Unlocking talent key for Devil Rays to flee basement

Opinions vary on team's pitching potential

Baseball

March 29, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Devil Rays have been hearing the same chorus for a few years now.

If they could only get some pitching to go with that young offense, they'd have a chance to rise from the American League East cellar.

That's conventional but incorrect wisdom, according to team management.

"I think it is just the opposite. I think the pitching right now is ahead of the offense," Devil Rays second-year manager Joe Maddon said. "Everybody talks about the offense, and there is great potential there for the future. But we are counting on a lot of young guys right now. I think it will happen over time. But, for right now, the pitching I think is actually showing better."

That is not solely the opinion of one eternally optimistic man with thick black eyeglasses.

"We feel like pitching-wise we are a little bit underrated," club executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "We've got not only some pretty good arms we think can keep us in games, but we've got depth. And everybody knows you can't count on five guys to make 34 starts a year."

The Devil Rays lost 101 games last season and finished last in the AL East for the eighth time in their nine seasons of existence.

Much of last year's failures was pinned on the pitching, which had a combined ERA of 4.96, third worst in the American League.

But the offense, led by budding stars Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli, was last in the league in batting average and runs . Tampa Bay scored 67 fewer runs than the league's second-worst team.

"It's high in potential, but we are not there yet," Maddon said. "We are working on a lot of concepts there in regard to seeing more pitches and working counts and having better at-bats. I think once we arrive there, we'll be able to do better in the East."

Die-hard baseball fans outside of the Tampa area would be hard-pressed to name a Devil Rays starting pitcher besides young ace Scott Kazmir, a left-hander with exploding stuff who went 10-8 with a 3.24 ERA last season. But because of injuries, he made only 24 starts in 2006.

Behind him is right-hander James Shields, who was 6-8 with a 4.84 ERA as a rookie; Jae Seo, who was 1-8 with a 5.00 ERA after the Los Angeles Dodgers traded him to Tampa last June; veteran left-hander Casey Fossum, who has a 5.20 ERA in six big league seasons; and a couple of unimpressive options for the fifth spot.

On paper, that's not a group that intimidates AL lineups.

"I have no idea what's going on over there when it comes to pitching," one AL general manager said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "They have some guys with arm strength, but they don't know how to pitch."

The widespread belief around the league is that the Devil Rays need to deal some position players from their top-rated farm system in exchange for better arms.

"But, for whatever reasons, they don't," the GM said.

Friedman said a few of his pitching prospects, such as former No. 1 pick Jeff Niemann, will be ready soon. Meanwhile, he acknowledged the bullpen could be a real trouble spot in 2007.

Seth McClung, a converted starter, was penciled in for the role, but didn't seize it this spring. A closer-by-committee is possible, with McClung, journeyman Al Reyes, formerly anointed closer Chad Orvella and a host of others.

"We are all young and talented, and we have got a lot of ability," McClung said. "And there's a lot of potential, and I hate that word. But we've got a lot of it. If we can have a catch-lightning-in-a-bottle situation, we'd be lights out."

Still, the dreaded P-word is used most often with the offense. Crawford, rookie Delmon Young and Baldelli, if he can stay healthy, have the potential to be one of the best outfields in baseball.

Japanese import Akinori Iwamura is considered a Gold Glove-caliber third baseman and catcher Dioner Navarro, designated hitter Jonny Gomes, second baseman Jorge Cantu and shortstop Ben Zobrist have shown glimpses of major league ability.

"We definitely have a lot of talent. What we're lacking is experience right now, and that takes time for guys to get experience," Crawford said. "Once that happens everything can get rolling."

Until then, the Devil Rays will continue to be viewed as AL East dregs, something that has grown wearisome for players like Crawford.

"It's real tough when you keep losing and that's the reputation you have," Crawford said. "We've got to go out and play hard and win some games. That's the only way it's going to change."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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