Blame economics for Tampa Bay Rays' slumping bats in ALDS

ARLINGTON, Texas

If the end is near, do not blame October.

Do not blame a handful of games when the bats went terminally silent.

If the end is truly near, you might as well blame December.

For it is in those offseason months when a team's future is ultimately decided. And in the case of the Tampa Bay Rays, it was decided long ago that the future would be built around starting pitching. And defense. And speed.

It's not that the Rays' front office boycotted the batter's box. They understood the need for more pop, and they grasped the idea of better situational hitting. It's just that they couldn't afford to assemble an everyday lineup with the same oomph of a New York or a Boston.

So instead of investing a disproportionate amount of their resources in a futile attempt to outslug the heavyweights of the American League East, the Rays have tried to find value where others might not be looking. That's why they've had one of the better defensive teams in the AL. And it is why they typically lead the league in stolen bases.

And it is why the offense occasionally goes splat.

The Yankees may be able to afford a $20 million first baseman. And a $21 million shortstop. And a $32 million third baseman. And a $13 million catcher. What the Rays can afford is a handful of bargains and a lot of platoon players.

That, more than anything else, explains the high number of lineups in Joe Maddon's notebook. He has a three-man platoon between rightfield and second base. He has a platoon at catcher. He has a platoon at designated hitter. Not because he likes it this way, but because it's cheaper to pay two part-time players rather than one big-shot star.

And the platoon works pretty darn well when facing starters at the back of the rotation. Or against middle relievers. Or when the people in the other dugout are dressed up as Mariners, Tigers or Indians.

But in the postseason? Against a former Cy Young winner?

"We have done this the entire year with this different form of offense," Maddon said Friday.

If the end is actually near, you might as well blame May.

For that was the month when the plug was finally pulled on the Pat Burrell fiasco.

If you're looking for a single decision that sabotaged this offense, it was the signing of Burrell to a two-year, $16 million deal 22 months ago. Burrell was not only going to add 25-30 homers a year, he was going to provide protection for other hitters in the middle of the order, and he was going to offer a boost against left-handed pitching.

Unfortunately, he did none of that.

So not only were the Rays without his anticipated production, they were hamstrung by the amount of money they were paying his grumpy and ungrateful butt.

Do you realize the Rays went from 199 homers last year to 160 this year? And their batting average dropped from .263 to .247? And yet they still scored almost an identical number of runs. That should tell you the offense was opportunistic in other ways. And it also should tell you the potential for a meltdown was real.

"There are plenty of times where we haven't hit very well and still won games. We pitch well and play great defense. There's a lot of ways we can win games," Ben Zobrist said. "But we have to have things go right. We have to have that big hit. It may only be one hit, but it has to be at the right time. And we haven't had the big hit in the past couple of games."

If the end is really in sight, you might as well blame July.

For it was at the midseason trade deadline that the Rays elected to stand pat.

You can argue whether or not that was a mistake. It is true teams were trying to extort high trade prices from contenders. And young players are vital to Tampa Bay's payroll structure, so dealing prospects should not be done lightly.

But the Rays understood they were a flawed team offensively. And they knew October would not be easy with the roster the way it was constructed. It was going to cost a lot to bring in an extra bat, but it may have cost more to let the opportunity pass.

Texas picked up Cliff Lee, and he was brilliant in Game 1. The Rangers also got Bengie Molina, and he hit a home run the other day. The Giants traded for Cody Ross, and he drove in the only run in a 1-0 victory against the Braves in Game 1. The Yankees got Lance Berkman, and he had a tiebreaking homer and double in a Game 2 victory against Minnesota.

"We've won a lot of games this year not necessarily because we were the better hitting team but because we found a way to somehow score more runs," said first baseman Carlos Peña. "You can say, probably for the last week, that we haven't been hitting. But we've gone through this before, and we know how to make adjustments. You just can't get overstressed by it."

The Rays had the best record in the American League, and that did not happen by accident. To make it this far with this payroll in that division is validation of just how much talent has been assembled.

If the end is really near, there is no one to blame.

It's just the way the team was put together.

With virtually no margin for error.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com

Blame economics for Tampa Bay Rays' slumping bats in ALDS 10/08/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 9, 2010 12:44am]

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