Inside Pitch: Rays follow blueprint
Rays use same formula as '91 Braves to improve young squad
Tampa Bay's amazing start is one of the great stories of the 2008 season. It might also be the first chapter of an epic turnaround tale, because what the Rays are doing is in many ways similar to what the Atlanta Braves pulled off in 1991.
The '90 Braves ranked dead last in the Major Leagues in ERA (5.07) and fielding percentage (.974). They had finished in last place or next to last place for six consecutive years, with a 72-89 season in 1986, the only time the Braves avoided at least 90 losses in a year.
In '91, the Braves, led by a core group of players who hadn't yet reached their 26th birthday in Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, John Smoltz, Ron Gant and David Justice, won 94 games and the National League pennant. The youngsters, combined with 30-year-old Terry Pendleton and the elder statesman in the rotation -- 34-year-old, 15-game winner Charlie Leibrandt -- pulled off one of the biggest surprises in years and launched an Atlanta dynasty.
The Braves used great pitching and predominantly homegrown talent to become the model of excellence many organizations have attempted to emulate in the years since.
Now the Rays, after 10 consecutive losing seasons and last-place finishes in every one except 2004 when the team went 70-91 to finish fourth, are trying to go from the bottom to the playoffs just as the Braves did 17 years ago.
Last year, Tampa Bay's ERA of 5.83 and fielding percentage of .980 ranked last in the Major Leagues.
This season, the Rays have the sixth-best team ERA in baseball, and the bullpen ERA of 3.36 ranks ninth among the 30 teams. The pitching staff established team records for ERA in a month each of the first two months of the season with a 3.74 in April and 3.66 in May.
Like the Braves of '91, these Rays are relying on a very young rotation. They've used 26-year-old James Shields, 24-year-old Scott Kazmir, 24-year-olds Matt Garza and Edwin Jackson and 25-year-old Andy Sonnanstine. And left-hander David Price, the top overall pick in last year's draft, is waiting in the wings.
With speedsters like Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton, the Rays play more of a National League-style game with aggressive baserunning and solid fielding backing up strong pitching. Just like the Braves.
An NL imprint on the Rays isn't all that surprising since general manager Andrew Friedman has Gerry Hunsicker as his mentor. Hunsicker built several playoff teams as Houston's GM, including one that won a pennant the year after he left the Astros.
The Friedman/Hunsicker tandem has led to several shrewd moves, like bringing in Carlos Pena last year, Troy Percival this season and signing budding star Evan Longoria to an unprecendented deal. The Rays are well-stocked in the farm system after years of early picks. That quality depth on the horizon combined with all of the talented youth on the Major League roster bodes well for the team's future.
Like the Braves of '91, the Rays are also taking care of business within the division. The Rays enter Thursday night's game 21-14 against AL East foes. Tampa Bay has never had a winning record against the East and has averaged 29 wins and 46 losses within the division in the 10 years its been in existence.
The Rays still have a long way to go to match what the Braves did following their turnaround season of 1991. But not everybody needs another four months of the season to become convinced these Rays are for real in 2008.
"With all due respect, I think people sometimes get caught up in reputation of teams and what they are and what they haven't been," Baltimore manager Dave Trembley said. "You got to do your homework. There's a lot of good teams in baseball. There's a lot of teams in baseball that are going to get better.
"The pendulum's going to start swinging, and it's going to start swinging in the direction of some of these lesser-known teams. They're not going to go away. They're a good team."
The Rays also have the first overall pick in Thursday's First-Year Player draft.
From the way things are going, it might be a while before they get another No. 1.
The Reds raised some eyebrows with their decision to call up Homer Bailey to start Thursday against the Phillies, who have one of baseball's best offenses. Bailey, 22, was 4-4 with a 4.15 ERA at Triple-A Louisville. He allowed 66 hits and 31 walks in 69 1/3 innings. He went 4-2 with a 5.76 ERA in nine starts for the Reds last season.
"Well, I don't know if it was timing," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "Sometimes, there's necessity. How many other guys do we have on the [40-man] roster? Anybody else we'd have to put on the roster."
Bailey is filling in for the injured Josh Fogg. Bailey contended for a roster spot during Spring Training but was a late cut, primarily due to lack of consistent control of his pitches.
"Some reports have been excellent," Baker said. "And some reports have been similar to what he struggled with before -- his consistency."
Bill Hall wants to play, even if it means getting traded.
The Milwaukee third baseman is not happy about losing playing time and Hall's Phoenix-based agent, Terry Bross, confirmed that Hall would rather be traded than platooned.
Bross said Hall's unhappiness had roots in January, when the Brewers acquired veteran center fielder Mike Cameron, and for the third time in as many years, moved Hall to a new position. But Hall spoke out when his playing time was cut. The Brewers started alternating Hall with Russell Branyan at third, though manager Ned Yost insists it's not a strict platoon. Hall has not started against right-handers since Branyan arrived.
"If this is what the situation is going to be, then he wants to be traded," Bross said.
Brewers GM Doug Melvin has spoken with both Hall and Bross recently.
"I have to do what's best for the ballclub at this point," Melvin said. "Right now, Billy has a role on this club and he plays hard. My interest is the big picture and the ballclub. If there is a way to improve the ballclub and it involves Billy or any other player, I will do that. But if it doesn't help the ballclub, I'm not motivated to do anything."
Arizona's Randy Johnson downplayed passing Roger Clemens for second place on the all-time career strikeouts list with the argument that "strikeouts don't win you ballgames, I can assure you that."
Maybe not, but in the 210 games Johnson fanned 10 or more, his record is 137-37.
The Rockies and agent Scott Boras are talking about a contract extension for slugger Matt Holliday. Other teams are watching in the event that the two sides can't reach an agreement, which could convince the Rockies to entertain trade discussions.
For now the Rockies have made clear their desire to keep Holliday.
The Red Sox and Rays are getting more attention, but one veteran scout says watch out for the Angels.
"When they have everybody healthy, they're as good as any team in baseball," the scout. "They've got everything they need. Even shorthanded they're still in the top three."
Until Tuesday night the Angels scored four runs or fewer in 13 consecutive games and still went 9-4 in those gamees. They have the best road record (18-11) in the Major Leagues and have six consecutive series.
Scratch Sammy Sosa as a potential rent-a-DH for Boston while David Ortiz is on the mend.
"There's something that I wish to state very clearly: I'm not looking for a job. In fact, I have told my agent that he should stop offering my services to MLB teams," Sosa told Hoy. "I'm not retired. I remain highly focused and not begging for a contract."
Toronto's Jesse Litsch is having an All-Star-caliber year (7-2, 3.45 ERA) and has scouts singing the right-hander's praises.
"Not every day you see a 23-year-old with that kind of poise and great control," one said. "This kid really knows how to work hitters, and that's what separates him from young guys with only a good arm who haven't learned how to pitch."
Litsch, who set a franchise record with 38 consecutive innings without issuing a walk, went 4-0 with a 2.08 ERA during May, when he walked just two batters.
Now that John Smoltz has joined Mike Hampton on the mend in Atlanta, some industry people expect the Braves to go after Greg Maddux for a return engagement, as the club did with Tom Glavine. Maddux, however, has a full no-trade clause and would have to waive it to leave San Diego.
Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. MLB.com reporters contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.