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2009 Tampa Bay Rays: Could this Possibly Be Real? 2008 Spring Preview
by Asher B. Chancey,
March 31, 2009

In pre-season of 2008, I picked the Tampa Bay Rays to make some noise in the American League, to win 25 more games than they had the year before, to top the Seattle Mariners by 18 games, and to make a run at the wild card in the American League. And if you managed to meet me and talk baseball for more than five minutes in the last year, you know this. In case you haven’t, here’s the proof.

Obviously, having gone against the grain and paid off in 2008, the pressure is on in 2009 to put up or shut up. But the 2009 Tampa Bay Rays are a tough team to evaluate because, in reality, they probably overachieved in 2008. Indeed, their Pythagorean Projection had them slated to win five fewer games, their offense was incredibly weak, and their pitching arguably over-achieved (Grant Balfour and Edwin Jackson, this means you).

Looking at the Rays going into 2009, part of me sees the 1991 Atlanta Braves - a team of destiny primed for a decade of dominance behind three future Hall of Fame pitchers and an ingenious front office. At the same time, another part of me sees the 2003 Chicago Cubs – a good team that had a good run but is foolishly relying on young pitchers who have already been pushed too hard and a variety of players who quite clearly overachieved in what will be their only year in the sun.

Nevertheless, it is heartening to know that this team for whom everything seemed to go right in 2008 has several areas in which to improve in 2009. Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, and Carlos Pena all had down years compared to the year before. Star-in-the-Making Evan Longoria missed almost all of September with an injury. Scott Kazmir missed time and had his worst year out of the last three. And Troy Percival was rather bad in the closer role.

2008 Standings - AL East
East W L PCT GB Home Road RS RA Exp W% RHP LHP
Tampa Bay Rays 97 65 .599 0 57-24 40-41 774 671 .565 72-41 25-24
*Boston Red Sox 95 67 .586 2 56-25 39-42 845 694 .589 70-54 25-13
New York Yankees 88 74 .543 9 48-33 41-40 789 727 .537 65-51 24-22
Toronto Blue Jays 86 76 .531 11 47-34 39-42 714 610 .572 66-53 20-23
Baltimore Orioles 68 93 .422 28.5 37-43 31-50 782 869 .452 52-61 16-32

Given the potential to improve, the acquisition of Pat Burrell, and the alarming number of excellent arms ready to contribute, there is no reason to think the Tampa Bay Rays won’t be right back in the thick of the playoff race in 2009. But given the level of competition in the AL East, nothing is ever for certain.

Not much needs to be said about the Rays' infield – their chances to get back to the playoffs depend on these guys. To the extent that the Rays' pitching success can be attributed in any way to Catcher Dioner Navarro, they need him to keep it up. His 98 OPS+ is serviceable, and if he puts that up again while handling the pitchers well, he’ll have done his job.

The Rays have a classic infield for the modern era of baseball. The corner players, Carlos Pena at First Base and Evan Longoria at Third Base, manage well with the glove but contribute primarily at the plate. They need both of these guys to do exactly what they did last year, at a minimum, if they have any hope of repeating.

The up-the-middle guys, Shortstop Jason Bartlett and Second Baseman Akinora Iwamura, are defense-first guys who don’t kill you on offense. A full season of Bartlett (he played only 128 games in 2008) may propel the pitching staff to even greater heights than they have already achieved.

It is incredibly difficult to believe that the Rays made it to the World Series without Left Fielder Carl Crawford and Centerfielder B.J. Upton having big years. Don’t get me wrong - B.J. Upton’s defensive contributions alone made him one of Tampa’s MVP’s in 2008.
Funny, That.
The Tampa Bay Rays have a roster filled with humorous coincidences. Here are just some of them:

- Gabe Kapler missed all of 2007 while serving as a minor league coach in the Boston Red Sox farm system, but then decided that he still had what it takes to play major league ball and he made a comeback. Teammate Troy Percival did the exact same thing, coaching in the Angels minor league system before making his comeback in 2007.

- This will be the third team that Percival and second baseman Adam Kennedy have played on together – they were teammates on the 2002 World Series Champion Anaheim Angels and with the Cardinals in 2007.

- This will also be the third time Gabe Kapler and Carlos Pena have played on the same team in the same season, after Texas (2001) and Boston (2006).

- Jason Isringhausen and Scott Kazmir were the subjects of two of the New York Mets' worst trades of all time. In 1999, the Mets sent Isringhausen and Greg McMichael to the A’s for Billy Taylor (go look up Billy Taylor and see how surprised you are by his stats). In 2004, the Mets traded Kazmir and Jose Diaz to the Rays for Bartolome Fortunato and Victor Zambrano.

- Gabe Gross played 93 games in the outfield for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2007 before being traded to the Rays in 2008. His replacement on the Brewers was Gabe Kapler, who played 96 games for the Brewers in 2008 before signing with the Rays in 2009.

But in 2007, he looked like an elite player, and if he can get his 2009 offense up to its 2007 level again, he’ll be one of the top players in the American League and a league MVP candidate.

If Upton was the team’s MVP in 2008, Carl Crawford is the most valuable player in Tampa’s franchise history. Unfortunately, that says more about the Rays' history than it does Crawford’s skills. He had a miserable 2008; he should be looking like this era’s Rickey Henderson right now, and instead he looked like a Juan Pierre clone last year. Imagine what the Rays can do if he gets back into form (remember, he’s only 27).

If you believe that professional athletes only have so many innings/minutes/downs in their career, regardless of their age (a theory floated recently about Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James), we have to start wondering now about Carl Crawford. As hard as it is to believe, Crawford is only 27 but will be entering his eight season (seventh full season). Crawford is currently ninth amongst active players with 302 stolen bases and fourth amongst active players with 84 triples. But Crawford missed 53 games last season with balky hamstrings and a finger injury, stole fewer than half as many bases (25) than he has in any other season, and has hit as many triples in the last two years combined (19) as he did in just one season in 2004. Is it possible that Crawford is 27 going on 30? Is Crawford already a grizzlied veteran despite his age? Only time will tell.

Tampa’s outfield is suddenly clogged, and the Rays find themselves in a SABRmetric dilemma. On the one hand, they have Justin Ruggiano, who stole 20 bases in 23 attempts in 66 Triple-A games last season. A starting role for him in right field would only make the Rays that much more dangerous on the basepaths. On the other hand, the Rays quietly acquired Tampa native Matt Joyce from the Tigers for Edwin Jackson in the offseason. With a minor league OBP 76 points higher than his batting average, this is a guy who can take walks, but seems a couple of years away from being able to put .280 on the board.

Wanna talk potential disasters? With defensive specialist B.J. Upton slated to miss the start of the season while recovering from off-season shoulder surgery and recently injured backup speedster Fernando Perez out until June, Gabe Kapler is currently Tampa’s best bet in centerfield. Kapler hasn’t been a full time regular since 2001, and missed all of 2007 because he was coaching in the minor leagues.

In all likelihood, the Rays would platoon Ben Zobrist, Gabe Gross, Justin Ruggiano, and Kapler until they found a combination that worked. Interesting though – what does it say about Carl Crawford and Pat Burrell that moving Crawford to center and having Burrell play left isn’t on the table?

Whatever happens, it won’t involve Rocco Baldelli, who was acquired by the Boston Red Sox. Kind of hilarious, since the Legend of Rocco Baldelli is almost purely a New England phenomenon. Seriously, is there any chance Tampa fans will even notice he’s gone?

The logic behind acquiring Pat Burrell to play Designated Hitter is quite simple, right? Last year, the Rays and Phillies faced off in the World Series, and the team that had Pat Burrell won the Series. So, now that the Rays have Pat-the-Bat, it should be enough to push them over the edge, right?

All kidding aside, Burrell should be an excellent addition to this young team. To the extent that “veteran leadership” ever means anything (and the jury is still out, in my opinion), Burrell certainly has plenty of it. And this isn’t Cliff Floyd veteran leadership either – Burrell is actually a valuable asset. Plus, this guy knows how to take a walk, a skill that this young team has not mastered.

Given the fact that Burrell will be solely playing offense, he is potentially all upside.

Sports commentators have two choices when it comes to assertions – say what you truly believe, or say something you kinda think but definitely want to be on the record about if it ever actually happens. What I am about to say falls squarely into the latter category: The Tampa Bay Rays should trade Scott Kazmir while his stock is high.

Right now, the Kazmir for Victor Zambrano trade goes down as one of the greatest trades of the 21st Century (for the Rays). Nevertheless, there are three reasons the Rays should cut bait here. First, Kazmir is generally regarded as one of the best starting pitchers in the American League despite quietly having a down 2008 season (23 homeruns in 152.1 innings, 127 ERA+ down from 142 two years ago, 27 starts after leading the league in 2007). As with many hard-throwing youngsters, there is a chance that Kazmir’s stock will never again be as high as it is right now.

But there is a larger point here – the Rays' Starting Rotation is tremendously loaded with pitching talent. After Kazmir, the Rays feature the exciting trio of James Shields, Matt Garza, and Andy Sonnanstine. Additionally, their bullpen features David Price, J.P. Howell, and Jason Hammel, all starting caliber guys for whom there just wasn’t room in 2008. Throw in minor league stars Mitch Talbot (24 years old), Jeff Niemann (25), and Jeremy Hellickson (21), and the Rays have no fewer than nine guys with whom to fill five rotation positions in 2009. Kazmir could be traded right now for some very good return, and the Rays might not even notice he was gone.

I am officially on the record.

Rays Team Capsule

07/26/2010: First No-Hitter in Rays History - After being no-hit three times in 12 months, the Tampa Bay Rays were in danger of being held hitless yet again Monday night as the resurgent Max Scherzer took a no-hitter into the sixth against them. Matt Joyce broke up that no-no with a grand slam after Scherzer had walked the bases loaded, and the no-hit bid that Rays starter Matt Garza had going lasted all nine innings.

This was the fifth no-hitter of 2010 (or sixth if you count the Armando Galarraga game) and the second time this year that a franchise authored its first ever no-hitter. The record for most no-hitters in a season came in 1991, when seven were tossed, but only six went for the full nine innings.

David Price and Andy Sonnanstine are exhibits A and B in a lesson about how valuable experience can be when making a major league roster or, more importantly, a starting rotation. Though I am a big fan of Andy’s, anyone can see that Price is likely a far more talented pitcher in every aspect of the game. The 23-year-old Price seemed major league ready when he was drafted, and has simply dominated in his 109 minor league innings pitched.

But at the end of the day, Sonnanstine’s place in Tampa Bay’s rotation is set while Price is on the outside looking in for the fifth spot. Why? Because Sonnanstine pitched 193.1 innings last season, and had a solid year doing it.

I like Price starting the year in Triple-A. I also like Price joining the big squad in May after what is sure to be a quick start in the minors, a la Evan Longoria in 2008.

How swift has the Tampa Bay Rays reversal of fortune been? In their cuts on March 16th, the Rays sent starting pitchers Mitch Talbot and Wade Davis down to the minors. Davis, 23, has 605 strikeouts in 609 minor league innings, and struck out 55 batters in 53 innings with a 2.72 ERA at Triple-A last season. Talbot, 25, posted a 141/35 K:BB ratio in Triple-A last season and has gone 13-9 in each of his two previous seasons.

And these are two guys with no chance of making the major league rotation.

Since the Kazmir move that I propose is unlikely to occur, I will hedge a bit – now is the time to trade some pitching, period. The Edwin Jackson to the Tigers for Matt Joyce move was a good start, but I think more moves should be made.

Why? Well, for one thing pitching prospects are notoriously flaky. Think Brien Taylor, Todd Van Poppel, Paul Wilson, and Kris Benson. Even when guys make it, sometimes they don’t make it – think Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, and Dontrelle Willis.

Right now the Tampa Bay Rays have ten pitchers who could start somewhere in the major leagues right now, and they are having outfield issues trying to shift around Gabe Kapler and Gabe Gross.

Do you think that Baltimore or Pittsburgh or Washington or Cincinnati or Kansas City might part with an above average everyday outfielder if it meant they could insert Mitch Talbot or Wade Davis into their rotation? I do.

As my final thought, amidst all the talk about the Tampa Bay Rays' embarrassment of pitching riches, here’s a little perspective, a little reminder of Devil Rays past. The Tampa Bay Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks came into existence in the same year, 1998. The Arizona Diamondbacks franchise leader in career shutouts Randy Johnson, with 14, followed by Brandon Webb (8), and Curt Schilling (5). In fact, Brandon Webb once pitched three straight shutouts. On the other hand, the Tampa Bay Rays franchise leader in that same statistic is Rolando Arroyo.

He had two.

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