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Reflecting on the Hit Show

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Can you believe it's been nearly a decade since the Hit Show debacle in Tampa? It seems like just yesterday that putrid song was playing on the commercials, those pictures of the foursome were on the front page of every local newspaper; the Rays were the new Yankees.  

Well it has been, and since I'm oddly obsessed with transactions, business, and statistics, oh and the Rays, I decided to post an excerpt from my upcoming book; LaMaritis, reviewing the events and determining what went wrong here. This is an extremely long post, topping 2,000 words, if you were to ever print a post of mine out for uh...private reading, perhaps this is the one to do, enjoy.

We'll start with the trade, Rolando Arrojo and Aaron Ledesma for Vinny Castilla. Arrojo had a poor 1999, falling off from his 14-12, 3.56 ERA outing in 1998 which would stand as the best single season pitching performance for quite a few years and bloating to a 5.18 ERA in 1999, although he did throw 60 less innings in 1999. Ledesma was of course coming off of back to back good years and seemed like Mark DeRosa before there was a Mark DeRosa.

Castilla had hit 33 homeruns, with 102 RBIs in 1999, and had only struck out 75 times, pretty good numbers, but consider that he was playing in Colorado and that his on-base percentage and slugging numbers had declined seriously and you can believe there were some warning signs of regression for the 32 year old. Naturally the team bought into the hype that homeruns had brought the Cubs and Cardinals and figured if Castilla showed up and hit 30 homeruns while playing defense that didn't make one vomit intensely that everything would be okay in the checkbooks.

Castilla would show up, and I use that term tentatively, hit eight homeruns, and a .221 average, the next season he would go nuts and become a disruption to the organization, plummeting his all ready low trade value and forcing the Rays to release him. He'd retaliate by signing with the Houston Astros and suddenly becoming Vinny Castilla of old again.
It's hard to determine the worst part of this whole thing. Perhaps it would be the money spent on `Cash-steala'; The Rays paid 6.25 million for his 2000 performance, and 7.25 for his 2001 performance, to which he lived up to the hype, just in an Astros jersey. Maybe the poor PR that came as a result of Vinny's tyrants, or perhaps the fact Naimoli disallowed a trade that would've swapped Arrojo with Richie Sexson.

Easily the biggest free agent signing, and that's not to take anything away from Tom Wilson or Aaron Holbert, was made on December 11th, when the Rays signed Jose Canseco, fresh off of his 46 homeruns, 107 RBI year, albeit with a .237 batting average.
The average is so low that it's quite peculiar since you'd think a guy with 46 homeruns and 107 RBIs would make a load more contact, but yet of his 583 at bats, he only recorded 138 hits; meaning that one third of his hits for the seasons were homeruns, and 26 of those 92 were doubles, without any triples. So he had all of 66 singles, and 65 walks on the season, add in his 29 stolen bases, and 17 failed attempts, and you can tell Canseco didn't like first base all that much.

Canseco would put up a very good numbers  in 1999 hitting 34 homers with 95 RBIs and a .932 OPS, along with a 3.9 WARP, although he'd hurt his back while playing in the outfield. In 2000 his batting average, homeruns, RBIs, stolen bases, and SLG%, all dropped, somehow he increased his OBP by .014 points, later on he'd move on to the Yankees before basically ending his career. He'd go on to play for the White Sox  and try out for the Expos as well as the Dodgers, later on he'd play for an Independent League team as a pitcher and outfielder, he'd also become a reality television star and a best selling author, along with his own drink, and even a potential movie.

Canseco has gone from amongst the first admitted cheaters to potentially a white knight amongst the steroid era for his tell all book. He's even went as far to claim that steroids have made him feel like he was in his 20's while being over 40, a fountain of youth of sorts.

That same day [as the Castilla trade] the Rays signed Cincinnati outfielder Greg Vaughn to a massive four year 34 million dollar contract to complete what the team and media begin to call "The Hit Show", consisting of McGriff, Canseco, Vaughn, Castilla, and to a far lesser extent Gerald Williams; these were the Gulf Bay Bombers who would lead the Rays against the vaunted Yankees and Red Sox and towards the promise land of victory all for the cost of slightly more than 30 million.

Quite a few problems existed with the philosophy behind the Hit Show as well as the execution. Naimoli forced LaMar to spend more than 30 million in one off-season, unfortunately it was one of the weaker free agent classes of the 90's, and while the Rays would attempt to sale the group as a collection of superstars to rival the Murderer's Row and Big Red Machine lineups of the past the quartet was hardly that and we would find out that kittens aren't muffins just because you stuff them in ovens.

Vaughn would suffer injuries only hitting .254, .233, and .163 although he would maintain OPSes of .864, .766, and .601 in his time here with a total of 60 homeruns, rather disappointing for a player who two years prior to signing had hit 50 in San Diego, even more so was hitting 28 and 24 homers during his first two seasons, he would turn 36 in 2002 and would later head to Colorado, although he didn't sustain success.

The team tried multiple times to rid themselves of Vaughn and his massive contract, talking to the Red Sox about swapping Vaughn for disgruntled local outfielder Carl Everett, nothing went down, obviously, and the Rays were stuck paying the checks for slightly more than 17 million from 2001 on.

Steve Phillips and the Mets nearly saved the Rays from the grief by signing Vaughn as a replacement for John Olerud, this would be one of the few times that Phillips didn't make the bad move first. Although saying it was a bad move originally is a bit of an oversimplification, on the surface Vaughn was the fourth most feared slugger around behind Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and the relocating Ken Griffey Jr. who would replace Vaughn in Cincy.

The problem with the signing was the seemingly foreseeable collapse wasn't hard to spot. Vaughn was turning 34 and coming off a season where he hit 45 homeruns had a .245 average and a .347 on-base percentage with 20 doubles and 85 walks. In other words Vaughn relied heavily on walks and homeruns or "old player skills", throughout his career Vaughn was listed at 6'0" 190 pounds during his tenure in Tampa he was easily over the 200 pound mark and even more of a defensive liability, leaving his offensive traits as the only positives in Vaughn's game.

Even more disturbing; Vaughn would nearly match his 1999 production with the Rays in 2000, but his Batting Average of Balls In Play (BABIP) reached .292 his career BABIP sat at .264, even with that anomaly Vaughn could only produce a batting average slightly above .250. Selling on Vaughn after 2000 would've been a savvy maneuver, the Rays didn't, and for that they'd be paying for him through the end of the LaMar-Naimoli tenure.

The next addition to the lineup would be center fielder Gerald Williams, who would earn a pay raise from 1.48 million with the Braves to 2.5 million and 3 million from the Rays. Williams produced his best two seasons before joining the Rays; .305/.352/.504 and .275/.335/.457 despite depreciating stats across the board, minus homeruns and runs batted in; Williams would be named team MVP in 2000.

Williams would get off to a hideous start in 2001 before being released and joining the New York Yankees and one of his better friends, Derek Jeter, Williams' career was essentially over and he'd play his last pro game in 2005 before retiring and residing in Tampa. Perhaps the most memorable moment in Williams Rays `career is the fist fight against Pedro Martinez in one of the increasingly heated Red Sox versus Rays match-ups, the sight of the black jersey wearing Williams throwing a punch can easily be accessed through a simple Google search.

McGriff was really the only addition that worked out for the absolute best. Not only did he record more than 19 homeruns in each of his seasons with the Rays but also provided the leadership the progressively younger team would need. Coming off a disappointing 1997 McGriff was allowed to go home, and had a disappointing 1998, only hitting 19 homeruns with a .443 SLG%. 1999 became a renaissance year for the Crime Dog, belting 32 homeruns with 104 RBIs and boasting a .405 OBP, the highest of his 19 season career. 2000 would be more of the same for McGriff, 27 homeruns and 104 RBIs were greeted with 164 hits, the highest season total in his Rays' career.

On pace for another 30 homer, 100 RBI season McGriff was deal in 2001 to the Chicago Cubs. He would still produce 19 homeruns and 61 RBIs for the Rays, and would end up with 31 homers and 102 RBIs to go along with a line of .308/.386/.544, all above career averages. After two seasons with the Cubs he'd move on to the Los Angeles Dogers for a year, and would wind up on the disabled list for nearly half the season, in 2004 McGriff, with 491 homeruns, would return to Tampa for a run at history. After 27 games the Rays would release the Tampa native, and his career would end on a bitter .181/.272/.306 two homer effort, falling shy of 500 homeruns by seven.

Originally a Yankee farm bat he was dealt in 1982 to the Toronto Blue Jays, five years later he hit 34 homeruns, and would hit more than 30 in seven consecutive years for the Jays, San Diego Padres, and Atlanta Braves. Despite the poor ending McGriff's accomplishments are quite astonishing, he's the only player to ever hit 30 homeruns for five different franchises, he reached the All-Star game five times over the years, including winning the All-Star game MVP in 1994, and also lead the AL in OPS and homeruns in 1989, the NL in intentional walks in 1991, in homeruns in 1992, and in games played in 1995.

Amongst all time ranks McGriff is 74th in slugging, 75th in OPS, 56th in career games, 74th in at-bats, 62nd in plate appearances, 94th in runs scored, 84th in hits, 41st on total bases, 88th in doubles, 21st in homeruns, 37th in RBIs, 35th in walks, 37th in runs created, 34th in extra-base hits, 47th in times on base, 22nd in intentional walks, 62nd in at-bats per homerun, and is the Rays all-time leader in OBP, SLG%, OPS, walks, and at-bats per homerun as well as holding the single season Rays' records for OBP, OPS, and walks.

After his career was over McGriff would join the team in a public relations manner, and it is widely hoped that when, or if, McGriff goes into the hall of fame perhaps his stay with the Rays internally would provide him with the distinct honors of being the first true Ray into the hall of fame.

All that money down the drain caused Naimoli to rethink his strategy, he had lost money when spending it but he knew very well that not spending money could in the end add to his wallet. The flirtation with the long ball had failed miserably; homeruns alone don't win ballgames, neither do pitchers with health and weight concerns.

The philosophy switch would be made soon enough, shifting to younger players and selling the "heart and hustle" attitude with the ever so memorable "Watch it Happen!" marketing lines.


Due out in 2008