Roberto Alomar was one of the best second basemen in the history of baseball for a long time and was rewarded for his incredible by being elected to the Hall of Fame in 2011. But by 2005, Alomar was washed up. Alomar managed his last great season in 2001, managing a .336/.415/.541 line (150 OPS+) with 20 home runs and 30 stolen bases in 677 plate appearances. From 2002 to 2004, though, Alomar completely fell apart, managing a total of 20 home runs and 28 stolen bases in a 1443 plate appearances as he slipped to just a .262/.331/.367 line (85 OPS+). Alomar was not that old, turning 37 in February of 2005, but it was clear that his days as regular were over. So why did Alomar want to keep playing? One reason and one reason alone: he was 276 hits short of 3000 for his career. To make that happen, Alomar would have to find a team willing to give him a chance to start, and the odds of that happening seemed long. But then on January 20th, 2005, he found a way to do just that, inking a 1-year, $600,000 contact with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
Why did the Devil Rays sign Alomar? One reason and one reason alone: publicity. Getting a great player like Alomar would certainly bring fans to the ballpark, especially as he approached 3000 hits. However, baseball-wise it made no sense. The Rays were firmly in their rebuilding process and signing a 37 year old infielder, even Alomar, and offering him the opportunity for regular time was about as counterproductive a move as they could possibly manage. The situation was exacerbated even more by the fact that the Rays had themselves a promising second base prospect, Jorge Cantu, fresh off of a huge season that saw him manage a .302/.335/.576 line with 22 home runs in 362 Triple-A plate appearances and a .301/.341/.462 line with 20 doubles in 185 PA’s for the Devil Rays, and the D-Rays were lined up to squeeze him out of playing time between the unimpressive trio of over-the-hill Alomar, Nick Green, and Alex Gonzalez. Cantu was far from a perfect player, with his plate discipline still needing quite a bit of work, but at just 23 years old he was part of the future of their team while Alomar and the others gave the Rays nothing but a few more people in the seats. Why were the Rays compromising their future just to sign Alomar?
On March 19th, Roberto Alomar’s outstanding major league baseball career came to an end. After making two errors at second base and striking out looking in the first inning alone of the Rays’ spring training game on March 18th, it sunk in for Alomar that he just couldn’t do it anymore. Bothered by a bad back that made the effects of aging only more pronounced, Alomar decided to declare his retirement in the suite of Rays owner Vincent Naimoli with Rays GM Chuck LaMar by his side. It was a sad way for his career to end, but a key moment for the Tampa Bay Rays franchise. Alomar was replaced by Cantu, who proceeded to have a huge year, managing a .286/.311/.497 line with 28 home runs and 117 RBI in 150 games, and Rays fans saw firsthand how the Rays could have a promising future if only they gave chances to their top prospects and began a true rebuilding process building around such players.
Following the 2005 season, the Naimoli ownership, which was obsessed with profits more than anything else was out and in came the Sternberg ownership which has defined itself through player development, and most importantly, victories. The Roberto Alomar retirement and Jorge Cantu’s subsequent breakout was a wake-up call telling everyone that would listen that building for the future through top prospects is the only way a bad team in baseball can find a way to take the next step. It’s ironic that it was the retirement of a player who had been among the best in baseball for quite some time to make that lesson sink in, but Roberto Alomar’s retirement served as a realization of weakness for not just him but the Devil Ryas organization and led to a passing of the torch that has left the Rays in the promising position they are today.