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baseball '09

TAMPA BAY RAYS

They managed last season, and with Maddon at the controls, they may be prepared for an encore

By Bob Ryan
Globe Staff / April 5, 2009
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The stock market is on everyone's mind these days, so here's a broker's dictum people can relate to: "Past performance is no guarantee of future success."

Or, to put it another way, are the Tampa Bay Rays due for a market correction?

The Rays were the ultimate growth stock last year, advancing to a sixth game in the World Series after not winning more than 70 games in any previous year of their dreary, and often unnoticed, existence. It was a fabulous feel-good story, starting with the skipper, an unconventional sort of baseball lifer who makes stopping by the manager's office an aural adventure.

Since we last caught up with Joe Maddon, he has gotten married and enjoyed a nice European honeymoon. Few of his peers know how to get as far away from baseball as this man, but as much as he likes good books, good music, good food, and good wine, he remains a consummate baseball man, and he has devoted much thought to the subject of The Year After.

The Rays have a strong core group. Most of the people who won the 97 games necessary to win the American League East and the seven games needed to become the AL champions are back, so Maddon realizes that any approach to the 2009 season need not start with "A." He can go a little further into the alphabet.

"The first couple of years, it was about building relationships," he explains. "Now we talk about trust and accountability."

Now, anyone who thinks the Rays really are a one-year wonder had better consider a sobering thought: No Tampa Bay position player had anything approaching a career year. Carlos Peña had a terrible first half. B.J. Upton battled injury. Carl Crawford had an off year. It was a get-the-job-done offense, and with the addition of ex-Phillie Pat Burrell, the Rays could be strong in an area where they have been merely functional.

The Rays did not have a .300 hitter (a gold star on the forehead if you knew catcher Dioner Navarro led them with a .295 average), had one 30-homer guy (Peña), and had only two players with more than 80 runs batted in (Peña and Evan Longoria).

No Tampa Bay starting pitcher had an overwhelming year, either. James Shields and the departed Edwin Jackson were the big winners with 14. But the deep rotation is regarded as one of baseball's best, and it may very well get stronger with the addition of electrifying 23-year-old lefthander David Price, who did not play a major league game until last Sept. 28 but became a go-to guy in the postseason.

The 6-foot-6-inch Price, a first-round draft pick out of Vanderbilt, has everyone buzzing.

"Very gifted," says Navarro.

"You can just look at him and see he's an athlete," says reliever Grant Balfour.

"He's different," points out righthander Andy Sonnanstine. "Most rookies are nervous. But when he got the call to go in on the day he made his debut in Detroit, he threw both hands up in the air and shouted, 'Yes!' I've never seen that before."

It has almost become Maddon's mission to make sure that Price does not flop on his watch. He is baseball's top pitching prospect, yes, but fantasy players should be aware that he will not be putting up humongous numbers because he will not be getting a heavy workload. Whatever numbers he'll put up will be done in 150 innings, max.

"We'll be very careful with him," Maddon promises. "You never want a prospect like that to go backward - ever. I've seen organizations who've brought up guys who 'can't miss' who've missed."

Addressing the needs
So what did happen last season? How did the Rays go from 66 wins in 2007 to 97 in 2008?

It's not as if everyone saw this coming.

"This time last year," says the one and only Don Zimmer (wearing No. 61 to commemorate the length of his organized baseball career), "Joe said he thought we could be a .500 club. I said, 'Joe, if you go .500, you'll be Manager of the Year.' "

Actually, there were things to like about the Rays in 2007. They did have lefthanded pitcher Scott Kazmir, they did have Shields, they did have Peña, a 46-homer guy, and they did have Crawford, who has been a standout since coming up in 2002.

What held them back were a leaky defense and a beyond-horrible bullpen. The Tampa Bay bullpen ERA in 2007 was a ghastly 6.16.

As Tony Soprano would say, "End of story."

General manager Andrew Friedman addressed the defensive situation with a brilliant trade, sending promising outfielder Delmon Young to Minnesota for shortstop Jason Bartlett and righthanded pitcher Matt Garza. When Longoria took over third base, incumbent Akinori Iwamura moved to second, where he was far more comfortable. Now the Rays had a very nice defensive infield. With Crawford in left and the fleet Upton in center, the Rays had no worries at those positions.

Garza won 11 games and was the winning pitcher in Game 7 of the ALCS. He's a keeper. Trades like this get GMs long-term contracts.

Friedman likewise set out to reconstruct the bullpen, and when the dust had settled, the Rays had a nice lefty-righty balance, featuring the likes of J.P. Howell and Balfour and Trever Miller and Chad Bradford, then finishing with Dan Wheeler and, until he departed with an almost predictable injury, Troy Percival.

Balfour, an affable Australian, explains the difference for him between 2007 and 2008.

"The year before, when you told someone who you played for, they'd say something like, 'The team with the Little League bullpen?' " he says. "It was not a good feeling. To go from that to what we have become is very gratifying."

Positive reinforcement
The big problem as the 2008 season unfolded was the ninth inning. Percival, the former Angels closer, gave the team a great lift in the first three months, but when he went down, Maddon was forced to mix and match to close out games, and that's the way it might have to be this year.

"If Percy's healthy, he's the closer," Maddon says. "Otherwise, we may have to divvy it up. It will be closer by committee."

That concept is anathema to some. Grady Little, for one, hopes he never hears that phrase again. But Maddon is not afraid of it because, to him, it beats the alternative, which is to hand the job to someone not capable of holding it.

"Some people can do the job once in a while, but not over the long haul," he maintains. "It's not easy to handle the emotional aspect of the job for seven months. So, the way I look at it, you're better off with the committee."

Common sense dictates that the offense will be better. For all the superlatives laid on him, Longoria had good but not dazzling numbers: 27 homers, 85 RBIs, and an .874 OPS in 448 at-bats. He's just beginning. Upton, beset with shoulder problems all season, showed what he can do with seven postseason homers in 66 at-bats after being held to nine homers in 531 at-bats during the regular season. Crawford struggled with a hand injury. At 27, he has lots of good baseball ahead of him.

As for Peña, there should be some very acceptable middle ground between the 46 homers, 121 RBIs, and .627 slugging percentage in 490 at-bats in '07 and the 31 homers, 102 RBIs, and .494 slugging percentage in the exact same at-bats last season. He turns 31 in May and is hardly in irreversible decline.

There really is no technical reason for the Rays to fail, so it might come down to, as Yogi Berra would say, "the 90 percent of the game that's half-mental." Enter the skipper.

Last year Maddon's slogan was "9 equals 8," meaning that nine guys playing nine innings would result in the Rays securing one of the eight playoff spots. Hey, it worked.

This year his mantra is "Control the Controllable."

"That speaks to your defense, as much as anything," he says. "Offense is a variable, but defense is something that can be there every day."

Oh, that's not all.

"Gratitude and humility," he continues. "If we can understand these concepts, and really believe in them, they will lead to self-discipline."

The eyes may roll at times, I'm sure, but the players basically buy into what he's selling. The message is always positive, for one thing.

"I'd call him intelligently optimistic," says Sonnanstine.

The Rays may not win every game, but the manager always keeps them entertained.

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