From 1998 to 2006, the few days before July 31st was the most active for the Devil Rays. That was the time every player making more than $750,000 or about to hit free agency was considered up for sale. This year it's different, and that could be a very good thing if the Rays play their cards right now and four months from now. UPDATE 10:20 a.m., July 29th: Obviously this story was written and posted just hours before both the Ty Wigginton and Jorge Cantu trades went down. I will save commentary on all of the trades until after Tuesday.
In the history of this franchise, whoever the GM was at the time would always be at his busiest in late July. That wasn't always a good situation because it made the Rays constant sellers in the summer and rarely opportunistic buyers in the winter. This season it's a little bit different, as the the usual rampant trade rumors have become at best a dull roar.
Ninety percent of the trade rumors center around Ty Wigginton. As you can easily see by the up-to-date reports on this website, several teams are interested in Wiggy's service and every newspaper in those teams' particular markets all have a take on who is involved in the trade talks. A couple of other names have drifted in talks, most notably Al Reyes and Carlos Pena. The biggest trade so far isn't really a blockbuster with Seth McClung going to Milwaukee for Grant Balfour. Despite the lack of intense trade talks, I believe this is a good thing for the Rays.
I know, I know, you probably just fell out of your chair after reading that. I will have you know I am not responsible for the purchase of your new computer since you just spit your drink all over your keyboard. Yes, I am the same person who has ranted and raged about the curious moves and non-moves by the NDRO all season long. But at this point in time, I think the best course of action is for the Rays not to rock the boat too much. But at the same time, and this is where my ranting and raging returns, the Rays just can't be inactive at the trade deadline and claim everything is fine and they'll grow with what they have. That would be extremely counterproductive for now and the future.
Despite everything that Wigginton brings to the Rays now, both on the field and off as a leader, this is the right time to move him. He will turn 30 in a couple of months, and to say the least he has thankfully overachieved ever since he joined the team prior to the 2006 season. Based on his performance this season, which will likely meet the final numbers from last season (.275, 24, 79 in 122 games), he will fetch about $4-$5 million next season which he rightly deserves from whatever team he plays for. Yet this is the perfect time to move him simply because there is a hunger for a power-hitting utility player this season. And the teams who want him seem to be willing to give up decent relief pitching in return, which is all the more reason why the Rays should move.
If Wiggy gets traded, the first thing you will hear from talk show hosts and newspaper columnists is, "They're dumping salary again!" In one aspect, yes the Rays would be dumping salary. When you trade a $2.7 million dollar player for a guy making $900,000, it's a salary dump no matter how you spin it. But with teams willing to give up decent relievers with some experience, and not just AAA prospects for a guy like Wiggy, I'm thinking it's a pretty good trade-off. Of course I'm holding that opinion for now, and it could change if I don't like what the Rays get in return if/when Wiggy does get shipped off.
I like what Wiggy has to bring to the Rays as a player and a leader, but you have to wonder what he bring to this team beyond this season. With a plethera of young talent and possibilities coming up from Durham and Montgomery, Wiggy may be relegated to DH duties here in 2008 or 2009, and who knows if he'll still be producing like he is now by then. The Rays have a huge hole to fill in pitching, both in the rotation and the bullpen. If trading Wiggy now can get an experienced piece in return who can help this team in the next two to three years then it's a wise move in my opinion.
The same goes for Al Reyes. If he gets moved, the first thing you'll hear is, "He's the best reliever of the team!" Well, yes, but he's also 36 and there's no guarantee he'll be nearly as good next season as he surprisingly has been this season. And while a lot of props should be thrown Reyes' way for his 17 saves this season, it should also be noted he's posted his highest ERA since 1997 while progressively getting worse as the season has gone along. Besides, with most of the Rays' leads getting blown in the middle relief innings, who's to say Reyes will have too many save opportunities in August and September? Yes, his option next season is reasonable at just over a million dollars with incentives. But the key to trading closers (or relievers in general) is there are just enough teams in contention who could use a good arm no matter the age or possible health problems. Teams that are division leaders already have a good closer and a decent bullpen, that's why they're in the lead. It's the pretenders, the teams that are eight games out but still feel they have a chance who go for a guy like Reyes. And it's these teams who may give up something worthy (although not necessarily a top prospect) in return for a guy who may be a huge question mark next season.
As for Carlos Pena, I'm leaning more towards keeping him this season. There are some possibilities in Durham in Wes Bankston or moving Joel Guzman to first from third, but niether prospect is lighting it up in terms of batting average or even on-base percentage in Durham. Pena is only 29, is still two years away from free agency, and is defensively as good as the anemic-hitting Travis Lee. For once the Rays have a legitimate first baseman, and I feel it may be worth their effort to cough up the $4 million or so Pena will look for in arbitration. With Scott Boras as his agent, $4 million for (hopefully) .279 and 27+ homers would be an absolute bargain. It's tempting to think what Pena could bring back in a trade, including a decent arm or two in the pitching staff, but I'm thinking the Rays may be taking two steps backwards to take a step forward here.
There are other names being tossed around such as Jorge Cantu, Edwin Jackson, Elijah Dukes and a couple others but certainly none of those players would be involved in an earth-shattering deal. Whatever deals the Rays do make, the fact is this season has been flushed down the toilet. Nothing will instantly turn this team around, as the Rays are actually four games UNDER where they were after 102 games last season. That says alot about the work of Joe Maddon and the management, and the onus will be on the management this winter.
We've already discussed the Maddon issue ad nauseum, as in if his contract will be picked up after this season. Regardless if Maddon or someone else is the manager, he will need the pieces to help this team turn the corner. The biggest need is pitching, which is currently the worst in all of Major League Baseball (a full 1.09 higher ERA than the miserable Texas Rangers, and a full 17 points higher in opponent batting average than the poor Pittsburgh Pirates). The NDRO keeps talking about financial flexibilty, and more and more people are aware of the millions of dollars this team reportedly makes in pre-tax income and luxury tax (That total number comes out to about $50 million last season depending on your source). It's on the NDRO's shoulders to address the pitching issue THIS WINTER. And the onus to keep the pressure on the NDRO to do this is on the fans and the media.
I'm sick and tired of hearing the argument from the NDRO that, "20 other teams are looking for what we're looking for". That's true, but the successful teams are the ones who actually ACT on filling their needs and not merely talking about it. Think back to your high school or college days guys: you wanted to get laid, and you didn't take the girl home if you didn't persue her. Being at the dance with the hot girl felt good, but if you didn't try hard to get her you went home and said, "woe is me" again.
I'm also sick and tired of the local media giving this team a pass, or as you're seeing right now just ignoring the Rays as football training camps start up. Too many newspaper reporters write warm and fuzzy stories to keep team management talking to them. Not to name names, but only ONE sports talk host in town knows anything about baseball and actually takes this team to task. And as for the fans, you HAVE to hold this team accountable. Going to a Rays game is fun, a good value, and ALWAYS entertaining even if the team loses. But this is your hard-earned money going to people who aren't exactly hurting when it comes to paying the bills. It's good to be optimistic, but it's wiser to be realistic. If you don't like where this team is going, by all means make a stink.
As for where this team is going now, it's once again oblivion as another forgettable season winds down against a horrific schedule. But the dull roar at the trade deadline is a good thing, as the Rays do have some of the pieces to future success playing now. They also have two or three pieces that could yield a few better pieces for the near future, if Andrew Friedman makes moves to not only be fiscally responsible but to truly build a winner. Then we'll see if the NDRO is up to the challenge of spending money on the bigger pieces this winter. If it is, then the dull roar could turn into loud cheers come 2008 and 2009.
Other observations from Raysland and elsewhere:
- Plenty of criticism is being thrown Joe Maddon's way for the pitch count and Jason Hammel in last night's 7-1 loss to Boston, but in this instance I'm supporting the skipper. This was Hammel's first extended outing in a long time, and he did manage to throw 88 pitches in 5 1/3 innings. It's still the bullpen's job to get batters out, and the loss should be on them. For Rays fans weary of the pitch count, let's hope Hammel's performance last night helps Maddon & company decide next time to let him go one more inning. Ten or twelve more pitches couldn't hurt... next time.
- There was a funny comment by a "JB" on the St. Pete Times website (under the game recap story) where he suggested there be an "inning count" on Maddon since the Rays are so stringent on pitch counts. The comment has mysteriously disappeared... hmmm... that's too bad.
- Maybe Maddon is growing up, and learning he has to have a tough side when he's a manager. I come to this conclusion because I see no mention of him giving some fine cologne to David Ortiz this season like he did last season. Of course, there's plenty of time in the season for cologne or a nice long walk on the beach together.
- Interesting deal, Seth McClung for Grant Balfour. It's not a bad deal though since we already know what McClung is all about. McClung is talented but he is very inconsistent, and he's an unpopular lunkhead in the clubhouse. Balfour will not be an instant factor in the turnaround of the bullpen, but he might be better than half that crew any way. McClung was down to his final option and could have been in an Edwin Jackson-like situation if he didn't pan out (again). Balfour is at arbitration status, and while his numbers aren't great you hope he improves to his pre-surgery days and hopefully gets better.
- I always knew Padres' GM Kevin Towers was a little flaky, but Scott Linebrink for three minor leaguers? Huh?
- And a big fat "boo" to Brewers fans who are wondering what the team was doing acquiring a slumping Linebrink. Manager Ned Yost was vehement that the trade was the right thing to do, and referenced the team's shrewd trade for Francisco Cordero in 2006 in yesterday's Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. The trade can only help the Brewers reach the playoffs for the first time in 25 years. It can also only hurt the Padres (this season at least) as only the Giants are out of the playoff race in the NL West.
- Speaking of the NL West, there are apparently a few players in San Francisco wondering if general manager Brian Sabean and the team is stalling its much-needed rebuilding effort for the sake of Barry Bonds surpassing Hank Aaron's home run record. Some players are even "betting their life", according to Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, that the Giants will bring the aging Bonds back next season so he can get his 3,000th career hit. Despite the dark cloud hanging over Bonds, it's interesting to ponder if the Giants see the silver lining in that cloud in the form of attendance and gate receipts.
- Finally, speaking of Bonds, the man will surpass Aaron within the next few days. Bonds has been through a lot of crap in his pursuits of Aaron, and some of it is self-inflicted. Aaron's biggest crime was being black, playing in the south, and beating a white man's legendary home run record. He was also guilty of being quite possibly the best player in baseball history (check out the number of hits, extra-base hits, and RBI the man put up in his career). Learn more about the man Henry Aaron, in his autobiography "I Had a Hammer", as Bonds is about to take over the record. You will discover that no matter how many more home runs Bonds hits in his career, Aaron was always and will always be much more of a man than Bonds.