Rays' rise progressing slowly

The Devil Rays had their best season ever in 2004. But under Lou Piniella, the club remains far from a contender.

Originally Published: November 30, 2004
By Sean McAdam | Special to ESPN.com

It says everything about the Tampa Bay Devil Rays as a franchise that it was seen as something of an accomplishment when the team won its 70th game on the final weekend of the regular season.

In operation since 1998, the Devil Rays' excruciatingly slow road to respectability would be bad enough. But as if needing seven seasons to win 70 games wasn't bad enough, the Rays' predicament is made worse by the relative lack of progress under manager Lou Piniella.

B.J Upton
The Devil Rays are hoping B.J. Upton blossoms into a star.

Piniella's hiring after the 2002 season was supposed to signal the Devil Rays' (late) arrival. Fiercely competitive, Piniella was to transform the franchise. His mere presence and firebrand personality, it was thought, would will the team closer to contention, and not so incidentally, sell more tickets.

But after two years on the job, it's difficult to discern vast improvement. True, the Rays finished out of their habitual last-place home in the AL East for the first time in 2004, three games ahead of Toronto. Still, the notion that Piniella's arrival would produce some wholesale turnaround now seems laughable.

Worse, Piniella's frustration is obvious to the point where close friends wonder how much losing -- hometown or not -- he can stand. Invariably, his name pops up when managerial openings develop elsewhere, as was the case with the New York Mets late this season.

It took Piniella to issue "if nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve'' speech late in the year to quiet the ongoing speculation.

Before doing so, Piniella won some minor concessions from ownership. His coaching staff was granted some security and he got a pledge that payroll would increase.

But while the Devil Rays could spend 50 percent more on player salaries in 2005 (approximately $35 million, up from $23 million last year), much of the increase is already spoken for, ticketed for arbitration-eligible players (reliever Jesus Colome, catcher Toby Hall and shortstop Julio Lugo) and increases in pre-existing long-term deals (Aubrey Huff, Jose Cruz Jr. and Danys Baez).

That leaves little to budget on outside acquisitions. The Rays desperately need a starter to anchor their rotation, but will have to bottom-feed for veterans on the decline (Esteban Loaiza, Shawn Estes).

If there's any reason for optimism, it's in the development system which has already turned out Rocco Baldelli (out for the first half of next season following knee reconstruction), Huff and Carl Crawford.

Infielder B.J. Upton, summoned from Triple-A Durham in the second half of the season, will play somewhere on the left side of the infield and outfielder Delmon Young, the top overall pick in the 2003 draft, is targeted to reach the majors for the 2006 season.

But there are voids at first, second, and until Baldelli returns, center field, to say nothing of an overmatched rotation which offers little promise beyond Scott Kazmir, stolen from the Mets in a deadline deal.

Rocco Baldelli
An offseason knee injury will sideline Rocco Baldelli for at least the first half of the '05 season.

Worse, the Devil Rays play in the Glass Ceiling Division, home to baseball's two best teams. Even the Baltimore Orioles, who will spend three times more on payroll than the Rays, can't reasonably expect to finish ahead of the Red Sox and Yankees.

Had the Devil Rays had the initial success experienced by the Arizona Diamondbacks -- who came into existence in the same year -- it might be easier to wait for Kazmir, Upton and Young to develop. As disappointing as the Diamondbacks were in 2004, at least the fan base has relatively fresh memories of the 2001 World Series title.

But the Rays have never come within 10 games of .500, leaving patience and fan support in short supply.

Fans have yet to be won over. The Rays, predictably, are at the bottom of the league in attendance and the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, always viewed with some skepticism because of its demographics, has yet to prove itself as a viable baseball market.

Visiting fans still overwhelm the local loyalists when Boston and New York visit -- a boon for the box office 18 or 19 times per season, but death to franchise morale.

The Rays have experimented with different philosophies to distract fans from the otherwise slow progress. They've brought in sluggers (Jose Canseco and Greg Vaughn) to disastrous results and tried their luck with players with local roots (Fred McGriff and Tino Martinez). Nothing has worked.

It's tempting to say that the best way for them to move forward is to wait for the homegrown players to develop -- except that's exactly what they've been doing for several seasons with little to show for the effort.

Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.