tampabay.com

A new low, but no loss of hope

INDIANS 6, RAYS 3: A road loss leaves Tampa Bay alone with baseball’s worst record, but officials see a foundation for success.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published October 1, 2006



CLEVELAND — At least it won’t be hard to look better.

Another lost season for the Devil Rays ended appropriately with a 6-3 loss to the Indians on Sunday, leaving them alone with the worst record in the majors for the first time and with numerous ways to quantify how bad they were.

- Their 61-101 record was the worst in the majors by one game over the Royals and was their second-most losses among their nine straight losing seasons.

- Their three road wins since July 1 were an amazing major-league record low, and their 20-61 overall road mark was among the worst of modern times.

- Their 689 runs scored were the fewest of all 30 teams, their 856 runs allowed the 27th most and their 116 errors the 25th highest, and they set an American League record by losing 59 games in which they led.
But as bad as it was, and as much as it seemed a step backward, executive vice president Andrew Friedman and manager Joe Maddon insisted they saw enough good to be encouraged that they eventually will make it right.

“I really did, and there’s a lot of things I’m really pleased with,” Maddon said. “The record is hard to swallow. Nobody here enjoys that at all. But I saw so much progress with so many people this year — and we saw so many people this year — that I’m really very hopeful for the future. I see a lot of good things on the horizon. Now it’s up to us to take what we learned and apply it.”

Some things are obvious, such as the need for better pitching, more offense, tighter defense and better execution of the game’s fundamentals. Others are less tangible, such as learning how to win on the road, changing the culture in the clubhouse and improving their understanding of the mental side of the game.

Friedman, like new principal owner Stuart Sternberg, talks in big-picture terms, about eventually making a quantum leap past respectability and into contention.

They considered this season a first step on that path, reversing and undoing what they viewed as the sins of the previous administration, and admit that there were some decisions they made, such as trading veterans like Aubrey Huff, that hurt now but they expect to pay off later.

“It was an extremely disappointing season record-wise, but we knew coming into spring training some of the changes that we felt we needed to make to get to the point of competitiveness,” Friedman said after Sunday’s loss.

“As we stated, our goal is not to win 70 or 75 games. And while we may have sacrificed some short-term wins this season, we feel like we have a better foundation in place to reach our ultimate goal.”

Just as importantly as the good things Maddon saw, Friedman said there were other things they saw that were just as valuable. For example, two of their biggest internal decisions are whether B.J. Upton can play third and if Seth McClung can handle the closer’s role.

“Even things that weren’t necessarily good were important to learn,” he said. “This was a very productive year in that respect, in answering some questions for us and putting us in a position to better form our nucleus and foundation to supplement around.”

The most perplexing aspect of the season was the  stark difference in their record at home, 41-40, and on the road, 20-61, a differential of .259 percentage points that was just shy of Milwaukee for the largest gap in the majors. What was even more staggering was that they won only three times in their last 36 road games.

“That’s unbelievable,” Maddon said. “If I had the appropriate explanation for that I would have utilized it by now. I don’t know. We’ve discussed it, we’ve talked about it, it’s going to be a good topic for spring training. We can’t have it. It’s so absurd. … It can’t happen next year.”

Maddon’s theory — or at least his hope — is that the primary reason is inexperience and that natural maturing and the addition of some veterans will help.

That is just one of the areas they need to address.

Off-season planning has already started, as they seek to add offense and improve their defense (around the infield) and better their pitching staff (in the bullpen) while not spending much more money, and quite possibly less than the $36-million payroll they started with this season.

“We’ve got a lot of hard work to do this offseason,” Friedman said. “We have to be as creative as we possibly can to improve the product that was on the field.”

There is certainly plenty of room for improvement.