Something was happening in Tampa Bay.
It wasn’t winning, that just felt like a pipe dream that would never come to fruition. No, it was a change in the team’s presence.
To be sure, they lost 99 games in 2003 and if not for the Detroit Tigers being historically awful, they would have had the worst record in all of baseball...it just didn’t feel like it.
The team had Julio Lugo, Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, and Aubrey Huff on the offensive side of things. Here was the young core that could help guide the team over the .500 mark. But the poor quality of the pitching meant that wins were still hard to find.
During the off-season, the Devil Rays looked to improve the team where they could. They lost 1B Travis Lee to free agency, so they went out and acquired Tampa native, veteran 1B Tino Martinez from the St Louis Cardinals.
They decided to cut ties with Joe Kennedy making a three team trade with the Colorado Rockies and Toronto Blue Jays. The deal brought former NBA player turned MLB pitcher, Mark Hendrickson to the Devil Rays, with Kennedy heading to Colorado and Justin Speier going to Toronto from the Rockies.
On the same date, the Devil Rays also traded RHP Brandon Backe to the Houston Astros from switch hitting INF Geoff Blum.
The Devil Rays were making a lot of moves at they looked for the right mix of veterans to go with their new exciting young core. Following the trades, the Devil Rays signed veterans Eduardo Perez, Rey Sanchez, Danys Baez, Trevor Miller, Brook Fordyce, Robert Fick, and Jose Cruz Jr (2003 Gold Glove winner). Even during spring training, they decided to bring back inaugural Devil Ray, Fred McGriff as looked to march toward his 500th HR.
As spring training ended, the Devil Rays took off for Japan to open the 2004 season with two games in Japan with the New York Yankees.
At 5:14 am EST, Victor Zambrano delivered the first pitch of 2004 and the season was underway. Jose Cruz Jr and Tino Martinez homered for Tampa Bay, for Martinez it was his 300th career blast. The Devil Rays would go on to victory, defeating the Yankees by the score of 8-3.
The next two months of the seasons would go on in typical Devil Rays fashion as they found new, inventive ways to lose. However, on May 20th, things began to change.
Heading to play on the 20th, the Devil Rays had lost 23 of their past 28 games and had a season record of 10-28.
Starting that night, the Devil Rays won five games in a row before dropping six of their next 11 contests. That brought them to June 9th with an improved record of 21-34.
Then, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays set a franchise record by winning 12 games in a row, three of which ended in walk-off fashion. The streak would come to an end on June 23rd in 10 innings against the Toronto Blue Jays, but the Devil Rays made their Canadian rivals feel their wrath as Tampa Bay set another franchise record the following day.
On June 24th, the Devil Rays offense ignited, scoring 19 runs on 24 hits (both new team records).
Upon finishing their road trip and heading home, the Devil Rays had a record of 34-35 and were on the cusp of reaching the .500 mark in the month of June for the first time in franchise history. They were met with tremendous fanfare as they arrived back at the airport.
The good times kept coming for the Devil Rays. In their first game back at Tropicana Field, Dewon Brazelton came close to making history as he lost a no-hitter with two outs in eighth inning. The Devil Rays would shutout the Florida Marlins and reach the .500 mark with a record of 35-35.
Meanwhile, during the annual June draft, the Devil Rays would make several selections that heavily impacted their future as they selected RHP Jeff Niemann with the 4th overall selection. They’d also go on to draft the likes of Andy Sonnanstine, Wade Davis, Reid Brignac, Jake McGee, and Fernando Perez.
The Devil Rays won 20 of their 26 games during the month of June as part of a stretch where they went 27-10.
At the 2004 trade deadline, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays would make what turned out to be one of the best deals in franchise history as they dealt RHP’s Victor Zambrano and Bartolome Fortunato to the New York Mets for RHP Jose Diaz and LHP Scott Kazmir.
"It was a good trade for us, and I think it was a heck of a trade for the New York Mets," Lamar said. "Victor Zambrano has been here a long time. ... You hate to give him up but we've spent a lot of time and effort and money of getting a nucleus of our young position players. We knew this day was coming that we needed to start getting our hands on some pitching that can truly beat the Red Sox and Yankees in this division, and we think Scott Kazmir has that kind of ability."
That would be it for the nice winning stretches as the team plummeted back to earth shortly thereafter. They would go 30-53 the rest of the way with a 12 game losing streak mixed in.
Still, it turned out to be the best year in Devil Rays history. Their record was 70-91 and for the first time ever, they finished not-last in the AL East, coming in 4th place.
Carl Crawford had a breakout campaign in which he accrued 5.1 fWAR over 152 games and he once again led the AL in stolen bases (59) and led the majors in triples (19). Besides his speed, he started to bring power as he slugged 11 HR.
Aubrey Huff led the team once again in wRC+ as he had another solid offensive season. Veteran 1B Tino Martinez gave the Devil Rays a quality year before leaving for free agency as he followed just behind Huff. Infield prospect Jorge Cantu made his presence known late in the season, hitting above .300 and pounding doubles (20 of 52 hits were doubles).
Rocco Baldelli, Jose Cruz Jr, and Julio Lugo all turned well above replacement level years despite subpar performances on the offensive side of things. The team also had a 19 year old top prospect B.J. Upton make his MLB debut later on in the season.
The pitching remained bleak though. Mark Hendrickson led the staff with a decent year, but the rest of the starting rotation struggled mightily. Scott Kazmir would make his MLB debut shortly after his acquisition from the Mets and generated excitement for the future as he looked like a potential ace.
The Tampa Bay Devil Rays still weren’t a great team, they weren’t even a good team. They finished 21 games under .500. However, they were getting better and better.
The strong core of Julio Lugo, Rocco Baldelli, Carl Crawford, and Aubrey Huff all continued to grow into their potential. Scott Kazmir was poised to spark a turnaround in the team’s starting rotation. They Devil Rays just needed a few more pieces to work out, and if there were to happened, things could get exciting really quickly.