tampabay.com

Overhaul also in clubhouse

The Rays' moves indicate that character is a major priority.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published December 5, 2007


NASHVILLE - In trading Delmon Young and Elijah Dukes, the Rays gave up two young, talented, athletic outfielders who have the ability to develop into impact players and long-term future stars.

And had the potential to cause major headaches.

As they try to improve their team with better players, the Rays also appear determined to field a team of better people.

Character and chemistry in the clubhouse have become traits seemingly as valued as power at the plate and control on the mound.

Whether it's the acquisition of respected veterans with the presence of closer Troy Percival, or addition by the subtraction of players who don't fit their program, the Rays are changing more than their name, colors and uniforms.

"It's entirely different," manager Joe Maddon said. "I can just visualize these guys walking around the clubhouse and it feels different just thinking about it with all these different personalities and how far we've come over two years.

"I've talked about building relationships. I've talked about building trust. And now I believe we have the kind of people that makes those kind of thoughts work."

The process didn't just start with the trade of the sometimes prickly and somewhat arrogant Young or the troubled Dukes, who has a history of conflict, as the new Rays administration has weeded out several players who didn't fit the program, such as Aubrey Huff. And it won't end with the addition of Percival, 38, who will serve as essentially the clubhouse enforcer of rules and respect.

Team officials have made it a major priority to change the culture of the organization and develop a core of players who not only are good enough to win but know how to be winning players.

"When you start talking about those kind of players, what comes to mind is not only their ability but their character," scouting director R.J. Harrison said. "So I think we're a better team today than we were 10 days ago - for a number of reasons. Distractions are tough, especially when you're a young, developing ballclub."

Maddon says the key phrase is "accountability," but it's also about professionalism, respect, attitude and better character. They want players who care, about the team and each other, and who share their vision for success and their optimism.

Tuesday, for example, Maddon made a point to note that he "appreciated" and was "encouraged" how veteran Carl Crawford had been "very positive" in recent comments about the team.

The idea of collecting good character players is not unique or new. Some organizations, such as the Twins and Indians, are now known for that. And it is not limited to major-leaguers, as Harrison instructs his scouts to learn everything they can about prospective draft picks.

But extraordinary talent can be a more tempting lure, forcing teams to sometimes make tradeoffs and take gambles.

Dukes, for example, was a Tampa kid who had numerous disciplinary issues during high school, so it shouldn't have been a surprise to the Rays that he caused problems.

But Harrison on Tuesday couldn't say that Dukes wouldn't get drafted again if they did things over.

"That's hard to say. That talent would," he said. "I have such an admiration for the way he plays the game. I've seen him breaking up double plays and running every ball out hard, and he's not afraid of anything. Those are the kind of characters you want on a ballclub. Unfortunately, the other things have been a stumbling block for him."

Ultimately, teams have to determine their priorities.

"That's for management to decide how a player fits, how he fits for the manager, how he fits for total organization philosophy," said former Rays exec Cam Bonifay, who oversaw the drafting of Dukes and Young. "Character is character and talent is talent. And if you want to win you better make sure you get talent."