In some barely perceptible ways, change was in the always-72-degree Tropicana Field air in 2005.
The Tampa Bay Devil Rays had been the laughing stock of major league baseball across their brief history. Their on-field product had been lackluster (a 70-91 finish in 2004 was their best year) and their ownership was also openly ridiculed. Chuck Lamar was considered one of the toughest GM’s to make a deal with in baseball, and not in a respectful, “he drives a tough bargain” way. Principal owner Vince Naimoli was known for issuing ridiculous polices to his employees at and away from the stadium, when he wasn’t busy chasing down fans who had brought in contraband outside food.
Meanwhile, manager Lou Pinella had voiced his displeasure with the front office and their unwillingness to expand their budget to bring better talent to Tampa Bay, stating he had been told the team would do so when he signed his contract before the 2003 season.
It would all come to a head during the 2005 season. Stuart Sternberg, a Wall Street executive, led a group that purchased the majority stake in the Devil Rays franchise, but he wouldn’t take control until immediately following the 2005 season, meaning the Devil Rays would have to endure one more season of Naimoli rule.
During the 2004-2005 off-season, the Devil Rays kept to their usual style of not making any splashy additions, but instead traded away or released players who were becoming expensive and signing veterans in the twilight of their careers, giving them one more opportunity.
They traded Jose Cruz Jr to the Arizona Diamondbacks and received a former Boston Red Sox top prospect, LHP Casey Fossum, in return. Earlier on, they had traded Chad Gaudin to the Toronto Blue Jays for C Kevin Cash.
A slew of veterans were brought in. They signed 2B Roberto Alomar, OF Denny Baustista, 3B Alex Gonzalez, 1B Travis Lee, OF Chris Singleton, and RHP Hideo Nomo.
During spring training, Alomar and Bautista announced their retirements. Alomar was slated to be the team’s starting second baseman, so his spot was taken by Jorge Cantu, who had a fantastic debut in 2004.
Also during spring training, the Devil Rays brought back one of their former top prospects, Alex Sanchez. The slap hitting outfielder made an impression: he became the first player to test positive and be suspended for PED’s in baseball history.
The Devil Rays struggled out of the gate, winning just 8 of their 24 games in April. This was despite the fact that their offense was among the top ten in baseball and 6th in the American League (4th in the AL East, though).
Their pitching however, was the worst in baseball. As the season wore on their offense staggered as well.
During the 2005 draft, the Devil Rays had the 8th overall selection and decided to choose between OF Andrew McCutchen and RHP Wade Townsend in a debate between the scouting department and the ownership. It was Rays ownership that made the final decision, opting for Townsend.
The Devil Rays made several other solid selections during the draft, but unfortunately weren’t able to sign most of them. They chose Ike Davis, Wade Miley, and Tommy Hunter, none of whom signed. They did choose Jeremy Hellickson in the 4th round of the draft.
Jorge Cantu emerged as one of the top offensive performers on the team, along with slugger Jonny Gomes. Alex Sanchez also enjoyed success at the plate following his return from suspension, but unhappy with his playing time, he requested to be traded and he left the team in June.
Sanchez wasn’t the only unhappy person on the Devil Rays payroll. Their manager, Lou Pinella didn’t stay quiet about his problems with the ownership.
The Devil Rays limped into the All-Star break, having won just two of their past 15 games. They finished the first half of the season with a record of 28-61.
When the trade deadline came around, the Devil Rays were involved in some extraordinary talks, that involved Boston Red Sox slugger, Manny Ramirez heading to the New York Mets and the Devil Rays getting involved, somehow receiving the Red Sox top prospects (SS Hanley Ramirez & LHP Jon Lester), but the talks would fizzle with the Devil Rays ultimately standing pat.
On the pitching side of things, Scott Kazmir, at just 21 years old, looked to be developing into one of the top pitchers in the game as he tamed several of the most potent lineups in all of baseball.
But the Devil Rays rotation went quickly downhill beyond Kazmir. Mark Hendrickson and Casey Fossum were back-end guys, but they held the number 2 and 3 slots for the 2005 Devil Rays.
Hideo Nomo struggled badly during his time in Tampa Bay, before being released in July. Doug Waecther, Seth McClung, and Dewon Brazelton were among the other names who started more than a few of the Devil Rays games that season, contributing to the team’s early season struggles.
Following the All-Star break, however, there was new life in Tampa Bay as the team began to win.
Carl Crawford and Julio Lugo were average producers over the first half of the season, but during the final few months they turned things around at the plate. Jonny Gomes, Travis Lee, Aubrey Huff, Jorge Cantu, and Alex Gonzalez were all fantastic for the Devil Rays during the second half of the year.
Their second half record was 39-34. They finished the year with a record of 67-95.
As the year came to a close, the Devil Rays parted ways with manager Lou Pinella, buying him out of the final year of his contract. The new ownership group took control in October and immediately began to clean house, both of the active roster and the front office.
The Tampa Bay Devil Rays were officially under construction.