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Does Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon have too much loyalty to 2008 stars?

Faith is a wonderful quality in a big-league manager.

So is loyalty. And consistency. And patience.

But, at some point, a manager must put accountability above every other concern. And so today, 50 games into a season going frustratingly awry, it is that time for the Rays.

It is time to move B.J. Upton down in the lineup. It is time to move Andy Sonnanstine out of the rotation. It is time to give Ben Zobrist a permanent spot on the field. It is time for today's numbers to take precedence over yesterday's or tomorrow's.

By themselves, or even collectively, none of these moves will change Tampa Bay's fortunes. And you're kidding yourself if you think hitting Upton at No. 6 in the order would have been the difference between fourth place or second.

The Rays are not losing because Upton is off to a slow start following offseason shoulder surgery. And they're not losing because Zobrist has 111 at-bats instead of 161. There is no single explanation for two months of inconsistency.

But acknowledging that doesn't mean it's okay to blow a series against the last-place Indians. Or the last-place Orioles. Or the last-place Athletics. And we've already seen all of that happen before the first of June.

This is a team that has lacked urgency — and maybe even focus — for too long. And while it is important for a manager to present a facade of calm and a penchant for loyalty, it is equally important to let the clubhouse know that there are consequences for non-performance no matter what names are involved.

And, yes, I know the Rays have just gone through a ridiculous streak of injuries. But, to me, that makes these moves even more critical. The last thing these players need is someone patting them on the head and telling them what rotten luck they've had.

The time for excuses and rationalizations has passed. This is not a young team full of ballplayers still learning what it means to play every day in the major leagues. This is not a team trying to learn which pieces fit in the franchise's future.

The Rays are the defending American League champions with a growing payroll, and it's time they began playing that way. Either that, or it is time they begin paying for their lack of success.

Joe Maddon has shown great faith in Upton. He says the Rays cannot be a successful team without Upton, and I have no argument for that. But there comes a time when a player has to reward a manager's faith. And, for whatever reason, Upton has not yet found his groove at the plate. He began slowly, and his on-base percentage has actually gone down from there.

Maybe moving Upton down in the lineup will have no impact on his slump. Or maybe it will take some pressure off him, and allow him to begin hitting like the emerging superstar he should be. Either way, hitting him at leadoff is no longer justified.

Upton's numbers are slightly worse than David Ortiz's, and the Red Sox moved him out of the middle of the order. If it can happen to Big Papi, it can happen here.

Maddon has been solidly in Sonnanstine's corner. He points to how consistent Sonnanstine was last season, and I have no reason to dispute that. But the worst thing a manager can do is give his ballclub the sense that a game is lost before it is played, and the Rays may soon reach that point with Sonnanstine on the mound.

The offense has given Sonnanstine better run support than James Shields. Better than Matt Garza and Jeff Niemann. And yet the Rays have won only four of his 10 starts.

Sonnanstine's ERA of 7.66 is 115th among the 118 starting pitchers with at least 40 innings this season. So who has been worse?

Well at 116 is Scott Kazmir, who was put on the disabled list by the Rays in the past week.

And at 117 is Adam Eaton, who was released by the Orioles in the past week.

And, at 118 is Ricky Nolasco, who was sent to the minors by the Marlins in the past week.

In other words, this is around the time of the season when teams begin to run out of patience with struggling pitchers. By this point in a season, it is no longer a slump. It is reality, and something has to give.

At this point, there is no magic solution. No single player, no single lineup change, no single promotion will turn the Rays into contenders.

This team needs more than that. It needs to play with the confidence, focus and intensity it had last season. The Rays won 97 games in 2008 without a .300 hitter, without a 15-game winner and without a 30-save guy in the bullpen.

How did they do it?

With a little bit of luck, for sure. But it was also with contributions from every player on the roster. It was with an energy and an attitude that was unmistakable. It was with a manager who pushed every correct button.

Mostly, it was with accountability.

Starting today, the Rays need more of that.

Does Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon have too much loyalty to 2008 stars? 05/28/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 29, 2009 6:33am]
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