Two years ago, Tim Wilken--then director of scouting for the Devil Rays--sat with several of his peers scouting an Arizona Fall League game in Scottsdale.
His club had recently pulled off one of the most improbable deals of the 2004 season, netting lefthander Scott Kazmir for righthanders Victor Zambrano and Bartolome Fortunato at the July trade deadline.
|BA played a game of pitching prospect word association with Devil Rays executive vice president of baseball operations, Andrew Friedman, who weighed in on several of his top young arms:|
And needless to say, that deal brought up some good-humored banter among the scouts in attendance that October evening.
"I have no idea how that happened," one American League scouting director remarked. "Whoever was behind pulling that one off should be in jail."
Wilken just sat back with a smile permanently etched across his face, taking in one of the best trades the Rays made to improve an area in which they have struggled since their inaugural season in 1998.
Since Tampa Bay's first draft in 1996, the most significant arms it has drafted that have made an impact in the big leagues include Joe Kennedy (eighth round, 1998), Brandon Backe (18th, 1998), Doug Waechter (third, 1999), Seth McClung (fifth, 1999), and Dewon Brazelton (first, 2000).
Of those five, just Waechter and McClung remain in the organization.
Wilken has since moved on to the Cubs after the upheaval in the Rays front office in the offseason, but he left behind the best pitching prospects the system has ever seen.
And pitching is obviously what the Rays need most. With one of the most exciting young lineups in the game at the major league level--and a bevy of impact position players on the cusp of the big leagues--pitching is what will allow the small-market club to have any chance of competing in the AL East.
That is the major challenge facing the new regime led by executive vice president of baseball operations, Andrew Friedman.
"The key for us to be successful going forward is going to be through scouting and player development," Friedman said. "Plenty of teams say that, but it's never been more true given our situation. We need to develop it, we need to trade for it. It's been our lifeblood, and it's always going to be."
For the most part, that lifeblood has always come from position players, but the Rays have quietly stockpiled young arms to go along with the bats over the last several drafts.
All of which gives Tampa Bay fans hope for the future.
"We finished five games over .500 over the second half of last season," Friedman said. "And a lot of that comes down to continuity on the roster and in the rotation. We need to have that consistency all the way down through the organization. We need to continue to build on that.
"Waechter and McClung really came on in the second half, and this is a big year in their development process. We probably don't get credit for (developing) Kazmir, but we have a good, young group of pitchers in the minor leagues we've drafted and are developing we're also very excited about."
They added two more arms with some upside from the Dodgers in the Danys Baez deal, getting righthander Edwin Jackson and lefthander Chuck Tiffany in return for their former closer.
Righthander Jason Hammel is one of those homegrown arms who should open this season at Triple-A Durham. A 10th-round pick out of Treasure Valley (Ore.) Community College in 2002, Hammel spent last spring in big league camp but didn't pitch due to an elbow sprain.
It's been a different atmosphere this season, partly because of the fact that he's pitching against big leaguers, but mainly because of the energy the new front office has injected into the entire organization.
"It's just so different," Hammel said. "Everyone is on the same page and everyone--from (senior VP of baseball operations) Gerry Hunsicker to Andrew Friedman to (club president) Matthew Silverman--everyone is so approachable.
"There is so much energy and optimism. (Manager) Joe Maddon has a lot to do with that. He's been huge for us. We don't even talk about what happened here in the past. It's ancient history to us now. And based on the guys we have, we could turn this around real quick."
Hammel is one of the core of pitchers expected to be a huge part of that turnaround in the long term. The 6-foot-6 righthander went 8-2, 2.66 in 81 innings at Double-A Montgomery before being called up to Durham, where he struggled with his control at times, finishing 3-2, 4.11 in 55 innings with the Bulls.
A polished command and control pitcher, Hammel found himself somewhat unprepared for the hitters he faced early on during his Triple-A debut.
"The hitters are so much more patient, and I was out there nibbling in the beginning," he said. "It was a little bit of an adjustment. Before I didn't look at who was up there and just went to my strengths."
Hammel has spent the spring working on consistently repeating his pitches more effectively and has been tinkering with a two-seamer to go along with his lively 91-94 mph four-seam fastball.
"I learned pretty early on in my career how to deal with not having your best stuff every time out," Hammel said. "It's about staying focused on what you do have for any given start and just battling through. I think a lot of the younger guys are picking that up much earlier than I did though, which is only going to make them that much better, faster."
In addition to Hammel and Jackson, the Durham rotation also is expected to include lefthander Chris Seddon and righthanders Carlos Hines and Jamie Shields.
Shields had a breakout season last year at Montgomery that carried over to the Arizona Fall League. After going 7-5, 2.80 with 104 strikeouts in 109 innings as a Biscuit, Shields was even more dominant in the offensive-happy AFL, finishing the fall second in the league in ERA with 2-1, 1.74 numbers.
"With all the hitters out there, he really flew under the radar," farm director Mitch Lukevics said. "And that's OK with him. He's a real competitor and took on the challenge of facing the top hitters in the game."
The next wave of pitchers might even be better than the five on the verge--with righthanders Wade Davis, Matt Walker and Chris Mason all ranked among the Devil Rays' top 10 prospects.
"And we're not even talking about (Jeff) Niemann and (Wade) Townsend," Lukevics said.
Niemann had surgery in October to shave down part of his collarbone near the AC joint in his shoulder and isn't expected to return to the mound competitively until late May. And Townsend was lost for all of 2006 rehabbing from Tommy John surgery after tearing his elbow ligament in his first Fall League outing. But the Rays are hopeful to have both first-rounders out of Rice back and in the mix for 2007.
After all, they need more impact arms to go with Kazmir, the purloined ace. And they appear to have more options than ever.
"This is no doubt the most exciting group we've had since Jose Veras, McClung and Waechter," Lukevics said. "We're going to be patient--and that's big. We're going to practice patience organization-wide. Our job is to see them through and get them where they need to be. And that's helping us win games and compete in Tampa Bay."
• The Dodgers gave in and moved Joel Guzman from shortstop to left field. The 21-year-old Guzman hit .287-16-75 while playing shortstop and third base at Double-A Jacksonville in 2005. At 6-foot-6, 225 pounds, Guzman was a solid fielder at shortstop but lacked the agility and range to be an above-average defender, and the Dodgers signed free agent Rafael Furcal to a three-year contract in the offseason.
• The Devil Rays were giving former outfielder Wes Bankston a shot at playing third base this spring. Bankston had moved to first base in 2005 in deference to the Rays' crowded outfield picture.