The Devil Rays were going to win at some point. With a growing roster of talented youngsters, it was just a matter of when.
Following the 2006 season, the Devil Rays continued to fine-tune their overhauled roster.
Their most notable move was the acquisition of star Japanese third baseman Akinori Iwamura, whom they were able to sign as a free agent after posting the winning bid to negotiate with him. Iwamura had been a six time Gold Glove winner and a three time All-Star in Nippon Professional Baseball.
The Devil Rays also made a critical decision, finally, to outright the former top prospect in all of baseball, Josh Hamilton, off of the 40-man roster, leaving him unprotected in the Rule 5 draft. Hamilton would be selected by the Chicago Cubs, and then immediately flipped to the Cincinnati Reds, with whom he’d enjoy a fantastic rookie season in 2007.
Smaller, less significant-seeming transactions filled out the off season. They claimed INF Brendan Harris from the Reds, and signed 1B Carlos Peña, OF Dustin Mohr, RHP Gary Glover, and RHP Al Reyes off the free agent market.
On Opening Day, the Devil Rays roster was mainly the same as it was when they finished the 2006 season. But some of the “sleeper” signings from the winter would come to have unexpected significance in 2007.
Brendan Harris took over the starting shortstop job from a struggling Ben Zobrist and ran with it. Starting firstbaseman Greg Norton suffered an early season injury and became Tampa Bay’s own Willy Pipp when Carlos Peña filled in, going on to have an historically strong season.
In terms of how the trio of Rays prospects (Delmon Young, Elijah Dukes, and B.J. Upton) were doing, things could have been better. Upton proved to be an offensive force, but struggled on the defensive side of things. Around mid-May, he would be moved from the infield into center field.
Elijah Dukes had been poised to become one of the top players in all of baseball as scouts raved about his natural abilities. Unfortunately for him and everyone around him, he struggled with off the field issues that had plagued him throughout his entire professional career. In June, the Devil Rays optioned him to Durham, where he would spend the rest of the 2007 season.
Delmon Young was struggling as well to adapt at the major league level and performing at below replacement level (-0.2 fWAR).
A couple of bright spots for the club included Carl Crawford (as always), and the transplanted Akinori Iwamura who was enjoying a fantastic first year stateside.
On the pitching side of things, the Devil Rays were still searching for a solid backend to their starting rotation behind Scott Kazmir and James Shields, both of whom were off to excellent starts in 2007. Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine seemed to be emerging as a couple of solid options, but there were still plenty of kinks to work out.
Meanwhile, the bullpen remained an albatross as the team struggled to record outs of any kind if Kazmir and Shields weren’t pitching.
With the league’s worst record during the 2006 season, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays had the first overall selection in the 2007 draft and with it, they selected a LHP out of Vanderbilt University by the name of David Price.
During that same draft, the Devil Rays would later select LHP Matt Moore and C Stephen Vogt.
Heading into the trade deadline, the Devil Rays were active once again, but this time they decided to make all of their trades in one day, completing three deals on a busy July 28th. This would turn out to be one of the crucial days in the history of the team.
The Devil Rays parted ways with Ty Wigginton, Jorge Cantu, Seth McClung, and minor leaguer, Shaun Cumberland dealing with the Reds, Milwaukee Brewers, and the Houston Astros, bringing in Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler, and a couple of minor leaguers (Calvin Medlock and Brian Shackelford).
During the second half of the season, Scott Kazmir emerged as an ace as he was one of the top starting pitchers in all of baseball over that time. He would finish the year with 239 strikeouts, 1st in the AL and 2nd in MLB behind Jake Peavy who finished with 240.
Meanwhile, James Shields had a fantastic season and the aforementioned Andy Sonnanstine and Edwin Jackson had established themselves as solid back of the rotation arms for the Devil Rays.
Trade deadline acquisitions Dan Wheeler and Grant Balfour were thrust into high leverage situations and although there were some stumbles, they showed they could handle it.
Back to the offensive side of things, Carlos Pena’s breakout from earlier in the season only accelerated over the second half as he proceeded to put up the best offensive season in franchise history. He shattered the previous Tampa Bay HR record, finishing the year with 46 long balls. Pena would accrue 5.9 fWAR and had a 167 wRC+ (4th highest in MLB).
B.J. Upton would put up 4.5 fWAR during his first full season in the majors and after some stumbles, he became a very adept center fielder. Flanking him to the left was Carl Crawford, who enjoyed another terrific campaign in 2007 as he accrued 3.3 fWAR and stole 50 more bases.
Akinori Iwamura had a great debut season, dazzling at third base with several astonishing plays and he served as a catalyst at the top of the order for Joe Maddon.
Unfortunately for the Devil Rays, Rocco Baldelli’s injury problems returned. During spring training, he pulled a hamstring, but attempted to play through it. But after poor performance, he would go on the disabled list.
While rehabbing, he pulled a hamstring once more. Afterwards, doctors would attribute these recurring ailments to mitochondrial abnormalities, effectively ending his 2007 season, having only played in 35 games with his future as a major leaguer in doubt.
Delmon Young’s first year in the majors had been a bust, despite finishing runner up in the American League Rookie of the Year award chase. He finished with -0.2 fWAR and had a 89 wRC+, while playing the full schedule of 162 games.
The Devil Rays clearly had several pieces to field a winning team. They had the anchors of a strong starting rotation and bullpen and a new, powerful presence in the middle of their lineup to go along with their lightning quick top of the order. Yet another last place, sub-70 win season might not have looked promising, but the Devil Rays finally had a core of legitimate major leaguers on their roster.