With the annual baseball winter meetings almost upon us (and no, I am not going this year as I did in 2006 and 2010), the Rays are looking to tweak, twist, and trade their way into a better roster than they had last year. Anyone who watched them last year knows they had problems. Even though they won 91 games, they were far from a perfect team.
But before talking about future acquisitions or who the Rays might part ways with, I want to talked about who the Rays have already added to the team this offseason. It is usually rare for the Rays for pick up players in the early days of the offseason. And the two players the Rays have added to the roster so far couldn’t be more diametrically opposite. One is a pitcher who hopes his personal past doesn’t affect his potential, and the other is a catcher who hopes his on-the-field contributions can merit keeping his knowledge.
The last time I wrote here I wrote a letter to Rays owner Stu Sternberg. I wrote about the need to market the team better. I mentioned how the organization could better use social media, how they could better push their personalities, and a few ideas for theme nights and other brainstorms that I thought may increase ticket sales.
One of the ideas I didn’t mention because I thought it was common sense was to stay away from problem children – those players who have somewhat nefarious backgrounds. I get that some problem children have very good stats or very good potential and they usually come cheap. But one slip up could mar public perception of the team and give the organization a deeper black eye than the same action would for the Yankees or the Cubs or any almost any other team.
So far the Rays have had success with players who might be considered “behaviorally risky”. And they’ve shimmied off players such as Elijah Dukes and Al Reyes after their misdeeds. For example, they took a risk on Matt Bush, he of the infamous drunk police dispute and so far Bush has been a success.
Although each player brings his own set of conditions and drama, I think the organization is playing with fire by taking chances with players with nefarious backgrounds. The Rays have to fight against a very difficult environment. For whatever reason the Tampa area is a hotbed for athlete misbehavior and unfortunately I think it’s just a matter of time before the Rays get burnt.
I’m not saying some players can turn over a good leaf in the right environment. Phil Jackson coached Dennis Rodman and Ron Artest and won with both. Some organizations are ideal to embrace and bring out the best in people with problems. Perhaps Joe Maddon has established that type of environment. But I am cautious. The Rays walk a thin line with attendance as it is. Any good will built by school appearances and charity drives will be driven to the back pages by a DUI, a bar fight, or anything far worse. Flawed characters come cheap but they are flawed for a reason. And character flaws are a lot more impactful than an inability to hit left-handers.
Of course, a guy might be a devil in public but a saint in the clubhouse or vice versa. Some players may not be well socially adjusted outside of the baseball clubhouse. A player may be awesome with fans and a complete jerk to his teammates. Most times, we never know. But for better or worse, we make judgments on what we do know.
And that brings me specifically to Josh Lueke. I don’t know the guy nor do I know what happened on a night in May 2008. All I know is he comes with baggage. Personally, I’m not going to roll out the red carpet for the guy, however, my on-the-field rooting for him will not be affected by what he did off the field. If he strikes out Robinson Cano with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the ninth, I don’t care if he pushed little old ladies into cars and threw cats into trees, I’m applauding him in that moment. That’s not to say I’ll root for him to come in the game or even put on a uniform, but I will cheer his accomplishments. I’m a fan, it’s what I do. I’m not going to sit there with my arms crossed as he does what he needs to do. If Joe Maddon trusts him to get the job done, I will cheer when he does so. Not before. I think that’s fair.
That said, I do hope Josh Lueke does something to win over the fanbase as people. It would be nice for him to help a battered women’s shelter or a Big Brothers/Big Sisters program. Show us right off the bat that he is not a monster. Tampa sports fans have had our share of terrible people and law breakers either hail from here or play here. We are almost immune to players with baggage. Almost. But I would really like to see Lueke set himself apart from the Goodens, Strawberrys, Dukes, or Jeremy Stevens types.
Of course, some will never forgive. That’s apparent from the Mike Vick saga. Just like people will always hate Vick for what he did to those poor, helpless, defenseless doggies, someone somewhere will always think Josh Lueke is a lowlife. But outside of the nameless defendant and perhaps their family, no one should hold it against Lueke if he tries to put his best foot forward and tries to make amends for his negative actions.
Now on to the positive intangibles. For that of course I mean the signing of veteran catcher Jose Molina. I love this acquisition. I am a big fan of back-up catchers who barely hit their weight but reek of baseball knowledge. They provide veteran guidance to young players on how the game is played. They have been around the block, ridden the buses, and are the baseball version of the Star Wars B’omarr Order (enlightened monks from the planet Tattooine for the non-Star Wars geeks).
Molina is a baseball lifer. He started in the Angels organization while Joe Maddon was still there. He played under various former catchers such as Mike Scioscia, Joe Torre, and Joe Girardi and he is of course the brother of Yadier and Bengie Molina, recipients of six Gold Gloves. I have no doubt Jose Molina will be a coach or manager at some point after his career.
For now, however, Molina will be working with the Rays catching and pitching staff and playing on occasion. And he will add to his off the field contributions with some fine framing skills, where he was recently ranked the best catcher for framing pitches over the last five years. Even if Molina reverts back to his offensive mean, if Andrew Friedman can find some offense from the shortstop position, the Rays can afford to play Molina more than Jose Lobaton, who I am convinced will never hit Sam Fuld’s weight (180 for those keeping score at home).
Molina reminds me a bit of when the Rays acquired Gregg Zaun a few years ago. There is one big difference however. When Zaun was acquired in August 2009, he had to learn the pitching staff on the fly during the season. If I remember correctly, the staff didn’t do so well the first few times Zaun caught them. There is definitely a learning process when it comes to battery mates and Molina will have all spring to learn the staff.
We will see who Andrew Friedman brings into the fold during the Winter Meetings and through the rest of the offseason. Will we see the conclusion of the Upton Era, the departure of Wade Davis and Jeff Neimann, and the end of the Magic of Kotch? Will the Rays stick with Reid Brignac at short? Will they even entertain the thought of buying Prince Fielder a salad?
Be assured however that no matter who else they acquire, they will fall somewhere between Josh Lueke and Jose Molina in those off-the-field intangibles clubhouses and communities consider important.