Are the Kansas City Royals poised to make a big leap from 71 wins to somewhere deep into the eighties next season?  That is really the question of the year and the answer certainly is the deciding factor in what moves, if any, Dayton Moore makes this off-season.   It has been done before:  the big leap from dismal to contender or even division winner.

We started this series a week and one-half ago by reviewing the 2000-2001 Minnesota Twins and continue on today with a team that certainly went from futility to excellence overnight:  the Tampa Bay Rays.

Established in 1998, the Rays never notched more than 70 wins in their first ten seasons.   2007 was no exception as Tampa stumbled home with a 66-96 record in Joe Maddon’s second season as skipper.   They scored 782 runs, good for 8th in the American League, but allowed 944 runs which was last…by a long ways.    The Rays pitching staff was the youngest in the league (average age 26.9) and their position players were easily the youngest (26.1 – KC was next youngest with an average age of 27.9).

The 2007 Rays trotted out this primary lineup:

  • C – Dioner Navarro (23)
  • 1B – Carlos Pena (29)
  • 2B – Ty Wigginton (29)
  • SS- Brendan Harris (26)
  • 3B – Akinori Iwamura (28)
  • LF – Carl Crawford (25)
  • CF – BJ Upton (22)
  • RF – Delmon Young (21)
  • DH – Jonny Gomes (26)

  Upton (No 2 overall) and Young (No 1 overall) were first round picks, Crawford a 2nd rouner and Gomes was drafted by the Rays in the 18th round.   The rest of the lineup were acquired via free agency or trade.   Pena, signed the prior off-season, hit 46 home runs for the Rays and posted a .411 on-base percentage.  Crawford was already Crawford, Upton was a sensation posting an OPS+ of 136 with 25 doubles, 24 home runs and 22 steals, and Young played in every game as a rookie.   Overall, this was a decent offensive team with Wigginton, Harris and Iwamura all being solid at the plate and Gomes providing some pop when he happened to make contact.

As an aside, 26 year old Ben Zobrist (acquired the prior year in the Aubrey Huff deal) hit .155 in 31 games and the Rays lost troubled Josh Hamilton in the Rule 5 draft the prior winter.

The pitching staff that gave up a truly spectacular number of runs featured a rotation of:

  • James Shields (25)
  • Scott Kazmir (23)
  • Edwin Jackson (23)
  • Andy Sonnanstine (24)
  • Jason Hammel (24)

Shields and Kazmir were very good, posting sub four ERAs and both pitching over 200 innings.   Jackson was awful, Sonnanstine not any better and Hammel was worse.  J.P. Howell, Casey Fossum and Jae Seo got starts as well in the four and five slots.    Shields, Sonnanstine and Hammel were all Rays draftees, albeit none of them very high.

The bullpen was headed by 36 year old closer Ablerto Reyes, who allowed just 49 hits in 61 innings.  Unfortuneately, 13 of those hits were home runs.  Fossum, Gary Glover, Shawn Camp and Brian Stokes logged the most innings despite bascially being awful.   Others, noteworthy for a variety of reasons, who logged time in the Rays’ pen were Scott Dohmann, Dan Wheeler (acquired in trade for Wiggington), Juan Salas, Jay Witasick, Ruddy Lugo and a 29 year old Grant Balfour (who gave up 15 runs in 22 innings after being acquired in July for Seth McClung).

Basically, the Rays had a very young rotation and a bullpen full of journeymen and pitched exactly like that.   The already young rotation was bolstered in the 2007 draft with the number one overall pick of a guy named David Price.

The winter of 2007 saw the Rays sign veteran closer Troy Percival, utility corner man Eric Hinske, aging Cliff Floyd and reliever Trever Miller.   Of course, the big news of that off-season was the trade of Delmon Young, along with Brendan Harris and Jason Pridie, to Minnesota for Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett and, who could forget, Eduardo Morlan.

Tampa went a modest 8-11 to start the 2008 season, but won their next six to move into contention.  The bounced between first, second and third until taking first place for good on June 29th.   Although the Rays never held more than a 5.5 game lead, the young squad never wilted and wound up winning the East by 2 games and advancing to the World Series.   They did so with this lineup:

  • C – Dioner Navarro (24)
  • 1B – Carlos Pena (30)
  • 2B – Akinora Iwamura (29)
  • SS – Jason Bartlett (28)
  • 3B – Evan Longoria (22)
  • LF – Carl Crawford (26)
  • CF – BJ Upton (23)
  • RF – Gabe Gross (28)
  • DH – Cliff Floyd (35)

Hinske played in 133 games and hit 20 home runs as a ‘semi-regular bench player’.   Willy Aybar and an improving Ben Zobrist were also on the Rays’ bench.  Carlos Pena regressed (although he still hit 31 homers with a .377 OBP) and so did Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton and Iwamura.  None were ‘fall off the table’ bad, but none posted offensive numbers on par with what they had done the previous year.  Navarro was better, Bartlett a stabilizing influence and Longoria hit well as a rookie.   For fun, compare Longoria’s 2008 to the 2011 season of Eric Hosmer:  yet another reason to be over the top excited.

The Rays scored 744 runs in 2008, dropping to 9th in the American League.   However, after allowing 944 runs in 2007, the Tampa Bay pitchers allowed just 671 in 2008 – good for second in the league.   They did it with this rotation:

  • James Shields (26)
  • Andy Sonnanstine (25)
  • Matt Garza (24)
  • Edwin Jackson (24)
  • Scott Kazmir (24)

The top four all pitched 180 innings or more, with Shields and Garza both being very good.  Sonnanstine and Jackson both knocked full runs off their earned run averages from the year before and Kazmir was very good, but missed some starts and pitched just 152 innings.  (This was the beginning of the end for Kazmir, by the way)

The bullpen, a collection of junk the prior season, was marvelous.   Percival only threw 45 innings, but saved 28 games.   The prior year acquistions of Wheeler and Balfour turned into effective relievers and the conversion of J.P. Howell from starter to reliever was a spectacular success (92 strikeouts in 89 innings with just 62 hits allowed).  Trever Miller, Jason Hammel and late season acquisition Chad Bradford pitched in as well.   Overall, six pitchers had multiple saves for the Rays as Maddon took an uncovential approach with his relievers and enjoyed tremendous success.   David Price pitched late in the year, throwing 14 innings and positioning himself for what would be an outstanding 2009.

Overall, the Rays traded for a solid, but not ace-like, starter in Garza (sound familiar Royals’ fans?) and saw two young pitchers take a step forward in Sonnanstine and Jackson.   The bullpen, built almost entirely from minor trades and free agent signings, emerged as a dominant force. 

The position players, as a group, actually were not as good as they had been the previous season, but they were solid and, obviously, loaded with potential.   They did lead the league in stolen bases and were second in walks.   As an aside, and pay attention here Ned, the Rays were dead last in sacrifices.

While I could make a number of connections between the Twins and this year’s Royals, it is not as clear when it comes to the Rays.   Like Tampa, the Royals are looking for major improvement in their starting rotation and to acquire their own ‘Garza’ in the off-season.  Still, Tampa already had James Shields and Scott Kazmir and the Royals have nothing that approaches that level of established arms on their staff.

Tampa Bay made a huge leap (31 games) based primarily on allowing almost 270 runs LESS than the year before.   That would be a pretty hard feat for any team to replicate.