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Down on the Corner...

The Rays' impressive play over the past six weeks has some people talking, talking about the team finally "turning the corner" to success. But is this team really turning the corner, or is optimism so bright people are wearing their rose-tinted shades?

The Rays haven't had a whole lot to cheer about in ten seasons of play. Anything positive is a small victory, and this season has been loaded with small victories. But the most important victories, the ones that show up in the win-loss column, still have the team dead last in the majors. Still, with 16 games left and a 61-85 record, the Rays have a chance to tie or even surpass the franchise-record 70 wins for the season. Hey, it's a small victory, and a tough one with most of the Rays' opponents heading to the playoffs or trying hard to get there. But there is a much larger victory in the making according to some.

Since August 1st, the Rays have posted a 21-19 record. In August the pitching staff was in the middle of the pack in MLB with a 4.49 ERA. Add a 5.42 ERA in 11 games this month and the team has a 4.74 ERA, which isn't impressive but it's better than the pre-All-Star ERA of 5.82 (a major league worst). Despite a few lackluster games in late August, offensively the team has done fairly well with a .277 batting average, 49 homers, and 218 runs in 39 games. Despite a couple of heartbreaking losses at Fenway Park, the optimism is still there. And while everyone should praise the Rays for picking up what was turning in to a truly dreadful season in the middle of July, one doesn't need to look too far to see this story before.

In 2005, the team went 27-29 from August 1st to the end of the season. In the same stretch in 2003 the team went 23-33. In 2001 it was 27-29 again. Every couple of years the team rebounds from a miserable midseason record and teases us with a stretch of success that gets us hopeful that next year really is THE year the Rays turn it around. It's not hard to see why some people are skeptical as to if this team is actually turning the corner. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Fool me three times, call me a Rays fan.

But there is a difference in this season and where things may go when compared to previous seasons (and teases to the following season). Whether you like or don't like the NDRO's plan for building a winner, it looks like they're sticking to it. And I say, it's about damn time. Under the Namoli regime there was a plan but it was changed every two years, making it the longest seven-year plan in the majors (since eclipsed by the Pirates).

In '98 it was building an expansion team. Then in 2000 it became "Hit Show" before going back to the all-youth movement in 2002 and 2003. Suddenly in 2004 Tino Martinez and Fred McGriff were back which then opened the door for retreads like Roberto Alomar and Danny Bautista to get invites to spring training in 2005. When the NDRO rolled in for the 2006 season and spoke of building a winner with an "exciting young nucleus" of players, more than a few eyes rolled. My eyes were one of those pairs that rolled, and I'm one of the people who hopes the team ramps up the rebuilding process a bit.

Still, I drank the Kool-Aid prior to the 2006 season. I wasn't in love with the approach the NDRO was taking, but I accepted it. Heading in to 2008 the baby steps will continue, but this time the steps will have to actually be steps and not just merely crawling along to 72 or 73 wins. In short, the Rays are talking a good "turning the corner" game, but this winter they'll have to prove they really are ready to take that next step.

It starts with Stuart Sternberg who has to make the financial commitment of raising the payroll, and raising it more than the expected jump in salaries to Carlos Pena, Scott Kazmir, Dan Wheeler, and Carl Crawford. From there it moves on to Andrew Friedman who MUST find a way to acquire a veteran starter, one more dependable bullpen arm, and a shortstop and catcher who can hold down the position before Reid Brignac and John Jaso work their way up the ladder to their respective positions. Then it's up to Joe Maddon to start preaching winning instead of learning to the assembled roster of players. Ultimately it will be up to the players to deliver on expectations and to get this team closer to .500 in 2008, and the playoffs in 2009.

That's a tall order for all involved this winter, but it's necessary to see who's ready to take that step towards winning and away from the basement in the American League. You're already hearing it from some of the parties that will be involved. Friedman is talking about "financial flexibility", although he hasn't discussed the specific needs that flexibility will fill. Maddon is already talking about not needing moral victories, and is talking reality in parts of the team that aren't coming through when needed (i.e. the pitching staff the last couple of games). Players are already expressing optimism and a desire (!) to play here in 2008 and beyond. Pena has already talked about staying here for a few years, and even the usually burned out Crawford has admitted this late season success "feels like it's a little different situation" compared to previous years.

As with everything with the Rays, only time will tell. There's a lot of comparisons being made between the 2007 Rays and the 1996 Buccaneers or the 2001-02 Lightning. Those teams made the necessary moves to turn the corner in those years, which allowed them to make bigger risks down the road to eventually win a championship. While the Rays have done a lot of good things in the past six weeks on the field, I have a feeling it's the offseason moves during the next six months that will ultimately determine if this team really will turn the corner or just get stuck in neutral as the light turns green.

Other notes from Raysland and elsewhere:

  • Being fair again, the Rays' 61-85 record after 146 games is four games BETTER than this point last season.
  • Not to poop all over the Rays' success since August 1st, but let's take into consideration  the teams the Rays have played since August 1st: Two terrible teams in Baltimore and Texas, two teams in Toronto and Oakland that should be better than what they are, a Tigers team that really lost its mojo, and playoff contenders in Cleveland, New York, and Boston. The Rays SHOULD beat those less-than-spectacular teams, while the 6-9 record against contenders is respectable given what the Rays are up against.
  • Speaking of A.L. East opponents, the Rays are 26-37 in 63 games against division opponents, getting outscored 382-317 in those games. Just further proof that a couple of key additions next season (in the rotation or the infield) could make the difference in a smaller scoring margin and more wins in the division.
  • Congrats to the Durham Bulls and Montgomery Biscuits on advancing to the championship rounds of their respective leagues. This is only a good thing for the Rays and their fans, and I suppose the Braves organization since both their AA and AAA teams were also in the playoffs.
  • How about you and I start a dog-fighting ring so the local media can turn their cameras and notebooks away from Elijah Dukes and NiShea Gilbert?
  • I'm not crazy about the St. Pete Times listing the "bottoms up" column, showing where the Rays rank amongst the worst teams in baseball. So what if the Rays don't finish with the worst record in baseball? Does finishing 28th or 29th really show much of an accomplishment instead of finishing 30th? There are still at least 27 teams better than you!
  • Some people were visibly upset that Joe Maddon got his two-year extension a few days ago. Personally I like the guy as a human being, but still question some of his tactics he has showed before. But Maddon has changed a bit over the past few months, doing more baseball basics instead of trying to show us how smart he is with fancy shifts or kooky lineups day-in and day-out. He's learning and growing with the team, and even though I am one of his biggest critics I really wish him the best of luck in 2008 and 2009. Alot of the onus to win is on his shoulders now, although it would help if he had a few new dependable (and better) players to toy with.
  • While everyone was gasping at the Rays for keeping Maddon on board (even though they obviously were going to do it all season long), where's the outrage over the White Sox re-signing Ozzie Guillen... FOR FIVE YEARS!?! Injuries have hurt the White Sox this season, and the pitching has been simply atrocious, but there's reason to believe Guillen's "my way or the highway" attitude has worn thin in the South Side.
  • Did it really take six years for the Pirates to figure out Dave Littlefield as GM just wasn't working? Chuck Lamar can breathe a sigh of relief as he retains his award for "most undeserving tenure" after eight years in Tampa Bay.
  • Then again, the Littlefield fiasco, preceded by Cam "Jason Kendall's Best Friend" Bonifay, only shows how clueless and careless the Pirates' ownership is. The current ownership has been in charge since 1996 and has very little to show for its "efforts" other than a beautiful ballpark built on money pillaged from Pittsburgh residents. As long as the Nutting group runs this team, it will be the biggest embarassment for MLB.
  • First Rick Ankiel, now Troy Glaus and Jay Gibbons have been roped into the ongoing steroids probe. Take note kids, none of these guys were (allegedly) taking performance enhancers to hit 74 home runs. Rather, they were recovering from major surgery or trying to maintain numbers from a previous (presumably steroid-free) season. And don't say I didn't warn you about a month ago about these allegations. More are on the way and this is only going to get uglier.
  • Bucs GM Bruce Allen defends David Boston's legal troubles on channel 8 a day before Pinellas Park police release information Boston had GHB in his system when he was pulled over last month. Then Boston is cut from the team because of a nagging foot injury? Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight...
  • Finally, I saw a billboard yesterday for Schlitz Beer, notifying me that "Gentlemen under 55 need not apply". Don't worry Schlitz, I won't.
DISCLAIMER: As of this summer, Matt Sammon is now a part-time, paid employee of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' ownership, management, players, coaches, or other employees.