For the First time the Rays Can Win

I doubt if many have noticed because of their 55-80 record, but the Devil Rays have become a .500-ballclub, a better team than either Baltimore or Toronto, and a team capable of splitting with the Yankees and Red Sox. Since mid-July, when the Rays front office traded for Dan Wheeler and Grant Balfour and brought up Chris Dolmann, the Achilles heel of the team – its bullpen – has become solid and dependable. Gone are the days when the Rays would lead in the sixth inning, only to lose because the relief staff couldn’t get anyone out. Suddenly the Devil Rays have enough talent to win.
How good is this team? The Rays have the best defensive outfield in baseball. Who has an outfield faster than the trio of Crawford, Upton, and Young? Crawford can’t throw, but he can catch any ball hit his way. Upton and Young have cannons for arms, and Upton has proved to be so outstanding that no one bemoans the fact that Rocco Baldelli has turned into Juan Guzman. If Young isn’t rookie of the year, it’ll only be because he plays in Tampa Bay. If Upton isn’t named to the All Star team, it’s only because he plays in Tampa Bay.
The Rays have an infield of Carlos Pena, Brenden Harris, Josh Wilson, and Akinori Iwamura. How Andrew Friedman ended up with these four guys is anyone’s guess. Luck certainly played a role. Pena was so mediocre in spring training that the Rays cut him, and he returned only because Greg Norton got hurt that day. Pena now has 33 home runs. He’s the David Ortiz of Tampa Bay. Ortiz was released by Minnesota, and the Red Sox acquired him for nothing. We got Pena for free after Detroit cut him loose. With Pena driving in runs in bushels and fielding superbly, it’s truly become “a new day in Tampa Bay.”
When you first looked at them in the spring, Brendan Harris and Josh Wilson appeared to be two more utility guys in the mold of Bobby Smith, Aaron Ledesma, and all those other forgotten infielders with promise but no performance brought in by Chuck Lamarr. But when I saw Harris play during spring training, it was clear the guy could hit. In every game he got two hits, and eventually Joe Madden, whose patience and calm will prove to be a blessing for everyone including his hateful critics, made Harris the shortstop. When Baldelli got hurt and Upton took over at center field and it was clear Harris didn’t have the range to play short, Harris took over at second, and Josh Wilson became the shortstop.
I kept saying, “Next year we need to get a real shortstop like Miguel Tejada or Orlando Cabrera,” but now that Wilson has shown his fine range and adequate hitting ability, I’m not so sure. Wilson makes all the plays he ought to make and then some, and what more do you want from a shortstop? Iwamura, a home run hitting All Star from Japan, at bat turned out to be Ichiro without the flare or the RBIs, but in the field he’s as close to Brooks Robinson as I’ve seen lately, and it may be he’ll hit with more power next year. Also 3b Evan Longoria promises to hit with power, so maybe Iwamura will turn out to be our utility guy who can play second or third, or who comes in late in the game for defense.
At catcher, Dioner Navarro has been scorned all year long for his inability to hit or catch, but lately the kid has stepped up and played very well. He’s raised his average forty points, and he has stopped calling ten straight fastballs. Josh Paul, or somebody, obviously has been talking to him, and he’s showing signs of becoming a major leaguer.
I’ll take Jamie Shields, Scott Kasmir, and Edwin Jackson over any three starters on any other team. Andy Sonnenstine last night pitched a two-hitter, and if Jason Hammel ever gets angry and stops nibbling, he has the talent to win as well. Al Reyes at closer turned out to be an asasino, and the new arms in the pen have turned this team around.
So where does that leave the Rays for next year? I have one suggestion: if the Giants no longer want him, sign Barry Bonds. I don’t give a damn whether he took steroids in 1995. Baseball hadn’t banned steroids back then, and since baseball has banned it and started testing, Bonds has never once tested positive for steroids. Yes, he probably took steroids, but so did ninety percent of the players back then. Mark MaGuire and Sammy Sosa brought the fans back after the disastrous 1994 strike with their home runs. The owners didn’t hold their steroid use against them then. They shouldn’t now.
It’s time to end the witch hunt.
Back to Bonds. The Rays major weakness at the moment is at DH (and the rest of the bench.) Greg Norton has hit well lately, but the Rays could use someone with a lot more pop in that position, someone of the caliber of Jim Thome, Travis Hafner, or Gary Sheffield. (Here’s where Stuart Sternberg can spend money and get his money’s worth.) Yes Bonds is 43, but he brings several things that would serve the Rays very well. He’ll continue to hit home runs, and just as important, he’ll put a heck of a lot of fannies in the seats, and he’ll bring the team the national attention this team will deserve.
You heard it here first: bring Barry Bonds to Tampa Bay in 2008. We almost got him when the San Francisco Giants almost moved here a bunch of years ago. Come on Andrew. Ignore the political correctness. Bring in the heat. Bring us the excitement Barry Bonds will provide. We’ll have packed crowds every night. After his first home runs, the boo birds will disappear. I can even envision someone in a kayak paddling in the fish tank in center field as he awaits a Bonds home run. And when Bonds goes into the Hall of Fame, he can go in as a Devil Ray. (Or Stingray or Tarpon or Sturgeon or whatever the new name turns out to be.)

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