For several seasons now, the buzz around the Tampa Bay Devil Rays has been their crop of young talent that has been bubbling just below the major league surface. One can trace it all the way back to 2002 when 20-year-old Carl Crawford made his major league debut and 25-year-old Aubrey Huff hit .313/.364/.520 with 23 homers. The next year, Huff hit 34 dingers and drove in 107 runs, Crawford played his first full season, stealing 55 bases, and 21-year-old Rocco Baldelli finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting. Meanwhile, the 2002 draft brought Jonny Gomes, who made his debut the next year, B.J. Upton, Elijah Dukes and Jason Hammel, and 2003 added Dmitri Young's little brother Delmon. Upton made his major league debut in 2004 and at that year's trading deadline the Devil Rays swiped 20-year-old lefty phenom Scott Kazmir from the Mets for Victor Zambrano and Bartolome Fortunato.
Still, the Devil Rays' bright future seemed perpetually over the horizon. That is until this year's trading deadline. On July 12 they traded the now 29-year-old Huff, whose production had been in steady decline since his break-out 2003 season, to the Astros, getting pitcher Mitch Talbot and 25-year-old shortstop Ben Zobrist in return, clearing room for the relocated shortstop Upton at third base in the process. At the deadline, just after their last series with the Yankees, they traded 30-year-old shortstop Julio Lugo to the Dodgers, clearing space for Zobrist. In late August, they sent three-true-outcomes hero Russell Branyan to the Padres, clearing room for Delmon Young in right field. They also recalled failed 25-year-old fireballing starter Seth McClung and made him the team's closer, while recalling starters Hammel and J.P Howell, acquired earlier in the year from the Royals for no-hit speedster Joey Gathright, and installed them in the rotation beside fellow rookie Jamie Shields.
At long last, the Tampa Bay youth movement has begun in earnest. Should Elijah Dukes win the first base job out of camp next year, something the Devil Rays cleared room for by releasing Travis Lee on Sunday, the D-Rays could have a 2007 opening day line-up whose oldest member is 26-year-old DH Jonny Gomes. Dig (with ages and 2006 stats):
SP - Scott Kazmir, 23, MLB: 3.24, 10-8, 144 2/3 IP, 132 H, 52 BB, 163 K
Gomes, who is on the DL due to season-ending shoulder surgery, is a good bet to revert back to his 2005 form (.282/.372/.534) in 2007, which leaves just Cantu, who slugged .497 in his first full season last year, and Upton, who hit .303/.392/.490 at triple-A Durham last year, who will need to shape up at the plate, assuming, of course, that Young, Dukes and Zobrist will continue to hit in the majors.
Indeed, the future looks bright in Tampa Bay, but unlike the Indians, who have undergone a post-contention surge due to their own infusion of youth--players such as Ryan Garko, Jeremy Sowers, and Tom Mastny--the Devil Rays have yet to enjoy the on-field results. The D-Rays have played .500 ball since the last day of August, but that was preceded by a six-game losing streak and the only series they've won since the trading deadline have come against the freefalling Red Sox, the Rangers and the Mariners, the last of whom also swept them in that span.
Part of the reason is that Gomes and Kazmir are on the DL and Upton and Zobrist have yet to start hitting. Meanwhile 25-or-younger hurlers Jason Hammel, Jamie Shields and lefty J.P. Howell have been something short of a revelation and, while Seth McClung is six-for-six in save opportunities and has 3.34 ERA since the beginning of August, he's also walked 15 men in his 16 2/3 innings over that span, one more than he's struck out.
Tonight the Rays send 28-year-old Tim Corcoran to the hill in the Bronx. Corcoran last started against the Yankees in New York and was lit up for five runs (three earned) on seven hits and a staggering six walks in just 3 1/3 innings. While his starts since then have been something of a mixed bag, he hasn't won since doing so in relief against the Yankees back on July 9.
The Yankees are countering with Mike Mussina, who will be pitching on six days rest after complaining of shoulder soreness after his first post-DL start in Kansas City a week ago. Moose pitched five tentative innings in that start, allowing four runs on eight hits and a walk. Mussina leads a brigade of returning Yankees, the most notable of whom is Hideki Matsui, who will be activated for tonight's game and is expected to start at DH. Jason Giambi, who received another cortisone shot in his left wrist in Baltimore, is expected to start at first base. Meanwhile, Gary Sheffield has been cleared to take live batting practice and, for those who missed it, Miguel Cairo was activated before last night's game, which also saw Alex Rodriguez make a triumphant return to the line-up. Completing the injury report, Mariano Rivera will again throw off flat ground tomorrow in the hope of working off a mound over the weekend and returning to action next week.
Of course, tonight it will be all-eyes on Matsui, who Will Carroll reports showed "some lingering effects of the wrist fracture, such as a noticeable loss of bat control and power" while rehabbing in Trenton, but adds that the Yankees are unconcerned and hope to allow Matsui to get his swing back by starting 4 or 5 games a week at DH over the remainder of the season. As we saw earlier this season when Derrek Lee came back early from a similar injury and hit .227/.326/.320 over 20 games, wrist injuries are hell on hitters, resulting in exactly the short of loss of power and control that Carroll reports. That said, Matsui's dedication to staying in shape while on the DL has been tremendous. If he is unable to recover his full abilities before the end of the season, it is through no fault of his own. Meanwhile Lee's second come back (.370/.388/.652 over 13 games thus far) bodes well for a complete return to form for Hideki in 2007.