Rays already on path with Rockies

By JOHN ROMANO, Times Columnist
Published October 27, 2007


The team was in last place, and the roster was filled with rookies. The payroll was near the bottom of the league, and the owner was pleading for patience.

Two years ago, this was the start of Colorado's World Series run.

Two years from now, could it possibly be the same for Tampa Bay?

Trust me, the comparison is not made lightly. The similarities are not simply coincidental. The Rockies have reached the World Series following a formula the Devil Rays have recently adopted.

It involves an old-fashioned notion of drafting and developing your own talent, and avoiding the dangers of free agents and multiyear contracts. It's a slow process. Maybe even tedious. But it may be the only way the Rays will survive, and it is the reason the city of Denver will see its first World Series game tonight.

No matter how ugly things have gotten in Tampa Bay, you should know the Rockies had a head start. Think it was a bad idea to hand Wilson Alvarez a $35-million contract? How about giving Mike Hampton $123-million. Think the Rays wasted their $18-million on Juan Guzman? Try explaining the $51-million Denny Neagle blew.

Now, I'll admit I've grumbled at times about the payroll Stuart Sternberg has provided. But a Denver Post columnist told readers to boycott the Rockies until the owners were run out of town. And that was earlier this season.

In other words, Colorado knows our pain.

And the Rockies have come up with a remedy.

After their free-agent splurge put them in hock, they committed to building through player development. You can see the result tonight at shortstop. And leftfield. And third base. And rightfield. More than half of Colorado's lineup is homegrown, making it an anomaly in the postseason.

A few years ago, the Rockies had 32-year-old Charles Johnson at catcher, 34-year-old Royce Clayton at shortstop, 36-year-old Vinny Castilla at third base, 35-year-old Jeromy Burnitz in centerfield and 37-year-old Larry Walker in right.

Colorado slowly purged its roster of expensive and underproductive stars, and began turning the dugout over to players from its farm system. The Rockies teetered between 68 and 76 wins for a few years, but made a huge step forward this fall when even more reinforcements arrived from the minors.

If this was literature, the Rays could be accused of plagiarism. Just like the Rockies, they began shedding themselves of veterans such as Aubrey Huff, Julio Lugo, Toby Hall and Danys Baez. None of whom, by the way, has come close to earning the contract he received elsewhere.

And just as the Rockies brought Troy Tulowitzki (first round, 2005), Matt Holliday (seventh round, 1998), Brad Hawpe (11th round, '00), Garrett Atkins (fifth round, '00) and Jeff Francis (first round, '02) up from the minors, the Rays have integrated B.J. Upton, Delmon Young, Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli and James Shields into the lineup.

Is Colorado better? Sure, it won 90 games and a pennant.

Does Colorado have a better future? That could be debated.

Noted baseball analyst Bill James has a book out next month that suggests the Rockies have the best collection of young talent in the game. He also suggests the Rays are right behind.

Of course, there is one glaring difference. The Rockies play in the NL West and the Rays are stuck in the AL East. Why is that significant? Since baseball's last realignment, the AL East has accounted for five World Series champions. The NL West has one. In other words, the Rays will have a much harder time getting out of their division.

Still, the potential is there for Tampa Bay to make a significant step forward in the next two years.

To do it, the Rays will have to begin supplementing their lineup with strategic trades the same way the Rockies have. Colorado got Kaz Matsui from the Mets, Willy Taveras from the Astros and Yorvit Torrealba from the Mariners. It's not hard to imagine the Rays exploring the same kind of deals for a shortstop or a catcher.

The Rockies also did something the Rays have yet to do:

They gave an enormous contract to Todd Helton, their resident superstar.

Soon, that will be an issue for the Rays, too. Carlos Pena and Scott Kazmir are due huge raises through salary arbitration this offseason, and others will eventually follow.

The Rockies may have been prudent, but they have also spent when necessary. Their payroll is up to $54-million, and ownership has acknowledged it could reach $70-million by 2008.

So the model is there. The incentive is real. The promised land is not that far away.

The only question is whether the Rays will follow through.