Through year after year of losing seasons, one player provided excitement for fans of the perennial cellar-dwelling Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
In fact, one could argue that this player was the only reason to watch the lowly Devil Rays, who never one 70 games in a single season with the infamous Devil in their name.
A consistent 50-stolen base threat who seemed to improve every year, Carl Crawford has provided a few of the only bright spots during his tenure—the longest of any active player on the roster—in Tampa Bay.
A lot has changed since last year, however. The organization dropped the Devil from its name, rebranding the franchise while Andrew Friedman and his staff made tremendous improvements to the 25-man roster. Several of the Rays’ young arms have flourished in the majors in ’08 as well, putting them in the thick of the American League East race.
Although Crawford has added value with his excellent defense in left field, his ability to make adjustments at the plate appears to have left him along with the old uniforms. The longest-serving Ray and Tropicana Field fan favorite, in fact, has been one of the least productive offensive players at his position in the majors.
On the surface, it does not look all that bat. He is hitting .271, only 23 points below his career average, and ranks among league leaders with 63 runs scored and 23 stolen bases.
Left field is a position generally linked to offensive production, however, as it is the least demanding defensive spot in the outfield. Yet Crawford has added more value with his defense, turning the standard left field equation on its back.
Among qualifying players at the position in the AL, only Gary Matthews Jr.—what a bust he has turned out to be—has a lower OPS than Crawford, whose .313 on-base percentage is not cutting it in the two spot in the Tampa Bay batting order.
It is no secret that left-handed pitchers have had their way with the Rays, who suffered a rare home loss at the hands of Oakland Athletics’ starter Dallas Braden last night.
Braden, who has been back and forth between Oakland and the minors, scattered four hits in five innings of one-run ball to become the latest lefty to shut down the Tampa Bay offense.
Following the loss, the club is now batting .247/.326/.400 versus left-handed pitching, another factor for the naysayers to point to along with its sub-.500 record on the road.
While they have not exactly been an offensive juggernaut—4.55 runs scored per game, which is tied for 16th in the majors—the Rays have actually fared considerably better against when a lefty is not on the mound, batting .264/.341/.414 against right-handers.
As a result of the Rays’ offensive struggles, there has been a lot of talk centering on how they need to add a solid right field bat to their right field platoon.
Crawford, though, has been equally ineffective against lefties from his spot on the other side of the Trop outfield turf, batting .230/.266/.320, for a .585 OPS, in 122 at-bats against them. He is not exactly entering uncharted waters this season, either. While he is having one of the worst overall campaigns of his career, he has never fared well against lefties, who have limited him to a career .311 OBP.
Crawford is a physically gifted athlete who has posted a plus-.800 OPS with at least 40 steals—his steals are down this year because he is not getting on base enough—in the past three seasons, seemingly improving every year. While that trend will come to its ultimate end in ’08, he does have a track record that leads us to believe that improvement is likely in the second half.
Tampa Bay absolutely needs this to happen, as they have struggled to score runs—they rank in the middle of the pack in nearly every offensive category, including 17th in runs—while excellent pitching and one of the majors’ best team defenses have carried the club to its best first half ever.
If this does not happen, it would be wise for Joe Maddon to move him down in the order.
B.J. Upton has added value to this team in a lot of ways, sitting among league leaders in on-base percentage and walks. Upton, however, has lost his power stroke, making it unlikely that he will join the 20-20 club for the second consecutive year.
Carlos Pena has been hurt, is striking out too much and is producing nowhere near his 46-homer plus-.1000 production from ’07.
Which is why it is so important for the Crawford, Pena, Upton trio, a talented group, to pick it up if the Rays wish to end their 10-year postseason drought.
Crawford, though, is perhaps the key, as it is unlikely that he will be moved from the second spot in the batting order.
To contact Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.