2008 Tampa Bay Rays
Not Just for Beating Up On Anymore

BaseballEvolution.com 2008 Spring Preview
by Asher B. Chancey, BaseballEvolution.com
February 20, 2008

One can not help but to be tempted by the new and improved Tampa Bay Rays of 2008. This franchise has remade itself, not only in name (dropping the Devil and adopting new logos) but also in spirit. After seeing its talented pitching staff get victimized by a young and porous defense, watching talented hitting prospects develop into empty average, low on-base/high strikeout problem children, and watching high-priced-but-moderately-successful acquisitions fizzle, the Rays have finally designed their team with an age-old proposition in mind. In 2008, the franchise that watched Jose Canseco, Fred McGriff, Wade Boggs, Vinny Castilla, and Greg Vaughn limp into the sunset will be built around pitching and defense, and it is hard to not get excited.

While it would be insanity to expect this Rays team to contend for the AL East in 2008 with two very talented teams ahead of them in New York and Boston, it is not crazy to think of this team finishing with a winning record, in third place in the division, or even making a run at the AL Wild Card. Crazier things have happened (gimme a minute, I am almost sure I can think of one).

Surprise Candidate
Rocco Baldelli
If he were to stay healthy the whole season, I know I'd be surprised.
Disappointment Candidate
Carlos Pena
After a breakout 2007 season, it would be hard for Pena to repeat as one of the top two offensive players in baseball.
2007 Starter    Dioner Navarro
Projected 2008 Starter   Dioner Navarro

"A liability at the plate but solid on defense and handles pitchers well" is what baseball pundits like to chant when they don't have anything to say about a light hitting catcher. Navarro will 24 years old this season and has proven that he can take a walk as well as handle pitchers, but needs to show that he can hit the ball enough to not hurt the team.

First Base
2007 Starter   Carlos Pena
Projected 2008 Starter   Carlos Pena

Was 2007 to Carlos Pena what 1998 was to Sammy Sosa, or what 2004 was to Adrian Beltre? Perhaps 2007 was Carlos Pena's Derrek Lee 2005 season. Whatever the reason, Pena finally made good in 2007 on all the potential that four teams saw and gave up on before the Devil Rays made him a full time starter. It only makes sense that Pena wouldn't be up to par in 2008 with his 2007 self, but Pena has at least established himself as a force with which to be reckoned.

Second Base
2007 Starter   B.J. Upton, Brendan Harris, Ty Wigginton
Projected 2008 Starter   Akinori Iwamura

The Rays got very little defense from the second base position in 2007, and it hurt the team badly. This season, Akinori Iwamura makes the move from third base to second to try to shore up the position. Iwamura got off to a blistering start in 2007 before fading; whether his fade was due to injuries or to major league pitchers adjusting to him is a subject for speculation. Either way, the Rays need Iwamura to play solid defense at second and try to contribute solid offense as well. Either way, he is an enormous upgrade over both Wigginton and Harris.

Evan Longoria
Third Base
2007 Starter   Akinori Iwamura
Projected 2008 Starter   Evan Longoria

Let me just say that in terms of attractive female celebrities, Eva Longoria is one of my favorites, and it makes me very uncomfortable to say Evan Longoria when talking about a professional baseball player. Nevertheless, if Evan's minor league numbers are to be believed (.304/.388/.546/.934 in 198 games in two seasons), Eva will soon be known as "the other Longoria." The Rays will be giving Evan every opportunity to win the third base job in spring training, and, because these are still the Devil Rays, he may find himself starting at third on opening day even if he has a poor spring. Watch for Evan's name on your Rookie of the Year ballot in October.

2007 Starter   Brendan Harris, Josh Wilson, Ben Zobrist
Projected 2008 Starter   Jason Bartlett

Comeback Candidate
Rocco Baldelli
Though one must ask - comeback to what?
Kingman Candidate
Jonny Gomes
All that stands in his way is playing time.
It is not overstating the case to say that this could be the most significant acquisition in the short history of the Tampa Bay Rays. The defense that the Rays have had to support their pitching has been horrendous over the years, and the Rays have never had better young pitching than they do at this very moment, which means that infield defense has never been more important than right now. Jason Bartlett is one of the best defensive shortstops in the game, and because he has been largely unheralded, the Rays got him from the Twins along with Matt Garza in a trade that could be characterized as "out with the bad air, in with the good."

2007 Starters   Carl Crawford, Delmon Young, Elijah Dukes, B.J. Upton
Projected 2008 Starters   Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, Rocco Baldelli, Justin Ruggiano

Gone are Delmon "throw my bat at the umpire" Young and Elijah "you dead dog" Dukes. In their stead stands Carl Crawford, at 26 years of age the grizzlied veteran of this Tampa Bay Rays team, B.J. Upton, the shortstop turned third baseman turned second baseman turned centerfielder, and some combination of Rocco Baldelli (if healthy), Cliff Floyd, and the young potential hotshot, Justin Ruggiano.

The 22-year old Upton played part of the year in centerfield and was amazing on defense, while impressing everyone with 20-plus doubles, homeruns, and stolen bases to go with his .300/.386/.508 in 129 games. Carl Crawford continues to mature as a player, and in 2007, he hit fewer triples than normal, but had more doubles and RBI per at-bat than ever before. He also stole 50 bases for the fourth time in five years while increasing his batting average for the fifth straight season.

In essence, it doesn't matter who plays right field - the Rays will have the best defensive outfields in baseball and a very good offensive one as well.

Designated Hitter
2007 Starter Greg Norton, Jonny Gomes, Rocco Baldelli, Ty Wigginton
Projected 2008 Starter Jonny Gomes

Rays Fun Fact
Despite being just 25 and 23 last season, Carl Crawford and Scott Kazmir are the Rays' career leaders for the vast majority of hitting and pitching counting categories.
Gomes has had a funny ride through professional baseball, as he has struggled with injuries and consistency. Two things he has not struggled with are striking out and hitting homeruns. In 2002, as a 21-year old playing A+ ball in Bakersfield, he hit 30 homeruns with 91 walks and 173 strikeouts while scoring 102 runs in 446 at-bats. In 2005, he hit 21 homeruns in his first full-time action as a major leaguer and added on a .372 on-base percentage to go with 113 strikeouts in 348 at-bats. His talent appears prodigious, but he probably needs consistent playing time to maximize his potential. While he probably doesn't have the same upside as Pena, 2008 could be a breakout season for him if he can play DH full-time.

2007 Crew Ty Wigginton, Jonny Gomes, Josh Wilson, Ben Zobrist
Projected 2008 Bench Zobrist, Wilson, Eric Hinske, Cliff Floyd

Last year, the Rays did not get much production out of the bench. This year, with the addition of veterans Cliff Floyd and Eric Hinske, the bench is looking up, but still not that impressive. Ben Zobrist had a .427 OBP in 340 minor league games, which is other worldly, but this has not translated into success in the majors. If 2008 were the year that it did, that would be a plus.

Starting Pitchers
2007 Starters Scott Kazmir, Edwin Jackson, James Shields, Andy Sonnastine, Jason Hammel, J.P.Howell
Projected 2008 Starters Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Matt Garza, Andy Sonnastine, Edwin Jackson

Scott Kazmir
Here is everything you need to know about the Tampa Bay Rays pitching staff. Scott Kazmir and James Shields are the best tandem of young pitchers in baseball, and they are only another year older after looking remarkable last year. Meanwhile, the Rays have added Matt Garza to the mix, a stud prospect for the last few years with the Twns, and they have no fewer than three minor leaguers ready for major league action in Sonnanstine, Hammel, and Howell.

But the Rays pitching has suffered in recent years due, in large part, to their defensive support. Get this: In 2007, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays ranked dead last in all of baseball in Team DIP% (the ratio of defense independent stats to defense dependent stats), but led the American League and finished second in all of baseball in strikeouts. What this means is that the Rays pitchers are uniquely talented at getting hitters out on their own, but the Rays defense has been uniquely horrible at getting hitters out on batted balls.

This year, both the defense and the pitching are vastly improved. This year, the Rays starting rotation will be deep and it will be talented. It will be very difficult to score runs on this team in 2008

Relief Pitchers
2007 Relievers Al Reyes, Gary Glover, Brian Stokes, Shawn Camp, Juan Salas, Casey Fossum, Dan Wheeler, Scott Dohmann
Projected 2008 Relievers Troy Percival, Al Reyes, Dan Wheeler, Trevor Miller, Gary Glover, Grant Balfour, Juan Salas.

A funny thing happened to Troy Percival last year. After a horrendous injury marred his 2005 season, his first away from Anaheim, and after missing the entire 2006 season in apparent retirement, Percival came back in 2007 and posted a career-best 1.80 ERA (and career-best 244 ERA+) to go with a 3.6 K/BB ratio in 40.0 innings pitched. At 38 years of age, Percival is a big question mark, but he certainly gave no indication in 2007 that he was not back!

The remaining members of the Rays bullpen - other than Juan Salas and Scott Dohmann, who combined for just under 70 innings in 2007 - were lousy last season, and that is putting it mildly. Some of these guys have talent, and will be helped by an improved defense, but the Rays will need some help here.

Outlook for the Season

The Rays hitters are still going to strike out plenty in 2008. The Rays starters will still have bad outings. The stands will still be sparsely crowded on Friday night and Sunday afternoon games. And this team will still have to play a divisional schedule that features the Red Sox and Yankees. But in 2008, the Rays will be a different team, and the difference won't be subtle. This is not a team that is built to win today, but it is built to win. From emerging rookies to emerging veterans, from potential rookies of the year to potential Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award candidates, the Rays will be a different team in 2008.

And if Troy Percival can be as real all year as he was in his 40-inning run with the Cardinals last year (a GIGANTIC "if"), then the bullpen will get a big lift.

The Rays may have the best defensive outfield in the AL this year.

The Rays will have the most improved defensive middle infield this year.

The Rays may have the rookie of the year in Evan Longoria this year.

The Rays will probably have one of the top five deepest rotations in the AL this year.

Could this team win 24 more games than it did last year?

There is no doubt in my mind. The Rays win 80 games this year if the wheels don't come off the bus. If everything goes right, the Rays could easily take the wild card.

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