6 inches or even pitch in the same game often, but Mariano Rivera and Jonathan Papelbon have been competing closers for five seasons, Rivera through 166 save opportunities, Papelbon through 179. Yet only once before last week did they do what they did in recent save opportunities.
On successive days Rivera and Papelbon squandered saves, and their teams suffered stunning ninth-inning losses. Jason Kubel of Minnesota shocked Rivera with a grand slam on May 16, and the next night Alex Rodriguez and Marcus Thames clubbed two-run Yankees homers against Papelbon.
Only once before, Elias Sports Bureau found, did Rivera and Papelbon blow saves on successive days. In August 2006 Rivera squandered a save in Chicago, and the next day Papelbon copied him in Kansas City.