One thing that has consistently set the Stu Sternberg-run Tampa Bay Rays apart has been player development. One only has to look at teams like the Kansas City Royals or Baltimore Orioles to realize that just getting high draft picks doesn’t guarantee success. Who you draft, how you develop them and how you move the pieces across the virtual chess board to acquire additional players players is even more critical to the eventual success or failure of an organization that doesn’t have deep pockets to buy success.
Sternberg bought out Vince Naimoli and rebuilt the organization, and he started in the front office. Many wondered about his decision to make Matthew Silverman a senior executive, but when he stole Gerry Hunsicker from the Houston Astro’s to guide Silverman’s hand, he gave Tampa fans an early insight on his intent on building an organization focused on player development. Hunsickers early impact on the Rays didn’t show immediate return, but the trade of Aubrey Huff in 2006 for Ben Zobrist, Mitch Talbot and cash was an indication of how things would go in the future. Zobrist was an OPS monster in the minors and while he struggled in 2006 and 2007, blossomed into a critical member of the team in 2008. Talbot was later traded to the Cleveland Indians for Kelly Shoppach and cash.
Which leads us to the recent trade of Matt Garza to Chicago and the potential haul the Rays received in return. While Chris Archer may have been the key piece of that deal, Robinson Chirinos might well be the icing on the cake. Chirinos was signed by the Cubs in 2001 as an infielder and played second base for his first several years in their minor league system. He also put in time at shortstop and third base. By 2006 he looked like nothing more than roster fodder as he bounced around the farm system, never making it higher than AA.
In 2008 he made a move that would breathe new life into his moribund career, swapping his infielders glove for a catchers mitt. Along the way his bat woke up as he progressively increases his OPS from .715 in 2007 to .834 in ’08, .915 in ’09 and .999 last year. In 2010 he hit 18 home runs, 74 RBI and batted .326 in only 319 AB. Let’s take a look at his numbers:
Chirinos made his impact felt immediately in spring training, driving in four in his first game with the Rays against the Pittsburgh Pirates on February 26th and followed it up with a pinch hit home run the next day.
If he continues to hit he’ll find himself on the opening day roster and challenging Kelly Shoppach for playing time.