Joe Maddon is getting married on Saturday, and he will then head to Europe for his honeymoon. “We’re going to try to see a lot of Europe on foot with backpacks and that kind of stuff, see some old churches and all the other sites, but we’ll also stay at some really nice hotels,” Maddon said. “It’s something we’re looking forward to very much.”
The Rays manager may also spend his honeymoon thinking about Port Charlotte, Florida. He was certainly thinking of that sleepy town on Florida’s Gulf Coast during the Rays’ first post-season run that ended a week ago tonight with a loss to the Phillies in the World Series.
The Rays’ season had been over for just a few minutes and Maddon was already looking ahead, telling a group of reporters about how great it was that the organization was moving its spring training headquarters from St. Petersburg to Port Charlotte in February. “We go to spring training next year with all this momentum built up from this season, validating all the concepts we had put out there and making it easier to sell the program,” Maddon said. “I’m not just talking about the major leaguers. I’m talking about the minor league side of the program. We’re going to have the major leaguers and the minor leaguers in the same complex for the first time, and it’s going to make it so much easier for myself and the coaching staff to go over and talk to the minor league kids. There’s a Ray way of doing things now, and I’m looking forward to spreading the word throughout the organization.”
Maddon and everyone else in the organization have no doubt that the Ray way of doing things will have staying power. While the Rays seemingly came out of nowhere to win the American League pennant this year, they are confident that they won’t be one-year wonders. “Absolutely not,” Maddon said. “When we first started putting this thing together three years ago, it was with the idea that we were going to build an organization that would be consistently competitive. We didn’t want to have one good team and then go back to losing for 10 more years. In the long run, that doesn’t get you anywhere. We want to keep coming back to the postseason. We want to make this an annual affair. I really believe we can do that. I view this season and what happened in the postseason as just the beginning.”
The Rays are indeed set up to be competitive for many years to come; they have all of their core players under contract through the 2010 season, with only first baseman Carlos Pena and left fielder Carl Crawford eligible for free agency that year, and right-hander Edwin Jackson and shortstop Jason Bartlett the only two who could leave after 2011. This is exactly what the Rays were hoping for when Stuart Sternberg bought the club from Vince Naimoli after the 2005 season and installed the youthful management tandem of president Matt Silverman and vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. Friedman, who hired Maddon as manager, knew that former GM Chuck LaMar had left behind such young talents as Crawford and B.J. Upton. The organization also possessed what is now three-fifths of the starting rotation: left-hander Scott Kazmir and right-handers James Shields and Andy Sonnanstine.
Friedman added to that cadre of talent by drafting third baseman Evan Longoria and trading for right-handers Matt Garza and Jackson, catcher Dioner Navarro, and shortstop Jason Bartlett. He then pulled first baseman Carlos Pena off of the scrap heap after he had bombed in five other organizations, and dipped into the international market to sign second baseman Akinori Iwamura from Japan. “What we really wanted to do was add to what was a solid base of talent, and build a team we could keep together for the long haul,” Friedman said. “The most important thing is we knew that is was going to take time and we were going to endure some difficult times before we became a contender, but we were committed to the idea of sticking to our plan. We didn’t want to get off course with quick fixes. We were always confident we were doing the right thing and we knew we had to show the discipline to stay the course. It was difficult at times, but it also paid off sooner than any of us truly expected.”
The Rays went 61-101 in 2006 and 66-96 in 2007 before breaking through with a 97-65 record this past season; they became the first team other than the Red Sox or Yankees to win the AL East since 1997. The Rays then beat the White Sox in the American League Division Series and the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series before falling to the Phillies. Maddon believes the post-season experience gained by the Rays will pay huge dividends in 2009 and beyond. “Beyond all of the stuff that happened on the baseball field, I am most proud of the way our guys grew as people during the postseason,” Maddon said. “I really loved the way they handled the entire moment. You look at our guys and they are really young, but to read the newspapers, and watch TV, and read and hear all the good things that were said about our players, and how well they came across as people being in the national spotlight for the first time just made me feel even better about where we are headed.”
With a talented young roster and no key free agents, the Rays have few holes to fill this winter. They would like to add a power hitter to play right field regularly, and make a few small tweaks to their bullpen and bench. “When you look at this team and the way it’s constructed, this is going to be a long-term thing for us,” Shields said. “We might not have won the World Series this time, but we feel like it’s a matter of time before we do. The hunger is still going to be there. After getting a taste of this, it just makes you want to keep coming back again and again.”
While the Rays certainly appear capable of being a playoff team for many years to come, Friedman warns that it isn’t that easy. “It’s always going to be hard for a franchise like ours that doesn’t have the resources of some other franchises to contend 10 out of 10 years-that’s just not going to happen,” Friedman said. “However, we do feel we’ve build this organization to the point where we can be competitive more often than not, and that is certainly a big step in the right direction.”
As expected, the Phillies promoted assistant GM Ruben Amaro to replace GM Pat Gillick, who had stepped down after his three-year contract expired. That move also cost the Phillies a top executive in Mike Arbuckle, their other assistant GM who was in charge of scouting and player development, who immediately resigned when he learned that he had lost out to Amaro for the promotion. It was not a well-kept secret that Amaro and Arbuckle did not get along, and it was also quite instructive that Amaro never mentioned Arbuckle as he talked to reporters after the World Series-clinching win while addressing the Phillies’ being able to contend in the future with their nucleus of homegrown players, including first baseman Ryan Howard, second baseman Chase Utley, shortstop Jimmy Rollins, left-hander Cole Hamels, and right-hander Brett Myers.
While the decision of hiring a GM ultimately rested with Phillies president David Montgomery, it appeared that Gillick had been grooming Amaro as his successor. That seemed only natural; Amaro’s personable nature is reminiscent of Gillick’s. Gillick will stay on with the Phillies as a consultant, killing speculation that he would wind up as the Blue Jays‘ president or become a special assistant to Mariners president Chuck Armstrong. “People have said it before: Pat uses his telephone as a weapon, with the way he knows the name of every secretary of every general manager in the major leagues, and how he is always such a good listener,” Amaro said. “It’s really amazing, and he’s kind of brought me into that circle. That’s part of the beauty of working with Pat Gillick. Now I may be able to draw on some of those resources. I’m ready to continue the solid leadership that preceded me. The leadership has changed but our goals have not. I’ve had the opportunity to watch somebody who has had the success that Pat has had and learn.”
Gillick feels that he has left Amaro with a team capable of contending for another World Series championship next season after winning the past two National League East titles. Amaro realizes that unlike most rookie GMs, he is stepping into a good situation. “We’ve had quite a bit of success,” Amaro said. “I know people measure success in World Series championships, but our goal is to remain a contender.”
Amaro, who is 43 years old, becomes just the second current GM of Hispanic descent, following up the Mets‘ Omar Minaya. He is also one of four minority GMs in the game today; beyond Minaya, the Angels‘ Tony Reagins and Ken Williams of the White Sox are both African-American. Amaro is also one of just three current GMs who played in the major leagues, along with Williams and the Athletics‘ Billy Beane. Amaro was an outfielder for eight seasons with the Angels (1991), Phillies (1992-93, 1996-98), and Indians (1994-95), hitting .235/.310/.353 with 16 home runs in 485 games.
This time, there was no intrigue, no histrionics, and no bitterness in the contract negotiations between GM Theo Epstein and the Red Sox. The two sides came to an agreement last month, and it was not made public until Epstein acknowledged during the GM meetings this week that he had signed a new contract. That was quite different than the last time Epstein’s contract had expired in 2005, when he reached a well-publicized impasse with Red Sox president Larry Lucchino and decided to walk away, leaving Jed Hoyer and Ben Cherington as co-GMs for part of that offseason before later agreeing to return under a three-year contract.
Epstein, who declined to reveal terms of the contract, has built two World Series-winning clubs in six years on the job, and says he did not hesitate to re-sign with the Red Sox this time. “When you sit back and think about being a general manager, this is exactly the type of organization you’d want to work for,” Epstein said. “Great fans, great ownership, and a tremendous foundation of our scouting and player development-which if we don’t screw it up will lead to long-term success. We’re all in this game to work with good people and to try to win a World Series.”
The top priority for the Red Sox this winter is to see if they can re-sign catcher Jason Varitek as a free agent, or find a replacement if they can’t. While the Red Sox have been linked in some reports to such high-profile free-agent pitchers as left-hander CC Sabathia and right-hander A.J. Burnett, it doesn’t seem that Epstein is eager to commit big dollars to either one. He already has a starting rotation fronted by left-hander Jon Lester, right-handers Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka, and knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, and an opening for such touted youngsters as Clay Buchholz, Justin Masterson, or Michael Bowden. “If it makes sense to us, we’d try to add another starter,” Epstein said. “In an ideal world, sure, the more the merrier. We try to create redundancy at all of our positions. We have some volume now. That can change in a hurry with a key injury. Finding value with top free agents is sometimes hard to do. Our expectations are realistic about the chances of landing a guy like that.”
The Rockies decided to stand pat last winter following the first pennant-winning season in franchise history, but GM Dan O’Dowd is ready to shake his club up after it slipped to 74-88 this year. “We will be much more aggressive,” O’Dowd told the Rocky Mountain News. “The mindset last year was we had a young nucleus and wanted to see how it responded [to having expectations placed on them].”
The Rockies don’t plan on re-signing closer Brian Fuentes as a free agent, and they have third baseman Garrett Atkins, left fielder Matt Holliday, and center fielder Willy Taveras on the trading block. The Rockies have not been close to signing Atkins or Holliday to long-term contracts, and would like to get something back for them before they can becomes free agents at the end of the season. The Rockies also fear Taveras will be granted a $4 million salary in arbitration. Not surprisingly, the Rockies want to add pitching after giving up 5.1 runs a game this year, 14th in the 16-team NL “I am not going to speculate in regards to who we are going to look to move, but obviously, we have some personnel issues that have been well-documented,” O’Dowd said..
NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Dodgers are telling teams that they are willing to move catcher Russell Martin in the right trade, and the Marlins are among those interested. If the Dodgers deal Martin, they will make a pitch to sign Varitek. … The Braves continue to be the leader in negotiations with the Padres looking to land right-hander Jake Peavy in a trade, though the Cubs and Dodgers are also in the running. … The Braves are also interested in right-hander Ryan Dempster as a free agent, and are talking to the Cardinals about trading for a power-hitting outfielder, either Rick Ankiel or Ryan Ludwick. … The Padres have also put shortstop Khalil Greene on the trading block, and the Blue Jays, Orioles, Reds, and Tigers have interest. … The Mets appear to be the early favorite to sign Fuentes, while the Angels, Indians, and Tigers also have strong interest. The Mets’ backup plan for a closer is trading for the Athletics’ Huston Street, and they are also targeting free agent Raul Ibanez to play left field. … The Cardinals have interest in bringing free-agent shortstop Edgar Renteria back to St. Louis. … After missing the entire 2008 season with the Mets because of a foot injury, right-hander Orlando Hernandez is trying to reinvent himself as a potential closer on the free-agent market.
AL Rumors and Rumblings: The White Sox are dangling right-hander Javier Vazquez in trade talks, and the Mets are interested. The White Sox are also willing to trade first baseman/outfielder Nick Swisher, while eyeing Taveras to play center field and add speed. … The Twins have interest in the Padres’ Kevin Kouzmanoff to fill their hole at third base, and are reportedly willing to trade left fielder Delmon Young for him. … The Indians would consider trading catcher Kelly Shoppach for a young pitcher who is capable of closing, which makes the Red Sox a logical trade partner; they would likely part with Masterson, who could also be dealt to the Rangers for catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. … The Yankees, amazingly, are considering re-signing right-hander Carl Pavano, aptly nicknamed “The American Idle” by the George King of the New York Post after making just 26 starts during the lifetime of his four-year, $39.99 million contract that expired at the end of this past season. … The Red Sox and Mariners are thought to be the frontrunners for Japanese amateur pitcher Junichi Tazawa, but the Braves are also in the hunt. … While former Brewers manager Ned Yost remains the favorite for the manager’s job with the Mariners, former Mets manger Willie Randolph is also emerging as a strong candidate, along with former Pirates manager/current Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon, and Padres bench coach Ted Simmons.