tampabay.com

So many mishaps

Under GM Chuck LaMar, poor judgment and luck have amplified the impact of a tiny payroll.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published March 8, 2005


ST. PETERSBURG - Maybe he wasn't throwing as hard. Maybe his curveball wasn't curving enough, or his slider wasn't sliding. Maybe opposing hitters had figured him out.

Maybe.

But Joe Kennedy thinks there might have been another reason he went from a pitcher who won about as many games as he lost during the 2001-02 seasons with Tampa Bay to one who could barely get anyone out in 2003.

He accepted being a Devil Ray.

"When I was really going bad in 2003, it's like, "I'm part of the Devil Rays.' That's what happens. You kind of sink into that hole," said Kennedy, who went to Colorado and returned to form, going 9-7 with a 3.66 ERA. "When you're losing, it's contagious, just like when you're winning. It's tough to get out of it. When you're losing so long, it's a hard mind-set to get rid of."

A losing culture is just one of the problems that has plagued the Devil Rays on the field through their first seven seasons. Their record (451-680) is a substantial reflection of the franchise's overall struggles.

Many of the wounds are self-inflicted:

The Rays' strategy on building the team has changed directions several times, including the ill-fated effort to boost attendance by increasing the payroll by nearly $25-million in 2000, a mistake they are still paying for. The lack of vision and long-term planning has resulted in a series of constantly revolving one-year plans and changing timetables. When new general partner Stuart Sternberg was introduced in May 2004, he noted the "crisis management" of the past.

General manager Chuck LaMar, for a variety of reasons, made a series of questionable acquisitions that were considered busts. Before selling a ticket, the Rays splurged more than $20-million on Cuban pitcher Rolando Arrojo and unproven high-schoolers Bobby Seay and Matt White in an effort to jump-start the organization. They followed with bad investments such as Wilson Alvarez ($35-million over five years) and Greg Vaughn ($34-million over four) and seemingly one-sided trades such as Bobby Abreu for Kevin Stocker and Jason Johnson for Danny Clyburn. When deals did work out, LaMar was often forced to get rid of the good players, such as closer Roberto Hernandez, for financial reasons.

A perennially small payroll - they will have the lowest in the majors for a fourth straight season - has severely limited the Rays' ability to recover from bad deals or key injuries. It also forces them to constantly shop in the discount aisle, acquiring players who were discarded because of age, injuries or poor performance. They will also be challenged to find the money to keep rising young stars such as Rocco Baldelli, Carl Crawford and Aubrey Huff.

Though the Rays have some of the game's top prospects, their philosophy of scouting athleticism over skills and drafting high-potential high school athletes rather than more proven collegians has failed them too often, according to Baseball America editor Allan Simpson. They are also hurt by a lack of involvement in the international player market, for example, being one of two organizations without a team in the Dominican Republic summer league.

Major League Baseball has done little to help. The Rays were forced to pick at the bottom of the draft their first three years, rather than at the top like the NFL does for its expansion teams. They were placed in a division with the high-spending Orioles, Red Sox and Yankees. And they are forced to play an unbalanced schedule, with more than one-third of their games against those three teams.

Failing in the W column

LaMar says that overall, the Rays have done an excellent job in building and "the only thing that keeps this organization from being recognized as one of the finest in baseball is wins and losses at the major-league level."

The problem, though, is that success is ultimately measured by W's and L's.

LaMar, 48, has been in charge since July 1995, the only general manager the Rays have had, with his contract extended three times, most recently last March through the 2006 season. Only four of the 29 other GMs have been with their teams longer (and have 24 division championships among them), and only three returning GMs have worse records.

Managing general partner Vince Naimoli, who hired and has retained LaMar, said all things considered he has done a "good" job. "I'm not saying I like this quotient, but if he had a quotient of the cost per win, I think he would come out far ahead," Naimoli said.

There was some surprise around baseball when LaMar got his latest extension, given the team's struggles, but not to those familiar with the situation.

"Others around the game may have raised an eyebrow," former Rays catcher John Flaherty said, "but anyone who's been there knows Vince and Chuck have what looks like a nice working relationship."

Critics among media, player agents and other baseball executives say LaMar can be difficult to deal with, lacks creativity and has not judged major-league talent well.

In a 2003 Sports Illustrated poll of major-league players, he finished second in the worst GM category to the Mets' Steve Phillips, who was fired that season. USA Today Baseball Weekly , Baseball Prospectus and ESPN.com's Rob Neyer have, at various times, given LaMar the title outright. Rays fans regularly skewer him on Internet message boards.

"They've been in the cellar a long time with him and with the same system," Hernandez said.

Despite several unsuccessful big-money acquisitions, LaMar said his biggest mistake was broader: not telling ownership that the plan to increase the payroll in 2000 wouldn't work.

"I wish I would have had the experience to say, "I know what we're trying to do, but we just can't speed up the clock,"' LaMar said.

There have been other miscues, too. And not just the high-profile deals, such as rushing to sign the oft-injured Guzman, who got five outs in his first game and never pitched again.

Former manager Larry Rothschild said they should have considered trading more veterans for prospects after the first season. Former scouting director Dan Jennings said they should have acquired more pitching. Hernandez said they over-valued their players too much to make trades.

Player agent Alan Meersand said they are slow to complete deals. Former general partner Bill Griffin said they should have hired a more experienced manager than Rothschild to help LaMar evaluate talent. Yankees pitcher Tom Gordon, who negotiated with the Rays as a free agent, said their reputation among players isn't good.

Bottom line?

"There were bad decisions," said Jennings, now a Marlins vice president, "and it's biting them in the butt."

Too many cooks

Surveying the obvious data - trades, signings, record - it would be easy to say it is all LaMar's fault.

But is it?

Naimoli's micromanaging style has extended to baseball operations. There are whispers of deals LaMar was not allowed to make (Arrojo for slugger Richie Sexson; catcher Mike DiFelice for Gold Glove shortstop Cesar Izturis) and decisions obviously made on orders from ownership to cut payroll (Fred McGriff for Jason Smith and Manny Aybar).

"I know for a fact there was an impact (on baseball operations) by ownership," said Hal McRae, another former manager. "It works better when it's not that way."

As a result, all LaMar's moves may not have been his doing.

"Chuck has had his hands tied," said Gary Markel, one of the Rays' limited partners.

"I think he has financial considerations about a lot of things, and he has to talk to Naimoli," said Meersand, the agent. "He has mentioned to me that he can't make decisions sometimes on his own. And I think that's difficult."

Plus, there has been some bad luck and odd circumstances, such as veteran third baseman Vinny Castilla doing well in Colorado, struggling with the Rays, then starring again elsewhere.

Griffin said he doubts, under the circumstances, that anyone could do better than LaMar.

"Chuck's been tarred and feathered many, many times," Griffin said. "Could you bring in a GM to do a better job than Chuck? What's he going to do? Is he going to take the same checkbook and go out and try to find one player Chuck didn't find or couldn't find? I don't think so."

A few shining moments

The Rays have done some things well. Their collection of top prospects is considered one of the best in the game, and they have made some good pickups, signing shortstop Julio Lugo and closer Danys Baez and swiping potential ace Scott Kazmir from the Mets.

While acknowledging GMs are judged on their record, LaMar said the Rays actually have fared well based on what they were capable of. Personally he said he has grown, improved and learned from his mistakes and "I think I'm a better GM today than ever before."

The Rays' future, finally, may be bright, assuming they can keep their core players and eventually spend the money to add a few big pieces. LaMar, whose contract expires the same time Sternberg is supposedly looking to take over, wants the chance to see it through.

"We are on the verge of reaping the benefit of all the years of hard work and ups and downs we've been through," he said. "I think it's paramount that this organization keep the continuity they have had and stay on the course we set forth at the beginning."

LaMar said when he took the job on July 19, 1995, he had two strong beliefs.

The first was that Tampa Bay would be "an outstanding major-league market," and he still believes that will happen when there is a winning team.

The second?

"I thought on that day I was the right man for the job, and after all the trials and tribulations I believe even more so I will be here when the job gets done. The winning will somehow make us all forget how long it took to get to that point."

--Times staff writers Damian Cristodero and Dave Scheiber contributed to this report.