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Smaller market teams now hoping to follow Tampa Bay Rays' model for success

Former Ray Jonny Gomes, center, says his new team, the Reds, has the right attitude to duplicate Tampa Bay’s turnaround: “This team reminds me a lot of the Rays as far as personality.”

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Former Ray Jonny Gomes, center, says his new team, the Reds, has the right attitude to duplicate Tampa Bay’s turnaround: “This team reminds me a lot of the Rays as far as personality.”

PORT CHARLOTTE — They're talking about it at the Reds' camp in Sarasota, at the Pirates' facility in Bradenton, in the Orioles' clubhouse at Fort Lauderdale Stadium and, appropriately, in Surprise, Ariz., where the Rangers and Royals share a complex, and a dream.

As absolutely, positively, through-the-looking-glass, are-you-kidding-me as it would have sounded in any of the previous 11 years, one of the primary topics of chatter around baseball this spring is about teams trying to be like the Rays.

"I keep getting asked, 'Is Pittsburgh like the Rays last year?' " said Eric Hinske, who joined the Pirates after spending 2008 with Tampa Bay. "And I'm like, 'Of course, why not?' "

Sports Illustrated, Baseball Prospectus, USA Today and writers, bloggers and broadcasters from Secaucus to Seattle have all posed a similar question: Who will be this year's Rays?

"It's amazing to see the transformation," said leftfielder Carl Crawford, the eighth-year Ray. "You think of all the jokes and stuff. The one I remember is the David Letterman thing with Roger Clemens, about getting traded to the Rays. Ask him if he wants to play for the Rays now."

That would have been June 16, 2003, when No. 4 on Letterman's list of the Top Things Baseball Has Taught Me from Clemens was: "The best practical joke? Tell a teammate they're traded to the Devil Rays."

Which was about two years before Twins outfielder Torii Hunter was asked on the Best Damn Sports Show whether he'd rather take a Randy Johnson fastball to the head or suit up for Tampa Bay. He picked the Big Unit beaning: "If he hits me, it's over with. But if you play for the Devil Rays, you're stuck."

And now, there's a dozen teams wanting to be like them.

"The Rays," Reds manager Dusty Baker said, "gave a whole bunch of midrange teams a lot of hope."

That was one byproduct of their stunning run from worst to first, improving from 96 losses to 97 wins, a 31-game turnaround that was the third greatest in American League history.

Another is imitation.

"At this exact time a year ago, not too many experts were predicting the American League champs to be the Rays and, as a matter of fact, the ones who did were probably fired shortly after that," new Rays reliever Joe Nelson said. "Now there's a lot of teams out there that would love to blueprint exactly what the Rays did."

The Rays' success was the combination, and culmination, of many factors.

And now other teams are picking through all of it.

Confidence? The Royals are talking like they have some, seeking to build off a strong September, a solid returning core and several key additions. "I really believe in our team," pitcher Zack Greinke said. "I mean, we might not win the World Series. But we have the talent that we could make a run at it."

Philosophy? The Rangers are trying it. "One thing impressive to me about the Rays, and I hope we're able not to replicate it but do it in our way, is that they're very much on the same page in terms of ownership, front office, field staff, development, scouting," general manager Jon Daniels said. "They have a real clear vision and understanding of their identity and what they're about.

"We've approached it differently in the past, but now we have a very clear vision and understanding of who we are. We know we're not the Angels and the Yankees, and we know what we have to do to be successful."

Methodology? Reds general manager Walt Jocketty notes the creativity needed to make smaller-market teams competitive, and how the Rays worked at it for years, building from within then making key acquisitions. "It was fun to see," he said.

Focusing on pitching and defense? The Orioles are on it. "It's certainly something we're going to value and emphasize throughout our organization," president Andy MacPhail said.

Clubhouse atmosphere? The Reds have it, former Ray Jonny Gomes says: "This team reminds me a lot of the Rays as far as personality." So do the Pirates, Hinske says: "A bunch of young dudes, good guys, it reminds me a lot of Tampa last year. It really does."

The similarities throughout the game shouldn't be surprising, Gomes said. "It shows the GMs and how they all think alike, how it worked last year and they'll give it a shot this year."

The Rays take the praise kindly, if almost a tad uncomfortably.

"It's obviously a great compliment to this entire organization that teams want to emulate bits and pieces of what we did to achieve success," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said.

The Rays are quick to point out two things: that their success was several years of hard work and hard times in the making; and that they are seeking to sustain it for many years to come.

"Anytime a group does what we did last year, and you could look at the Rockies prior to that and the Tigers prior to that, you're always looking for that kind of hope if you've never been to that particular level before," manager Joe Maddon said. "So I'm sure we're this year's poster child in regard to going from nothing to something pretty good."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

fast facts

This year's Rays?

Here are six teams with losing '08 records Baseball Prospectus computers forecast for significant improvement:

Team'08 W-L'09 W-L*

Nationals59-10276-86

Mariners61-10176-86

Braves72-9086-76

Tigers74-8884-78

Padres63-9973-89

Orioles68-9377-85

* Baseball Prospectus
projections

Smaller market teams now hoping to follow Tampa Bay Rays' model for success 03/21/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 21, 2009 11:30pm]

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