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Tuesday, May 6, 2008
Give some credit to early architects of D-backs, Rays

By Jonah Keri
Special to ESPN.com

They play on opposite ends of the country and in different leagues and have vastly different track records. But the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Rays are also alike in many ways. They're expansion cousins celebrating their 10th anniversary seasons, armed with an army of great young talent. And five weeks into the 2008 season, both teams are playing their best baseball in franchise history.

The stewards of these two teams, Diamondbacks general manager Josh Byrnes and the Rays' two-headed team of Matthew Silverman and Andrew Friedman, deserve all the accolades that have come their way as the two teams have leveraged their productive farm systems into early contender status.

But the bright light shone on those currently in charge of a winning team often ignores the contributions of those that came before. It takes years, sometimes half a decade or more, to build the core of a winning team. That means finding top talent in the amateur draft and on the international market, excelling at player development, making well-timed trades, all ingredients that can eventually lead to a winning team down the road.

There are plenty of good reasons why the previous regimes in Tampa and Arizona were dismissed. But with the Rays and D-backs now the talk of baseball, it's only fair to recognize their past contributions, to give credit where credit's due.

Desert warfare

When Byrnes took over as the Diamondbacks' general manager in October 2005, he inherited a team in bad shape. Arizona was coming off two straight losing seasons, including a 2004 team that posted the worst record in franchise history -- and one of the worst in recent MLB history -- at 51-111.

Backed by an aggressive ownership group led by Jerry Colangelo, GM Joe Garagiola Jr. was the team's first GM and had whiffed on many personnel moves leading up to that point, including several big-ticket contracts larded with deferred compensation that plunged the team into debt. The front office had also misfired on a number of trades, dealing away veteran stars too early (Curt Schilling), shipping out top young talent before it ripened (Brad Penny) and acquiring past-their-prime former stars who were nearing the end of the road (Shawn Green).

Arizona management defended its decisions, especially those leading up to the 2001 World Series, saying the D-backs would have never won it all without aggressively going after top talent:

"I understand where some people felt I wasn't doing it appropriately," Colangelo told USA Today in 2004. "The only analogy I can use is that Tampa Bay went one direction and where did they end up? We went another direction to establish a fan base because our investment was much larger than Tampa Bay's. … We bought three division titles, a World Series and established a fan base."

The Rays' rebuttal will be presented in a bit. For now, though, it's worth examining the current D-backs roster to trace the origins of the team that's both the defending NL West champs and the owner of the best record in baseball.

The list of names below shows that of the D-backs' top 29 players who've seen time at the major league level or are on the disabled list awaiting return, 14 were drafted, traded for or otherwise acquired by Byrnes (15 if you count the new GM's signing of Justin Upton after a long wait at the end of the previous regime). The list includes three-fifths of the starting rotation, three of the eight starting position players and a flurry of great talent snagged in December 2005, right after Byrnes' hire. Those are impressive totals, given the new guy's only been at it for two and a half years.

Still, save some acclaim for Garagiola, whose scouting and player development staff drafted and developed the two best players (year-to-date) on the current D-backs squad (Cy Young winner Brandon Webb and likely All-Star Conor Jackson), future MVP candidate Upton and several other key contributors.

Lineup (name of GM in charge when player was acquired in brackets):

Bench

Rotation

Bullpen

Other notables

Rays of hope

Let's start with one simple fact: Heading into this season, the Tampa Bay Rays had been a bad team in each season of its 10-year existence. So bad, in fact, that they made the cut as one of the five biggest "Failure Dynasties" in the game today.

Much of the blame for the team's ineptitude has to go to Chuck LaMar. The former assistant general manager of the Braves had shown a keen eye for talent in past roles. But handed his first GM job with the Rays, LaMar quickly showed he was in over his head. Things started going south before the team even played its first game. In the expansion draft for the Rays and Diamondbacks, Tampa agreed to draft Bobby Abreu for the Phillies, then trade him for shortstop Kevin Stocker. You never know with prospects, and the Rays needed a shortstop. But management's decision proved disastrous as Abreu went on to have a great career that's still going strong, while Stocker lasted only three years as a banjo hitter in the big leagues.

The team made many other mistakes over the next decade. A quick-fix attempt to model the team after the Blake Street Bombers in Colorado failed as Greg Vaughn and Vinny Castilla turned into disastrous free-agent signings. An attempted youth movement didn't work either. The Rays' first four top draft picks in franchise history were:

Looking at the current Rays roster, it's clear that Andrew Friedman and Matthew Silverman have made some of the biggest and most successful changes to any team in the league. Taking over for LaMar during the same 2005-2006 offseason that marked Josh Byrnes' debut in Arizona, the Rays' duo is responsible for 17 of the 25 players on the active major league roster, including seven of the lineup's starting nine players. Also, before we give full credit to the past regime for some of the players on the 2008 club, it's worth remembering that the Rays drafted in the top five throughout team history, the result of posting 10 straight losing seasons.

With all of that said, teams still have to find success with at least some of their high picks to build a lasting winner. The Rays hit the jackpot on both Carl Crawford, their second-round pick in 1999, and B.J. Upton, their first-round pick (No. 2 overall) in the 2002 draft. Several late-round picks have also panned out, including 10th-round pick Jason Hammel, 13th-round pick Andy Sonnanstine, 16th-round pick James Shields and 18th-round pick Jonny Gomes.

Then there's LaMar's master stroke. With the pressure rising in Queens four years ago and a hole in the Mets' rotation, the Rays cashed in veteran righty Victor Zambrano for Scott Kazmir, exactly the kind of young future ace the team needed desperately. That trade ranks as one of the biggest heists in MLB history. It also makes you wonder where the Rays would be without Kazmir as well as Upton, Crawford, Shields and some of the other mainstays from the LaMar era. As good a job as new management has done, there wouldn't be predictions of the first winning season in Rays history, let alone a possible wild-card run, without the contributions of the old guard.

Lineup

Bench Rotation

Bullpen Other notables

Jonah Keri is a regular contributor to Page 2 and the editor and co-author of "Baseball Between the Numbers." You can contact him here.