Baseball Season Preview: Tampa Bay Devil Rays

EM>You might remember, from back at the beginning of the NFL season, when we previewed each team by having a writer we liked write about their favorite team.

Well, we're just more than a month away from the start of baseball — spring training is here! — so it's time to do the same thing in the baseball world. Every weekday until the start of the season, a different writer will preview his/her team. We asked a gaggle of writers, from the Web, from print, from books, to tell us, in as many or as little words as they need, Where Their Team Stands. This is not meant to be factual, or dispassionate, or even logical: We just asked them to riff on why they love their team so much, or what their team means to them, or whatever.

Today: The Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Your author is R.J. Anderson.

R.J. Anderson is a senior columnist at D-Rays Bay and long time resident of Tampa, and is currently writing a book detailing the Chuck Lamar - Vincent Naimoli era. His words are after the jump.

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"Rebuilding the Dream." Such was the 2006 Tampa Bay Devil Rays' theme; hopes were high and seats were (surprisingly) full come the home opener, and why not? Things began to look up for the cellar dwellers of the American League East, not since the team's inception had the slate been so completely clean.

And so that's why the 2006 season was such a disappointment; new owner Stuart Sternberg took over and for the most part did everything an owner dealing with the 'Devil Dogs' could do: He raised spirits, shook hands, allowed free food, and kissed babies.

Andrew Friedman and Gerry Hunsicker teamed up as the 'general manager,' though the team doesn't officially have a position called that, and revamped the entire organization. Mainstays like Aubrey Huff and Toby Hall were traded, among others, and what began the year as a mid-ranked farm system grew into the best in baseball by season's end. 2006 in a nutshell was just a transition year from the eight years of terror and destruction the former owner, Vincent Naimoli, and general manager, Chuck 'Chuckles' Lamar put upon the team and it's fans.

So what does being a Devil Rays fan mean? Well, your team is constantly under attack by most na ve media members who paint the team as hopeless and talentless, the management as "clueless," and the fans as "none" ... and that's just from some local media members. The Rays may call Tampa home, though they play in neighboring St. Petersburg, but really there are a larger majority of New York Yankee and Boston Red Sox fans here than for the local Rays.

The team is now entering its 10th season of existence, an amazing feat considering we're probably going on jersey change number three come 2008. From rainbow warriors to green and white stingers to probably blue rays (insert Playstation 3 joke here), the new ownership is willing to do anything to break that stigma that the team will always be losers, and that is why 2007 is so important, and quite possibly, the turning point in Devil Rays history.

The team made some drastic changes last year to wipe its hands of the previous regime. To begin with, the dome was cleaned, free parking was installed, outside food was allowed inside and a touch tank with cownose rays was installed in mid-summer. The team made plenty of trades during the season, including dealing away the Rays two most successful closers, Lance Carter and Danys Baez, before the season for Los Angeles Dodgers' prospects Edwin Jackson and Chuck Tiffany. All and all the team would make 8 trades, three of which came with the Dodgers.

The Rays went through four different closers; incumbent closer Chad Orvella struggled under direction of pitching coach Mike Butcher (who left after the season), leaving the team to use Dan 'Mallet of God' Miceli for the first few weeks of the season as the closer. One Miceli went down to injury, the Rays traded minor leaguer Carlos Hines to the Giants for Tyler Walker, who recorded 10 saves, leading the Rays all year with basically a month of work. Walker would also get hurt and lead to Brian Meadows (yes, that Brian Meadows) closing until September.

In the field the team would only be able to depend on left fielder Carl Crawford; every other position either had injuries or just poor play for the first half of the year. Rocco Baldelli returned for the final 90 games and actually outplayed everyone on the team in that time, showing he not only could bat leadoff, but could actually improve his much criticized on base skills by drawing four walks late in the season against the Red Sox. The other part of the outfield trio would be a mixture of Damon Hollins, Russ Branyan, Greg Norton and Joey Gathright for most of the season until uber-prospect Delmon Young was called up and immediately showed the potential that Rays' fans have salivated over since he was selected first overall in the 2003 draft.

Jonny Gomes got off to an amazing start, leading the AL in homeruns, until he injured his shoulder in May and struggled to do much more than pop-up, finally getting shoulder surgery, many think Gomes could hit 35-40 homeruns annually, and for all purposes is the Rays' version of Nick Swisher.

B.J. Upton struggled all year at shortstop and, after the Zobrist trade, was moved to third base, where he would play in the Majors from August 1 on, committing his share of Web Gems and errors alike. Rumors spread during the off-season about a potential trade or at least a position change for Bossman Junior, though it appears he'll be the Rays' Chone Figgins, playing second base, shortstop, and third base, and possibly the outfield.

On the mound all five of the opening day rotation members (Scott Kazmir, Mark Hendrickson, Casey Fossum, Seth McClung, and Doug Waetcher) were either inactive, not Rays, in the bullpen or in the minors come September.

The 2007 team appears to be exponentially better than the team that took the field in 2006, and manager Joe Maddon's future rides on that opinion becoming fact. Maddon signed a two-year deal in November 2005, with two club option years, both of which must be executed at once. If Maddon's team shows improvement over the 61-101 record from last season, it's very possible he sticks around for the remainder of his deal; if somehow the team underperforms that low standard, well, Maddon shouldn't stick around to see the results. Bench coach Billy Evers was actually 2-0 with two walk-off homerun victories last season while Maddon attended the graduation of his girlfriend across the country. (Seriously.)

The fact that Maddon used 140 different lineups last year doesn't bode well either, though with all the injuries and trades that can't be completely pinned on him. Another one of the questionable parts of Maddon's game is his usage of the bullpen; it is a hope that former Houston Astros' pitching coach Jim Hickey will help out as he takes over for the departed Butcher who was, literally, a butcher. (Note: Not literally.)

The offseason came with a few simple promises to the fan base: The team would upgrade the infield defense, improve the bullpen, no longer trade major league players for minor leaguers and that Carl Crawford was "untouchable," At least three of those promises were upheld, the infield defense is vastly improved with Iwamura, who won five gold gloves in Japan, and Brendan Harris who is a decent enough defender. The bullpen was addition by subtraction as Travis Harper and Brian Meadows were released, though some balked at the idea of bringing in Scott Dohmann, we can only hope he is a camp body. Crawford wasn't shopped around, and the team did none of that veterans-for-prospects dealing. Seventy-fiver percent isn't too bad.

Also this offseason, the front office put in new turf, a new video board, began to put plans into action to redo the outside of 'The Trop,; and recently leaked the idea that beginning in 2008 the team would be called by only the moniker 'Rays' rather than 'Devil Rays', and would perhaps feature a new logo with base colors of blue and yellow.

So, 2007 ... the year the Rays come out of the cellar for the second time in their decade long history? Perhaps. The year the Rays win 72 or more games, setting a franchise record? Maybe. Come April 2, Scott Kazmir on the mound at Yankee Stadium against the vaunted Pinstripers, we'll begin what should be, if nothing else, the most fascinating and perhaps exciting season in D-Rays' history.