A tumultuous 2001 filters from the top, but the organization focuses on its advances.
By MIKE READLING
© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 11, 2001
ST. PETERSBURG -- The Orlando Rays played virtually the entire season without top prospect Josh Hamilton. Durham served as a revolving door to and from the major leagues, playing short of a 25-man roster most of the year.
First-year manager Buddy Biancalana taught his Charleston RiverDogs how to become winners. Toe Nash made his much-anticipated professional debut, but a Princeton teammate won the league MVP Award.
From Zen to playing shorthanded to fighting injuries and becoming a major factor in the playoff race, the six teams that make up the Rays' minor league organization all took different routes to what Tom Foley, the director of minor league operations, calls "a pretty good year."
The final numbers -- a 334-371 record as a group, no division winners, Orlando and Princeton finishing last in their divisions -- don't look tremendous but Foley said the most important indicator is improvement from one year to the next. There is plenty of that.
Hudson Valley made the biggest jump, gaining 15 games in the win column with a final record of 38-37. The Renegades finished fourth in their division.
The Bakersfield Blaze finished with 71 wins and is playing in the California League playoffs a year after it finished 58-81 while playing in St. Petersburg as part of the Florida State League.
"We had some guys up there that had career years," Foley said. "Nate Kaup and Matt Diaz both finished in the top three in hitting."
The Blaze battled injuries much of the year, losing closer Hans Smith for the last month and having all four infielders injured at the same time at one point, only to have most of its better players called up to Orlando in the middle of a playoff race.
The O-Rays began the year as the team with the Rays' top prospects. Hamilton was set to share the outfield with 19-year old Carl Crawford, while Jorge Cantu and Joe Kennedy helped fill out the roster at the beginning of the year.
Hamilton went down after the first month, Kennedy got called up to Durham after not allowing an earned run in his first 38 innings and later became a starting pitcher in Tampa Bay. That left Orlando to pull Dan Grummitt, Chairon Isenia and Andrew Beinbrink up from Bakersfield, adding youth to an already struggling team.
"That club changed face a lot," Foley said. "I think they accounted for themselves pretty well. I look at things from the beginning to the end and I think they all made strides and got better."
The RiverDogs began the year as a collection of players in their first full professional season, most from a Hudson Valley team that finished 23-52 in 2000. Biancalana said the first thing he and his staff had to do was convince the team it could win.
"They didn't expect to win coming out of the gate," Biancalana said. "The mood was not conducive to winning baseball games. We quickly addressed that."
Biancalana's solution after an 0-3 start was to concentrate on relaxation exercises, persuading players to read more in order to keep their minds clear.
"The whole person has to be addressed," Biancalana said. "The key is to address what's blocking the full attention to what's going on out on the field."
Durham faced the biggest challenge.
The Bulls failed to make the International League playoffs for the first time since joining the league four years ago but managed another milestone as manager Bill Evers became Durham's all-time win leader.
Catcher Toby Hall was the Future Game's MVP and later named the International League MVP, joining Princeton's Jonny Gomes, who was the Appalachian League's MVP, as the two Rays players to be honored in the postseason.
Hall was called up to Tampa Bay July 25 in one of more than 100 moves Evers dealt with this season, a situation that caused Durham to play with a 23- and 24-man roster much of the season.
"It was definitely a Triple-A year," Evers said. "Guys were going back and forth all year long."