Peter Gammons: As team chemistry grows, Rays positioned for great season

chris archer

PORT CHARLOTTE—The texts lit up Matt Silverman’s phone before 7 am Wednesday, when Mike Barnicle and Willie Geist asked a guest for a ground hog World Series prediction and the first two words of the answer were “Tampa Bay.” The Rays president knows that February promises won’t get a ballpark built or even a profit turned, but that “it’s good for people to be reminded what this team has done in this division, in this market and with our payroll.”

“People need to be reminded,” says the face of the franchise, Evan Longoria. In Longoria’s six seasons with the Rays, his team is the only team in the American League East to have won at least 90 games five times in six years, and in every one of those years did so with the lowest payroll in the division that considers itself baseball’s S.E.C.

Only once, in 2008 when they won a dramatic seven game ALCS against Boston then got rained, cold and beaten by the Phillies in the World Series, have they made it past the division series, which may have lessened their dramatic appeal in a small market trying to support three major league sports franchises. They hear that because they are built around depth, creativity and flexibility and the need to trade a Matt Garza or James Shields after four service years, that they therefore are not built for the post-season, but Longoria, James Loney and other players don’t buy its entirety.

“We haven’t had a post-season where we got hot, except for 2008,” says Longoria. “Like the Red Sox last fall.” Or the Giants or Cardinals. “But I think this season is different, starting with the fact that for the first time since I’ve been here, we have almost everyone back. We have a team that is going to play together two years in a row.”

Indeed, the Rays re-signed Loney. They went out and signed Grant Balfour (who before the Orioles arrived for the Friday opener was throwing sidearm, for effect). They traded for catcher Ryan Hanigan. They’re at a payroll level of more than $80M, which likely insures a paper loss, but now that David Price has not been traded in the four year business model, there is the sense that, indeed, they are once again, for the sixth time in seven seasons, a 90 win team that this time around can get deep into October. “There’s a feeling of stability that’s been hard to have,” says pitcher Chris Archer. “With DP, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb and me all back from last year’s rotation, there’s a bond, we help and learn from one another and real confidence.”

And, of course, as long as Joe Maddon is managing, there will be defensive shifts, imaginative lineups, use of the entire roster and a zany capacity to laugh together. This spring, Maddon has been living in an RV, stocked, of course, with a living room equivalent of a wine cellar.

And Archer, other than being the possibility to leap into the all-star level performer? Articulate, thoughtful, well-read…every morning Communications Director Dave Haller and his staff meet with Archer to play a little game. One of the group, including Archer, presents the word of the day, and everyone else has to define and use it in a sentence. Ah, the thought of an off day World Series press conference with Chris Archer facing the national media.

Whether or not Jeremy Hellickson gets healthy and back, no matter how well Jake Odorizzi works out, unless they are riddled with injuries and out of it come the All-star Break, the Rays can go into October with Price, Moore, Archer and Alex Cobb, one of the most underappreciated starters in the league. The bullpen is deep, perhaps deeper than ever before, wherever Nathan Karns fits.

They believe they’re deeper than ever before, after the deal for Logan Forsythe and the return to health of Hak-Ju Lee. Forsythe can play second, third or the outfield, hit balls to the alley and run. Maddon and hitting coach Derek Shelton believe that after constantly changing his persona because the Dodgers wanted more power, James Loney is coming off a .299/.778 season, given a new contract and, in Maddon’s words, “looks very different at the finish of his swing.” Like the immensely talented Yunel Escobar, Loney found a home in Tampa with this organization, coaches and manager; that’s two infielders they can win with they acquired for virtually nothing.

Maddon is a defense first catching advocate, and Andrew Friedman beat several teams to Ryan Hanigan to pair with Jose Molina. “Hanigan is a force on the field and the clubhouse,” says Longoria. “He’s like some of those guys the Red Sox picked up.” Funny he should mention that, because the Red Sox tried to get Hanigan from the Reds for years.

Shelton thinks Myers will start climbing to his ceiling “because he’ll know the strike zone better.” In 88 games, 13 homers and a .339 OBP are just the beginning. And Shelton thinks this is Desmond Jennings breakout season, after climbing slowly to .252, 14 homers, 20 steals despite a finger injury that dogged him too long; even then, his .314-.334 rise in OBP seem to back Shelton’s speculation, injury or no injury.

The people of Tampa shouldn’t need to be reminded of what winning 90 games five of the last six years means, which the Yankees and Red Sox haven’t done. They’ve done so despite a system that punished small market teams that are run well and reward big market teams that are inefficient businesses in terms of the draft. They’ve done it even if there are many who think the Rays and Tigers should flip divisions.

On the first day of March, almost every baseball person one talks to mentions the Rays as the team to beat in the American League if Price stays. One of these years the World Series is coming back to The Trop on The Island, Longoria is going to be the MVP, and the people from Sarasota to Fort Lonesome, Orlando to Indians Rock Beach are going to realize what they have, and what they’ll miss if nothing gets done and they move to Montreal.