The man behind the Rays' success

According to Caray and Martinez of TBS, it's Chuck LaMar, whose 10 years of incompetence as G.M. evidently laid some kind of foundation.

By King Kaufman
Published October 14, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

The TBS broadcasting team has spent the latter part of the season trying to salvage the reputation of Chuck LaMar, the longtime former general manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, then known as the Devil Rays.

In August Buck Martinez pretty much gave LaMar, who was finally fired after the 2005 season, the lion's share of credit for building the 2008 Rays. During Monday's broadcast of Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, Chip Caray expressed similar sentiments.

Tampa Bay Rays center fielder B.J. Upton, a 24-year-old emerging star having a huge postseason, was at bat and Caray was talking about how the silver lining of all those years of losing for the Tampa Bay franchise was that it had had a lot of high draft picks, "and they've drafted and traded exceptionally well these last couple of years."

After a pitch, Caray continued about Upton, "He was the No. 2 pick in the 2002 draft and, sadly in our sport as in so many others, the men and women who have worked so hard to make these teams good often aren't around to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Chuck LaMar, the original general manager of the Rays, had a very big hand in building this current Tampa Bay club."

I came to about a minute later.

Did he just say Chuck LaMar, one of the worst general managers of all time, had a very big hand in building this current Tampa Bay club? Let me just rewind the DVR and --

I came to about a minute later.

It's true that some of the Rays players are left over from the LaMar regime, but it's also entirely reasonable to argue that the single most important event in the building of this current Tampa Bay club was the ownership hand-over three years ago from Vince Naimoli to Stuart Sternberg. First thing Sternberg did was fire LaMar. In the 10 years LaMar ran the team, he gave not a single indication that he was capable of building a winner.

Those good trades and drafts over the last couple of years that Caray mentioned happened after LaMar's departure. LaMar's last two No. 1 picks, in 2004 and ’05, were pitchers Wade Townsend, a bust, and Jeff Niemann, who had a cup of coffee with the big club this year but spent most of it repeating Triple-A. The new management's first two picks, in 2006 and ’07, were Evan Longoria and David Price. Longoria's already the Rays' star. Price, projected as an ace by many, is already on the playoff roster.

The good trades, the ones that netted Matt Garza, Dioner Navarro, Jason Bartlett and Edwin Jackson, all happened after LaMar left too.

Summing up LaMar's regime in its 2006 preseason annual, Baseball Prospectus wrote that its undoing "was a thoroughgoing lack of judgment." When LaMar and his staff "had a chance to make an evaluation, be it the viability of a single ballplayer or the design for the team as a whole, they mostly missed, missed by such huge margins that it was sometimes difficult to discern what it was they had been aiming for in the first place."

Upton was drafted on LaMar's watch, and he was a nice pick. The same goes for 1999 second-rounder Carl Crawford and 2000 first-rounder Rocco Baldelli, who hasn't played a big role on this year's team because of injuries and illness but is contributing in the playoffs.

Starting pitchers James Shields and Andy Sonnanstine, both of whom LaMar drafted, have turned out nicely, though I hesitate to give LaMar much credit there. Did he know Shields would be the only player taken in the 16th round in 2000 to reach the majors, and the same for Sonnanstine in the 13th round in 2004? Or did he just get lucky that his guy beat the odds?

LaMar had a few nice hits over the years, but his overall drafting record was poor.

And LaMar has to get credit for the best trade in Rays history, the 2004 theft of Scott Kazmir, then in Double-A ball, from the New York Mets for injury-prone journeyman pitcher Victor Zambrano. Because it's such an isolated case of success from the Tampa Bay perspective, that deal is thought of as more a sign of Mets general manager Jim Duquette's incompetence than any savvy on LaMar's part -- he expressed regret at having to give up Zambrano -- but he made the trade so give him his due.

But when LaMar and trading come up, what usually gets remembered is the fabled Bobby Abreu for Kevin Stocker deal on the night of the expansion draft. Abreu has hit 238 home runs since that night. Stocker hit nine. Or LaMar's consistent failure to trade veterans contenders were lusting after at the deadline for valuable prospects.

A few nice players, none of them impact players except possibly Shields and probably someday Upton, do not a championship team make. The infield of Carlos Pena, Akinori Iwamura, Bartlett and Longoria, catcher Navarro, pitchers Garza and Jackson and the entire bullpen and bench have all been acquired since LaMar was canned.

There are a few vestiges of LaMar's tenure still around, is all. But here, courtesy of the Business of Baseball, is how Martinez put it during a TBS broadcast in August:

"We mentioned the current management team ... and certainly they are reaping the benefits of some foundation laid by Chuck LaMar and his group ahead of them. It's not unlike what happened with the Tampa Bay Bucs and Tony Dungy, who built that team up to become a pretty competitive team and then Jon Gruden comes in and the timing was perfect" to win a Super Bowl.

Actually, it's nothing like what happened with the Tampa Bay Bucs and Tony Dungy. The differences are that Dungy was good at his job and the Bucs were a good team, a Super Bowl contender, when he was fired and Gruden took over. LaMar was lousy at his job, and the Rays were a hideous mess when he left, though they had some good young players coming through the organization. They lost 96 games last year, two years out from LaMar's departure. He didn't lay any foundation.

In July the Philadelphia Inquirer allowed LaMar, now working for the Phillies, to take some credit for the ’08 Rays. The blog Walkoff Walk made scoffing note of it, and a commenter captured the argument that LaMar had anything to do with the current success perfectly: "My ex-girlfriend married a really nice guy with money who doesn't drink too much, take drugs, or follow sports. Do I get credit for that?"

Ask Chip Caray and Buck Martinez. You'll like the answer you get.

This story has been changed since publication.

King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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