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Season Preview Part I; Overview/Introduction

Introduction

Well Rays fans, we are getting closer to that day. In less than a month our 2006 Devil Rays will take the field in Baltimore on April 3rd to begin their 2006 season. Ever since that final out against Baltimore last October 2nd, the whole Devil Rays world has been turned upside down. After all, how many teams can say that they purged an owner, GM, and manager in one offseason? Coming into this season, the Rays try to build upon their magical run in the second half of last season by giving the fans something to cheer about. Free parking, stadium upgrades, and a whole new midset, in general, are just a few of the new things making their debut this season.

Can the Rays build upon that second half run to further their development toward becoming a world class baseball team? How will the business side of things play out? What can we expect from our on field product this year? That and more will follow in the five part series here that will be published every Monday here at Bay, leading up to the first pitch at 3:05 at Camden Yards on April 3rd. Today, we focus on the transition. What happened between last year and now? I set up the 2006 Rays in this edition, and will focus on other aspects of the team later in the series. Enjoy!

Series
Today-Part I; Overview/Introduction
Next Week-Part II; Nothing Personal, Its Just Business
Mar. 20-Part III; Hitters/Coaching Staff
Mar. 27-Part IV; Pitchers/Key Info
Apr. 3-Part V; The Rest of the Majors

Overview

Like I said in the introduction, there is so much to be said about the Rays' 2005-06 offseason. On the transaction log, it was one of the most dull in team history. The Rays didn't make the earth-shattering changes that lead to massive roster turnover like in years past, and maybe that will help the chemistry this season, who knows. But much of the front office was overhauled, a lot of executives from the old guard were ousted, and many new measures were undertaken in an attempt to win back the alienated fan base of years past. So before we take a look at 2006, we need to see what has chnged from 2005. Here goes......

Background

Coming off of a hot 38-35 second half run to conclude the 2005 season, you could feel that major changes were in store for the 2006 Rays. Prior to the close of the season, embattled manager Lou Pinella and the Rays mutually agreed he was not to return, and rumors of ex-owner Vince Naimoli's departure, and the mutually exclusive heave-ho of GM Chuck LaMar were rampant. The 67-95 Rays were about to go into an extreme makeover, and when the dust settled, the team would look completely different.


-Joe Maddon's opportunity to manage was long overdue

The Manager

About a week and a half before the season conculded, the Tampa Tribune reported that Rays manager Lou Pinella's agent Alan Nero and Rays Management had reached a buyout agreement that would terminate his employment with the Rays after the conclusion of the season. Personally, I think he spent, at the very least, one and a half weeks too many here after that, but that's just me. After this decision was reached, the slew of candidates came forward throughout the offseason. A wide list of interviews was compiled, and ranged from in house (Tom Foley, Billy Hatcher, and John McClaren) to old managers (Bobby Valentine, Alan Trammell), to coaches on other staffs (Joe Girardi, Joe Maddon). One of the most rumored early candidates, Ron Washington, never stepped forward, and a late interview was scheduled with Phillies great Mike Schmidt.

Then came the cutdown. Foley and Hatcher were axed from the running, as were Alan Trammell and Mike Schmidt, while Joe Girardi took the managerial position with the Florida Marlins. That left Lou's bench coach, McClaren, the Angels' bench coach, Maddon, and the Japanese League manager and ex-big league manager Valentine in the final three. Rather than give Rays fans any further heart attacks, Bobby Valentine was next to go from the running. That left McClaren and Maddon, and the Rays' brass chose the outsider and longtime Angel Maddon to 'think outside the box' and bring fresh ideas to St. Petersburg.

Unfortunatly, several casualties resulted as Maddon took the helm. McClaren, the former bench coach, was let go, as were Billy Hatcher, Lee Elia, Matt Sinatro, and Chuck Hernandez split to go take the pitching coach job with Detroit. The only holdover from the Lou Pinella and Hal McRae regimes was Tom Foley, who remained the third base coach. To fill the holes on the staff, Maddon promoted AAA Durham manager Bill Evers to bench coach, named George Hendrick first base coach, named Mike Butcher the pitching coach, Steve Henderson, who had been an organizational hitting instructor and hitting coach on the 1998 staff, hitting coach, and Bobby Ramos the bullpen coach. Don Zimmer retained his largely useless role of "Senior Baseball Advisor". Also, not so widely reporte, but still an imporatant loss was that of head trainer Ken Crenshaw, who left to take a job with the Arizona Diamondbacks. He is the second straight Rays head trainer to depart to take the helm of another team, joining Jamie Reed who went to Texas four years ago. Ron Porterfield will take Crenshaw's shoes, and they are mighty big ones to fill, as the team's medical staff was consistently one of, if not thee most highly regarded in baseball, and winner of Baseball Prospectus' 'Best Medical Staff' award a few years ago. Also taking managerial positions in the organization were Joe Tamargo at AAA Durham, Matt Quartraro at Hudson Valley, an, eventually, Skeeter Barnes at Southwest Michigan.


-The addition of former Houston Astros GM Gerry Husicker brought the front office instant credibility

Front Office

With Vince Naimoli's departure from power within the team, the entire front office received a cleaning. Chuck LaMar and Cam Bonifay were the first to go, getting canned within three days of the last game of the season. Also departing were Assistant GM Scott Proefrock (Baltimore), Souting Official Tim Wilken (Cubs), Broadcast Operations Chief John Browne, and numerous other low level staff. A lot of titles were changed, and in came Stu Sternberg's trusted assistants Matt Silverman, to be the Team President and essentially to run the show, and Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman to become, essentially, General Manager. Brought in to assist him was former Houston Astros Ganeral Manager Gerry Hunsicker and to help with on field support staff, former Blue Jays, Red Sox, and Astros manager Jimy Williams was brought in. A lot of changes a lot of people didn't notice went on within the team, and these were just the most important ones.


-New principal owner/savior Stuart Sternberg

Ownership

And finally, the granddaddy of them all. Managing General Partner Vince Namimoli sold out his controlling interest in the team to investor Stu Sternberg, ending a ten year rocky reign that saw numerous bad fan encounters, and otherwise bad PR as well as a horrible on-field product. At a ceremony at the Vinoy in Downtown St. Pete, the new management teams was officially introduced, the sale consumated, and the Naimoli "long national nightmare" was over. Sternberg immediatly set to repare the team's image in the community, launching many new initiatives, and for once, the Devil Rays were the water cooler talk during the month of October.

New Initiatives

Sternberg wasted no time creating some good publicity for himself in the community. He announced that parking at Tropicana Field lots in 2006 would be provided free of charge, and announced a new field renovation program at local little league parks. He generally set the right tone and made good PR moves, reaching out to those fans who were alienated by the Naimoli regime. He further announced $10 million worth of renovations to much maligned Tropicana Field, including, but not limited to, a new low priced seating section near the bullpens, cleaner bathrooms, a new Devil Ray tank in right-center field, a cleaning job on the seats, a new 1B upscale club, an improved sound system, and, more recently, an exhibit from the Ted Williams Hitter's Hall of Fame. He also announced that fans would be able to bring in ceertain types of food or beverage, unlike the last few years under the Naimoli regime. He said all the right things, and did all the right things too in creating a positive first impression with the residents of Tampa Bay.

On-Field Moves

Well, this is about the least content-filled of all the categories, sadly. The Rays just didn't do very much last offseason, and basicly remained with the status quo team from last year, and that may not be a bad thing. After all, the Rays have had extreme roster turnover the last few offseasons, and maybe some continuity will help them. Here are some of the Key Additions and Departures of the offseason.


-Can Jackson show the promise that flashed when he bested Randy Johnson in his MLB debut?

Key Additions

RHP Shawn Camp-Brought int to compete for a bullpen job, he has been unimpressive in spring training action thus far.

RHP Chad Harville-The Rays' first 40 man roster move of the offseason, the former A's pitcher was brought in to compete for a bullpen job. He too has been unimpressive, bombing in Monday's game against Boston.

RHP Edwin Jackson-Brought in as part of the Danys Baez trade, the former Top Prospect will compete for a fifth starter's job this spring. He did excellently in two innings of work in Sunday's game in Sarasota.

RHP Dan Miceli-The journeyman pitcher was brought in to compete for a bullpen spot coming off of an awful tour of duty in Japan. He has pitched for numerous MLB teams, and is currently pitching for the Italian team in the World Baseball Classic.

RHP Shinji Mori-The Rays' "major" pitching sign of the offseason, Mori was signed out of Japan to bloster bullpen depth and possibly compete for the closer's role. He has not pitched yet due to arm tenderness.

C Josh Paul-Paul was acquired from the Angels after being DFA'd in early December. A weak hitting catcher most famous for the incident in last year's ALCS, all he cost the Rays was unimpressive minor leaguer Travis Schlichting. He lost only the Rays' second arbitration hearing last month and will sompete with Kevin Cash and Mike Rose for the backup catcher's job.

3B Sean Burroughs-The weak-hitting Padres third baseman was acquired from San Diego in a swap of disappointing deadweights, the other end being Dewon Brazelton. He will compete for the third base job this spring along with Ty Wigginton, Russell Branyan, and possibly Aubrey Huff.

1B/3B Ty Wigginton-The former Met and Pirate was signed as a free agent in early January after a rough go of it in Pittsburgh last season. He will compete for the third base job, or, falling short of that, a bench role.  


-The power-hitting Branyan averaged a homer every 15.4 ABs

Non-Roster Invitees

The Rays didn't even haul in too many non-roster guys. Notables includes pitchers Travis Driskill, Wayne Franklin, and Mark Malaska, Catcher Mike Rose, and infielders Branyan, Fernando Cortez, Luis Rivas, and hot-hitting Luis Ordaz. Driskill has been nothing special, same with Franklin and Malaska, Rose has been terrible, Branyan hasn't made his power stroke known, Cortez hasn't been dazzling, and Luis Rivas will be out for a month due to an injury to his middle index finger knucle, virtually locking up a spot for Nick Green. Luis Ordaz has been the most impressive of the lot, going 6 for 10 with two RBI in the spring.


-The Rays' "key loss" of last offseason

Key Departures

RHP Dewon Brazleton-Oh there is a god. The loose cannon, AWOL, whatever you want to call him was jettisoned on the San Diego Padres in the November trade that dealt Sean Burroughs to San Diego. Not only did we dump the former Top Five pick, but we actually got something in return. Getting a pack of Skittles for this guy would have been a steal, at least the Red ones have development potential, but we were able to actually get a major league quality (just barely) player for him. Nice.

RHP Joe Borowski-As Jim would say, the cold, unforgiving wall of reality hit Borowski after his early scoreless innings streak, and he struggled to lock up the setup role in the season's final month. He is now departed.

RHP Lance Carter-Carter, the Rays' 2003 All-Star, was traded to Los Angeles in the Danys Baez trade. He had his struggles last year, even being demoted to Durham at one point, and will find himself a member of a much better bullpen for next season.

RHP Danys Baez-Perhaps the biggest loss of the offseason, Baez was dealt to LA for Jackson and top prospect Chuck Tiffany, and took with him his 40 saves from last season. He leaves the bullpen job wide open, and will be the setup man for Eric Gange with the Dodgers.

LHP Trever Miller-Rest assured, no one shed a tear over his departure. Miller, who had decent years in 2003 and '04, wasn't even good as a LOOGY last year, and departed through free agency to Houston.

C Pete LaForest-The line of below replacement level backup catchers last year....Kevin Cash, Charles Johnson, Tim Laker....and LaFroest. A Rays farmhand for many years, LaForest just couldn't cut it behind the plate and left through free agency to San Diego.

3B Alex Gonzalez-The journeyman Gonzalez actually had a decent year with the Rays last year, posting one of his better seasons, and the former Cub/Blue Jay left through free agency and wound up in Philadelphia.

Conclusion

So even despite the relative lack of new talent to help the team succeed, as well as the departure of Danys Baez from an already depleted bullpen, the team faced a lot of change the past offseason that will make for an interesting storyline going into next season. Next week I'll take a look at whom I expect to be the position players on the 25 man roster.

Photo Credits:
Baez-St. Pete Times
Branyan-TSN
Jackson-Scout.com
Sternberg, Hunsicker-Tampa Tribune
Maddon-DevilRays.com