Why Do the Tampa Bay Rays Flourish While the Reds Flounder?

At the end of the 2007 season, the Reds completed their seventh straight year of losing with a 72-90 record. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays ended their 10th straight year of losing with a 66

Jul 9, 2008 at 2:06 pm
Jerry Dowling

At the end of the 2007 season, the Reds completed their seventh straight year of losing with a 72-90 record. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays ended their 10th straight year of losing with a 66-96 record. What's happened since then?

Tampa changed the team name, dropping their Devil and becoming the Rays. The Reds didn't change their name, but maybe they should start calling themselves the Devil Reds. Or the Red Devils.

By the way, Marge Schott always hated that name, Devil Rays, because, she said more than once, no team should name itself after Satan. Rays fans might agree with her.

The Reds went into the free agent pool for a bullpen solution, signing Coco Cordero to a four-year deal for $46 million. The Rays went to the free agent market for the same reason, signing a rehabilitated Troy Percival for two years at $8 million.

The Reds traded a promising hitter off his first good year, Josh Hamilton, to Texas for a pitcher, Edinson Volquez, who just made the National League All-Star team. The Rays traded a promising hitter off his first good year, Delmon Young, to Minnesota for a pitcher, Matt Garza. The Rays also picked up shortstop Jason Bartlett in the deal.

The Reds brought up their top prospect, Jay Bruce, who now is an everyday presence in the outfield. The Rays brought up their top prospect, Evan Longoria, who now is an everyday presence at third base.

The similarities end there. Both clubs began this year avowedly rebuilding, and both have since changed course for different reasons.

The Reds junked their program when club owner Bob Castellini dumped General Manager Wayne Krivsky 21 games into this season. The "win now" approach hasn't exactly worked out, yielding a 34-35 record so far.

It took a four-game home sweep against Jim Bowden's dreadful Washington Nationals last weekend to rescue the Reds from last place in the National League Central.

As an aside, let's agree that five years after Bowden's departure as the Reds GM he's no longer in any sense responsible for their condition today. It's not his fault. The Reds have had plenty of opportunity to get it right without him. Maybe that means he wasn't the full extent of their problem.

The Rays discovered that they've finally built a ball club sometime in the last month or so, now that they're the hottest outfit in the game. Following an 8-11 start — similar to the 9-12 start that canned Krivsky — the Rays are 47-22 since, breaking up the Yankees-Red Sox saga at first place in the American League East.

Another parallel: Between the 2005 and 2006 seasons, just as Castellini bought his way from minority partnership to controlling interest of the Reds, Stuart Sternberg bought his way from limited partnership to controlling interest of the Rays.

But Castellini and Sternberg operated quite differently before the end of this April. "Tired of losing," as Castellini put it, he scratched Krivsky. Sternberg hung with his front office, in which former Houston Astros General Manager Gerry Hunsicker (titled senior vice president of baseball operations) mentors Andrew Friedman (titled executive vice president of baseball operations).

What have Hunsicker and Friedman done? They've made a series of low-key moves adding up to perfect sense. Nothing too big. They capitalized on years of picking very high in the June draft, added a few other first-round draft choices in minor deals and now it's coming up a winner.

Before the 2006 season, they traded with the Los Angeles Dodgers to bring in young pitcher Edwin Jackson. In June 2006, they packed young outfielder Joey Gathright to Kansas City for young pitcher J.P. Howell, a first-round draft choice two years earlier. A week later, they sent Toby Hall and Mark Hendrickson to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Jae Seo, Justin Ruggiano and catcher Dioner Navarro.

During the offseason leading up to 2007, they signed Akinori Iwamura from Japan and signed a free agent on the skids, first baseman Carlos Pena. They also brought up B.J. Upton for good.

When the Rays traded Young to Minnesota last winter, they were set up to move pieces around and improve their defense once they brought up Longoria in April. With Longoria taking third base, Iwamura moving from third base to second base, Upton moving from second base to center field, Bartlett taking shortstop and Navarro maturing as a catcher, the Rays suddenly are strong defensively up the middle.

Meanwhile, their pitching continues to develop. The ace is 24-year-old left hander Scott Kazmir, stolen from the New York Mets in a 2004 deadline deal for Victor Zambrano. Joining Kazmir, Garza and Jackson are two pitchers from the system: Jamie Shields and Andy Sonnanstine. All are between 24 and 26 years old right now, giving the Rays a young, veteran rotation.

Howell and Dan Wheeler, acquired last summer from the Houston Astros, provide the Rays with a solid middle bullpen. Percival is disabled at the moment, and he hasn't been incredible this year, but he has registered 19 saves and kept the Rays from losing in the ninth inning, which was their frequent fate last season.

Looking at the Rays' roster now, they've got quite a long list of first-round draft choices, even though the only ones they made were Upton and Longoria. The others came from other clubs, including Pena (Texas), Gabe Gross (Toronto), Cliff Floyd (Montreal), Kazmir (New York Mets), Howell (Kansas City) and Garza (Minnesota).

The Rays have a couple of their own first-round picks coming fast through their farms. Jeff Niemann, their top pick in 2004, is pitching well in Triple-A, and 2007 No. 1 pick David Price is moving in a hurry. And poor outfielder Rocco Baldelli, another first-round pick from 2000, is fighting a mysterious affliction as he tries his return to the big leagues.

A moment ago, we were trying to compare the Reds with the Rays, which is, of course, preposterous halfway through this season. While the Rays stand third in the AL with a staff ERA of 3.59, the Reds are flailing, largely because their veteran starters, Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo, have performed well below expectations.

A better comparison maybe is this year's Rays with the 1991 Atlanta Braves. The Braves basically committed themselves to losing starting in the mid-1980s, built from the draft and development and took their lumps with young pitching. Finally, in 1991, the Braves helped their young pitchers with two acquisitions to tighten up their defense, signing Terry Pendleton to play third base and Sid Bream to play first. The Braves went on to win 14 straight division titles.

The Rays haven't even won one division, and it could be that the Red Sox and Yankees breathing down their necks this fall is more than they can take. But they have the appearance of a contender built solid for the long haul.

That's another sense in which they no longer can be compared with the Reds.

Contact Bill Peterson: [email protected]