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Ahead in pitch count

    To be a pitching team or a hitting team? That was the question for the Rays. The answer: start with strong pitching.

The Rays brought in 39 pitchers for spring training. “Your quickest way to the top is going to be through pitching,” manager Larry Rothschild says.
[Times photo: Jonathan Newton]

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 5, 1999


ST. PETERSBURG -- Someday, the Devil Rays would like to be like the New York Yankees are now.


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A complete team in the complete sense of the word. One with a pitching staff loaded with aces and a closer, a lineup stocked with run producers, a defense that keeps things tidy and a productive farm system to replenish the talent pool. (Not to mention an owner who will spend freely — and frequently — to field a contending team each year.)

Until then, they have to be something.

After considerable forethought, they decided that what they didn’t want to be was a stereotypical American League bully, a team like some recent Cleveland and Seattle squads, ones whose best chance to win came from flexing their offensive muscle and pulverizing their opponents.

Given a choice — and being an expansion club with a limited budget, the Rays believed they had to make one — they decided to make strong pitching their foundation, supplement it with sturdy defense and add offense when they could.

photo
Closer Roberto Hernandez says he has fixed mechanical problems that led to his six losses, nine blown saves and 4.04 earned-run average.
[Times photo: Bill Serne]
That’s why they spent more than $20-million in bonus money to bring Rolando Arrojo, Bobby Seay and Matt White into the organization. That’s why they committed $35-million over five years to starter Wilson Alvarez and $22.5-million over four to closer Roberto Hernandez. That’s why they used the first pick of the expansion draft on Tony Saunders. That’s why they brought 39 pitchers to spring training.

“Your quickest way to the top is going to be through pitching,” said manager Larry Rothschild, who, naturally, used to be a pitching coach. “It’s going to have to be outstanding pitching, but it can be done. That’s not to say we’re not going to have the ability to score runs at some point in the future; we’ll do it this year. But you still have to have the pitching. Look at teams who win. They’re pretty solid with pitching.

“The way the economics are today, it’s hard to put both together. You’re sometimes stuck, especially early on, deciding to go one way or the other.”

General manager Chuck LaMar said he knew from the outset the Rays would have to go one way or the other.

“Philosophically, we had to make certain decisions at the start of building this organization, and building with pitching and defense was one of those philosophies,” he said.

photo
Julio Santana wants to lock up a starting rotation spot.
[Times photo: Jonathan Newton]
“What people misinterpret about that philosophy is that we’re in the American League and that we’re not aware that we need to score more runs than just a normal pitching-and-defense club. We know that very well. However, we wanted to be as competitive as we possibly could in the American League as soon as we could, and with the payroll we had for our first year and our second year, we felt we could be more competitive through pitching and defense and timely hitting than going out and signing the bats of a, quote, American League club.”

The Rays posted a disappointing 63-99 record in their inaugural season, but they recorded other numbers LaMar was pleased with. Their team earned-run average was 4.35, fourth-best in the AL. Their bullpen was the league’s second-best. So was their ERA in games away from Tropicana Field. Defensively, they ranked second-best in the league, allowing the third-fewest number of runs (751) and making the second-fewest errors (94). And they did it all for the relatively reasonable sum of $26-million.

“I challenge anyone for $26-million to try to put as competitive a team on the field as you could, to buy enough bats or draft enough bats in the expansion draft to have the offenses that the powerhouses in the American League have,” LaMar said.

“But with good pitching and good defense, you can beat those teams and take the field every night with the opportunity to beat them. As our payroll increases, you will see our offense hopefully increase, yet we’ll still continue to emphasize pitching and defense.”

Eventually, Rothschild said, more American League teams will acknowledge the value of such an approach, which is more indigenous to National League clubs. It just so happens that approach is best for the Rays.

“The thing that’s portrayed in the press is that with pitching and defense we’re trying to be a National League club in the American League. We’re not,” LaMar said.

“You just can’t go out and buy the bats with the money we now have and compete with the Yankees and the Clevelands and whoever. But throw a well-pitched game and you can beat anybody.”

Paul Sorrento knows what LaMar is talking about. He has lived it. Twice.

photo
Starter Rolando Arrojo, flipping the ball to catcher John Flaherty during practice, led the team with 14 victories last season.
[Times photo: Bill Serne]
Sorrento was a member of the 1995 Indians and the 1997 Mariners, two dominant offensive clubs that led the majors in runs but couldn’t win a championship. The Indians were shut down in the World Series by Atlanta, and the Mariners were knocked out in the division series by Baltimore.

“We all know that pitching and defense is what wins it,” Sorrento said. “So if you can kind of get that part of it down, where you have pitching and defense that you’re happy with, you can always add good hitters.

“Good pitching always beats good hitting. It always comes down to it in the playoffs. You see it every year. I saw it firsthand in Seattle and Cleveland. I think that’s the way to do it.”

During 17 seasons in the American League, Wade Boggs has seen it work both ways. Eventually, he says, the Rays will need a combination of the approaches. But for now, theirs seems to be okay.

“We’re only a year old; we’re not 10 years down the road trying to figure out what combination works,” Boggs said. “If you’re going to build a pitching staff, build it. And then go out and get a couple hitters.”

The Rays’ philosophy can accomplish that, too, Rothschild said: “Even if you get in the middle of this and see the American League is different, you can trade a pitcher for a power hitter.”

The Rays think they are off to a good start.

photo
GM Chuck LaMar keeps an eye on the action.
[Times photo: Jonathan Newton]
Pitching coach Rick Williams says that plenty of things can be done better. By his count, the Rays gave up 100 runs after an opponent had two outs and nobody on base, nearly 13 percent of their total allowed. They led the league in walks and the majors in hit batsmen. They allowed nearly half the batters who opened an inning with a walk or were hit by a pitch to score.

“Our focus needs to improve,” Williams said. “Our intensity in our warmups and in our preparation for our innings needs to improve. I read somewhere that 130-something of our starts were made by guys with two years’ experience or less. There’s no way we could have reached our peak already.”

The Rays would like to think young pitchers such as Saunders, Esteban Yan, Albie Lopez and Jim Mecir will get better. They’d like to think Arrojo will improve. They’d like to assume veterans such as Alvarez and Hernandez can’t struggle as much as they did in 1998. They’d like to figure that prospects such as White and Seay, plus Ryan Rupe and Travis Harper, will be ready to help soon.

“We’ve got a long way to go to reach our potential,” Williams said. “But we’re certainly on the right track.”

 

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