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Pat Burrell's quiet bat speaks volumes for Tampa Bay Rays

ST. PETERSBURG — The trades for the contenders are starting to roll in. The Phillies got the ace they wanted for the postseason. The Giants got an All-Star infielder to help them hang on in the wild-card race. And the Rays got the American League's worst DH.

What's that, you say? The Rays haven't made any acquisitions for the pennant run? Actually, they have. It's just that they did it back in January when they signed Pat Burrell to a two-year contract.

At the time, the Rays told us the payroll had reached its limit and there would be very little room for maneuvering during the season. And now that we have arrived within a day of the nonwaiver trade deadline, that reality is about to hit home.

Burrell was supposed to be the answer to all of Tampa Bay's needs in 2009. He was going to correct the problem versus left-handed pitchers. He was going to eliminate the need for a platoon at designated hitter. He was going to be the thump behind Carlos Peña.

Except none of that has happened. Burrell started slowly and then got worse. About two-thirds of the way into the season, he is the lightest-hitting DH in the majors. And — we might as well say it — the Rays are not repeating as AL East champions.

Not that you can blame Burrell for that. He is just one of about a half-dozen Rays who have been huge disappointments this season. But Burrell is the only one who wasn't here in '08, and so he has no goodwill stored in the bank.

Which is probably why, when Burrell struck out in the fifth inning Wednesday night, you heard enough booing at Tropicana Field to make you think the bay area might have some passion for baseball after all.

At this point, there is no way to defend Burrell. He does not have speed. He does not carry a glove. He is being paid $7 million this season to be a power hitter, and he has less home runs than Marco Scutaro. Less than Adam Kennedy.

For the record, he struck out three times Wednesday night. That gives him eight strikeouts and one hit in his last 14 at-bats.

A few months ago, his two-year, $16 million contract was being gushed over as one of the best bargains of the offseason. Now it looks like an anvil around the neck of a team with little financial strength.

This is why revenues and payrolls matter in Major League Baseball. The game's apologists love to point at the Rays in '08 or the Rockies in '07 and say money is not an important factor in building a winner. And that's a crock.

A small-revenue team with a sharp front office can put together a winner through good drafting, player development and value-oriented signings, but it cannot afford mistakes or unexpected problems. In other words, they cannot buy their way out of screwups.

If this were the Red Sox, they would admit Burrell has been a disaster and then go after Victor Martinez in a trade. If this were the Yankees, they would acknowledge Burrell was a mistake, go after Martinez and then raise ticket prices.

As for the Rays, they are stuck with a designated hitter with a .361 slugging percentage. Do you realize how bad that is? Among AL players with at least 225 plate appearances, Burrell's slugging percentage ranks 106th out of 117. And a lot of the players below him are middle infielders who get paid for their gloves.

The word on Burrell in Philadelphia was that he was a streaky hitter. He could look awful in one month and then carry the team the next. The Rays are still waiting for that to happen here. And frankly, they may have already waited too long.

Burrell, 32, followed up a .216 batting average in May with a .182 in June with a .200 in July. Maybe his early season neck injury was a bigger issue than anyone thought. Maybe he is having trouble adjusting to DH after a career in leftfield. Or maybe it's all his fault.

Whatever the explanation, the reality does not change. The Rays have a huge hole in the middle of their lineup, and they've got a sizable deficit in the AL East.

This may not have been a must-win series against the Yankees, but it was a sheesh-they-better-win series. The Rays are now 71/2 games behind New York with 60 remaining. In the past 20 years, only three teams have come from this far behind with 60 games to go. And none of them were chasing the Yankees.

The only thing the Rays have going for them now is the Red Sox are struggling even more than they are. Of course, by lunchtime, Boston could have acquired Roy Halladay. Or Martinez. Or both.

Meanwhile, the Rays are most likely stuck with what they've got.

And it's a lot less than what they were expecting.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Pat Burrell's quiet bat speaks volumes for Tampa Bay Rays 07/30/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 1, 2009 2:42pm]

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