As strange as it might be to say, the Devil Rays are actually a pretty interesting team. Despite finishing in last place in 2005 for the seventh time in their eight-year history, the team's long-rumored youth movement finally bore some fruit, enabling the Rays to assemble the league's sixth most productive offense in the season's second half and give the Yankees hell for most of the season. Prior to their final head-to-head series of the year, which the Yankees swept decisively, the Devil Rays were 11-5 against the eventual division champs, having scored 102 runs in those first 16 games. This winter, minority partner Stuart Sternberg bought out founding owner Vince Naimoli and overhauled the front office in the hopes of capitalizing on the team's emerging talent before Naimoli and the administration of ousted GM Chuck LaMarr could do any more damange. Sounds crazy, but it just might work.
Last year, to established stars Aubrey Huff and Julio Lugo and the still-emerging talent of Carl Crawford, the Rays added second baseman Jorge Cantu and finally found room for slugger Jonny Gomes and speedster Joey Gathright. On the mound, Scott Kazmir spent his first full season in the bigs, and reliever Chad Orvella pitched well enough to make Danys Baez and former All-Star Lance Cater trade bait.
This year should bring further maturation from Kazmir (22) and Crawford (24), full seasons of Gomes and Gathright (both 25), and allow Cantu (24) to settle in at second base after being yanked back and forth between second and third last year. Exactly what will come of Orvella (25), who failed to make the team out of camp, or Huff (29) and Lugo (30), both of whom were shopped in the offseason due to their impending free-agency after the current season, remains to be seen. But should Huff or Lugo be moved, uberprospects B.J. Upton (21) and Delmon Young (20) should be ready to step into their shoes, though Upton's ability to remain at shortstop remains in doubt.
Curiously, neither Huff nor Lugo will see action in the Bronx this week, as both are on the 15-day DL. In their place, the Rays will send out not Upton and Young, but Tomas Perez and Ty Wiggington. I was startled at the outpouring of emotion when Perez was released by the Phillies this spring. Apparently, Perez was considered something of an institution in Philadelphia and in the Philly clubhouse. I didn't even realize he was still in the league. Turns out Perez was the Phillies jack of all trades and resident prankster for the past six seasons, though he appeared to have sustained that position on the basis of hitting .304/.347/.437 in 135 at-bats in his second year with the club. Since then he's hit just .245/.300/.372. Good news for the Yanks there. Wigginton, meanwhile, couldn't stick with the Pirates last year after coming over in the Kris Benson trade the year before, but, starting at the hot corner for the injured Huff, has been crushing the ball to the tune of .284/.333/.687, with eight homers in 17 games.
Thus far this season, the Devil Rays offense has been Wigginton and Gomes (.302/.444/.746) with a helping of Cantu. Wigginton is clearly playing over his head, but Alex's boy Gomes just might be this good. Okay maybe not, that good, but his .282/.372/.534 performance last year seems utterly legit. If nothing else, his performance should teach the Yankees and their fans a lesson about judging my man Andy Phillips on 40-odd scattered at-bats. Over 30 plate appearances in 2003 and 2004 Gomes hit just .103/.161/.138 (3 for 29 with a double and one walk), but when finally given regular playing time last year he posted that .282/.273/.534 line. It's not a perfect comparison as Gomes is three and a half years younger than Phillips. Then again, Gomes, despite having success in triple-A, didn't demolish the International League the way Phillips has the last two years.
Of course, all of this swing don't mean a thing if the Rays don't get their pitching in order. Speedster Kazmir, who will start tonight against slowpoke Mike Mussina in what I hope will be a stirring pitcher's duel, looks to be rounding into form, but even with his success, the Rays are only separated from the worst ERA in baseball by the existence of the Kansas City Royals. Last year the Yankees put up thirteen runs on the D-Rays in a single inning twice, and finished the year having put up exactly ten times that against them in 19 games.
There are glimmers of progress. It appears the Rays would be willing to cut bait on Doug Waechter and push hard-throwing Seth McClung into the bullpen should failed Dodger prospect Edwin Jackson (the take for Baez and Carter) and the home grown Jason Hammel take root, but that's hardly as promising as having Upton and Young on deck, particularly given that duo's three starts thus far this year. In the meantime, it'll be more Mark Hendrickson for your money. Indeed, Hendrickson will come off the DL to start Thursday night, which means that Jackson, who will be sent down to make room before Thursday's game, and Waechter, who is getting skipped due to yesterday's off-day, will be available out of the pen should the Rays need nine unexceptional relievers to keep the Bombers at bay rather than the seven they normally employ.
Enjoy tonight's duel. It could get ugly from here.