Tampa Bay baseball: A Decade of Defeat

Mike KelleyCorrespondent IMarch 20, 2008

As the Tampa Bay Rays enter their second decade of baseball the first with the new nickname, I thought it might be fun to look at the best players at each position over the last 10 years.
 
Looking back, there have been a lot more lows than highs in franchise history for the annual bottom-dwellers in the AL East, but let's start with some positives. Last summer, Sports Illustrated predicted that the team will be the best in baseball in 2010. Fox Sports' Dayn Perry predicted in his March 18 column that the Rays will be a contender in the AL East in the next few years.

While they may have a potential of upside and a strong minor league system, in the last 10 years the Rays have been anything but contenders. They round their first decade out with a 645-972 record and 100 loss seasons in 2001, 2002 and 2006.

Again my selections for best player at each position are based on statistics earned with the Rays.

At catcher, the choice is between Toby Hall, who played for the team from 2000 to 2006, and John Flaherty, who played as a Ray from 1998 to 2002. Hall is the leader in games played at the position with 578 and in opening day games started with five. Flaherty appeared in 471 games in Tampa and started four opening day games.

The players are pretty similar in their contributions to the Tampa Bay offense in their careers, but I am going to give the nod to Flaherty, who had his career year in Tampa Bay in 1999 with a .271 average, 53 runs, 14 home runs and 71 runs batted in.

First base is far easier. Despite Carlos Pena's 2007 season of 99 runs, 46 home runs and 122 runs batted in, the nod is going to Fred McGriff, who played 550 games with the team from 1998 to 2001 and 2004. 

McGriff, while well known throughout his career in Toronto, San Diego and Atlanta, made huge offensive contributions during his time in a Rays uniform. McGriff represented Tampa in the 2000 All-Star game and put up three straight 25-plus, 100-plus runs batted in seasons in 1999, 2000 and 2001.

Second base poses a challenge with no clear winner. You certainly can't ignore Jorge Cantu's offensive explosion in 2005 when he hit 28 home runs and drove in 122, while hitting .286. The problem, as Tampa Bay fans know all too well is what happened to Cantu after that season. 

The rest of his Big League career, which as spanned only another two years, he hit 15 home runs, scored another 52 runs, drove in a mere 75 and batted .250. What a disappointment.

Miguel Cairo, the franchise leader in games played at second base, should be considered too despite his weak offensive numbers. Cairo played for the Rays from 1998 to 2000, appearing in 389 games. He had back to back 20-plus steal seasons in 1999 and 2000 and hit a respectable .295 in 2000.

Because of Cantu's strange disintegration of offense in 2006, I am going to name Cairo as the second baseman of the decade.

Shortstop, like second base, does not have an overly strong candidate, but I am going to give the honor to Julio Lugo, who played with Tampa from 2003 to 2006. In that time he had a 15 home run season (2003), a 39 steal season (2005), back-to-back 80-plus RBI seasons (2004, 2005) and a .295 batting average (2005).

Third base, a position I took a long hard look at, doesn't go to Wade Boggs, the 2005 Hall of Famer who got his 3,000 hit while on the Devil Rays. Boggs finished his career in 1998 and 1999 with the Rays and put up  a season with a batting average over .300 and a .377 OBP, but after so many MVP and All-Star type years in New York and Boston, he hardly is known for his time in Tampa.

The honor at third base goes to Aubrey Huff, who over the course of his time in Tampa (2000 to 2006), saw time at third base (283 games), right field, first base and left field. As the starting third basemen in 2004, he scored 92 runs, hit 29 home runs, had 104 runs batted in and batted .297. This follows up an equally impressive 2003 when he was the team's starting rightfielder. Huff is the franchise leader in doubles, home runs and RBIs.

One selection in outfield was super easy. Carl Crawford, the franchise leader in games played, plate appearances, runs, hits, stolen bases, and triples, is a shoo-in for the selection in left field. The two-time All-Star (2004, 2007) has played his entire career in Tampa and has been regarded as one of the building blocks of the franchise.

Crawford, in his six seasons, has already had four 50-plus stolen base seasons, two 100-plus run seasons, four straight double digit home run seasons and three straight .300-plus seasons.

Centerfield was a little harder. In the end it came down to Randy Winn and Rocco Baldelli. They have both appeared in over 300 games at the position (Baldelli, 389 and Winn, 351). I think, when healthy, Baldelli, who finished third in the 2003 Rookie of the Year voting, gets the advantage. In his full seasons of 2003 and 2004, he averaged 84 runs, 14 home runs, 76 runs batted in and a .285 batting average.

Randy Winn's best season, which came out of nowhere was in 2002, when he scored 87 runs, hit 14 home runs, drove in 75 and hot .298. I think over the course of their careers the players have put up similar stats, as Winn matured as a hitter once he left Tampa, but I am going to give the honor to Baldelli and hope he can make it back from the internal ailment which looks like it will keep him out of action for some time in 2008.

Rightfield is going to none other than Ben Grieve, the expensive  and over-hyped hitter Tampa Bay signed in 2001. The reason he gets the award is not because of his offense (his Tampa highs include 72 runs, 19 homers, 72 RBI and a .264 batting average), but because there weren't many other suitable options as Huff had already been named top third basemen, although Huff's numbers in 2003, as the starting rightfielder, 91 runs, 34 home runs, 107 runs batted in and a .311 batting average, certainly outshine Grieve's overall contributions. But despite Grieve's disappointing production, I am going to give Grieve the honor in rightfield.

I am going to keep pitching short and sweet, although pitching in Tampa has been anything but sweet. I am going to give the first starting pitching honor to Scott Kazmir, who came over from the Mets in 2004. He has started 97 games from 2004 to 2007, is the franchise leader in most pitching categories, the ace of the staff and a 2006 All-Star. He won a career high 13 games last year and had a lead leading 239 strikeouts.

James Shields, Kazmir's counterpart in the rotation the past two years gets the second starting pitching honor. Shields, who has started 52 games for the Rays, had a career high in wins (12), strikeouts (189) and ERA (3.85) last year, with every indication he is going to improve those numbers in 2008.

The last starting pitcher honor is going to Rolando Arroyo, who won the first game for the Rays 11 to 8 over the Detroit Tiger on April 1, 1998. Arroyo, played for the Rays in 1998 and 1999 and won 21 of his 56 starts, including 14 in 1998, a year when he also posted 152 strikeouts in 202 innings pitched and had a 3.56 ERA.

The closer honor is going to go to Roberto Hernandez, who over his three years in Tampa saved 101 games, averaging 73 innings pitched and a 3.43 ERA.

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