These days, everyone in baseball knows about the Rays’ almost magical ability to sign washed-up relievers and revitalize their careers, turning them into valuable pieces of their bullpen at a fraction of market value. Before 2008, though, that was most certainly not the case as the Rays threw out to the mound one of the worst bullpens in baseball season after season, losing a multiplicity of winnable games in the process. But in 2004, whether by luck or a rare spark of ingenuity, the Rays made a signing that was a forebear to the type of moves they would become renowned for making. But then in vintage Devil Rays style, they blew it entirely.
No one would have ever described Todd Jones as dominant, but for a while, he was a pretty good closer in the major leagues. A first round pick by the Houston Astros in 1989, Jones cracked Houston’s bullpen by 1993 before getting traded to the Detroit Tigers after the 1996 season. Jones’ time in Detroit turned out quite well as he became a full-time closer for the first time and pitched decently, managing a 3.82 ERA (124 ERA+), averaging 33 saves per season from 1997 to 2000. He was at his finest in that 2000 season, when he went 2-4 with a 3.52 ERA, a 67-25 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and an American League-leading 42 saves in 67 appearances and 64 innings pitched, earning himself an All-Star appearance and a 5th-place finish in the AL Cy Young voting. In 2001, though, Jones had just a 4.62 ERA at the trade deadline when the Tigers traded him to the Minnesota Twins, and although he pitched well (3.24 ERA) with the Twins to the end the year, he hit the free agent market following the season with teams not thinking of him as a closer. Jones was still on the market in January before making a decision he would soon regret, signing a 2-year, $4MM contract with the Colorado Rockies in the days when pre-humidor Coors Field wrecked havoc on pitchers like there was no tomorrow.
In his first season in Colorado, Jones had a season he would rather forget, managing just a 4.70 ERA and getting abused by the Rockies for 79 appearances. The next season was immeasurably worse as his ERA jumped to 8.24 in June before the Rockies mercifully released him. He signed with the Red Sox and had a 5.52 ERA in 26 appearances the rest of the season. He was back on the market after the year with his value about as low as you’ll ever find and hoped someone would give him a minor league contract. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays were that team.
All hope was certainly not lost for Todd Jones. He was 35 years old and coming off of two really bad years, but simply getting more removed from Coors was going to help him and even though his ERA remained ugly even once he got to Boston, he actually managed a 9.5 K/9, a 4.0 BB/9, and a 0.6 HR/9 in 29.1 innings pitched, providing hope that his disastrous run could be something he could by. The Devil Rays were smart enough to offer him a minor league contract with a base salary of only $500,000, offering him the opportunity to be a major part of their bullpen if he pitched well. On the spring, Jones did indeed pitch effectively, managing a 1.69 ERA and a 10-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 10.2 innings pitched. But the Devil Rays were unimpressed by his fastball velocity, which scraped the low-90′s, and Jones stood out in a bad way in comparison to the rest of their relief corps. The D-Rays were enamored to their relief core of Danys Baez, Lance Carter, Jorge Sosa, and Travis Harper, all in their 20′s, and didn’t feel like they needed a washed-up veteran like Jones to pair with all those electric arms. As Jones described to Joe Kay of the Associated Press, “I had a good spring but was just one of those old guys that didn’t fit in there.” Jones simply didn’t mesh with the “hip” young culture new manager Lou Pinella was trying to establish in Tampa Bay and for that reason alone, the D-Rays decided to let him go.
Jones signed with the Cincinnati Reds and proceeded to have a huge bounce-back year, managing a 3.79 ERA in 51 appearances before getting traded to the Phillies at the trade deadline. In 2005, Jones signed with Florida’s other team, the Marlins, as a free agent and went on to have the best season on his career, managing a 2.10 ERA and 40 saves in 68 appearances, rubbing into the Devil Rays’ faces the magnitude of the mistake they had made. Even if Jones had pitched at his 2005 level for the Devil Rays, they still would have been exceedingly far from a playoff team. But in this case, that almost doesn’t make a difference. The Rays signed a player for perfectly sound baseball reasons before releasing him for anything but. They essentially let Jones go not because he was pitching badly, not because he was a bad clubhouse influence, but solely because he was old by baseball standards. They finally found an opportunity to seize and then their endless stupidity forced them to let it slip away. What better way to encapsulate the Devil Rays years!
Even in their darkest times, the Devil Rays had their moments where thing were looking up. There were moments when fans saw hope for the future and could dream that their hometown team would one day be among the best in baseball. However, until the new ownership took over, every mountain was followed by a deeper valley as everything from delusions of grandeur, extreme penny-pinching, and even ageism took the Rays off the path to success again and again and turned them into a perennial laughingstock throughout baseball. That also makes it all the more impressive, though, how quickly Stuart Sternberg, Matthew Silverman, and Andrew Friedman were able to turn it all around.