Rays of hope

The Baltimore Sun

After a decade as baseball's most obscure and relentlessly terrible franchise, the Tampa Bay Rays are everywhere.

Cover of Sports Illustrated. Lead item on SportsCenter. You name it, the Rays have done it as the belles of baseball's first-half ball. After completing a sweep of the defending champion Boston Red Sox on Wednesday, they stood at 52-32, best in the sport.

Scouts speak of their young talent in awe. After years of picking at the top of the draft, Tampa Bay could trade prospects for a veteran star this summer and still be left with the best farm system in the game.

Whippersnapper general manager Andrew Friedman is collecting the sorts of raves once reserved for Theo Epstein and Billy Beane.

So, what to make of this if you're an Orioles fan?

Well, the Rays' rise packs a dual punch of hope and despair. It shows that a few years of smart management and faith in young players can break a long cycle of wrongheadedness and awful play. But it also steepens the Orioles' path back to the top of the American League East.

They have suffered through a bleak decade of clockwork losing, steroid allegations and widely mocked decision-making. But no matter how bad things got, fans could count on the Rays being worse.

The franchise began in folly, building around decaying sluggers Jose Canseco, Fred McGriff and Greg Vaughn. And things only got more pitiful behind a succession of putrid rotations led by pitchers such as Mark Hendrickson and Victor Zambrano. The Rays have never lost fewer than 91 games in a season. Think about that.

But it's all over.

If you think the Rays are a fluke and liable to drop back to fifth place next year, think again. Their best offensive players, Evan Longoria and B.J. Upton, should only get better. Even their "veteran" star, Carl Crawford, is just entering his prime at 26. As if they needed it, the Rays added the consensus top talent in this year's draft, shortstop Tim Beckham.

Pitching once appeared to be the weakness. But Scott Kazmir has emerged as a legitimate ace, James Shields is an able No. 2 and the Rays slyly acquired right-hander Matt Garza for Delmon Young before this season.

The last move is typical of the Friedman administration. Many second-guessed it because Young was considered the best prospect in the game. But the Rays seemed to realize that his undisciplined approach might keep him from reaching his potential and that their young talent was unbalanced toward the offensive side.

Young had two home runs in 299 at-bats for the Minnesota Twins through Wednesday. Garza was 7-4 with a 3.47 ERA for Tampa Bay. Advantage: Rays.

On the farm, 2007 top pick David Price appears ready to force his way to the majors, and the Rays have two or three other outstanding rotation candidates. It's conceivable they could have the best pitching in baseball over the next five years without making another move.

The quietest but most substantial improvements came on defense. The Rays finally stopped dreaming that Upton would become a competent middle infielder and stuck him in the outfield, where he has excelled. They were able to do it in part because Longoria is an excellent third baseman and he pushed another good defender, Akinori Iwamura, to second. The Rays also brought in a top-notch shortstop, Jason Bartlett.

So, is there a silver lining in this for the Orioles faithful? Yeah, actually. A run of high picks has allowed the club to begin stockpiling high-end hitters and pitching depth. Team president Andy MacPhail has boldly flipped stars for young players to add to that reservoir. The Orioles seem to be following the same path as the Rays. They're just three or four years behind.

In the meantime, think how fun it will be to hear New York Yankees fans rationalize losing to Tampa Bay.


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