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Will talks with Derek Jacques about the Devil Rays’ chances on Baseball Prospectus Radio. Click to download the mp3.

Is there a fan base in America to whom the concept of Hope and Faith would seem more far-fetched than it would to supporters of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays? In Pittsburgh and Kansas City, fans at least have memories of the days when the victory champagne flowed freely. Texas, Seattle and the north side of Chicago have at least had opportunities to make noise in the playoffs, even if those opportunities were squandered. In contrast, Tampa Bay’s nine years in baseball have been an exercise in frustration and incompetence, without even a modest run of success to relieve the monotony.

Marooned in the same division with the giant bankrolls of the Yankees and Red Sox, we can forgive Rays fans for thinking that barring the intervention of one or more of the horsemen of the apocalypse in New York, Boston and possibly Toronto, just making it to the playoffs is a pretty far-fetched goal. But the last few years have shown us that it’s not always the most obvious teams that win the crown. Here are a few messages of hope from the World Champions of the 21st Century, which can provide Devil Rays fans some solace coming into the 2007 season.

2006 Cardinals: If You Make It To The Playoffs, You Have a Chance

Even 90 wins may seem like a long shot when your team plays roughly a quarter of their schedule against the Yankees and Red Sox, so it’s comforting to look at the defending champions and see an 83-78 regular-season record. The fact is, in the wild-card era, the team with the best record in the majors has won the World Series once (the 1998 Yankees). A third of the time, the World Champion hasn’t even had to win their division. Once the postseason begins, no one cares who just squeaked into the playoffs, and who locked up their playoff berth in mid-August–it’s all up for grabs.

2005 White Sox: You’re With Me, Leather

The 2005 White Sox, ending a streak that was actually longer than the more-storied championship drought Boston broke the year before, had a number of outstanding qualities that the 2007 Devil Rays would love to imitate: a durable starting staff that went four deep, excellent power from the right-hand side and superior fielding acumen, easily leading the majors in Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (PADE). Tampa Bay might not have a Paul Konerko or Jermaine Dye-type slugger in the lineup, and they definitely don’t have four pitchers who are a lock to cross the 200-inning threshold, but they might be able to help themselves with the leather. Tampa Bay ranked last in Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency last season, by a wide margin:

TEAM  YEAR        DER      PADE
---  ----- ---------- ----------
SDN   2006      .7130      2.81
DET   2006      .7020      2.10
HOU   2006      .7011      1.99
NYN   2006      .7035      1.31
SFN   2006      .7009      1.19
ANA   2006      .6916      1.05
CHN   2006      .7011      0.65
ARI   2006      .6850      0.23
ATL   2006      .6867     -0.01
COL   2006      .6838     -0.14
CHA   2006      .6942     -0.14
FLO   2006      .6858     -0.36
NYA   2006      .6949     -0.64
OAK   2006      .6894     -0.66
PHI   2006      .6817     -0.81
SLN   2006      .6972     -0.91
LAN   2006      .6812     -0.95
TOR   2006      .6933     -1.00
MIL   2006      .6874     -1.01
BOS   2006      .6801     -1.18
KCA   2006      .6764     -1.39
WAS   2006      .6918     -1.59
CIN   2006      .6818     -1.64
SEA   2006      .6895     -1.70
MIN   2006      .6862     -2.13
TEX   2006      .6802     -2.16
BAL   2006      .6802     -2.57
PIT   2006      .6745     -2.71
CLE   2006      .6754     -2.74
TBA   2006      .6716     -4.46

(Chart courtesy of Keith Woolner)

If the Devil Rays as a unit were to improve to league-average performance in the field, it would mean an improvement of 56 runs over 2006, by FRAA. The hope for improvement lies primarily with the team’s center and left fielders, Rocco Baldelli and Carl Crawford. In 2003 and 2004, both men rated as outstanding fielders; in 2006, they were a combined 12 runs below average. Baldelli’s decline was at least partially attributable to the spate of injuries that wiped out his 2005 season. There is hope that as he gets further removed from the injuries, his defensive prowess will return. Crawford doesn’t have as ready an excuse for his defensive shortcomings; the Devil Rays have to hope a return to form is in order.

Another defensive upgrade could come from the left side of the infield, where the Rays will have a full season of Ben Zobrist at shortstop and Nippon League Gold Glover Akinori Iwamura at third. Like Tadahito Iguchi on the championship White Sox squad, Iwamura was a relatively cheap and unheralded pickup this offseason who could yield big dividends in his first season in the big leagues.

2004 Red Sox: Be Ready to Pull the Trigger on a Big Midseason Trade

The 2004 Red Sox looked like they were sunk at the trade deadline, when they reshaped their club by trading one of their long-time stars. The Devil Rays don’t have the Red Sox payroll or expectations, but they have a huge reservoir of young talent from which to deal. Baldelli and Crawford were both signed to long-term contracts in 2005, which were considered good deals even before Gary Matthews Jr. became a $10 million-per-year player. With the current inflation in player salaries, and the elimination of the old CBA rule that allowed a player traded in the middle of a multiyear deal to demand a trade, the Devil Rays can pretty much name their price if they decide to trade either player.

If the Rays do make a deal, they should be targeting pitching, pitching and more pitching. The Tampa Bay starting rotation features one established major-league starter–Scott Kazmir–followed by a lot of crossed fingers and wishcasting. Aside from picking up good arms in bulk, the club might also benefit from swapping out Jorge Cantu for a second baseman who can actually field the position.

2003 Marlins: Hit the Jackpot With Off-the-Radar Prospects

The Marlins’ 2003 run was sustained by two players who went directly from Double-A to the thick of a pennant race: Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera. Keeping in mind that guys like Delmon Young, B.J. Upton and Elijah Dukes have spent too much time in the high minors to surprise anyone when they show up in the majors, the Devil Rays have a few prospects who could be called on for a level-jumping rescue mission. Evan Longoria had PECOTA at “hello”–just 276 plate appearances into his professional career, Longoria has the system convinced that he could bash 20 dingers with a .271 EqA, and play Scott Rolen-level defense at the hot corner, right now. While it isn’t the whirlwind romance that PECOTA and Longoria have shared, Reid Brignac is the same age, shows just as much power, and at #11, is just one slot behind Longoria on our Top 100 Prospects list.

Finding a pitcher who could come out of nowhere to help the Rays get a title is a little trickier. In terms of pure stuff, #25 prospect Jeff Niemann is probably the most likely to unexpectedly rampage through the American League at midseason. If a former fourth-overall pick like Niemann isn’t a stealthy enough candidate for you, lefty Jacob McGee (our #45 prospect) and right-hander Wade Davis (#77) are both guys who’ve been racking up big strikeout numbers with not-so-great control in the minors. Both are at an age when big improvements in control could be on the menu.

2002 Angels: Build a Top Bullpen from Spare Parts

You generally don’t hear too much talk about constructing a bullpen on a team like the Devil Rays–that’s like shopping for a spoiler for your 1983 Chevy Malibu station wagon. Still, if the goal is for the Devil Rays to win the World Series in 2007, a good bullpen is a must.

The 2002 Angels are a good study in building a low-cost bullpen. Angels closer Troy Percival was a well-known, established reliever at the time of the Anaheim’s World Series run, but the Halos flanked him with some extremely unheralded talent. Brendan Donnelly was a 30-year-old journeyman, herky-jerky Ben Weber was another guy who’d languished in the minors until his 30s, 20 year-old Francisco Rodriguez snuck onto the roster in September after starting the year in Double-A.

The Devil Rays have a few relievers who could give them nice bullpen performance at a low price. Al Reyes finally had a breakout season and a steady job with the Cardinals in 2005…then tore a ligament in his elbow, sidelining him for a year and forcing him to work his way to the top once again, this time with the Tampa Bay. Chad Orvella has been the Rays’ reliever of the future for a few years now, but people have started to write him off after he had a Blassian period of wildness last season. If he gets his mechanics straight, he might wind up the latest successful position player-to-reliever conversion. Righthander Jae-Kuk Ryu was a quiet acquisition from the Cubs this spring. He, too, might be a sleeper in the bullpen.

2001 Diamondbacks: Find Two Stud Starters and Ride Them to Victory

Looking at them, no one would confuse Scott Kazmir and Randy Johnson. Johnson is 11 inches taller with a face is as leathery as beef jerky. But if the Devil Rays want to be partying in October, it would help to find the Curt Schilling to Kazmir’s Johnson. On the 2001 Diamondbacks, Schilling and Johnson reminded the world that two dominant starters can carry a team through a short series, even if they don’t have much pitching depth behind them. Kazmir isn’t yet a great pitcher, but he’s shown flashes of brilliance in the past. But even if Kazmir takes his game to the next level, and manages to stay healthy, he still can’t make the Rays contenders all by his lonesome. Check out Steve Carlton‘s 1972 season if you want to see what that is like.

Whether it’s by trade–maybe the Cubs figure out they can’t sign Carlos Zambrano, for example–or by one of their guys in the minors catching lightning in a bottle, the Devil Rays have to find that second big starter.

1997 Marlins: Past Performance Does Not Guarantee Future Results

That’s a lot of ifs, mights, coulds and maybes up there. To some, this entire exercise may seem ridiculous. The Devil Rays have never come within ten games of a winning record, in their entire history. They’re in a tough division, with two of the best-heeled gatekeepers in the game’s history. Nothing in this team’s track record indicates that they have what it takes to contend.

That’s why we leave you with a lesson from the 1997 World Champions. History doesn’t matter in baseball. Every Opening Day, you start with a clean slate, no matter how bad or good your team was the year before. The Florida Marlins won the World Series in the first winning season of their franchise’s history. So did the New York Mets. It would take hard work, good timing, and an almost ridiculous amount of luck, but for the moment we can still wonder: why not the Devil Rays?

Will talks with Derek Jacques about the Rays’ chances on
Baseball Prospectus Radio.

Click to download mp3

Derek Jacques is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can reach Derek by clicking here or click here to see Derek’s other articles.

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