This past weekend marked the anniversary of a major day in Tampa Bay Devil Rays history and, sadly, the world seemed to let it pass without mention. I can’t say why that is exactly, but I can guess that most Rays fans are hoping to focus more on their recent stunning success and less on their past failures (David Chalk notwithstanding). And though I can fully understand and appreciate that, I think the “anniversary” of the free agent signing of Greg Vaughn on December 13, 1999, is a great place to start my studies into past free agent signings and how they were received by contemporary experts and writers.
If we remember, and I’m sure few of us do since the 1999 Devil Rays were not quite the ’75 Reds, this was only the Rays’ second winter. The first season did not go well – they won 63 games when management was hoping for 70 – and this season hardly went better. In 1999, the Devil Rays were 69-93 and had dealt with injury after injury throughout the season. In fact, for the year, 18 Devil Rays players spent a total of 863 days on the disabled list. Wade Boggs, at age 41, inched his way to the 3,000 hit milestone, playing in only 90 games and cracking only 88 hits (he ended the season with 3,010 hits and promptly retired). Wilson Alvarez was the de facto ace, but he threw only 160 innings. DH Jose Canseco played in only 114 games, but he did hit 34 home runs with 95 RBIs and an OPS of .932. Fred McGriff was the club leader in most categories, playing in 144 games with a more than respectable line of .310/.405/.552 with 32 HR and 104 RBIs.
Greg Vaughn entered that off-season at age 34 and at the most productive point in his career. In the previous two seasons for San Diego and Cincinnati, he had hit a total of 95 home runs and knocked in 237 RBIs. He had finished 4th in the MVP voting each year, and seemed like a legitimate slugger worth pursuing. In the December 1999 issue of Baseball Digest Monthly, published before Vaughn had signed with anybody, he was credited with being the clubhouse leader of the Reds who, at 96-67, had finished 19 games better than the year before and only a 163rd-game loss out of the wild card:
“Everybody around the team, including general manager Jim Bowden, manager Jack McKeon and numerous players, gives Vaughn credit for the Reds’ new attitude.
‘I think he instilled a feeling in this clubhouse that we know we can beat anybody,’ thid baseman Aaron Boone said.
‘His presence changed the attitude of our club from the very beginning of spring training,’ Bowden said.
‘Believe me – the way he is is just as important as his numbers,’ first baseman Sean Casey said’ “
With the legitimate bat Vaughn offered and the strong positive clubhouse presence he seemed to have, I imagine it was a pretty easy decision for GM Chuck LaMar to make. Both were key issues that the Devil Rays needed addressed. Vaughn’s history of knee problems and a strained abdominal early in the 1999 season were certainly cause for alarm – not to mention the slugger’s 34-year old body – but they had only kept him out of 8 games during the season. The deal of 4-years and $34 million was mostly well-received. Sports Illustrated said:
“Last fall [Owner Vince] Naimoli gave LaMar permission to increase the payroll—it’s up $25 million over last year’s, to $62 million—and LaMar appears to have spent wisely in signing free-agent outfielders Greg Vaughn and Gerald Williams and starting pitchers Juan Guzman and Steve Trachsel.”
The annual Athlon baseball preview magazine for the 2000 season was also impressed:
“By forming what Tigers manager Phil Garner calls ‘a whomping offense’, GM Chuck LaMar certainly got the attention of apathetic fans. Both newcomers [Castilla and Vaughn] have three 40-homer seasons since ’95. Adding them to a lineup that includes mashers Jose Canseco and Fred McGriff ‘changes the way I will approach games,’ says skipper Larry Rothschild.”
But even with the positive reviews, the Sporting News preview magazine was a little more cautious:
“You can look at it in two ways: by adding Vinny Castilla and Greg Vaughn to a lineup that already includes Jose Canseco and Fred McGriff, the Devil Rays have 1) added 78 homers and 220 RBIs in ’99 at hitter-friendly Tropicana Field or 2) will be bogged down by a big-bang AL lineup in a division dominated by the very NL-like Yankees.”
With hindsight, it’s easy to see that TSN‘s cautious tone was the right one to take. Vaughn quickly aged on the Rays, playing in no more than 136 games in either of his first two seasons. He did manage to hit 54 home runs across those two years, but his batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage were all slipping. In 2002, the third year of his four year contract, Vaughn had clearly become dead weight, playing in only 69 games and batting a sub-Mendoza .163/.286/.315. And though his annual salary of around $8 million dollars did not put him in the upper echelon of salaries for any of his Devil Ray tenure (he was about the 40th highest paid player each of those years), it was obviously a burden on the budget-minded Rays, whose payroll for the 2002 season was around $35 million.
Vaughn was released by the Rays in March of 2003. He signed with the Rockies a few weeks later but was out of baseball by the All-Star Game.
Overall, the free agent signing of Greg Vaughn has to be considered a failure for the Devil Rays. He was not able to maintain his health for any part of his contract, and the big bat that they were paying for never materialized. LaMar should not have focused so much of his limited financial resources on a 34-year-old slugger with a history of knee problems, no matter his recent production. The unrealized hope that they likely had for him taking over the clubhouse in a positive way cannot be put on his shoulders, though. The team they had assembled was old and rickety, with the biggest names being Canseco, Castilla, McGriff, and Alvarez, all of whom were either old or unreliable to begin with. Being put into that situation, it would’ve taken Kid Griffey and the Say Hey Kid himself to positively affect that clubhouse. Still, it was a big time in Devil Ray history, as it showed the Tampa fans that the organization wasn’t going to sit still and do nothing in the face of a mostly apathetic public. It’s just too bad that this was the direction they took – not only did it kill their chances of winning in those first few years, but it also seemed to put management off of signing big free agents for a long time.
Of course, now that the Rays have been to the World Series and boast such jaw-dropping talent, we’ll never have to worry about this kind of mess again…