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September 27, 2005

Can Of Corn

Reasons to Believe

by Dayn Perry

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The Tampa Bay Devil Rays know losing like Tara Reid knows dry heaves. In almost eight years of existence, the Rays are a cumulative 255 games under .500 and, in less than a week, will wrap up their seventh last-place finish. So rare is that kind of incompetence that it almost suggests malice aforethought. However, that might all be about to change.

The D-Rays have in their midst a rare and astounding mélange of young talent that's without peer in the game today. The haplessness in the upper reaches of the organization is well known, but when you pick no lower than eighth in the annual June draft for seven straight years you're almost bound to stumble into a nice farm system. Whatever the reasons, the Rays, if they're able to cobble together the necessary supporting parts (not to be assumed in Chuck LaMar's case), they could be at the beginning of a nice run in the AL East, thanks to a deep well of under-25 talent. Consider …

  • Scott Kazmir, age 21. Like any number of hard-throwing, prep-trained young lefties, Kazmir has endured many a fit and start. However, his stuff is top-shelf, and in the second half this season he's been tremendous. Since the break, he's allowed 3.69 runs per game, struck out 85 and given up just four homers in 78 innings. Provided he stays healthy, Kazmir appears to be bound for ace-dom.

  • B.J. Upton, age 21. In 2004, he was one of the best prospects in the game. Had Upton not exhausted his rookie status last year, he would've been one of the best prospects in the game in 2005. This season, Upton authored a batting line of .299/.391/.487 at Triple-A Durham, and he didn't turn 21 until late August. Thus far, the Rays are keeping him at short, but that could change.

  • Delmon Young, age 20. And here we have the best prospect in the game. Young, who didn't turn 20 until a fortnight ago, this season hit .336/.387/.582 at Double-A Montgomery with an extra-base hit every 8.9 at-bats. When a 19-year-old puts up those kind of numbers in the generally pitcher-friendly Southern League, he's distinguished himself. Young's numbers dropped after a promotion to Durham, but he still projects as an MVP-caliber bat in the majors.

  • Jonny Gomes, age 24. Is it possible to quietly slug .555? Gomes is doing just that. Gomes showed exceptional raw power numbers coming up through the minors, and now he's doing it at the highest level.

  • Jorge Cantu, age 23. This season, Cantu is slugging .505. If that holds up, it'll be the all-time single-season record for a second baseman under age 24 (edging Joe Gordon's .502 mark set in 1938). Lest you think Cantu's power numbers this season are aberrant, observe that he slugged .462 in limited action in Tampa last season and, prior to that 2004 call-up, slugged .576 at Durham. That surge is at least partly owing to the fact that Cantu packed on 20 pounds of muscle after the 2003 season. The thunder is real.

  • Carl Crawford, age 24. Crawford has an exceptional glove in the outfield, a prolific and high-percentage approach on the bases (169 career steals with a success rate of 82.0%) and developing power. Since the break Crawford's hitting .328/.357/.515, and his minor-league dossier and skills progression suggest the progress is genuine. In 2002, Crawford slugged .456 as a 20-year-old in the International League, and since becoming a full-time major leaguer, he's increased his SLG and ISO each season.

  • Rocco Baldelli, age 24. Baldelli is overrated in most mainstream circles, and he's recovering from a major knee injury. Still, he's got a good outfield glove and some pop. He's not a future star by any means, but he's a useful ballplayer with many competent seasons ahead.

  • Chad Orvella, age 24. Orvella is sidelined with shoulder inflammation, but he's nevertheless one of the best young relievers around. Fathom his career minor-league digits: 111 innings, 1.46 R/G (!), 12.97 K/9, 5.11 H/9, 9.4 K/BB (!). Orvella boasts three exceptional pitches: a mid-90s fastball with good movement, a plus-plus change-up and a plus-plus slider. Such a deep repertoire raises the issue of why the Rays haven't tried him as a starter, but there's no arguing with his performance out of the pen. Before his shoulder acted up, Orvella was arguably Tampa's best set-up man this season, and he remains a potential shutdown closer.

  • Joey Gathright, age 23. Gathright has a serious limitation--a lack of projectable power--but he certainly has his uses if deployed properly. Gathright has blinding speed and is a gifted fly-chaser in the outfield. Also, he posted OBPs of .360 or better at every stop in the minors. Again, he's probably not a quality major-league regular, but he's got substantial mid-roster skills.

  • Wes Bankston, age 21. You can muster a case that Bankston is one of the more underrated position prospects in baseball. He shows solid plate discipline and good power potential. This past season, Bankston put up a respectable batting line of .292/.360/.482 at Montgomery despite being hindered by an early-season knee injury.

The Rays, of course, have their shortcomings. Remove Kazmir from the calculus, and Tampa starters are left with a cumulative ERA of 6.11. (Incidentally, two other under-25 talents, Wade Townsend and the convalescing Jeff Niemann will help in this regard.) However, this remains an organization lavished in young talent. Oh, and if trends hold they'll have the third or fourth overall pick of the June 2006 draft. It's incumbent upon the organization to get a management team in place that's capable of fleshing out the roster. Squandering this "perfect storm" of young performers would be inexcusable.

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