Bauman: Garza deal won't break Rays
Organizational depth built over time helps offset key losses
There is a way to envision success for the new and less expensive Tampa Bay Rays. It involves organizational strength, pitching and the long-term future.
For the present, the Rays have suffered significant personnel losses, including outfielder and franchise mainstay Carl Crawford, shortstop Jason Bartlett, first baseman Carlos Pena, substantial losses in the bullpen and now, starting pitcher Matt Garza.
Among the prospects the Rays acquired from the Cubs in the Garza deal was the leading pitching prospect in Chicago's system, Chris Archer. Archer went 15-3 with a 2.34 ERA between Class A and Double-A in 2010.
There is no way to rationalize or minimize the personnel losses the Rays have had this offseason. But this team does not have to fall off the face of the Earth as a result of these departures.
The Rays, even with the loss of Garza, will have an impressive core of starting pitching -- young starting pitching. David Price was 19-6 with a 2.72 ERA for the Rays in 2010 and finished second in the American League Cy Young Award balloting. He is only 25. Jeff Niemann, 27, was 12-8 in 2010. Jeremy Hellickson, 23, was named Minor League Player of the Year for 2010 by Baseball America and pitched very well for the Major League club in an August tour in the rotation. Wade Davis, 25, was 12-10, placed fourth in AL Rookie of the Year voting and won a postseason start. James Shields, 29, had a substandard season in 2010, but his overall record suggests that he should bounce back.
This is a rotation that the vast majority of Major League clubs could only envy. It should put the Rays in a position to be competitive, at the very least, even in the short term, even considering the personnel losses that have occurred.
The Rays are not bereft of talent elsewhere. They have notable young talent among position players, including one of the brightest stars in the entire game, third baseman Evan Longoria, 25. This is not a club that, given the personnel losses, can be expected to repeat as division champions in the AL East. But it is also not a club that should descend into a permanent also-ran status.
The Rays, against long odds, have won two out of the last three division titles in baseball's toughest neighborhood. They won an AL pennant in 2008. They won 96 games in 2010, more than any other AL club, and they did this against the toughest possible competition.
This is evidence of the Rays' organizational strength. They have built a highly productive farm system. They have demonstrated strength in scouting and player development, the areas in which a small-market franchise must excel. They have been one of baseball's best examples of the possibilities of parity, in which a franchise can compete on the basis of intelligence and diligence rather than wealth.
Now, the fact that baseball's economic playing field has not been made completely level has placed them in a situation in which they have had to cut salary and attempt to rebuild on the fly. But they will not be starting over from scratch. The Rays have retained a base of strength in their rotation. Their organizational strength will not simply evaporate. And they will still have the invaluable leadership of one of the game's brightest and best managers, Joe Maddon.
The Rays have not been able to consistently attract the kind of attendance that their performance on the field would appear to deserve. Inexplicable or not, this has been a factor in their inability to retain some of their leading performers. But again, this has been viewed as a difficulty, not an impossible obstacle that cannot be overcome.
Up against the Yankees and the Red Sox, with the Blue Jays as solid competitors and the Orioles apparently improving as well, whatever the Rays have accomplished, they have accomplished in the most difficult competitive circumstances. But the Rays organization has demonstrated the ability to succeed in these unforgiving circumstances.
The Rays will once again be looking at an uphill journey in this neighborhood. But with their proven quality and with the core of young starting pitching still on hand, this can once again be seen as a difficult, but not insurmountable task for this franchise.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.