As Stuart Sternberg took control of the team on October 3rd, the 2006 season represented the start of a new era.
The new ownership group had been in place earlier, but things weren’t finalized until the years’s end. However, Sternberg & Co. had already made their presence felt. They had pushed for the departure of Lou Pinella as the team’s manager, despite his having another year left on his contract. They fired Chuck LaMar as the team’s General Manager and promoted Matt Silverman from within the organization to be the team’s new President. Andrew Friedman and Gerry Hunsicker meanwhile, became the new co-GM’s.
One of the first tasks for the revamped front office was to bring in a new manager, one who was willing to buy into their approach to building a winning team on a small budget.
This led them to the bench coach of the Los Angeles Angels, who had spent the past 31 years within the Angels organization. In early November, Joe Maddon was officially hired as the new manager of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Now that the Devil Rays had their manager, they turned their attention to the onfield talent. First they signed Rocco Baldelli to an extension that could keep Rocco in a Rays uniform through the 2011 season.
It was a risk for the Devil Rays, but they felt their former Rookie of the Year candidate warranted it. Baldelli has missed some time of the 2004 season with a knee injury. Then, as he was set to rejoin the team in the summer, he had injured his elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery, causing him to miss out on the entire year.
In December, the Devil Rays traded their former first round selection and Opening Day starter, Dewon Brazelton, to the San Diego Padres for 3B Sean Burroughs as the two teams swapped a pair of former top prospects.
Later in the off-season they filled in their roster with veterans such as Ty Wigginton, Greg Norton, Dan Miceli, Shawn Camp, Al Reyes, Travis Lee, and Russell Branyan.
Looking to shed their expensive contracts, the Devil Rays traded away the backend of their bullpen. They packaged Lance Carter and Danys Baez together and sent them to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a pair of pitching prospects, Edwin Jackson and Chuck Tiffany.
Once the season started, the Devil Rays endured another typical Devil Rays April, going 11-14 over the month. However, Jonny Gomes brought some excitement to the club, following up a 21 HR rookie campaign in 2005.
During the month of April, Gomes was 6th in the majors with a 197 wRC+ and he led the American League with 11 HR over just 106 plate appearances. He would however struggle the rest of the way, likely due to a sore shoulder that would eventually require surgery, ending his year in late August.
Meanwhile, on the pitching side of things, Scott Kazmir led the Devil Rays staff like a cheetah leads a pack of snails.
That is, until May 30th when a young pitching prospect by the name of James Shields made his debut
Shields and Kazmir would former a solid 1-2 punch for the Devil Rays for the rest of the 2006 season, but the rest of the rotation was still in shambles. The 3rd best pitcher in the rotation, Mark Hendrickson, was traded along with longtime D-Rays catcher, Toby Hall to the Los Angeles Dodgers for C Dioner Navarro, RHP Jae Seo, and OF Justin Ruggiano.
The Devil Rays had already been very active in trade talks prior to that five player deal, as they dealt former top prospect, OF Joey Gathright, and INF Fernando Cortez to the Kansas City Royals just two weeks earlier for J.P. Howell.
During the All-Star break, the Devil Rays traded another longtime core player, sending 3B Aubrey Huff to the Houston Astros for a pair of prospects, RHP Mitch Talbot and SS Ben Zobrist.
Not quite done yet with the tear down, the Devil Rays had been trying to sign SS Julio Lugo to a contract extension to build the team around him, Crawford, and Baldelli, but the talks weren’t panning out. The team turned to the Los Angeles Dodgers once more and sent Lugo to L.A. for two prospects, OF Sergio Pedroza and 3B Joel Guzman.
In the lower reaches of the Rays system, former uber number one top prospect of the century, Josh Hamilton, was reinstated by Major League Baseball. Hamilton hadn’t played since the 2002 season due to injuries, and off the field attitude and drug problems.
Still just 25 years old, the Devil Rays sent Hamilton to Hudson Valley to get him re-acclimated to playing professional baseball. After over a three year absence, Hamilton still slashed .260/.327/.360 with 5 HR over 15 games.
In the 2006 draft, the Devil Rays selected a promising Long Beach State third baseman, a fellow named Evan Longoria at number three overall. Longoria would excel during his first taste as a professional ball and quickly earned a promotion from Short-Season Hudson Valley to High-A Visalia.
Also during that draft, the Devil Rays selected Alex Cobb and Desmond Jennings.
Back to the major leagues, the Devil Rays spent the second half of the season allowing players to try out for full time roles in 2007. This would be evidenced by the team’s poor record over the second half of the season as they went 22-51, a far cry from their over .500 run a year prior.
They promoted one of the top prospects in all of baseball, Delmon Young. They allowed the recently acquired Ben Zobrist some major league time in the infield and Dioner Navarro got innings behind the plate.. Seth McClung was moved from the starting rotation as the team looked to fill their newly opened closer vacancy.
Rocco Baldelli returned from his surgery in June and quickly rewarded the Devil Rays for their faithfulness with fantastic play down the stretch. Over 92 games, Baldelli slashed .302/.339/.533 with 16 HR and a 123 wRC+, accruing a total of 3.4 fWAR.
Meanwhile, Carl Crawford continued to evolve into one of the better players in the game as his power developed. He mashed 18 HRs to go along with his American League leading 58 stolen bases, accruing a total of 4.5 fWAR to finish his age 25 season.
Greg Norton and Ty Wigginton were both solid additions to the team, accruing just over 1 win apiece for the Devil Rays.
The 2006 Tampa Bay Devil Rays would finish 61-101, losing over 100 games for the first time since their disastrous 2002 campaign. However, their core of players had them excited for the 2007 season. Delmon Young and B.J. Upton were expected to have full time roles while Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli continued to develop.
On the pitching side, the Devil Rays finally looked to have two potential aces as Scott Kazmir and James Shields each had strong years.
There was plenty to look forward to, but also, still plenty of stumbles to come.