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You might have read this winter that the Tampa Bay Devil Rays are about to
get better. Don’t believe it.

The D-Rays have finished last in the American League East in all four years
of their existence. They have never lost fewer than 92 games, and last year
they finally made it all the way to 100 losses.

The stats show that the D-Rays earned every one of those 100 defeats.
Between Opening Day and the All-Star break, the Rays played 88 games and
allowed eight runs or more 31 times. They got blown out (lost by a margin of
five or more runs) 35 times last season, more than any major-league team
other than the Pirates. The Rays finished last in the American League in
runs scored and next-to-last in runs allowed. They were 13th in AL in OPS,
28th in the majors. They drew fewer walks that any AL team except the
Royals, and only Red Sox batters struck out more. The Rays were last in
fielding percentage and first in errors. They couldn’t throw or catch: they
were 13th in the AL in both throwing and fielding errors.

On the last day of the season, after the Rays had lost their 100th game,
manager Hal McRae said to the assembled media, "We don’t know we lost
100 games, you guys do." Mind over matter. With some organizations you
just never can tell if it’s denial, ignorance, or spin.

The Devil Rays spent the offseason acting and talking as if they really
believed they were resurgent, though. They made only negligible moves,
dropping
Jose Guillen and re-signing Chris Gomez for one year
.
Impressed by what he saw last year, GM Chuck LaMar has been talking about
signing some of his players to long-term contracts, thus locking up the
"building blocks" of the franchise. He’s talking principally about
Brent Abernathy, Toby Hall, Nick Bierbrodt, and Joe
Kennedy
. He seems to be echoing Pope John Paul II: there really is hope
in the young.

All of the happy talk about the Rays’ future springs from their performance
in the second half of last season, when they went 35-39. In December, LaMar
said that "we know the last three or four months of a major-league
season, especially for a team that’s out of it as we were at the end of the
year, can be a little misleading." While LaMar meant that the overall
record was misleading, and that the second half performance was indicative
of the team’s ability, what he actually said is true: too much has been made
of the Rays’ second half.

To give the Devils their due, they did get better as the season progressed.
Their winning percentage was .307 in the first half, .473 in the second
half. Before the All-Star break, they scored 3.91 runs per game; that
improved to 4.43 runs per game afterward. They dropped their runs allowed
from 6.25 per game down to 4.45, one of the best in-season improvements over
the last ten American League seasons. Their pitchers got bombed only half as
often: they gave up eight or more runs only 14 times in their last 74 games,
and the Devil Rays closed out the season by going 12-7 after the September
11 hiatus. One can be forgiven for thinking genuine improvement is being
made.

The team that closed the season was substantially different from the one
that McRae inherited
when
he took Larry Rothschild’s job on April 18
, with
only Greg Vaughn and Ben Grieve surviving the purge. In
September, young players like Abernathy, Hall, and Jason Tyner were
playing every day. The younger lineup did a little better:

             AVG  OBP  SLG
Pre-Break   .253/.316/.386
Post-Break  .264/.324/.389


You can see that the gains in OBP and SLG were attributable to the boost in
batting average. The Rays were last in the AL in home runs in both halves of
the season. The real improvement was in their efficiency, as they scored a
half a run per game more in the second half.

Gomez,
picked
up after he was released by the Padres in June
, had something
of a career year, slugging .513 in 58 games for the Devil Rays. He can’t be
expected to do that again. Grieve has been regressing ever since his rookie
season. Aubrey Huff bottomed out in August and was sent to the minors.
Vaughn is in his sunset years. The youngsters they have in the lineup now
were not all that promising as minor leaguers. They didn’t post .400 OBPs or
steal a thousand bases or hit with terrific power. They weren’t star
prospects. They were the kind of guys you’d expect to make the majors as
utility players. There isn’t one player in this group with even a single
category skill worth a slot on your fantasy team. They are not building
blocks. I’m not sure this lineup is even any better than what the D-Rays
have started in any of their previous disasters.

The Rays did genuinely improve their run prevention during last season. The
team ERA dropped from 5.63 to 4.12 from one half to the next.
Kennedy vaulted from Single-A and held his own, while Paul Wilson
was every bit as good in the second half as he had been in 2000.

By now you are probably familiar with
Voros
McCracken’s theory about hits allowed
.
Keith
Woolner has succinctly summarized the theory
: When you
remove defense-independent outcomes such as strikeouts, home runs, and walks
from the batters a pitcher faces, the resulting batting average on balls in
play is not greatly affected by the pitcher himself.

In the second half of last year, the D-Rays lowered their batting average
allowed from .286 to .257. Did the pitchers cause this, or was it a
combination of luck and better defense?

The Rays boosted their strikeout rate by nearly one per game, from 6.0 to
6.8, keeping one more ball out of play, which by itself could account for
the drop in batting average. When you factor in the improved defense, we can
see that Rays earned the drop in batting average. It wasn’t luck.

There were still troubling indicators. The Rays remained perilously bad in
two key categories, walks and home runs:

		  Home Runs Allowed          Walks Allowed
Pre-Break     102 (tenth in the AL)   308 (11th in the AL)
Post-Break     105 (last in the AL)   261 (12th in the AL)


Relative to the league, they were actually worse in both categories in spite
of their substantial improvement in runs allowed. While some credit must go
the pitchers for raising the strikeout rate, the Rays’ improvement in run
prevention was probably due mostly to the improved defense: fewer unearned
runs, and their contribution to a better job in turning balls in play into
outs. So while the run prevention improved, the pitching didn’t have as much
to do with it as it would appear at first look.

The Devil Rays’ hitters are at the bottom of the AL in drawing walks and
hitting homers, and their pitchers are also among the league’s worst in
those categories. If the over/under on Devil Rays’ losses is 90, bet the
over. As long as they have that Quadruple-A lineup, the pitching will have
to carry the team toward .500, and in spite of the gains the staff made last
year there is still a long way to go before even mediocrity is achieved.

McRae and LaMar get paid to accentuate the positive. For the first time,
they’re fielding a lineup of mostly homegrown talent, and for the first
time, McRae begins the season as manager, with an entire winter and spring
to implement his methods. He has brought in Jackie Brown as the new pitching
coach and Milt May to instruct the hitters.

May comes over from the Pirates. He was the hitting coordinator for
their minor-league system. The Rays’ hitters need nothing so much as to
improve their on-base percentage. They also strike out too much and can’t
hit for power. Last June,
I wrote
this about the Pirates’ hitters
:


"What the Pirates’ batters can’t do is draw walks, control the strike
zone, or hit for power. Pittsburgh is like Tampa Bay in that the
organization favors tools over skills. The Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate, the
Nashville Sounds, is last in the Pacific Coast League in runs scored, last
in home runs, second from last in walks, among the league leaders in
strikeouts, and near the bottom in OBP and SLG. Keep in mind that there are
16 teams in the PCL. At Altoona (Eastern League), the hitters are third from
the bottom in runs scored, tied for second from last in walks, and they lead
the league in strikeouts."


This is a holistic overhaul. Shortly after that column ran last summer,
Pirates GM Cam Bonifay was, coincidentally, fired.
The Devil Rays have hired him to be the director of player personnel, head up the scouting department,
and be LaMar’s special assistant.

The hirings of May and Bonifay were the most significant of the Rays’
off-season maneuvers. They reinforce all that is Devil Rays baseball. Like
LaMar, Bonifay favors tools over skills. Both men look for speed in hitters
and velocity in pitchers. You can teach Tommy Herr to switch-hit; you
can’t teach Paul Konerko to run a 4.4/40. The scouting philosophy in a
nutshell is this:

You can’t put in what God left out.

Since their inception, the Devil Rays have been drafting athletes over
baseball players, and we have been giving them hell for it in every edition
of our book. They draft multi-sport high-school stars. They draft agile
basketball players, fast quarterbacks, and lithe sprinters. All the while,
the A’s and Astros are scavenging all the hitters and pitchers. The Rays
have yet to develop one of these athletes into a real player.

The Rays have blown their draft picks in two other ways. They have lost
several high picks by signing bad, old free agents, and they have drafted
too many high-school pitchers. It is well-established that high-school
pitchers are a significant draft risk. In his
New
Historical Baseball Abstract
, Bill James notes that


"Perhaps the most phenomenal fact of life in baseball today is that
major league teams continue to use first-round picks for high school
pitchers."


How far has James’s influence reached into the draft room? This year, eight
high-school pitchers were chosen in the first round. The good news for the
Devil Rays is that they took a college pitcher with their pick. While the
Rays have used too many high picks on high-school pitchers, they have only
once burned a first-rounder on one.

In 1996, the D-Rays spent their third and fourth picks on high-school
pitchers, then steered pretty well clear of the breed. In 1997, they used
their first pick, and four of their first six, on high-school pitchers. In
1998, they didn’t take one until the tenth round. In 1999, they regressed,
taking five with their first 11 picks. The 2000 draft was a write-off, as
the Rays had lost their second-, third-, and fourth-round picks in the wake
of the free-agent signing binge. Last summer, they used their first four
picks on college pitchers. There’s your reason to believe.

The second half of last season was false spring for the Devil Rays. There
are only modest indicators that they’re starting to figure things out. They
have regenerated themselves at the major league level, shedding years and
payroll. They seem to be drafting with a little more sense, and not treating
their picks as if they are a renewable resource. There are still those who
believe Josh Hamilton will put last season and his injuries behind
him and fulfill the potential that earned him his ranking as Baseball
America
‘s top prospect.

Then there’s the disquieting reality that the organization hired May and
Bonifay. The Pirates are the only organization worse than the Devil Rays, so
why hire the man who oversaw the Pirates’ demise? Why hire the instructor
that coordinated what was arguably the worst hitting performance in the
minors last year? You wouldn’t say those are results-oriented resumes.

It is not my purpose here to state that LaMar is stupid. However, his public
utterances and the Devil Rays’ off-season moves don’t give much hope that
this is the right group of people to make a winner out of this pathetic
franchise before it is forced to move or die.


Keith Scherer is an attorney with the Department of the Judge Advocate
General, United States Air Force. He is currently assigned to Ellsworth Air
Force Base, South Dakota, where he lives with his wife and son. You can
contact him at kjsbaseball@aol.com.

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