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About That Program Piece

As i told you all before, I did a little write-up for a Twins gameday program, and hey, now that the series has passed why not post it here?

 

Somewhere along the lines of history a wise – perhaps foolish – man once said “If you can’t get it right the first time, start over.” The Tampa Bay Rays have taken the possibly fake mantra to heart since new owner Stuart Sternberg took the helms in late 2005. Naturally the changes went largely unnoticed until the team took one of the final steps in rebuilding the brand by altering the colors and name of the franchise, but the progress has been around for quite a while.

 

When Sternberg took over ads graced our television sets, newspapers, and radios proclaiming that the organization was “under construction”. The team went so far as to hint that the temporary mascot was a construction worker. Months later the dome would be packed full of fans welcomed at the door by Sternberg and “Rebuilding the Dream” was a reality, except for one thing, winning. 2007 would bring more of the same, leaving Sternberg’s bunch with consecutive first overall picks in the amateur draft and the unwanted title of being the worst team in baseball two years running.

All the new paint and personable employees in the world can’t attract nearly as many folks as winning and make no mistake the franchise has realized this, but with hard work comes luck, and luck in this case means Carlos Pena. Before he became a 24 million dollar man he was a junkyard free agent trying to reclaim some of his former top prospect billing. The Rays were entering 2007 with Greg Norton and Ty Wigginton at first base and invited Pena along with another former top prospect, Hee-Seop Choi, to camp in hopes of catching lightning in a bottle. Choi would go back to Korea, which speaks of his faith with the Rays, and Pena would be the last man cut. Then destiny kicked in, Norton’s knee acted up and the crusty veteran needed surgery and rest that left the Rays without a reserve first baseman.

In between hosting the season ticket holders Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations (general manager) Andrew Friedman confirmed the team was indeed talking to Pena about returning. 50 something homers later Pena has a new contract and enlarged fan base backing his every move. Pena also could be a prophet, take in this quotation from him after Oakland demoted him: "I've seen many, many blue skies turn gray, but the sun will eventually return," he says. "And so will I. So will I."

Along the way the team found second baseman Akinori Iwamura in Japan at a reasonable buy low rate. Iwamura played third in 2007, but the Rays admitted they always wanted him at second. During the off-season shortstop Jason Bartlett, starter Matt Garza, and minor leaguer Eduardo Morlan were acquired from the Minnesota Twins for Brendan Harris, Delmon Young, and Jason Pridie in a challenge trade of former top prospects with attitude murmurs. Top prospect Evan Longoria fills out the infield and represents everything the new ownership group wanted in a franchise player; even if he did ask a team representative when the Rays last reached the playoffs prior to his press conference. Luckily for the Rays the employee avoided swerving off of the road.

 

Carl Crawford recently reached hit 1,000, the first player to achieve the feat entirely in a Rays uniform. Despite the consensus that Crawford will bolt after his contract, he seems to enjoy the idea of helping finish what he’s been around to build since 2002. B.J. Upton has found a home in center, even if he’s still having growing pains. In right field the Rays have a bit of a problem. The original plan was to platoon Cliff Floyd, Rocco Baldelli, and Jonny Gomes, but unfortunately Baldelli’s mitochondria issues have left his future as a player very much in doubt, and Floyd’s knee will cause him to miss at least a few weeks. Luckily the Rays have some depth remaining, and between non-roster invitee Eric Hinske, Gomes, waiver pickup Nathan Haynes, and minor leaguer Justin Ruggiano they should be suitable until another prospect, Fernando Perez perhaps, arrive on the major league scene sometime soon.

Catchers Dioner Navarro and Shawn Riggans have never been the healthiest of players, but when Navarro cut his fingers on a net in the dugout of Yankee Stadium Riggans was quick to capitalize, hitting a bases clearing double to put the Rays up. From then Riggans, along with the help of original Ray Mike DiFelice, has helped to enamor fans and personnel alike with his charismatic attitude and framing abilities.

Don’t think the pitchers aren’t fans of the improved defense either. Few thought Scott Kazmir missing a month of time would allow the Rays to stay afloat, and even fewer when Garza went down with radial nerve irritation, but Jason Hammel and Edwin Jackson, both on their last legs with the organization, have stepped up and combined for four solid efforts. James Shields has became the staff ace, while Andrew Sonnanstine is the staff brain, and Jeff Niemann is the newbie, and figures to be the first of quite a prospect wave featuring David Price, Wade Davis, Jake McGee, and lesser known Mitch Talbot and Chris Mason.

 

In the bullpen Troy Percival, Al Reyes, Dan Wheeler, Trever Miller, and Gary Glover form the core while J.P. Howell and Scott Dohmann take the long relief and “gopher” roles alike. For the first time in a while the Rays have a ton of bullpen depth sitting within their top two minor league levels, including Calvin Medlock, Dale Thayer, Nick DeBarr, Grant Balfour, and Jae Kuk Ryu. Plus let us not forget injured hurlers Chad Orvella, Steve Andrade, Kurt Birkins and the currently exiled Juan Salas.

Of course, every team has their leaders, and the Rays have a group of young, talented “whiz kids” in the front office. It starts with Matt Silverman, who runs most of the team’s day to day operations, Friedman and Gerry Hunsicker combined to make most of the personnel decision, Mitch Lukevics (who helped to build the Yankee systems of the early 90’s) and former Baseball Prospectus writer Chaim Bloom run the minor leagues while R.J. Harrison runs the drafts, helping to form the best farm system in the majors. From there it only gets more interesting as Moneyball character Dan Feinstein is Director of Baseball Operations, another former Prospectus writer, James Click, who essentially wrote Baseball Between the Numbers is the Coordinator of Baseball Operations and is joined by yet another Prospectus writer in Erik Neander.  Finally I’d be remiss not to mention Carlos Alfonso who runs the new foreign facilities and Michael Kalt, the “point man” in the new stadium discussions.

Only two things stand in the Rays way from becoming the Barack Obama success story of the MLB; getting the new stadium and winning. Like former general manager Chuck LaMar once said: "The only thing that keeps this organization from being recognized as one of the finest in baseball is wins and losses at the major-league level."