From worst to first: the Tampa Bay recovery

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September 9, 2008

10:41 PM

Okay, Tampa Bay Rays. Enough already. Don’t you remember who you are?

Before this season you had an all-time winning percentage of .386.

You’ve retired one player’s number in franchise history and Wade Boggs played at Tropicana Field for a grand total of two seasons. In Boggs’ first season in Tampa, the franchise’s inaugural season, a mediocre 31,000 fans attended each game. Since then you’ve been consistently outdrawn by an MLS team — D.C. United.

You’re the only team in the major leagues never to have made the playoffs. Your big season? An exhilarating fourth-place finish in 2004.

So what on earth are you doing in first place? It’s September. Prior to 2008, you had never posted a winning record at any point after April.

But instead you’re nearly 30 games over .500 — a win behind the major league-leading Anaheim Angels.

Your pitching staff has a collective earned run average of 3.76, the best in baseball — ahead of such teams as the Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox. The Red Sox and White Sox actually win championships, as opposed to earning the top pick in the draft.

Your 2008 payroll is a mere one and a half of A-Rod’s. You don’t have a starting pitcher over age 26. Yet your entirely inexperienced squad is playing like a seasoned baseball dynasty.

Ace Scott Kazmir, all of 24 years old, is blossoming into one of the top young pitchers in the history of the game, posting an 11-6 record with a 2.99 ERA and 147 strikeouts this season. Your 24-year-old catcher, Dioner Navarro, is batting .298 with 23 doubles. While two New York teams flounder helplessly 1,000 miles to the north, you’re charging into the playoffs behind two young leaders (Kazmir and Navarro) who any team in baseball would give up their top prospects for.

It’s ironic because the Mets would likely be comfortably perched atop the NL East if they hadn’t given up a young Kazmir for the ineffable duo of Victor Zambrano and Bartolo Fortunate — neither is still in the majors.

The Yankees would similarly love to have a durable, defensive-minded catcher instead of Randy Johnson and Javier Vazquez for whom they traded Navarro to the Diamondbacks in 2005. Neither player remains with the Bronx Bombers.

Despite having the second-lowest payroll in the game, general manager Andrew Friedman has managed to assemble an elite collection of young talent through trades just like those. While big-market teams spent the past number of years spending on overpriced, overaged free agents, the Rays have stocked up through the draft and minor leagues, a strategy beginning to pay tremendous dividends.

As a result, despite the hordes of critics whose Rays predictions include a late season collapse, manager Joe Maddon has transformed his squad into a near playoff lock. With their young roster and unceasing amount of minor league talent still in the pipeline, that is a place in which the new Tampa Bay Rays should find themselves for years to come.

Email Matt Poms at [email protected]

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