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Rookies in good hands in Tampa Bay

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Tracy Ringolsby

Tracy Ringolsby is a Hall of Fame baseball writer. He is in his 37th year covering Major League Baseball, is a co-founder of Baseball America, and is in his fourth year as pregame and postgame analyst for Colorado Rockies games on Root Sports.

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The Tampa Bay Rays look for reasons for success, not excuses for failures. They usually find what they are looking for.

They had a major budget reduction last offseason, and what happened? They claimed the American League wild card and advanced to the postseason for the third time in four years despite living on a beer budget in the Champagne world of the AL East.

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That’s right. With an Opening Day payroll a year ago that ranked 29th in baseball, and at $41 million was nearly $32 million less than the previous year, the Rays advanced into October by erasing a deficit of 9-1/2 games in the final 3-1/2 weeks to AL East rival Boston. The Red Sox opened the season with a $162 million payroll, third-highest in baseball.

How did this happen?

Because the Rays get it. They aren’t afraid to take a chance.

They are willing to give unproven talent an opportunity instead of sitting in the corner, feeling sorry for themselves and becoming a holding pen for washed-up veterans.

Know who led the charge down the stretch for the Rays last September? Try right-hander Jeremy Hellickson. He was unbeaten in five September starts, becoming the latest Tampa Bay wunderkind.

And people are taking notice.

On Monday, it was Hellickson who was proclaimed the AL Rookie of the Year by the Baseball Writers Association of America. He wasn’t unanimous, as was National League winner Craig Kimbrel of Atlanta. He did, however, receive 17 of 28 first-place votes and racked up 102 points, easily outdistancing Los Angeles Angels first baseman Mark Trumbo, who received 63 points.

Oh, by the way, Tampa Bay left fielder Desmond Jennings finished tied for seventh in the rookie voting.

Surprised? Don’t be.

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Tampa Bay has had seven players receive Rookie of the Year support in the past five years, including winners Hellickson and third baseman Evan Longoria (2008). Outfielder Delmon Young was second in 2007. Right-hander Jeff Niemann was fourth in 2009. Right-hander Wade Davis finished fourth in 2010, and catcher John Jaso tied for fifth.

It’s the way Atlanta used to be, and maybe the way Atlanta hopes to be again. Kimbrel, whose runner-up was teammate Freddie Freeman, became the seventh Braves player to win the award since it was instituted in 1947, but the first since shortstop Rafael Furcal in 2000.

The Rays, however, don’t have the deep pockets providing them a margin for error, like the Braves did back in the days of Ted Turner.

With the lack of a fan base that has translated into embarrassing attendance, the Rays have to invest wisely. They spend on scouting and player development, which also translates into under-the-radar trades, the end result of which is a pipeline of unproven talent that keeps the team afloat.

A year ago, the Rays' free-agent losses included outfielder Carl Crawford, first baseman Carlos Pena and virtually the entire bullpen, including closer Rafael Soriano. Then came payroll-reduction deals that saw right-hander Matt Garza dealt to the Chicago Cubs and shortstop Jason Bartlett shipped to San Diego.

Instead of feeling sorry for themselves, though, the Rays regrouped and won, again. Johnny Damon, signed to a one-year, $5.25 million free-agent deal, was the highest-paid player. At age 37, he was the only regular older than 30 until Ben Zobrist hit the milestone on May 26.

Nowhere do the homegrown youth shine more than in the rotation. Hellickson is getting the headlines today, but he is not on an island.

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Want youth? The Rays haven’t even had a 30-year-old start a game since Jae Weong Seo turned 30 on May 24, 2007, by making his final big-league start. The Rays have played 764 regular-season games since, with every start being made by a pitcher in his 20s, although there has been a steady bit of change over that time frame.

James Shields assumed his full-time duty in 2007. David Price and Jeff Neimann moved in during the 2009 season. Davis settled in last year, and Hellickson became a regular in 2011.

It is not like the Rays baby the young arms. The five starters have averaged 30 starts a year in the combined 13 full big-league seasons they have on their resume.

It's a strong endorsement for the Rays' ability to evaluate and develop players.

Oh, sure, Longoria and Price were well-hyped first-round picks when they came out of college, but Hellickson was a fourth-round pick. Matt Moore, who last summer carried the title of best pitching prospect in baseball, was signed as an eighth-round pick. Jennings was a 10th-round selection.

And then there is the mix-and-match of the likes of Zobrist, acquired from Houston in July 2006 for Aubrey Huff. Or outfielder Sam Fuld, who came from the Cubs in the Garza deal, and outfielder Matt Joyce, a benefit of trading right-hander Edwin Jackson to Detroit.

It’s an old-school mentality that is paying off for Tampa Bay in current-day success.

Tagged: Red Sox, Braves, Cubs, Cardinals, Rays, Matt Garza, Ben Zobrist, Matt Joyce, Jeremy Hellickson, John Jaso

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