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June 9, 2005
At some point, you just have to give up.
This week, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays fell permanently off my radar as a major-league franchise. Never really relevant, I'd seen enough signs of life--Carl Crawford, Jorge Cantu, Scott Kazmir--to entertain the notion that they weren't a lost cause. Given continued good work by the player-development staff, another strong draft or two and some judicious acquisitions at the major-league level, it wasn't hard to see .500 teams and better in the future.
I no longer have any reason to believe that the D-Rays' management is capable of presiding over that kind of process.
On Tuesday, the Devil Rays designated Josh Phelps for assignment. Phelps' star had fallen considerably since his appearance on the cover of Baseball Prospectus 2003, as he'd been unable to hit enough to keep a job with the Blue Jays, then suffered a trade and a non-tender before winding up in Tampa this spring. Phelps actually didn't play that poorly for the Rays: he hit .266/.328/.424, a bit above league-average, although well behind what a team needs from a first baseman/DH. Phelps had been unable to get his strikeouts under control, whiffing 48 times in 158 at-bats, and that was as much a reason for the DFA as anything else.
Jettisoning Phelps seemed to create space once again for Jonny Gomes. As of this morning, Gomes is hitting .340/.470/.715 for the Triple-A Durham Bulls, this on the heels of a .256/.368/.531 line at Durham in '04. Like Phelps, Gomes' value is wrapped up in his bat, although unlike Cover Boy he can play a passable corner outfield. He's no worse than the third-best hitter in the entire organization, behind Aubrey Huff and maybe--maybe--B.J. Upton. If you put him on the team, you'd have no choice but to bat him in the middle of the lineup.
Even with starter Rocco Baldelli on the disabled list, the Devil Rays have at least three players who can play center field. Crawford is basically a center fielder playing left (albeit with a left fielder's arm); Alex Sanchez has been a center fielder his entire career, and while he's pretty bad in the role, the Rays signed him in part to fill the Baldelli hole. Minor-league veteran Damon Hollins has played the most in center for the team; at 31, he's a stopgap, not a solution. Regardless, the Devil Rays had no pressing need for a center fielder. They had acceptable solutions on hand.
Faced with a fairly easy decision to call up the guy making International League pitching staffs cry, the Devil Rays instead called up a speedy guy without much power who's more adept at playing the outfield. No, not even the right one. I might have understood passing over Gomes to recall Joey Gathright, a prospect who is hitting .320/.407/.420 at Durham with 24 steals and an 80% success rate. I would have disagreed, but I would have understood.
No, Chuck LaMar passed on Gomes, passed on Gathright, all so that he could recall Reggie Taylor. Taylor is a failed first-round pick from the Phillies' ath-a-letes phase, and almost ten years to the day of his selection, has a career line of .233/.275/.386 in 524 plate appearances. His career OBP in the minors coming into this year was .305. Taylor is fast, and at 27 and 28, he has had passable performances at Triple-A that indicate he could be an extra outfielder in the majors. (Taylor was hitting .284/.360/.448 when he was recalled.).
The argument, if you care to make one, in favor of Taylor is that the Devil Rays have been scoring runs but not preventing them. It's true. The D-Rays are fifth in the AL in runs, fourth in EqA, seventh in slugging. Meanwhile, they've allowed the most runs, highest OPS, the third most doubles-plus-triples, and they have the third-worst Defensive Efficiency Rating in the AL. Unlike, say, the Yankees, though, their run-prevention issues are more about a horrible pitching staff--most home runs allowed, most walks allowed, second-fewest strikeouts--than the defense. Taylor isn't going to help Hideo Nomo find 1995 again.
You can couch this as a move to capture defense, or to catch lightning in a bottle the way they have with Hollins, or a speed play for a manager who adores speed. In any light, it's dumb. The Rays have a 25-year-old ballplayer with nothing left to prove in Triple-A, a hitter who can be a middle of the lineup force on the cheap for the next few seasons. Even if you think Gomes' Triple-A strikeout rate (42 in 144 ABs this year, 95 in 553 over three years) is a big warning sign, there's no reason at all to not bring him to the majors, make him the right fielder and give him four months to make the case one way or the other. It's exactly the kind of thing you want to learn during a 75-win season.
Taylor is a failed #1 pick who has as much chance of making an extended contribution to the Devil Rays as "Dancing With the Stars" does of winning an Emmy. He's a known commodity, and he has no place getting regular work with a major-league team.
Given a choice between the two, the Devil Rays chose Taylor. I don't care how long you've been in the game or how many people consider you a "good baseball man." That's baseball incompetence, and it should be handled with dismissal. That the Devil Rays haven't been able to put Gomes into a job, that they keep finding guys like Sanchez and Hollins and Phelps and Taylor to play in front of him, is a scathing indictment of a front office that really should have been turned over three years ago.
Maybe Tampa Bay is an impossible market for major-league baseball, but we'll never know until they actually get major-league baseball.