Mr. Sternberg, Mr. Silverman, Mr. Friedman and Mr. Maddon, our honored guests Mr. Vitale and Mr. Heckler, and my fellow Rays fans…I have the honor of reporting to you on the State of the Franchise.

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 Devil Rays have for 2007? The Rays are entering their 10th season and they are still a team without a history. Baseball is a game whose foundation is the game’s history. The records, the stats, the champions. The Rays don’t have a history, or at least no history worth remembering. As we embark on another season and sit here on opening day, there are very few games that Rays fans can look back upon fondly. There are very few players that Rays fans can look back upon and reminisce. We cannot sit in our seat and say “I was at the Trop that time….” Or “I remember going to the Trop and seeing so-and-so play. Wow, he was awesome.” We don’t have that history to fall back upon. But I am here to tell you today that this is the history. In 2007 we will begin to create those memories. We will begin to create those feelings of pride. Yes, the Rays finished in last place in 2006. Yes, the Rays will have a losing record again in 2007. But this franchise is moving in the right direction and soon, the pain and suffering and sacrifice will be rewarded.

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 Devil Rays when the discussion of contraction is brought up. So why should Rays fans expect anything different in 2007 and beyond? The Rays have finished last in eight of their nine seasons of existence. The Rays have been compared to the New York Mets of the 60s and our very own Tampa Bay Bucs of the 80s and early 90s. But those two franchises have something in common. They emerged from their own darkness and became great.

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.

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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 Baltimore was the most anticipated opening day for Rays fans since 1998. Then the Curse of LaMar-Naimoli reared its ugly head. The team lost two shortstops to injuries on opening day. Jorge Cantu and Jonny Gomes, two bright spots from 2005, both lost considerable time to injury and were never 100%. Ty Wigginton lost a month to a broken wrist. After making his first all-star appearance, Scott Kazmir was ineffective in the second half due to a sore shoulder. Rocco Baldelli missed the beginning of the season after missing all of 2005 and never really hit his stride until the last two months of the season. Even Carl Crawford who had a great season, was plagued by a sore wrist most of the year. LaMar and Naimoli were gone, but The Curse remai
ned.

But Sternberg and Co. have taken The Curse head on. The team announced that the franchise will change its name and colors. They have made a number of changes to the Trop, including new turf for 2007. Will that be enough to lift the curse? I have no idea, but I do own Vince Naimoli and Chuck LaMar voodoo dolls just in case. Chuck LaMar is now a scout for the Washington Nationals and they may be the worst team in baseball in 2007. Is The Curse transferable? We can only hope.

Most importantly, Sternberg and Co. are not afraid. In their first year at the helm, they took a hard look at what plagued the franchise and made efforts to correct them. There was some talent in the organization, but not nearly enough. In their first year on the job, they made more trades than Lamar and Naimoli made in the previous four seasons combined. Talent was sought and talent was acquired. It was no longer good enough to have one top prospect at each position. The new goal was to have several top prospects at each position and let them fight it out. At the beginning of the 2006 season Baseball America ranked the Devil Rays farm system as the 10th best in baseball. Not bad. But that is not going to get the job done if the team’s payroll is south of $80 million, and the Rays payroll is in Antarctica. As we enter the second year of Sternberg’s and Friedman’s reign, Baseball America now ranks the farm system as the best in baseball. Talent was sought, and talent was acquired. There is talent on the major league roster and there is talent funneling its way to the top ready to push the players already in place.

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 AL. The starting pitching posted strong numbers, led by Kazmir, but they rarely worked deep into games which placed too much pressure on a over-worked and under-talented bullpen. The result? Too many blown leads. Papa Joe Maddon admits he spent most of 2006 just trying to get to know the players. He coddled the players much the same way a mother is afraid for their first child to get hurt or sick. The result was an immature and at times unprofessional clubhouse.

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 Minneapolis, yet the Twins drew more than 2 million fans in 2006? Why? They were a good team.

This is not your older brother’s Devil Rays. Gone are the days of the Rainbow Warriors. This Rays squad has talent. The opening day lineup will feature ten players, of which seven have played or have the potential to play at an all-star level. Three of those players, Rocco Baldelli, Carl Crawford and Delmon Young, all have the rare combination of power, speed and defensive skills, and they all have the ability to someday win an MVP. The opening day starting pitcher has the ability to someday win a Cy Young Award. Crawford, Young and Kazmir have enough talent to someday be the first Devil Rays inducted to Cooperstown. Will they get there? Nobody knows. The Church of Baseball can be unforgiving sometimes, just ask Dwight Gooden and Daryl Strawberry.

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. :p>

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 Devil Rays do not have enough talented pitching. In 2006, the starting pitchers were above average, led by Kid K, but they posted the fewest innings of any team’s starting pitchers. Nobody knows how good Jae Seo or James Shields can be and Casey Fossum, despite being the only pitcher in baseball without a fastball, is destined to somehow end up on the DL. The bullpen on the other hand is just not good, and the Rays would win a lot more games if they were only five innings long.

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 Japan’s smaller ballparks. Nobody knows how his game will translate to the major leagues. Only one other power hitter has tried to make the transition from Japan to America (Hideki Matsui of the Yankees) so it is difficult to predict how Muu-Rah will fare. We can’t even be sure what his ideal position is as he could eventually end up at second base in 2008 to make room for another top prospect, Joel Guzman.

In the end, this 2007 version of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays will continue to lose more games than they win. We know the Rays will win at least 60 games and they will lose at least 60 games. The other 42 games will determine their place in the standings. But the team’s final record means little. What is more important is how much the team progresses on the field and how much Papa Joe grows as a manager. This is the season that a number of players need to demonstrate that they want to be a part of the future. Players like Gomes, Jae Seo, Edwin Jackson and Ben Zobrist need to make significant progress or they will be replaced by the wave of talent that is on the way. The rest of the players need to demonstrate that they can compete at high levels on a more consistent basis. The top prospects in the minor leagues, such as Brignac, Longoria, McGee and Davis need to continue to show growth and progress. All of these players can be great. Several will fail, but for once we have enough depth that if one fails, there will be somebody else to assume the responsibility of taking this franchise to greatness.

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 Devil Rays franchise has no history. But it is ok, because we are in the midst of the franchise’s history. These are the times that we will look back on with pride. These are the times that we will say “Remember when…”. This team will be a winner and all indications are that the winning will be sooner rather than later. We will look back on the 2007 season and we will not remember the team’s final record. Rather we will look back and remember that we were here when it all began. We were here when C. C. became “The Man”. We were here when Delmon Young first showed his Hall of Fame talents. We were here when Kid K became one of the dominant pitchers in baseball. We must be patient a little longer. Our day is coming and we will be able to hold our heads up high and say that we were there in the beginning.

My Fellow Rays, I am here to tell you that for the first time, The State of the Franchise is getting stronger.

 
 

2 Comments

  1. Jordi says:

    Hey saw you guys didn’t have any wrap ups about Saturday’s final spring game against the Mets. I wrote about it on my site The Serious Tip (a few posts down). Keep in mind I’ve been a Mets fan since I was a wee lad so I am a little biased. But the Devil Rays are growing on me. Also hope to make Opening Day Friday.
    Cool site, I’ll be checking frequently.
    P.S. You realize I had the same pic of Jenn Sterger one day earlier. I thought that was funny.

    - Jordi

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