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June 22, 2004

Prospectus Today

A Rush to Respectability

by Joe Sheehan

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The Devil Rays are the biggest story in baseball.

(Yeah, it looks weird to me, too.)

The D-Rays have snapped off an 11-game winning streak, entirely against the National League, and moved to within two games of .500, leaping into third place in the AL East in the process. The Rays have scored 67 runs and allowed 37 during the streak, so it's fair to say that they've dominated their opponents, although there's no way to win 11 in a row without outperforming your Pythagorean projection.

The run prevention has been the key to the streak. I mentioned yesterday that the Devil Rays' outfield had really been able to show its stuff while playing in Petco Park last week. Jose Cruz Jr. has a Gold Glove on his resume, Carl Crawford has a center fielder's range while playing left, and Rocco Baldelli is an above average center fielder with a good arm. The line about sweeping the Gold Glove awards may have seemed like hyperbole--and Ichiro Suzuki's outsized reputation makes a sweep unlikely--but I'd take any two of these guys over Torii Hunter, and he's the only other Gold Glove holder still playing outfield in the AL.

That great outfield is why the Devil Rays lead the majors in Defensive Efficiency, and turning batted balls into outs is the only thing they do well on that side of the ball. The Devil Rays are 13th in strikeouts and strikeout rate, 12th in strikeout-to-walk ratio, and last in home runs and home-run rate. Some of that is the contribution of pitchers, like Paul Abbott and Jeremi Gonzalez, who have worked their way out of Florida, but even the Rays' good pitchers, like Chad Gaudin and Danys Baez are flyball prone.

The winning streak has been more about the pitchers, though. While the defense has been essentially the same--slightly less effective on balls in play, and more apt to give up doubles and triples--the pitchers have morphed into Yankees: 70 strikeouts and 26 walks in 11 games, an unimpressive K rate but a fantastic 2.7-to-1 K/BB ratio. They've allowed just six home runs during the streak.

Essentially, the Devil Rays' pitching staff has grown up, not least because two pitchers with great stuff have apparently established themselves. Gaudin and Jesus Colome have taken up roles in the rotation and bullpen, respectively, and represent a huge improvement after the stopgaps they've replaced. I'm a big fan of Gaudin, who reached the majors last year, just a year after being a 34th-round draft pick. If Colome's apparent gains in command are for real, he could be a huge story in the second half, as his fastball is unhittable. These are the real pitchers th D-Rays have been waiting for, and if a Rob Bell or Mark Hendrickson can provide bulk innings, there will be enough pitching here to make the Rays a .500 team.

Sixty-seven runs in 11 games is nothing to sneeze at. While it would be more, shall we say, "BP correct" to point to young players Crawford, Baldelli, and Aubrey Huff, those runs are in large part the product of two veterans. Cruz has been on fire in interleague play, running his season numbers to .255/.382/.500. Working for a bargain $2.5 million this year, Cruz appears to be Chuck LaMar's best free agent signing ever.

But not LaMar's best move from last winter. That would be getting Tino Martinez from the Cardinals for little more than a willingness to pay a small fraction of his contract. Martinez is laying claim to an All-Star slot, batting .282/.374/.508, fifth among AL first basemen in EqA, third in EqR. He's also been hitting well during the streak, .310/.394/.551.

I said he was done three years ago, and his apparent resurrection is a great story so far. That said, three good months is well within the reach of any player capable of holding a major-league job--Martinez had a comparable first half last year before slugging .386 after the All-Star break--so he's less cornerstone and more trade bait.

The Devil Rays are still a year, maybe two, from making a dent in the AL race. But for the first time since 1999, you can actually see some reasons for optimism. With two tremendous prospects on the way in B.J. Upton and Delmon Young, a manager in Lou Piniella who has already presided over one franchise resurrection, and an exciting core of young players, there are reasons to care about the Devil Rays again.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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