Heading into the 2002 season, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays were, to put it kindly, going through an awkward period. Their Hit Show experiment had failed spectacularly with three of the four members having parted ways with the ball-club. The other veterans they had brought in had failed to transition the club into a winner. Meanwhile, their expansion twin, the Arizona Diamondbacks, had won the World Series in 2001.
Attendance had been plummeting since the team’s first year in 1998 and with a lousy on field product there was little cause to believe it would get better.
The Devil Rays did have several exciting prospects in the pipeline. After all they had the number one prospect in all of baseball, Josh Hamilton, who could be poised to make the leap into the majors in 2002, if he would be able to overcome an injury plagued 2001 campaign.
There were no big name free agent signing this off season, with 2002 seen as the time to bring along their draftees and recent minor league acquisitions to receive a big league shot.
And April 2002 started with a ray of hope. The Devil Rays got off to the best start in franchise history as they swept the Detroit Tigers at the Trop, the most games they had been over .500 since the 1999 season. Then, it just all went horribly, horribly wrong.
The Devil Rays would drop 10 of the next 13, then win three in a row to bring their record to 6-10. Tampa Bay would take their next three games, inching back to one game under .500, showing they could be a competitive ball club. This was on April 24th.
The Devil Rays would not win again until May 11th. That’s right. A fifteen game losing streak.
One of these losses was the hands of the Boston Red Sox, with Derrick Lowe tossing a no-hitter on April 27th.
The losing streak finally ended thanks to Randy Winn. With the Devil Rays trailing the Baltimore Orioles, 4-3, with two outs and two runners on base in the ninth inning at Tropicana Field. Randy Winn took a 2-2 pitch from Jorge Julio and deposited it over the center field wall for a walk-off three run home run. tThe 6-4 victory, ended the 15 game losing streak.
That was the best moment of the 2002 season for the Devil Rays.
There were some other noteworthy milestones, however.
Jared Sandberg had a historic night against the Los Angeles Dodgers on June 11th. During a nine run 5th inning, Sandberg clobbered two home runs to become the 16th player in American League history to accomplish that feat.
During that year’s draft, the Devil Rays made several notable picks, with B.J. Upton getting selected with the 2nd overall pick in the draft. Several other notable draftees included Elijah Dukes, Jason Hammel, Mike Pelfrey, Cesar Ramos, amd JaCoby Ellsbury (the Rays wouldn’t able to sign the latter three). They would later sign Elliot Johnson as an undrafted free agent towards the end of the month.
Their best month came in August when they went 11-18. The Devil Rays would finish the 2002 season with a record of 55-106, 48 games back in the division.
There were several bright spots for the Devil Rays. In his first full season, Aubrey Huff broke out. He slashed .313/.364/.520 with 23 home runs (leading the team), accruing 2.3 fWAR over 113 games, good for a 133 wRC+. Ben Grieve also had a bounce back campaign; he and Huff looked like they could give the team a powerful middle of the line-up moving forward.
Meanwhile, Randy Winn would be the lone All-Star on the team as he led the Devil Rays in fWAR with a 4.6. He was solid on both sides of the ball, putting up 119 wRC+ and a solid defensive performance in center.
On the pitching side of things, Joe Kennedy had another solid year as he put up 2.5 fWAR in a very tough AL East, looking to be the ace of the rotation in 2003. Meanwhile, Wilson Alvarez’s tenure with the club finally came to end, after signing a five year contract that he dealt with injuries throughout. When he did pitch, it didn’t go very well.
Following the season, the Devil Rays would fire Hal McRae and then make one of the most puzzling deals in franchise history to find his replacement.
Several players seemed primed to breakout in 2003, with promising prospects on the pitching staff and in the offense . Baseball in Tampa Bay was about to get much more exciting.