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Pitching-thin Rays choose to invest in their own
Despite a shaky rotation, the club saw enough promise to shun a pricey free-agent market.
By MARC TOPKIN
Published February 19, 2007
ST. PETERSBURG - There were plenty of reasons, from a major-league low 36 wins to a dangerously high 4.96 ERA, to expect the Devil Rays to seek offseason upgrades to their rotation. Even their young starters expected a veteran addition.
But once team officials took a closer look at the numbers - and not just the exorbitant dollars demanded by free agents - they decided they were better off letting their own young starters make their pitch.
So though more than 30 veteran starters changed teams through free agency and trades, the Rays stuck with what they had: a front four of Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Jae Seo and Casey Fossum; a fifth starter from the group of Jason Hammel, J.P. Howell, Edwin Jackson, Jae Kuk Ryu and Brian Stokes; and advanced prospects on the way later this season, led by Jeff Niemann and Mitch Talbot.
"We felt the need, and still feel the need, to supplement as much as possible in our bullpen, but we did not feel that way with the starting rotation," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said Sunday. "We didn't feel like there were guys out there that would be enough better to block the natural development of our younger pitchers.
"We feel like the names we have in-house have as good of a chance to contribute in '07 as a lot of the names that were in the market this winter. More importantly, we feel the experience these guys gain in '07 will pay meaningful dividends in '08 and beyond."
Though willing to offer more than $18-million unsuccessfully for the rights to Japanese ace Daisuke Matsuzaka, the Rays weren't going to be big-bucks bidders for the few frontline starters such as Barry Zito ($126-million over seven years from the Giants), Jason Schmidt ($47-million over three from Dodgers) and Andy Pettitte ($16-million for one from Yankees).
When the money kept flowing to second-tier starters such as Gil Meche (whose $55-million, five-year deal from the Royals made him the poster boy for excessive spending), Jeff Suppan ($42-million over four from Brewers), Ted Lilly ($40-million over four from Cubs) and even Jason Marquis ($21-million over three from Cubs), the Rays were even more sure they were better off with what they had compared to what was left for more reasonable terms - injury risks or question marks such as Tomo Ohka, Ramon Ortiz, John Thomson, Steve Trachsel and Victor Zambrano.
"There were guys that didn't make a lot of sense," senior vice president Gerry Hunsicker said. "How much do you pay for a guy that arguably could win eight games for you? And do you have somebody here that can do the same thing? What's the real impact of acquiring somebody like that? Those are all things you have to weigh."
Instead of spending millions for what they figured to at best be marginal improvement - or the chance of getting lucky that one of the veterans would come up big and have trade value - the Rays went to a major-league low payroll of $24-million and a promise to invest in the future.
"How could we have improved the rotation based on who was available and at the amount of money?" manager Joe Maddon said. "Why would you spend that kind of money to improve where we are when you could start a whole Latin American academy? I'll take the Dominican, every day of the week. Right now. Today. Maybe a few years from now I'd rather take Gil Meche, when you could say one or two guys would get us over the top and we could go for it. But by applying our money in the appropriate spots, two or three years from now it's going to be like, 'Wow, that was the right thing to do.' "
So they'll use the season to find out about the starters they have, convinced they'll be better off.
And confident they'll be better than expected.
"I think we're way underrated," Kazmir said.
"As far as talent goes," Shields said, "I think we can compete with anybody."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8801. View his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/rays/.