Devil Rays need patience, pitching plan

Ah, the Devil Rays. As sure as the sun rises in the east and sets in the West, the Devil Rays will finish in last place.

But for how long can we count on this annual event?

According to Peter Gammons' latest column, 1) Lou Piniella is optimistic about his team, and 2) Lou Piniella has reason to be optimistic about his team.

But should he?

Piniella told Gammons, ""We've played more one- and two-run games than anyone in baseball, and they can get to be tough, they wear on you. But I look at it from the good side -- we're 20-21 in one-run games, and that's pretty good."

Piniella's right. That's pretty good. The Devil Rays' record in one-run games is better than those of the Angels, White Sox, Astros, and Cardinals (among other teams), and it's almost as good as those of the Athletics, Phillies, and Dodgers.

But does that really mean anything? No, it doesn't. A team's record in one-run games is generally a function of its overall record; when it's not, by far the largest reason is luck. The Devil Rays have been lucky in one-run games.

Oddly enough, their luck in one-run games hasn't skewed their overall record, relative to their run differential. The Devil Rays have won 41 percent of their games this season, right in line with their runs scored (556) and allowed (663).

Still, winning 41 percent of your games with a $9 million payroll is pretty impressive.

As Gammons points out, "Essentially, Piniella is managing a team with a $9 million payroll, with 22 of the players making the minimum salary. But at the end of the season, Greg Vaughn, Ben Grieve and Rey Ordonez will be off the books, with the $17 million paid them by the Rays."

That's a great point. I don't have any idea if owner Vince Naimoli will actually spend those savings on new players, and I really don't have any idea if general manager Chuck LaMar will have the foggiest idea on how to spend those savings. But if you take a team that's winning 41 percent of its games and add another $20 million worth of players, then how many games will you win?

No, you're not going to finish ahead of the Yankees. You're not going to finish .500, either. Not in that division. But the Devil Rays have never won even 70 games in a season, and it seems to me that 70 or even 75 wins is a realistic goal in 2004.

And that's without even considering the Devil Rays' young prospects.

In Chad Gaudin, they've got one of the better pitching prospects in the game. In 17 minor-league games this season, Gaudin posted a 1.81 ERA; in 99 innings he struck out 93 hitters and gave up only two home runs. Most of those 99 innings came in the Class A California League, so I don't have any idea what Gaudin's now doing in the major leagues. But he's got a chance to be pretty good.

They've also got Dewon Brazelton, who was supposed to be the Devil Rays' first real ace and opened this season in the major-league rotation, but is currently serving a sentence in California League, for offenses that currently slip my mind. He's 1-5 with a 5.26 ERA, so it's safe to say that his timetable is something of a question mark.

In Joey Gathright, the Devil Rays have an outfielder who's been described as maybe the fastest player in the minor leagues. In 89 games with Class A Bakersfield, Gathright batted .324 and stole 57 bases. In 19 games with Double-A Orlando, Gathright's batted .373 and swiped 11 bases. And unlike most young D-Rays hitters, Gathright's not a hacker; he's walked 46 times this year.

On a down note, Gathright has no power. In 415 at-bats this season, he's hit 128 singles, seven doubles, three triples, and zero home runs. It's not that a guy like this can't help you, but the Devil Rays already have a power-starved outfield, and I'm not sure if there's room for a player like Gathright.

The jewel of the system is shortstop B.J. Upton, who turns 19 on Aug. 21 and was the second overall pick in the 2002 draft. Upton's already in Double-A and holding his own (.302 in 14 games), and he's got a chance to be playing every day for the Devil Rays next summer, before he even turns 20. He's not the next Alex Rodriguez, but he is following a similar career path.

Add it all up, and what do you get?

No, probably not a .500 team anytime soon.

Among all the prospects, only Upton looks like a future star.

Looking at the guys in the major-league lineup, Rocco Baldelli's got a good chance to be an excellent player, Carl Crawford's still a project, and Aubrey Huff is a fine hitter who's going to start getting real expensive in a year or two. And there's nobody else in the lineup who's more than marginally interesting.

Looking at the guys in the rotation, Jeremi Gonzalez and Victor Zambrano are the best of the lot, and neither of them is going to win 100 games in the major leagues. But then, working with pitchers has never been Lou Piniella's strong suit.

My guess is that the Devil Rays are going to improve over the next few years. But they won't approach good until 1) the young hitters have a few years under their belts, and 2) they have a manager who knows how to handle young pitchers.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information about the book, visit Rob's Web site.