The Trade That Made The Rays
By Joey Johnston | Tribune StaffST. PETERSBURG - It's no small irony that the Rays might face the Minnesota Twins when the American League playoffs begin Thursday afternoon at Tropicana Field.
Published: September 30, 2008
Published: September 30, 2008
The Twins emerged as a trade partner in November, and that jump-started the Rays' transformation from perennial last-place finisher to a 97-win team that won the American League East title.
The Rays acquired shortstop Jason Bartlett, who solidified the infield defense; and right-hander Matt Garza, a former first-rounder who already looks like a future ace.
That deal had a hefty price - right fielder Delmon Young, once the draft's No. 1 overall pick who was second in the 2007 AL Rookie of the Year voting; and shortstop Brendan Harris.
But you can't argue with Tampa Bay's results.
"One deal didn't totally make the Rays turn the corner this year," Angels center fielder Torii Hunter said. "But let's be honest, those guys pretty much became the key pieces in their puzzle."
And that was the sentiment of Andrew Friedman, the Rays' executive vice president of baseball operations, who pulled the trigger.
"In terms of what we wanted to do, everything just seemed to fit," Friedman said.
Bartlett played brilliantly in the field, while batting .286. The Rays were 76-46 in games he started at shortstop (and 21-19 in games he didn't).
Garza was 11-9 with a 3.70 ERA. He had three complete games and two shutouts, plus a one-hitter (with 10 strikeouts) against the Marlins.
"Getting Bartlett and moving Akinori Iwamura to second locked up the middle infield," Rays left-hander Scott Kazmir said. "It made the pitchers feel so comfortable about the defense and not worry about having to throw the perfect pitch. When you see Bartlett day-in, day-out, you realize what he means to a team.
"And Garza? So many times this season, he has been lights out. He had tons of big wins. Bottom line, that trade really did make us better."
Friedman has a two-word description: Run prevention.
In 2007, the Rays allowed 944 runs in 162 games. This season, they allowed 671.
"That's a pretty significant improvement," Friedman said. "We never viewed this deal in a vacuum. We felt Bartlett and Garza fit with the way our roster was constructed.
"Shoring up the defense at shortstop and acquiring a pitcher with the potential of Garza, to us, it warranted trading a player like Delmon Young. A lot of it has been kind of the invisible hand - like the way Bartlett has cut down some runs, run the bases and handled the bat - but it turned up pretty big."
Other teams noticed immediately.
"When you have a shortstop like Bartlett, it almost becomes contagious throughout the whole infield," Indians pitching coach Carl Willis said.
But the impact of Garza, at his best, was much more noticeable to the untrained eye.
"Sky's the limit with that guy," said Hunter, who was Garza's teammate in Minnesota. "He throws, what, 95 mph with movement? He's nasty. He'll throw a no-hitter one of these days."
"Garza has some of the best stuff in the big leagues," said Rays catcher Shawn Riggans, who regularly worked with Garza before suffering a probable season-ending injury. "Every time I caught him, I always said, 'Hey, I had so much fun back there.' He's electric. Sometimes, you've really got to grind to get it going against him."
That's what Friedman noticed, too.
When the Rays felt a right-field platoon could approximate Young's production - he batted .292 with 10 homers and 67 RBIs in 150 games for the Twins - it was time to move.
"Andrew had coveted Bartlett and Garza for quite a while," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I encouraged Andrew to follow his instincts because I had only seen Bartlett a few games and I had never seen Garza pitch.
"But I understood the concept. Bartlett's range. Garza's power arm and movement. Then I talked to Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher and he said the best game thrown against them all year was by Garza. Bartlett is the biggest difference in our team and we think Garza has a spectacular future. Hey, it worked out great for us."
And if Bartlett and Garza have a difference-making postseason - particularly against the Twins - the entire baseball world should agree.
Reporter Joey Johnston can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 259-7353.