There is nothing better than opening day. It is like Christmas morning. It is like the first day with a driver’s license. It is like the first few weeks of a new relationship. It is baseball season, and nothing beats it. It is opening day and every baseball fan has hope whether you are a fan of the New York Yankees (probably in the playoffs), the Minnesota Twins (hoping to be in the playoffs) or the Kansas City Royals (hoping hell freezes over).
Every baseball fan has hope, including Rays fans. But how much hope can a fan of the Tampa Bay
My fellow Rays fans, I am here to report that the State of the Franchise is strong. Ok, ok. That might be a bit of an exaggeration. Let me try that again…My fellow Rays fans the State of the Franchise is getting stronger.
The Rays have been a losing franchise for nine years. They have been the punchline to many jokes and over the years critics have pointed at the Tampa Bay
My fellow Rays fans, things have changed. A dark cloud hung over this franchise from 1998-2005 in the form of an inept ownership group and front office personnel. We are now in our second season since stepping out of the The Dark Ages, and the cloud is lifting. The Dark Ages have left many scars on Rays fans, but the deepest scars are on the franchise itself. I call it the The Curse of LaMar-Naimoli. Former principal owner Vince Naimoli and former General Manager Chuck LaMar were as fit to run a Major League Baseball team as a fungoe. They tried it all, and it all failed. High-priced veteran free agents turned into overpriced veterans. A youth movement became a cheap movement. The result? Eight losing seasons and seven last place finishes. Can’t miss prospects missed on a regular basis. Josh Hamilton was lost to drugs, Jeff Niemann and Wade Townsend were lost to injuries. B. J. Upton forgot where first base was. Dewon Brazelton was just not very good. Does anybody even remember Paul Wilder, Jason Standridge or Josh Pressley? What do these eight players all have in common? They were first round draft picks during the Dark Ages.
Then hope came in the form of Stuart Sternberg and his Wall Street prodigies. They assumed control of the franchise from Naimoli following the 2005 season. At the time, the franchise was weakened by years of ineptitude. The fans were beaten into apathy or anger and mostly they were driven away. Any hope for the team to succeed was stripped away by Naimoli and LaMar. The fans were bitten by The Curse of LaMar-Naimoli.
Sternberg and Co. took over and hope was renewed. Promises to spend money were made. Changes to upgrade the Trop were implemented. The new front office preached a commitment to build a winner. We stood with them. We soaked it all in and wanted to believe every word of it. Hope was renewed. Opening Day 2006 in
But Sternberg and
Most importantly, Sternberg and
Sternberg and his Wall Street Assassins also brought in a new manger. Out was the fiery Lou Piniella, and in was Joe Maddon, his silly glasses and sillier defensive shifts. Compared to Piniella, Maddon is Mother Theresa. He is a player’s manager. He is not afraid to buck conventional wisdom and is a big believer in computer analysis. But Papa Joe came from a franchise that possessed a roster filled with dependable veterans that needed little guidance. Not only would Joe Maddon have to learn how to mange a major league ball club, he would have to do it with a much younger (and cheaper) roster than he was used to working with.
In the end, 2006 ended the same as the eight seasons of the Dark Ages…not good. The team finished last, with 101 losses and the worst record in all baseball. Too many injuries to overcome and despite the great performances by Crawford and Wigginton, the offense finished near the bottom of the
But there is reason for hope. My fellow Rays fans, I am here to tell you that the State of the Rays is getting stronger.
Free parking and cheap concessions are nice. The upgrades to the Trop are great (have you seen pictures of the Trop from 1998? It looked like the inside of an oil barrel). But it comes down to talent, and this team has talent. The Trop isn’t as bad as its reputation. Unfortunately, If you build it, they will come only works for some parks such as Camden Yards. Even there, without a good product on the field, they don’t come as much as they used to. The Trop has never been the problem. The Trop is a much better stadium to watch a baseball game than the Metrodome in
This is not your older brother’s
This team has talent, but more importantly the talent is young. The opening day roster will feature a lineup in which only two players are over the age of 25. By mid-season, all five members of the starting rotation could be under the age of 25. Will one of these players someday be inducted into the Baseball hall of Fame? We don’t know, but that is the great part. When a free agent signs with a high payroll team, their fans already know what that player is capable of. Those players are proven and will perform at certain level. Sometimes they play at a lower level, but rarely do they play at a higher level. Rays fans have a lot of talent, but their packaging is unopened. We don’t know how good Carl Crawford can be. He is only 25. He is already great, but in baseball terms he is still two years away from hitting his peak seasons. How good can he be? I don’t know, but it is going to be fun finding out.
The Rays have talent and the talent is young, but most importantly, the talent isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Any hopes that the Yankees, Red Sox or Mets fans have of signing or trading for Crawford, Kazmir and/or Baldelli will just have to wait…a long time. Crawford is signed through 2010, Baldelli is signed through 2011. The team controls the rights to Young through the 2012 season and Kazmir until 2010. Barring a trade, those four players…the core of the team, will be together…will mature together…will grow more talented together, for the next four seasons.
And my fellow Rays fans, more talent is on the way, and it will be here soon. At the major league level, the outfield may already be the most talented in baseball and is set for the next few years. Yet Elijah Dukes, who is making his major league debut today, is knocking on the door and he may be the most talented of the group. The system is filled with top-level infielder prospects, led by 2006 first round pick Evan “Dirtbag” Longoria and California League MVP Reid Brignac, The Cajun God of Baseball. After his impressive rookie campaign Longoria is already considered by many to be a top-10 prospect in baseball, and should be manning one of the infield positions at the Trop in 2008. Brignac has improved his defense enough that he is no longer projected to switch positions and could be the Rays shortstop as soon as 2008.
And for once there are a number of top pitching prospects. 2004 first round pick Jeff Niemann is finally back to 100% and looks to again be the second top-of-the-rotation pitcher that the team desperately needs. We should see him pitching from the mound at the Trop by the All-Star break. Mitch Talbot, whom the team acquired from the Astros in the Aubrey Huff deal, is another top prospect that could be in the rotation sometime in 2007. The power lefty-righty combination of Wade Davis and Jacob McGee, who will begin the season at AA have a chance to be just as good as any of the others. And for the ten Rays fans that are obsessed with Andy Sonnanstine, yes, he is down there also. He doesn’t have major league “stuff” but all he does is win, and that can’t be ignored. The future of the Rays is bright indeed.
Still, we are here to see the 2007 Tampa Bay Rays and the 2007 squad still has its problems. There are still a number of question marks and there are holes that have yet to be filled, and the biggest hole of them all is on the mound. When it comes down to it, winning in baseball is about three things…pitching, pitching and pitching, and the 2007
There are also questions concerning the lineup. We still don’t know what to expect from a number of players. Jonny Gomes had a disappointing 2006 campaign, but we don’t know yet how much of that was due to injury and how much of it was other teams learning how to pitch to him. B. J. Upton has all the talent in the world but he never seems to be able to put it all together. In 2007 he will have a chance to be the most-days second baseman and super-utility player for the Rays, finding time in the lineup at a number of different positions. We still don’t know if the relaxed pressure on his defensive inefficiencies will allow him to finally begin to mature as an offensive force in the mold of Jose Reyes. Dioner Navarro enters the 2007 season as the everyday catcher for the first time in his career. He has experience in parts of three seasons and he is only 23 years old. Catchers are notoriously slow developers, but we don’t know if 2007 will be the season that Navarro will start show his potential that many have predicted for him since he was the Yankees top prospect.
The biggest question mark may be Japanese import Akinori Iwamura. Iwamura is a gold glove third baseman who was a power hitter in
In the end, this 2007 version of the Tampa Bay
As Rays fans we will not like the final record in 2007, but if the team shows progress and promise we can be happy with the results. And if looking forward to 2008 there are still holes at the end of the season , the front office will not hesitate to fill those holes through free agency and trades. In their first full off-season, Friedman and Co. di
d not sign a single significant free agent. Despite the team’s record, there was no need. The team is not ready to compete in 2007 and Papa Joe and Friedman need to have a better understanding of the talent that is already in place. There were no free agents or group of free agents that would have made this team a contender in 2007, but there could be in 2008. And that is when the team will be ready to make a jump forward.
My fellow Rays fans, we now have reason for optimism. I know we have been optimistic before and we have been let down. We sit in our seats at the Trop and we have no history to look back upon fondly. We have no proud memories of the first nine seasons. The Tampa Bay
My Fellow Rays, I am here to tell you that for the first time, The State of the Franchise is getting stronger.