Ray of the future

Tampa Bay has map showing way out of basement

July 08, 2008|By PETER SCHMUCK

No, that's not a misprint at the top of the American League East standings. The Tampa Bay Rays - apparently no relation to the quickly forgotten Devil Rays of seasons past - own the best record in the majors and have put some distance between themselves and the teams they have been looking way, way up at for almost all of the franchise's brief history.

This could turn out to be one of the great feel-good stories in recent memory, but if you're an Orioles fan, you're probably not quite sure how to feel about it.

The Rays, after all, are the team that has been nice enough to provide the cushion under the struggling Orioles for the past decade, so it might be hard for some fans to watch them climb to the mountaintop while the Orioles remain stuck on one of the lower rungs of the division ladder. Which is understandable, even as the Orioles finally appear to be making real organizational progress.

Though it's certainly nice to see a team other than the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox at the head of the pack, the Rays' first-half success also serves as a reminder that it took the Orioles organization a decade to figure out something it should already have known. The franchise was once the model for great player development, but it took Andy MacPhail to come in from outside the organization last year and make the hard decisions that have turned the club in the right direction.

It actually took the Rays longer to get around that corner, but they beat the Orioles to one important realization. The only way to compete with the high-revenue Red Sox and Yankees was to beat them in the one area where the revenue disparity between the small-market and large-market teams is not in play. The Rays have drafted well and protected their best prospects, and they have done such a good job on the player-development end that they just might be the team to break the big-money stranglehold on the AL East.

If that evokes a mild case of playoff envy around here this fall, so be it, but it should also provide some immediate reinforcement to the notion MacPhail knows what he's doing. That could be particularly important if the Orioles stick with the preseason blueprint and become a seller in the midseason trade market.

Nobody wants to see the Orioles' roster downgraded to the point where the club falls off another competitive cliff in the second half. The fans don't deserve that. But MacPhail's no-pain, no-gain approach during the offseason is what got the team to a point where there's room for legitimate debate about the proper balance between the need for short-term respectability and the sacrifice necessary for long-term success.

The success of the Rays seems to argue in favor of continuing an aggressive rebuilding program that fills the big gaps that remain in the Orioles' feeder system. To get where they needed to go, they faced the same decision with Aubrey Huff two years ago this week that the Orioles face now. The then-Devil Rays showed some real improvement during the first half of the 2006 season but chose to deal Aubrey Huff and other veterans in a pair of midseason deals for multiple prospects.

"While there are positives we can take away from the improvement we made during the first half, to accept where we are is to accept mediocrity," Devil Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said at the time. "Our goal is to build a competitive team that we can sustain."

MacPhail could probably borrow that quote if he decides to move Huff and closer George Sherrill, but it's really not that simple. The Devil Rays were 39-50 when they dealt Huff and didn't have to weigh the possibility of delivering an emotional body blow to their fan base. The Orioles have made some major progress rekindling local interest in the team and improving the baseball-wide credibility of the organization in advance of the next free-agent signing period. Those are not small things.

And the Orioles are not the Rays. They need to continue to acquire and develop young talent, but they also figure to spend some of that long-anticipated MASN money to upgrade the team's star power over the next couple of years.

When the season started, it didn't really matter how many games the Orioles would win this year. Now, with the club rumored to be interested in free-agent slugger Mark Teixeira (Mount St. Joseph), it matters a lot more.

The amazing success of the Rays only shows what is possible. It doesn't necessarily mean the Orioles have to take the same path and pull the plug on this year's team.

MacPhail likely will make that determination over the next few weeks.

Either way, he has earned your trust.


Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on most Saturdays and Sundays.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.