Saturday, July 12, 2008

To The Left Is The Abyss; To The Right Is The Promised Land

On May 31st, I wrote a blog comparing the Tampa Bay Rays to two other teams that had been woeful for what seemed like an eternity and suddenly parlayed a series of smart veteran
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acquisitions along with the development of the high draft picks (one of the few perks of being so consistently bad) into an unexpected leap into contention----Comparing The Rays To Other Teams That Came From Nowhere. Those teams----the 1984 Mets and 1991 Braves----eventually fell short in their first year of realistic contention. The Mets faded out against a hot, veteran team in the Chicago Cubs; the Braves made it all the way to the World Series before losing to the Minnesota Twins. Now that the Rays have hit the skids heading into the All Star break, there's another way this could go for them and that is what happened to the 2001 Minnesota Twins.
Like the Rays, the Twins had been a franchise in constant rebuilding mode. With little money available to sign free agents, the organization instead relied on the coordination of
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instruction instilled from GMs Andy MacPhail and Terry Ryan to manager Tom Kelly and permeating the entire system from top-to-bottom to develop young players. The team hadn't had a winning season since 1992 and annually finished either fourth or fifth in their division. When talk of contraction was at its apex, it was the Twins and the Expos that were the two teams most often discussed as being eliminated based on their apparent haplessness. Then something strange happened: in 2001 the Twins began winning.
All of the young players they'd developed or acquired began performing in the big leagues. With an average age of 27, those young players----A.J. Pierzynski, Cristian Guzman, Jacque Jones, Torii Hunter, David Ortiz (yes, that Big Papi before he became Big Papi), Johan Santana and J.C. Romero----led the Twins to an uprising that shocked the baseball world and vaulted them into
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first place with a 56-32 record and a five game lead in their division over the powerhouse Cleveland Indians. Instead of a team that was forever being raided for their high-priced veteran stars like Chuck Knoblauch, the Twins were seen to be a team that was going to add veteran players and take their shot to win when they had the chance. Then, despite a veteran manager who'd won two World Series and had schooled his players in the correct way to play the game, the Twins slowly started falling apart. As attention to the young, unknown and unexpected contender grew, the youngsters, especially closer LaTroy Hawkins, wilted under the pressure.
As the slump began to build momentum, all of the positive attention that the Twins received for their sudden improvement turned into bewilderment of how far and how fast they'd fallen. Even with all of their experience, Kelly and his third base coach Ron Gardenhire were unable to stop the Twins from falling out of first place and from a high of 24 games over .500 on July 12th, to a record of 65-61 and 5 1/2 games out of first place by August 21st. The Twins eventually righted their ship enough to end the season with a record of 85-77, which would have been seen as an amazing jump from their previous years of 1993-2000 when they averaged 66 wins a year, but was still a disappointment considering how they looked like they were going to confound the experts with an unexpected playoff berth.
There are similarities with the Rays to both situations----that of the Mets and Braves and
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that of the Twins. After years of justified ridicule, the Rays have been garnering positive attention that their young players and management have never experienced. Like the Twins of 2001, the Rays are being chased by two veteran, pennant race-tested teams who have the cash and prospects to make drastic improvements at mid-season. Like the Twins, the Rays have hit a slump at an inopportune time. Even with all of their veteran leadership, the Rays management is nowhere near as competent as that of the Twins; there's a potential for panic in Tampa that could rapidly unravel all the good work they've done.
On the bright side for the Twins, the 2001 season was a portent of the future as the team turned that experience into four division titles in five years and consistent contention despite payroll constraints. Kelly retired to the Twins front office after that season because his work was done; he'd turned the Twins youngsters into a well-schooled unit that won games not only because they were talented, but because they played the game correctly as well. (It's amazing how many games can be won by hitting cut-off men, taking the extra base, etc.) Gardenhire took over and has been one of the most unsung top managers in baseball.
The Rays are at the same crossroads that the Twins were; will they snap out of it and
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become the 1991 Braves? Or will they collapse under the pressure and have to take solace in their improvement from laughingstock to a team on the rise and look toward the future with hope? The road is in front of them; which will it be?

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