The Tampa Bay Rays have the worst record in baseball. Their starting rotation is missing a few top arms. Their bullpen magic seems to have run out. Worst of all: their offense scores the least amounts of runs in the American League.
In what is looking to be their first losing season since the “Devil Ray” era, national baseball writers everywhere circle around like vultures looking for who the Rays could, would and maybe even should trade off for prospects. Like David Price for example -- he’s not to far away from going out the same way Carl Crawford did, and the more losses could make the Rays more inclined to turn Price into Major League ready prospects.
However if there is any manager primed to prevent the panic, it’s Joe Maddon -- the perfect example of a “player’s manager.”
He's been the Bill Belichick of baseball. He sees everything, regrets nothing. He looks at his players as people rather than statistical inputs. He has the solution before the situation. If his team stinks, he'll lay out a spread of fragrance for his players to change the scent.
“He lets guys be who they want to be,” said star third baseman Evan Longoria. “All he asks is that guys play the game hard. He doesn’t really make rules. He doesn’t confine guys to a certain style or to be a certain way and he doesn’t ask too much of guys.”
When players play for Maddon, things change. Carlos Pena was just a 27 home run guy at best. He comes to Tampa in 2007 and hits 46 homers and 121 runs batted with a .282 batting average. He and Longoria powered the Rays to the World Series a year later.
Eric Bedard was a very solid pitcher for most of his career with the Baltimore Orioles and Seattle Mariners but struggled in the last two seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Houston Astros. Now he’s got a 3.61 ERA as a member of the Rays rotation.
James Loney was a solid contact hitting first baseman with the Los Angels Dodgers for seven years. He was part of the trade that allowed the Boston Red Sox to unload Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett to LA in 2012 and was casted aside after the season. He revived his career in Tampa Bay and signed a three-year deal with the Rays.
“I think in turn you see guys come in and have success that they may not have success elsewhere,” Longoria said. “I really believe its just because he gives guys the freedom to be themselves and come in and play the game they know how to play.”
Nobody ever knows who or what Maddon will bring in to the Trop to help change the Rays’ fortunes. Recently he brought in a Seminole medicine man to work some magic. If they wanted to stop Felix Hernandez, he would’ve brought in the Ghana witch doctor who’s name translates to “Devil of Wednesday”.
One time last year Maddon introduced a python to the Rays clubhouse and scared the living stars out of Longoria.
“I didn’t want to be in there because I don’t like snakes,” Longoria said. “But regardless that’s the kind of stuff he does to keep people loose. I understand what he’s trying to do and that’s the way he’s been since I got here, and it’s worked.”
Maddon will need more than snakes, shamans and shabby outfits to save the season. He needs to prevent the panic from the players and make the process more progressive.
Something he’s prepared to do. All the Rays need to have Longoria start swinging like a star again – he’s batting .265 and slugging only .391 – get Jeremy Hellickson back in the rotation, which should happen by the end of the month, and find a way to avoid more letdowns by the bullpen.
That and allowing rookie right fielder Kevin Kiermaier to play the part of Will Myers, and the Rays can start winning again. But they’ll have to do it fast before they’re put in a position where they’ll have to start parting ways with their expensive players.
Between now and the Trade Deadline, the Rays will face only one last place team, the Houston Astros. Everyone else is in postseason contention. They play the Orioles seven times in June and have a series with the Toronto Blue Jays and Milwaukee Brewers in July; both on top of their respective divisions.
They have about a month to pick up the pace, or Maddon’s team will start to look a lot younger in August.