Last September, in the middle of the pennant race, Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg announced he was going to get rid of half his players so he could save $40 million dollars or so. Considering that he’s worth $3 billion, he really pissed off a lot of Rays fans. After the 2010 season in which the Rays surprised everyone by winning the American League East, Sternberg was true to his word: he let go Carl Crawford, an All Star outfielder, Rafael Soriano, an All Star closer; solid shortstop Jason Bartlett; slick-fielding first baseman Carlos Pena and his 28 home runs and fifteen-game winner Matt Garza; and three solid relievers Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour, and Dan Wheeler, all of whom signed lucrative contracts elsewhere. He saved a pile of dough and lost a chunk of his fan base in doing so.
To replace them, the Rays bought free agents Johnny Damon, thought by many at age 37 to be over the hill, and Manny Ramirez, who at age 40 had been suspended fifty games for taking steroids the year before. He also was injury prone. At best, Rays fans were skeptical about Manny, even though I did go out and buy a Manny wig. They also got a bunch of unknowns from the trades of Garza and Bartlett.
After a desultory spring, the Rays started the 2011 season with returners Ben Zobrist, who in 2010 had a down year, B.J. Upton, who hit .230 last year, and All Star Evan Longoria, the star of the team and its big drawing card.
With Damon batting second, Longoria third and Manny fourth, the Rays began the season a dreadful 1-8. Longoria pulled a leg muscle and disappeared and after only five games Manny, who hit 1 for 17, got caught juicing again, and he quit baseball altogether. My wig still sits in my closet. Too bad the Rays refuse to hold an Old Timer’s Day.
The Rays fans, disgusted by Sternberg’s actions and by the dreadful play of the team, stayed away in droves. The starting pitching was lousy, the defense worse, and on offense the Rays like last year held to their snoozy philosophy of taking a zillion pitches, which led to them either walking or taking third strikes with regularity. In the first nine games the team hit .163 and scored about a run a game. The new no-name relief corps was solid, but after getting creamed by Baltimore, Los Angeles, and Chicago, none powerhouses, I would have bet my last nickel that the Rays were going to finish dead last in the AL East.
A blogger in the Tampa Tribune described perfectly just how bad the Rays were playing. “This horse has been beaten, slaughtered, buried, dug up, beaten some more then turned into dog food,” he wrote. “It now sits in a big steaming pile in my backyard.”
It’s early May, and as I type this the Rays’ record is 15-13, which means the Rays have gone an incredible 14-5 since April 11. They are winning with solid pitching, exciting defense, and a renewed offense that has at times been knocking the other team out in the early innings. I know most sports fans are blasé, but let me tell you, this type of turnaround comes along — never. Decimated teams that start out lousy usually stay lousy. We were sure this was to be one of those dreaded “rebuilding” years, but it hasn’t turned out that way at all. Right now the Rays appear to be among the class of not only the AL East but all of baseball. Who’s better? The Cleveland Indians have won more games, but no one believes that will last. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are as tough as anybody. They and the Rays are spitting images of each other, though the Angels have bigger names – Elvis Andrus, Torii Hunter, and Vernon Wells are among their stars. The Yankees and Red Sox are stacked but have pitching woes. Retreads Bartolo Colon and Freddie Garcia start for the Yankees, for crying out loud. The Red Sox pitchers have been mediocre and started poorly, but the Sox are a powerful, veteran ballclub. The Rangers are strong, but lost Josh Hamilton and Nefti Perez for a month. No one else comes appears as strong as these clubs.
Exactly who are the players who replaced all the guys we lost? There’s a bunch of no-name starters: at shortstop Reid Brignac is settling in and has become dependable, though we don’t know yet if he can hit. Rodriguez appears to be an all star on defense whether at second or third. The big question: Where’s he going to play? Zobrist plays second and Longoria third. Kotchman has always been an excellent first baseman, and Joyce is starting to show his skills both in the field and at bat. The one move few of us Rays fans can figure out is why Joe Maddon ever plays Dan Johnson at first. Johnson hasn’t hit and is a mediocre-at-best fielder, and if anyone else but Maddon were manager, Dandy Dan would have been released.
Matt Joyce, whose career is about to take off, is in right, and in left is this guy Sam Fuld, a Cub reject whose play the first two weeks was so spectacular that he made Rays fans forget Carl Crawford. Lately he’s stopped hitting, but Fuld’s contributions in April were what sparked the team to its return to respectability. The Rays owe Super Sam their season. Fuld’s defensive excellent moved Johnny Damon to the DH spot, and Damon not only has been a veteran leader in the clubhouse, he has proved he can still hit in the clutch. Damon and his 2004 World Championship Red Sox were called “Idiots.” If the Rays win the pennant again, it’ll be interesting to see what Damon labels this bunch.
What all these new players have in common is an excellence on defense. The outfield now boasts Fuld, the human highlight reel, BJ Upton, and Joyce, three excellent ball chasers, and in the infield the linep will boast Longoria at third, Brignac or Rodriguez at short, Ben Zobrist or Rodriguez at second, and Kotchman at first. Except for Johnson, these guys can pick it.
If the team has a weakness it’s at catcher. John Jaso can hit but needs to improve behind the plate, and Kelly Shoppach is fine defensively but can’t hit a lick. The starting rotation of David Price, James Shields, Wade Davis, Jeremy Hellickson, and Jeff Niemann is as good as anyone’s, especially now that Shields has turned back into an ace.
Who is the Rays’ star so far this year? Once again it’s general manager Andrew Friedman. Did I mention he magically replaced an all-star bullpen with another crop of lights out performers: Juan Cruz, Adam Russell, Cesar Ramos, Adam Russell, Joel Peralta, and Kyle Farnsworth have been superb. And J.P. Howell will join them soon. Meanwhile, the old guard, Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, and Dan Wheeler have been stinking up the joint in their new uniforms. Andrew, I bow to your baseball smarts. I am humbled by what you have done.