The Most Disappointing Season For…The Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays

The 2000 Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Record: 69-92 (5th in the AL East, 13th in the AL)
Pythagorean Record: 70-91
Runs Scored: 733 (14th in the AL)
Runs Allowed: 842 (8th in the AL)
Prior Season Record: 69-93
Manager: Larry Rothschild
Hype: We’re committed to win as soon as possible. Look here – we’ve got real major league players all over the diamond.

The Gory Details: The worst thing that happened to the Devil Rays was the fact that Arizona won 100 games in 1999. The second worst thing was that the Marlins won a world series in 1997. The third worst thing was that the Rockies made the playoffs in 1995.

That meant there was undue pressure on the Devil Rays to make a splash and quickly. Attendance had dropped about one million from their first year in 1998 to their second in 1999, as the fans already were fed up (most likely thanks to Tropicana Field, a mausoleum dressed up as a ballpark).

The management of the Devil Rays decided to load their team up with recognizable players, and let the kids develop in the minors. So as they entered year three, John Flaherty, Fred McGriff, Kevin Stocker, Quinton McCracken, Dave Martinez, Mike Difelice, Roberto Hernandez, Brian Rekar, Rick White, Dave Eiland, Albie Lopez, Jim Mecir and Wilson Alvarez were still around as veterans who played on their initial team.

Coupled with Miguel Cairo, Bob Smith, Mike Duvall, Esteban Yan, Bubba Trammell and Randy Winn, all youngsters who got their first real chance with the team, there were 19 original Devil Rays still hanging around in 2000.

General Manager Chuck LaMar then went into transaction mode – acquiring slugger Jose Canseco , former prospect Jose Guillen and Cory Lidle and Norm Charlton for 1999. For 2000, they went even further. They snagged slugging third baseman Vinny Castilla from Colorado for pitcher Rolando Arrojo and infielder Aaron Ledesma. They signed Greg Vaughn, Juan Guzman and Gerald Williams as free agents.

Then, they scooped up any veteran who wanted a second chance. John Burkett, Dave Hollins, Terry Matthews, Pat Borders, Reggie Harris, Steve Traschel, Doug Creek and Carlos Baerga were all inked to contracts for 2000 Spring Training.

Oh, and don’t forget lefty Jim Morris, “The Rookie”, who warmed hearts with his story in coming back from injuries to make a few token appearances in 1999.

It was more of Fantasy Baseball than reality. Manager Larry Rothschild and staff were tasked with trying to puzzle together a team out of these parts.

In the Spring, Burkett was released outright, and he found a home in Atlanta for the season. Charlton and Matthews was released as well, while Borders, Harris, and Hollins were sent down to the minors. Baerga’s contract was voided when he didn’t show up to camp after battling knee injuries. That was worthwhile.

So, this club broke camp and went “North” with a team full of veterans and recognizable names. McGriff, Castilla, Vaughn and Canseco were all legit power threats. Williams added speed with some pop. Catching was solid.

The infield was deep, with Stocker, Tony Graffanino, and Cairo in the middle with Smith and Herbert Perry adding depth. Martinez, Guillen, McCracken and rookie Steve Cox were set to go in the outfield. The outfield had so much depth that Trammell and Winn were sent to the minors. Castilla started the year on the DL so Perry was going to start at third to begin the year.

The rotation would feature Traschel, Yan, Guzman and youngsters Ryan Rupe and Dan Wheeler to start. Hernandez would be the closer, and Morris, White, Mecir, Eiland, Lopez and Jeff Sparks backing him up. Wheeler, though, was just a temporary fix as Alvarez wasn’t ready to start the year thanks to a shoulder problem.

The Rays STILL weren’t done wheeling and dealing. All of those names above seem like the work of a deranged fantasy owner trying to stay in the top 5 of his league, and still after the season started they nabbed Felix Martinez and Ozzie Guillen off waivers. Where will they PUT everyone?

It seemed like this team was the work of a fantasy owner drafting out of a two-year old Street & Smith’s. Instead of a veteran team coalescing and coming together, the season was a disaster. Traschel and two relievers shut out the twins 7-0 on Opening Day.

Then the Twins won two straight on walk-offs, including a 10-7 loss where Minnesota scored six runs in the eighth off of Eiland, Morris and Lopez to tie the game, and White gave up two singles and a three-run homer to Matt Lawton for the loss.

Opening Day in Tampa featured the formidable Indians facing Guzman, who LaMar signed for $6 million a year for two years. Guzman rebounded from an injury in 1997 to put up decent numbers for Baltimore and Cincinnati in 1999.

Cleveland scored a run in the first, but the Devil Rays answered with doubles by Martinez and Canseco. Then….

Richie Sexson singles, David Justice singles, Travis Fryman walks, Einar Diaz singles, Kenny Lofton singles, Omar Vizquel hits a grand slam. Let me repeat – Omar Vizquel hits a grand slam.

After two outs, Jim Thome homers. Dave Eiland replaces Guzman and gives up a two run shot to Justice. It’s 9-1 already after 1 ½ innings on Opening Day. After the Indians get done with Eiland and White, it was a 14-5 loss.

Guzman went on the DL with shoulder problems, the same issue as Alvarez.
Cleveland swept the Rays in that series, with the last one a 17-4 pasting of Rupe, Morris, White and Eiland. The White Sox came into town and won the first game of the series 13-6 as the crushed Yan and Lopez. Wheeler was tagged for a 7-1 loss, and then Tampa Bay FINALLY won one at home 6-5 in 12 innings.

The day of the win over Chicago, LaMar purchased the contract of Dwight Gooden. The native was coming home to pitch, and hopefully help the staff whether the injuries. Wheeler was excused back to Durham.

It didn’t help. The beatings continued. Rupe and Lidle gave up 10 to Detroit. Later in the month Rupe lost 8-4 to Baltimore. Hernandez gave up three in the ninth to the Angels lose a start by Gooden 9-6. Even in victory, the Devil Rays pitchers were being scorched, as Yan gave up six in an eventual 11-9 win, thanks to bad relief work from Anaheim’s bullpen.

At the end of April, the Devil Rays were 9-15 and had given up 6.67 runs per game. Some season, right?

Changes were made all over the place. Perry was waived when Castilla finally came back. McCracken was sent down to purgatory, or Durham. On May 12th, Dave Martinez was sent to the Cubs for reliever Mark Guthrie, and Morris was sent back to Durham, never to return, and now fans were disappointed that he wasn’t actually Dennis Quaid.

Billy Taylor rose from the dead and tried to help the bullpen only to be returned whence he came when he proved not to have it. Jose Guillen took over in right with Trammell becoming the fourth outfielder.

Rekar was called up from Durham and went into the rotation. Eiland made some starts, then Lopez moved out of the bullpen.

Nothing helped. A six game losing streak put Tampa Bay at 13-27. On May 24th Gooden made a start at home against Oakland, and was throttled 9-2. That put his mark at 2-3 with a 6.86 ERA.

During that game Stocker made two errors, giving him 11 for the season already. He had stated out the season on fire, but in May was hitting .178 and had made nine errors, including three miscues in a game against Toronto.

On May 25th, Gooden and Stocker were released. Cut. Finished in Tampa. This was cold water for fans, especially since Stocker was acquired by LaMar during the expansion draft for Bobby Abreu. Abreu only had an OPS+ of 142 in 1998 and 1999. That’s all. The Devil Rays had Winn and McCracken.

May 24th also marked the day where Jose Canseco’s back problems got the best of him, so he went on the DL. Two days later Vaughn was hurt in a game against Seattle, so he was put on the shelf for a while.

After those releases and injuries, Lamar and Rothschild made more deals and more desperate attempts to get the team going. Russ Johnson was grabbed from Houston when it became clear Castilla’s problems were going to be ongoing and wanted a solid backup when (not if) he went back on the DL. Graffanino was deemed a spare part and sent to the White Sox for Tanyon Sturze. Felix Martinez was now the every day shortstop.

Meanwhile, through all this, Cox was having a good rookie year. At the end of May he was slashing .311/.404/.511 and for some reason hadn’t broken the starting lineup yet. Well, I think the reason was that he was on the Devil Rays, who also wanted to seemingly bury Trammell for 2 ½ years so McCracken and Winn could make outs.

After the Graffanino trade, the Devil Rays stopped acquiring players for a while. It still was a carousel between the DL, the lineup, the bench and the minors, though.

The only constants were McGriff, Cairo and Williams. They were there every day, though Williams and Cairo weren’t getting on base that much and McGriff was hitting about 45 points lower than his 1999 mark. Felix Martinez was playing a fine shortstop as well, but hitting at a sub-Felix Fermin level.

Cairo succumbed to the injury bug as well, missing about a month starting in mid-June. Castilla was back on the DL. Trammell was finally given a semi-regular job in left when Williams also was dinged for a while, which meant Winn moved to center.

In June, Tampa Bay played better, winning 12 of their first 18 in the month, but were still 32-45 as of June 30th. There was carnage everywhere, especially on the rotation.

Alvarez and Guzman were both done for the year, officially. Yan’s ERA was 6.59. Rupe was down in AAA after compiling 9.68 ERA. Wheeler wasn’t getting anyone out in AAA either after being sent down for Gooden. Gooden was released.

After getting clobbered as a reliever, Eiland darted in the rotation and was put on the shelf with an injury with his ERA at 7.31. Lidle joined the rotation in June, and saw his ERA zoom from 2.90 to 6.53. Trachsel, Rekar and Lopez were pitching halfway decent, at least.

On the offensive side of the diamond, Castilla, Canseco, Vaughn, and Cairo missed chunks of time. Williams missed about a week. Stocker was released, as stated before. McGriff wasn’t hitting well. Guillen was nowhere near the prospect he was supposed to be. McCracken was sent to AAA. Winn was making outs at the plate and on the basepaths. Only Cox and Trammell were producing regularly without injury.

Maybe if Tampa just left things alone and let some of the kids play, it would be a good building block for the future. Ha, just kidding.

The bottom of the rotation, Yan and Lidle, finnaly crapped out in July. Lidle blew up agains Detroit on July 4th. Rupe was summoned to replace him and got blitzed (along with Creek and Yan) by Florida right before the All-Star break, and his ERA went up to a tidy 9.99. Yan made three starts in early and mid-July and gave up 13 runs in 15 2/3 innings.

Two of the more consistent relievers were middle men Rick White and Jim Mecir. There’s was a thankless task. Ostensibly around to get the ball to Hernandez as closer, those two were pressed into all kinds of duties.

What they did well was strand runners. White only allowed three of 29 inherited runners to score, while Mecir was two scored in 21 inherited. some would say that they were luxuries – but in reality they were two pitchers that could actually get batters out, and closer Hernandez was the luxury.

In mid-to-late July, Canseco, Vaughn, Cairo and Castro were all back and playing regularly. The Devil Rays were out of the race, of course, but it was time to build for the future. LaMar was going to make deals to build organizational depth.

Mecir was dealt to Oakland and Tampa Bay got back actual real-life Top 100 prospect Jesus Colome. A good return. Then LaMar sent Rick White and another ‘spare part’ to the Mets for Paul Wilson, who had recovered, finally, from the abuse that the Mets dealt him in the 90’s. They also got Jason Tyner, a speedy slappy who was hitting .321 with 33 steals at Norfolk.

Not bad, until you realize the other spare part was Trammell.

Trammell had played 207 games for the Devil Rays over three seasons, and had done nothing but hit. He slugged .513. He had a .362 OBP. He had 33 home runs in 757 plate appearances. But he never did get a full time chance under LaMar and Rothschild, who seemed to love slappies like Winn, McCracken and now Tyner instead of productive baseball players.

Good God.

At the end of July, LaMar packaged up Guthrie and Traschel to Toronto and got prospect Brent Abernathy, who would soon be in contention to replace Cairo at second if all went well. That’s the kind of trade you make, not giving up two valuable players for a slappy and a reclamation project.

August was the time that a player had to go through waivers to be traded. Some players get claimed and yanked back. Others claimed and a deal is worked out. LaMar, for all of his poor decisions, actually made a smart one.

Canseco was placed on waivers, to see if there was any interest in him. A 35-year old DH with back problems probably wouldn’t get claimed, unless a team was desperate for power. In the waiver game, teams are awarded waivers in order of the standings at the time. Some teams strategically claim players to keep them from rivals.

The Yankees, having a sub-par season but still in the playoff hunt battling Boston and Toronto for the division, and Cleveland and Oakland for the Wild Card (if the division didn’t work out), put out a claim for the sluggard slugger, thinking the claim would be pulled back and they’d prevent a rival to get him.

Instead, the Yankees won the claim. LaMar asked if they wanted to work out a trade, and New York demurred. So the Devil Rays just said, “You take him!” Thus, Canseco joined the Yankees, and the befuddled Yankees skipper Joe Torre was stuck with trying to wedge him into a team full of DH-types.

That was the last true highlight of a lost season. Yes, Wilson and Sturtze did good work as starters over the last two months. Albie Lopez emerged as the staff ace and Rekar bounced back well and Hernandez did yeoman’s work as a 35-year old closer, saving 32 games for a team that won 69.

Cox had a smattering of Rookie of the Year votes after his season where he had an OPS+ of 112 despite being a semi-regular (or LaMar’d like Trammell) over the first half of the year. Vaughn had 28 home runs despite his injury issues, while McGriff hit 27 and Williams cranked out 21. Williams still was a millstone, being a league average fielder, not walking, and getting caught stealing a lot.

The rest of the regulars were bad. Cairo had 28 steals but an OBP and SLG under .330. Castilla’s OPS was 562 thanks to his injuries and the fact he wasn’t in Colorado anymore. Jose Guillen was a disappointment, hitting just .253. But frankly, everyone was a disappointment.

It would be nice if this season set up a successful run for the Devil Rays, but it did not. Only Aubrey Huff, who played 39 games in the late season, was a member of the organization for the entire time between this season and the AL pennant winners of 2008.

This was a fantasy baseball team in real life. It seemed LaMar and Rothschild spent early for big names, and then had to fill in with dollar players, and when the big names were hurt or stunk, they had no replacements ready. There’s a reason Tampa Bay were a laughing stock until 2008 and this season was the prime example of their ineptitude.

Chicken Wolf All-Stars: Albie Lopez had the highest WAR at a whopping 3.2. Vaughn and Rekar were next with 3.1. Two part time members of the starting rotation were the WAR leaders. Wow.

Honorable Mention Team: It definitely was the Bill James Plexiglass Principle in action. After their surprise pennant in 2008, Tampa finished 84-78 in 2009. Disappointing offensive seasons from Dioner Navarro, BJ (now Melvin) Upton, Gabe Gross and Pat Burrell, coupled with horrible seasons by starters Scott Kazmir and Andy Sonnanstine sealed their fate.

Bad Blast from the Past: From 1961 through 1987, the Cincinnati Reds had a Class A team in Tampa, the Tarpons. So let’s look at another old Cincy season, or three. Back when the NL absorbed the AA and formed a 12-team league, Charlie Comiskey was named manager of the Reds. Thanks to his success as the captain and first baseman of the great St. Louis Browns teams of the 1880’s, it was thought that the Old Roman would be able to spur the Reds into the promised land of an NL title.

Yet the Reds were a distant fifth in 1892, but with a winning record (going from 56-81 to 82-68). In 1893, the Reds and their vets declined to just 65-63 and finally, the 1894 club finished a dismal 55-75.

That last mark was due to the end of the line for players like Ice Box Chamberlain, who lost a complete game where he gave up 20 runs, Germany Smith, Arlie Latham, and Comiskey himself, who at age 34 slugged just .307 and had a .292 OBP as a first baseman.

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