Boston Celebrates 100th Fenway Birthday in Style. Then loses… And other news…

That was some birthday party!  Prior to the game, the Red Sox brought out more than 200 former players and coaches, finishing with Johnny Pesky and Bobby Doerr – both in their 90s – to celebrate the 100th birthday of Fenway Park. [FoxSports, SI, MLB]

I miss Carlton Fisk.

The 1975 Red Sox team is the first Red Sox team I followed and for a little while, I wanted to be the next Fred Lynn.  My interest in the Red Sox ended once we were no longer fans and suddenly there was a Red Sox Nation.  Being a fan is cool.  Being a “nation” is arrogant.

Anyway – I loved that 1975 team.  Fisk, Yaz, Rice, Lynn, Evans, Petrocelli, Burleson, Doyle, Tiant, Lee – all those guys.  I broke out the 1975 Topps Set just to get one more look at it.

I remember the first time I went to Fenway Park.  Oddly, I got to see old Cub pitchers Dennis Lamp and Lee Smith.  Smith took his usual eight warm up pitches, entered the game in the ninth with the score tied at seven, and then blew away the first two batters.  He walked the next guy – and before you could say “get someone else up!”, the big reliever allowed four runs and the Sox lost.

Keep the Party Going!

If you haven’t had enough anniversary celebrations, the A’s will be bringing back the 1972 World Champs – the first of three straight World Series winners – for today’s game against the Indians.  Rollie Fingers will throw out the first pitch.  I wonder if they will let Gene Tenace catch it?  [MLB]

Ouch!!!

Brewers starter Chris Narveson is out for the season with a torn rotator cuff.  He felt something go wrong in his last start and an MRI revealed the tear.  He will get a second opinion and then figure out a plan.  Getting today’s start will be Marco Estrada – decent fastball, slider, and a good strikeout pitcher.  His weakness?  He tends to give up a lot of homers.  [FoxSports]

From the Blotter…

Los Angeles Dodgers minor leaguer Angel Guzman was suspended 50 games for a violation of the M(i)LB drug policy.  Guzman is making his way back to the bigs following 2010 shoulder surgery, and manager Don Mattingly says that he knew about it in spring training and called it a “a unique situation.”

Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro will not be charged in relation to a sexual assault allegation; his attorneys call it baseless and the Chicago police and State’s Attorney’s Office says that there isn’t enough evidence to press charges.

10,000 and counting…

The Cincinnati Reds, in beating the Cubs on Friday, earned their 10,000th win in franchise history.  If you can name the other five, send me a note!  Hint?  None of them are in the American League.

Hurry Back!

The Cardinals placed first baseman Lance Berkman on the 15-Day DL with a calf strain.  Skip Schumaker was activated yesterday, played centerfield, and promptly left the game when he crashed into the centerfield fence.  Is Jon Jay healthy again???

The Cubs put Kerry Wood on the 15-Day DL with what has been called shoulder fatigue.  Scott “Remember the…” Maine was recalled from AAA Iowa.  Maine hails from Jupiter, Florida, has had two other trips to Chicago and isn’t half bad.  The sidearm throwing lefty has a low to mid 90s fastball with some movement, a slider, and has yet to bean anybody.

Welcome Back!

The Rays activated outfielder B.J. Upton from the DL.

Transactions:

The Brewers placed pitcher Kameron Loe on the bereavement leave list.  He will return around the 24th.  To take his spot on the roster, the Brewers activated Wily Peralta.

Tampa Bay optioned Reid Brignac to AAA Durham and activated Brandon Allen.

Happy Birthday!!!

(1855) Hardy “Old True Blue” Richardson
(1887) Joe McCarthy, Yankees and Cubs World Series manager…
(1937) Gary Peters
(1941) Dick Green (See A’s Anniversary, above)
(1947) Al Bumbry
(1957) Jesse Orosco
(1962) Les Lancaster
(1963) Ken Caminiti
(1973) Kevin Brown
(1977) Kip Wells
(1980) Jeff Keppinger
(1981) Ronny Paulino
(1987) Brent Morel

Marlins Open 2012 With Excitement, Ali, and a Loss

The Miami Marlins opened up the new stadium with fireworks, but couldn’t put together any hits off of Cardinals starter Kyle Lohse in a 4 – 1 loss on opening night.  Muhammad Ali delivered the game ball, which was pretty cool and very sad at the same time.  You could hear the cheers for Ali throughout the stadium, but the effects of Parkinson’s disease are painfully obvious – the tremors are very visible and Ali looked so much older (he’s 70) than the man I remember as a kid.

I met Ali when working for Sprint in Kansas City in 1992.  Even then, his voice was softened and he slurred, and there were small tremors in his hands.  I remember two or three things about that visit.  First, his hands were enormous.  When I shook his hand, his hand practically devoured mine.  Second, he still had a great sense of humor – he did this joke where he claimed he could move a briefcase with his mind.  When it didn’t move, he asked us, “Who do you think I am?  I’m a boxer, not a magician.”  Finally, what I really remember was thinking to myself that this was the closest thing to meeting God that I will likely ever experience.  I mean – it was HIM, Ali.  The Greatest.  Of all the people I have met, it was the only time I can remember being totally awed by someone’s presence.

Back to baseball…

If you are an Orioles fan, this can’t be good…  The Orioles lost a charity baseball game to the State College of Florida Manatees – a community college team – 2 – 1 in eight innings.  A couple of years ago, the Manatees beat Pittsburgh, a team that went on to lose nearly 100 games…  [Bradenton.com]

Andy Pettitte threw a scoreless inning against the Mets and hopes to get ready in time to join the Yankees in May.  If he makes it back, he’ll get a one-year, $2.5 million dollar contract.  [SI]

Torii Hunter accidentally set off the alarm in his house, leading to a visit from a couple of gun-wielding police officers.  The officers were merely following protocol and the guns were never pointed directly at Hunter.  However, Hunter’s identification was in an upstairs bedroom and he was tailed as he walked up to get his wallet.  [ESPN]

Vanderbilt pitching recruit and potential first round draft pick Stephen Gant was found dead near his Linden, TN home apparently having committed suicide by gunshot.  An investigation into Gant’s death continues.  [FoxSports]

Aches and Pains

Tampa closer Kyle Farnsworth will go on the DL with soreness in his elbow caused by a muscle strain.  He joins B.J. Upton (back) and Sam Fuld (surgery, right wrist) on the DL.  [ESPN]

Other players who found their way to the DL as the season started include:

Tim Hudson (back)
Ryan Madson (TJ Surgery)
Carl Crawford (wrist)
Grady Sizemore (back)
A.J. Burnett (eye socket)
Ted Lilly (neck)
Stephen Drew (ankle)
Charlie Morton (hip)
Andrew Bailey (thumb)
Jose Ceda (TJ Surgery)
Ryan Kalish (shoulder)
Joba Chamberlain (dislocated ankle)

and a number of players who will get 15 days after being nicked up in spring training.

Transaction Wire:

The details of the deal signed by the Reds and first baseman Joey Votto were released – 12 years and $251.5 million, the third largest contract in value and the longest in terms of years in baseball history.  The deal includes a club option in 2024 (!) when Votto would be 41 years old.  This more than doubles the contract given to Ken Griffey, Jr. – at one time the largest contract signing in Cincinnati history…  [ESPN]

The New York Mets signed Jonathan Niese to a five year extension worth more than $25 million.  Niese won 11 for the Mets in 2011.  [SI]

Washington pitcher John Lannan was optioned to AAA, and wasn’t happy about it.  Lannan was an opening day starter in 2009 and 2010, and has requested a trade.  [ESPN]

The Twins sent pitcher Scott Baker to the DL and optioned starting pitcher Jason Marquis to AA New Britain to get work since both missed time in Spring Training.  [SI]

In a late spring training trade, the New York Yankees sent pitcher George Kontos to San Francisco for catcher Chris Stewart.  Stewart was given the backup job, which meant that Francisco Cervelli was unhappily dispatched to AAA.  Kontos pitched well at AAA last season earning a cup of coffee in September.  The big right hander is a Northwestern Grad…  As for Chris Stewart, he’s a catch and throw guy – not much of a hitter even in the minors.  He must be pretty good – Cervelli has logged a lot of innings the last couple of years so it’s a bit of a surprise to see Cervelli moved to AAA.

This is the time when players are optioned to AAA or recalled to the majors having earned a spot on the roster – it’s a long list.  A couple of things caught my eye, though…

Nick Johnson made the Orioles roster
Felix Pie was released by Cleveland
Bill Hall was released by New York.

Happy Birthday!

Those celebrating with cards, cake, or remembrances include:

(1876) Bill Dinneen – pitcher, later an umpire
(1907) Merritt (Sugar) Cain…  Today, he’d get the song Cocaine played when he came to the plate.  Shouldn’t Lorenzo Cain have the nickname “Sugar”?
(1938) Ron Hansen
(1951) Rennie Stennett – one of my favorite Pirates of the 1970s…
(1976) Ross Gload
(1985) Lastings Milledge

2011 Season Forecast: Tampa Rays

Last Five Seasons:

2010:  96 – 66 (1st AL East)
2009:  84 – 78
2008:  97 – 65 (AL Champs)
2007:  66 – 96
2006:  61 – 101

Runs Scored: 802 (3rd, AL to NYY and BOS)
Runs Allowed: 649 (2nd, AL to OAK)

2010 Recap:

The Rays got off to a great start, winning 17 of 23 in April and extending their hot play into May where, on May 23rd, they went to sleep in first place with a 32 – 12 record.  An 11 – 14 stumble in June let the rest of the league back in the race, but once July started, the Rays went back to the front of the division, going 19 – 7, followed by a 17 – 12 August.  From there, the Rays seemed to run out of steam, but played .500 ball after September 1st as the Yankees collapsed to take the division crown.

In terms of mid-season transactions, the Rays mostly unloaded parts that weren’t working.  They released Pat Burrell and Hank Blalock, for example.  They did get Chad Qualls at the trading deadline, but he wasn’t much help down the stretch.

As a team, they hit homers and drew walks, but went through stretches where they couldn’t hit.  The Rays were on the wrong end of two no-hitters despite being one of only three teams to score 800 runs.  They have pitchers who throw strikes, a rather deep bullpen, and an AMAZING team defense.  These two items, as I have written before, make their staff look stronger than it really is.

Starters:

The rotation featured David Price, who had Cy Young worthy numbers in terms of wins (19), ERA (2.72), and strikeouts (188 in 208.2 innings).  Price was backed by Matt Garza (15 – 10, 3.91), James Shields (13 – 15, 5.18), Jeff Niemann (12 – 8, 4.39), and rookie Wade Davis (12 – 10, 4.07).  However, knowing that the Rays made few errors and turned 14 balls per 1000 into outs more than the average team AND they played in a park that helped the staff, you realize that many of those pitchers aren’t quite as good as advertised.  James Shields was more than 50 runs worse than the average pitcher because he puts a lot of balls into play, and he served up 34 homers.  Niemann was 19 runs worse than the average pitcher, and Matt Garza – the new Cub – was 14 runs worse than the average pitcher.  Wade Davis was also -11.

This isn’t new – I wrote about this a couple of years ago when the Rays made the series.  A good defense can make a bunch of pitchers who keep the ball in the park and don’t walk people look very good.

Looking ahead, Matt Garza moved to Chicago where he might get to serve up 50 homers.  At least he’s durable.  The rest of the rotation returns intact, joined by Jeremy Hellickson, who looked great in his 4 starts last summer.  Assuming Shields bounces back some (he can), Davis and Niemann show more growth (possible), and Hellickson remains tolerable over 160 innings, the rotation should be 30 runs better than last year.

Bullpen:

On the other hand, the bullpen was amazing in 2010.  Rafael Soriano saved 45 games, supported by Joaquin Benoit and his 1.34 ERA in 63 innings.  Dan Wheeler gave them 64 fair innings, Grant Balfour remained dependable, and even Randy Choate and Lance Cormier weren’t horrible.  Most of this staff is gone.  Right now, the closer looks to be Joel Peralta, the former Royal, Angel, and Rockies reliever who had his best season in 2010 with the Nationals last year – fanning 49 and walking just 9 (4 intentionally) in 49 innings.  In front of Peralta is journeyman fireballer, Kyle Farnsworth who has NEVER been as good as Benoit was last year.  Andy Sonnenstine, who has a very hittable fastball, is there, with a bunch of newcomers, including Ceasr Ramos and Adam Russell, who came from San Diego for Jason Bartlett.  Jake McGee, two years removed from Tommy John surgery, converted to the pen in 2010 and made it to the big leagues.  He’s a power lefty with a nice curveball.  Chris Archer is another hard thrower who might get time in the bullpen this year.  If the starters are going to improve by 30 runs, the bullpen cannot – and no matter what Manager Joe Maddon’s magic, this group will be 50 runs worse than in 2010.

Catching:

John Jaso earned his way ahead of Dioner Navarro and Kelly Shoppach by catching well enough and getting on base at a .375 clip.  Teams ran on Jaso some, and the young Jaso has much to learn, but he helps out.  Kelly Shoppach struggled at the plate, but did hit 5 homers in 158 at bats.  Navarro is gone.

Infield:

A couple of years ago, the infield was a solid Evan Longoria, Jason Bartlett, Akinori Iwamura, and Carlos Pena.  Now, only Longoria – an MVP candidate – remains.   Longoria can hit and field with the best of them and even stole 15 bases in 20 tries.  Bartlett’s bat and glove has fallen off in recent years since he injured his ankle in 2009 and will be replaced by Reid Brignac, who is younger, just as good a hitter, and more mobile.  Sean Rodriguez got a chance to play the infield and hits for some power, can run the bases, and is solid in the field.  Mr. Everywhere, Ben Zobrist, backs them both up.  Carlos Pena is gone, to be replaced by either Dan Johnson (a patient power hitter who, like Pena, failed to hit .200 last year), and possibly Johnny Damon.  I think the offense will remain solid, though it could lose 20 runs at first base overall if Johnson can’t improve in 2011.

Outfield:

Carl Crawford had an MVP-type campaign in 2010, fielding as well as any left fielder, and generating nearly 130 runs of offense with the bat (average and some power) as well as his feet (47 steals).  He’s in Boston now, with Johnny Damon taking over.  Damon is okay, but not anywhere near what Crawford can provide – and he’s going to need time off.  Options include Matt Joyce or Sam Fuld.  In center, B.J. Upton is still frustratingly productive.  He is an above average offensive performer – quick bat, power, speed – but frustrating in that he strikes out a LOT, keeping his average under .240.  Defensively, he remains above average but, again, doesn’t seem to be as good as he could be.  In right, Ben Zobrist fell off from his 2009 season in terms of average and power, but still was productive because he plays solid defense and gets on base.  (I’d let Joyce play left all year and see if he can hit 30 homers knowing he’s a better fielder than Damon, too.  Damon can DH and back up three positions, even providing some production.)

DH:

Pat Burrell couldn’t cut it and Hank Blalock wasn’t the answer.  Willy Aybar fell off last year, though Matt Joyce might have been a decent answer if they let him do it.  Looking ahead, though, the Rays took a cheap flyer on the craziest great hitter of the last two decades, Manny Ramirez.  Say what you will about him, Manny can STILL hit.  He missed a lot of time last year, but when he left Los Angeles, he was hitting .311, with a .410 OBA, and a .510 SLG.  He didn’t hit as well with the White Sox, but he had a .420 OBP.  He won’t do that in Tampa, but he could certainly go 20 – 110 – .285, with walks and doubles.  Johnny Damon could platoon some with him, letting Matt Joyce play left field.

Down on the Farm:

Jeremy Hellickson we noted – the new fifth starter for the Rays – as he went 12 – 3 with 123Ks in 117.2 innings for AAA Durham.  Desmond Jennings, a potential Carl Crawford clone, fell off in terms of his batting average, but he still gets on base and he can FLY.

Jake McGee made it from Montgomery in AA through Durham before getting a cup of coffee with the Rays.  In AA, McGee fanned 100 in 88.1 innings, showed good command (getting better, anyway), and looked awesome in 11 AAA appearances (27Ks, 3 walks, one ER in 17.1 innings).  Alex Torres and Alexander Cobb were solid for Montgomery, winning records, good strikeout rates.  Cobb has better control, but both are young and will spend 2011 in Durham.

Former #1 pick Tim Beckham finished his season with A+ Charlotte and seems to have stalled, but having watched him in the minors, he sure is the one guy on the field you can’t help but notice.  He’s still only 21, so there is time for a step forward.  The best of Charlotte is the young staff, led by Matt Moore, who fanned 208 in 144.2 innings with his powerful fastball and curveball.  Joe Cruz showed solid command, going 13 – 6 – 2.85 in his 142 innings and will start 2011 in AA.  Then you have reliever Zach Quate, who fanned 90 in 72.1 innings, saving 25 games, with great control.

Forecasting 2011:

I don’t see how the Rays are going to repeat winning the AL East crown in 2011, but they won’t be bad and they should take a Wild Card spot.  The rotation may be slightly better, but the bullpen will be well off from last year.  The defense will be better at short (Brignac is better than Bartlett), but worse in left (Damon or Joyce instead of Crawford) and I’m not sure Johnson is better than an aging Carlos Pena at first.  The catching might improve a touch, and more Jaso is better than more Dioner Navarro offensively.  The Rays are better at DH.

I see the offense being good, but a touch worse – maybe 770 runs.  And the runs allowed number will likely go up by 30 runs to about 680.  That puts the Rays at 91 wins, which some will see as a surprise – but not me.

2010 Top AL Centerfielders

If Josh Hamilton were a centerfielder every day, he’d rank first with 136.2 Total Runs Productivity – well above everyone else on this list.  On the other hand, it would likely be lower because he no longer has the range to play center and, when he does, he gets hurt.

Torii Hunter – LAA (103.9 Runs Created, 5.9 Runs Saved = 109.8 Total Runs Productivity)

Don’t let that Runs Saved number fool you – he was great as a right fielder, but marginally below average in center.  The move to right is the right move, and Hunter remains a formidable offensive weapon.

Austin Jackson – DET (91.7 Runs Created, 4.6 Runs Saved = 96.3 Total Runs Productivity)

A fine rookie season.  Sure – he struck out nearly as often as he got a hit, but he got a lot of those, turning many into doubles and triples.  Has room for improvement, and time to do it.

Alex Rios – CHI (87.6 Runs created, 8.0 Runs Saved = 95.6 Total Runs Productivity)

The change of scenery did him well, and getting to be a regular centerfielder, Rios had a very good season.  As a player, a dead ringer for Adam Jones, only with more experience and a tad more speed.

Vernon Wells – TOR (99.3 Runs Created, -7.4 Runs Saved = 91.9 Total Runs Productivity)

Heading to LA where he won’t be asked to play centerfield very often, which is good because Wells hasn’t been a league average fielder in center since the first George W term.  Rajai Davis gets the job in 2011, and I’m not sure that’s going to be an improvement.

B.J. Upton – TB (90.0 Runs Created, 1.8 Runs Saved = 91.8 Total Runs Productivity)

Has bat speed and foot speed that anyone would die for, and knows the strike zone.  And yet, he’s a disappointment.  He strikes out a LOT.  Now dogged for dogging it, and yet a very valuable player for the Rays.

Adam Jones – BAL (80.5 Runs Created, 7.9 Runs Saved = 88.4 Total Runs Productivity)

A good, but not great player – decent average, good power, some speed, above average glove.  Wish he were more patient, or could take it up a notch.  I was listening to a Baseball Prospectus podcast and Kevin Goldstein noted that, with the end of Ken Griffey’s career, we really haven’t had a big time centerfielder for a while – and that remains true.

Denard Span – MIN (78.9 Runs Created, 3.9 Runs Saved = 82.8 Total Runs Productivity)

Good baserunner, gets on base, but has little to no power.  Above average range in center.  Not a horrible centerfielder, but not making anyone forget Kirby Puckett.

Franklin Gutierrez – SEA (74.4 Runs Created, 1.1 Runs Saved = 75.5 Total Runs Productivity)

Wonder if the struggles of the Mariner season got to Gutierrez?  Fell off offensively and defensively in 2010 to the point he was just a league average player.  He will have better seasons.

Rajai Davis – OAK (74.4 Runs Created,-2.1 Runs Saved = 72.3 Total Runs Productivity)

Speedster, stats hidden by playing in Oakland (not that he’s really Mickey Mantle or something).  Not an awful player, but he’d help more if he could add something else to his skill set.  Your new Blue Jays centerfielder…

Curtis Granderson – NYY (67.3 Runs Created, -5.8 Runs Saved = 61.5 Total Runs Productivity)

Brett Gardner covers more ground, and is a more valuable hitter.  I like Granderson, don’t get me wrong, but they should switch and put Granderson in left.

Trevor Crowe – CLE (49.0 Runs Created, 11.4 Runs Saved = 60.4 Total Runs Productivity)

Has speed, but will probably show little growth as a hitter since he’s already 27 and wasn’t a world beater in the minors, Crowe played more centerfield but was just a few innings from leading the Indians in time spent in left field as well.  At this point, he’s a much better defensive player than Grady Sizemore, but he needs to increase either his on base percentage or slugging percentage to be worth giving 1000 innings in the field.  He’s really a fifth outfielder at best.

Coco Crisp – OAK (51.3 Runs Created, 3.7 Runs Saved = 55.0 Total Runs Productivity)

Would be a remarkably valuable player if he could just stay in the lineup.  In 2010, it was injuries to his left pinkie – twice.  Last full season?  2007.

Julio Borbon – TEX (46.5 Runs Created, 1.9 Runs Saved = 48.4 Total Runs Productivity)

Slap hitter, fast – but not a great basestealer or defensive wizard.  I think he can step forward, though, and has to because when Josh Hamilton is forced into centerfield, he finds the DL.

Melky Cabrera, former Yankee and Brave who signed with the Royals in December, 2010, would rank here (45.3 Total Runs Productivity).

Mitch Maier – KC (47.4 Runs Created, -4.4 Runs Saved = 43.0 Total Runs Productivity)

A fourth outfielder masquerading as a regular because in Kansas City, they need warm bodies.  Hits a little, fields some, tries hard.  He won’t get 2500 career at bats, though.  For 2011, the job will fall to either Melky Cabrera or Lorenzo Cain, a raw talent who arrived in the Zack Greinke trade.  Cabrera is a really good fourth outfielder, while Cain might be a shade better than Cabrera these days.

Darnell McDonald – BOS (46.1 Runs Created, -5.1 Runs Saved = 41.0 Total Runs Productivity)

14 years ago, he was a first round choice of the Orioles and was rushed through the system before he was really ready because he just LOOKED like an athlete.  Spent a decade as a AA/AAA guy before he was finally given a reasoanble opportunity for playing time.  Of course, everyone in Boston’s outfield was injured at the time.  He’s not an awful player, but he’s now 32 and probably wishes things had worked out differently.

Peter Bourjos – LAA (19.0 Runs Created, 12.4 Runs Saved = 31.4 Total Runs Productivity)

The new Devon White.  Some power, tons of speed, swings at everything.  If he can hit anything at all, will become a very valuable commodity.  I think he can hit .250 hitting eighth or ninth in this lineup, which would be just fine.

Mike Cameron – BOS (20.7 Runs Created, 0.4 Runs Saved = 21.1 Total Runs Productivity)

Can still play – retaining a huge chunk of his skills as he approaches 40.  Always liked him, but if it were me, I think I’d rather play Kalish in center.

Ryan Kalish – BOS (21.2 Runs Created, -.2 Runs Saved = 21.0 Total Runs Productivity)

You want to know how deep the Red Sox farm is?  Ryan Kalish is a pretty good player.  Great base runner, sneaky power, decent fielder.  And, he has no place to play on this team.  Still – he’s not far from being a solid fourth outfielder in Boston, and if necessary, wouldn’t be an awful option as a centerfielder for long stretches of time.  Other teams would LOVE to have a Ryan Kalish in their system.  Turns 23 in spring training.

Michael Brantley – CLE (31.4 Runs Created, -15.5 Runs Saved = 15.9 Total Runs Productivity)

In 100 career games now, he’s hit 3 – 33 – .264, with barely tolerable on base percentage skills, and his defensive skills haven’t yet impressed anyone at the major league level.  Too good for AAA, he’s a fifth outfielder hoping to step it up.  Stiil a kid – turns 24 in May – so there is room for growth.

Gregor Blanco – KC (24.9 Runs Created, -11.2 Runs Saved = 13.7 Total Runs Productivity)

A fifth outfielder who got too much playing time.  Can contribute a little with the bat, but hasn’t been a consistently good fielder.

Grady Sizemore – CLE (11.0 Runs Created, -11.2 Runs Saved, = -0.2 Total Runs Productivity)

Hasn’t been the same since the personal photo shoot.  Body has left him, skills haven’t been seen in a couple of years now.  I’m not sure he’ll ever be back.

2010 Season Forecast: Tampa Rays

Last Five Seasons:

2009: 84 – 78 (3rd AL East)
2008: 97 – 65
2007: 66 – 96
2006: 61 – 101
2005: 67 – 95

Runs Scored: 803 (5th AL)
Runs Allowed: 754 (7th AL)

Season Recap:

Optimism reigned supreme on the heels of an amazing run into to the World Series.  I warned you, however, that while the team looked good there were reasons to suspect that the Rays might under-perform.  The Rays were good, but couldn’t catch any breaks on the road and, as such, couldn’t keep up with the Yankees or Red Sox when the race got going.

The Rays were never really out of it despite a 9 – 14 April, and after a fantastic June (19 – 7) were in the thick of the race.  Unfortunately, the Yankees blew the doors open in July and August while the Rays suddenly got flat.  Scott Kazmir, unhealthy and unproductive was sent to Anaheim.  Carlos Pena, leading the AL in homers at the time, broke his wrist.  Troy Percival was injured and eventually hung up the spikes.  When September came calling, the Rays were far enough out to throw in the towel – and they did, fading from 13 over .500 to just six over at the end.

Pitching:

In 2008, backed by a sure-handed and mobile defense, the pitching over delivered.  In 2009, the defense slipped and a few holes were discovered in the rotation.  Matt Garza became the ace and James Shields – usually dependable – gave up 239 hits in 220 innings, 29 of them homers.  Scott Kazmir made just 20 starts and finished with an ERA just shy of 6.00…  Andy Sonnestine, as warned, was eminently hittable, finishing with a 6.77 ERA and earning the Anti-Cy – the pitcher costing his team the most runs with his below average pitching.

Two good things came out of the experimenting required by Joe Maddon.  Rookie David Price showed flashes, winning 10 games, and Jeff Niemann was even better, making 30 starts, winning 13 games, and showing good control and command.

In the bullpen, Troy Percival made just 14 appearances, eventually having to be replaced by J.P. Howell at the back end of the bullpen.  However, Maddon used a committee as required, as Randy Choate (5), Grant Balfour (4), Joe Nelson (3), and four others wound up with saves.

Looking ahead, the Rays should have a decent enough rotation.  Shields should bounce back some, Garza is back, Niemann returns, Price will get 30+ starts, and rookie Wade Davis should pick up 20 – 25 starts.  If Davis is even 10 runs below average, he’s saving the team 25 runs over last season.  15 more starts of David Price will be worth another 30 runs.  I like the rotation to be at least 50 runs better than in 2009.

The bullpen adds closer Rafael Soriano from Atlanta and returns the core of what has been a very dependable bullpen – Howell, Choate, Balfour, and Dan Wheeler.  I like the bullpen to be at least 15 runs better than in 2009 as well.

Catching:

Dioner Navarro is back – hopefully lighter than last year, as his bat slipped mightily in 2009.  He’s essentially a league average backstop – right on the average against the run, has a decent reputation with handling the pitchers but isn’t as mobile as you would like.  Kelly Shoppach was signed from Cleveland to back up Navarro – and he is good enough to take up the slack if Navarro slips some more.

Infield:

In 2008, the infield defense was a big reason that the Rays won the AL East.  However, Carlos Pena showed signed that he might not be as mobile as he had been as a gold glove caliber first baseman.  Additionally, his batting average fell to .227, though he did continue to get on base and knock out homers.  Pena has had an up and down career and, nearing 32, his prime seasons are nearly over.

Akinori Iwamura went down to a horrible knee injury, but returns to play for Pittsburgh.  The reason Iwamura was allowed to move was the remarkable season of Ben Zobrist, who fielded his position very well and broke out with 27 homers and a .407 OBP.

Jason Bartlett hit better than expected – finishing at .320 with a .490 slugging percentage – but ankle injuries affected his range and he went from someone worth of a gold glove to someone challenging Derek Jeter for the worst range at short.  One hopes he finds his old mobility, but if he produces 103 runs of offense, nobody will notice.

Evan Longoria remains the best third baseman in baseball – he looks like the new Mike Schmidt.  A 40 homer season wouldn’t be out of the question, as he finished with 33 homers in 2009 and had 44 doubles, too.

Backing this unit up is Willie Aybar, who can play third and first and hit well enough.  Reid Brignac is a prospect who appears to have hitting skills but hasn’t shown range in the field.

Outfield:

Carl Crawford returns in left field, as good a fielder as there is out in left and a very productive hitter.  Crawford is known for his 60 stolen bases, but he added 51 extra base hits while hitting .305.

B.J. Upton will be the wild card of 2010.  Battling shoulder and leg injuries, Upton’s range numbers in the outfield were problematic and he finished at .241 and didn’t slug .400.  For a while, Upton was at the top of the lineup and getting in the way.  If he bounces back and shows the form he displayed in the 2008 World Series, the Rays will get 30 extra runs of offense and 20 extra runs of defense.  If not, the Rays may not be able to compete.

Gabe Kapler and Gabe Gross shared right field (with Ben Zobrist, until he moved to second base).  Both are acceptable in the field, but don’t add much to the offense.  Matt Joyce, formerly of Detroit, may get the nod in 2010.  He’s got young legs and potential at the plate – 30 homer power though he might not make it if he doesn’t curb the strikeouts.  Desmond Jennings, a prospect at Durham, might sneak in and take over as well.

Backing these guys up are Zobrist and Aybar, as well as DH (and disappointment) Pat Burrell.  Burrell’s 14 – 64 – .221 season meant that the Rays will give former Ranger Hank Blalock a shot at the DH role in 2010.

Prospects:

Looking at AAA Durham, you see people who have already gotten a shot…  Justin Ruggiano has some power and speed but is a bit old as a prospect.  Reid Brignac and Matt Joyce are already Rays.  Among the pitchers, Wade Davis is going to make the roster after going 10 – 8 for the Bulls with a 3.40 ERA and a 140/60 K/BB ratio in 158.2 innings.  Jeremy Hellickson will likely start at Durham in 2010, but was 6 – 1 in nine starts at the end of the season last year with 70 Ks in 57.1 innings.  Hellickson is the ace in waiting for now.

Hellickson had 11 starts for AA Montgomery, winning three of four decisions with 62 Ks, 14 BBs, and only 41 hits allowed in 56.2 innings.  Only reliever Paul Phillips looked ready for AAA.  Aneury Rodriguez is young (22) and pitched okay for the Biscuits but could stand to improve his control.  The best hitter in AA was Desmond Jennings, who finished at .316 with 37 steals (caught just five times), earning a nod to Durham where he hit .325 there with 15 more steals.  Jennings could take over in centerfield if Upton gets hurt.

A+ Charlotte has a few pitchers to watch in AA next year to see if they can continue to command the strike zone in Jeremy Hall, Alexander Cobb, and Darin Downs.  All three had good ERAs, good strikeout and walk numbers, and winning records.

Bowling Green (A) featured Matt Moore, a live-armed kid who fanned 176 but walked 70 in 123 innings.  Josh Satow was the closer, getting 20 saves, strikeing out 65 and walking just 15 in 63 innings.  Andy Finch and I saw Tim Beckham and Kyeong Kang when touring the midwest last summer.  Beckham has the air of stardom and is still a teen.  Kang looks to have a little power, hit .307 and had a .390 OBP.

The Rays have a young roster, and they have PROSPECTS.

Outlook:

I like the Rays to be very competitive.  Unlike 2009, where I thought the team might take a step back from the World Series peak, I see reasons for optimism.  I think the starters, absent Sonnestine and Kazmir’s poor performances, will show improvement.  I like B.J. Upton’s chances of having a breakout season.  And, I’m optimistic that the Rays can close games better than in 2009.  Working against that is the fact that I think Zobrist may slip, Pena might age, and Bartlett may have peaked as a hitter.

I think the Rays will score a few more runs – maybe 810 – but allow a lot less, possibly as few as 680 runs.  If so, the Rays will win 95 games.  Working against this is the strength of the division, which includes what should be an improving Baltimore club.  So, despite what the system tells me, my hunch is that they might fall a few wins short of 95, and it might mean barely missing the playoffs.  Still, the system says 95 and that’s what I am putting on my board.

Top AL Centerfielders in 2009

In case you were curious, Boston’s new outfielder, Mike Cameron, produced more total runs (offensively and defensively combined) than any other AL centerfielder in 2009.  I would never have guessed this had I not run the numbers…  I don’t think that this will hold when he gets to the AL East, but you never know.  He could surprise us by staying young and avoiding curveballs.

Franklin Gutierrez (SEA):  A key player in Seattle’s improvement…  Mid-range power but has room to grow.  Defensively was as good as advertised.  His lone weakness would appear to be his lack of patience at the plate.  Cleveland is going to miss this guy…  (87.0 Runs Created, 14.4 Runs Saved = 101.34 Total Run Production)

Denard Span (MIN):  A valuable leadoff hitter with decent range in the outfield – had a OBP near .400 and stole 23 bases.  You gotta like that kind of production.  Span is one of the biggest reasons that the Twins won the AL Central…  (94.9 Runs Created, 4.2 Runs Saved = 99.15 Total Run Production)

Ryan Sweeney (OAK):  Can play this position, but is probably destined to play in right…  Would rank here if he was the starter.

Torii Hunter (LAA):  Missed time with injuries, else would have ranked #1.  By my count, this is the first time that he’s been better than average defensively in the last four seasons – and it could have been the time off.  Hunter’s season was very good – average was up, OBP and SLG were up.  However, that makes me think he might be due for a step back.  Doesn’t make me less of a fan – just more of a realist.  (87.4 Runs Created, 7.7 Runs Saved = 95.07 Total Run Production)

Curtis Granderson (DET):  Heads to the Yankees in a period of decline.  His batting average fell below .250, though he works for walks, hits for power, and steals bases.  Still – he was below average defensively and has slipped each of the last two seasons following his breakout 2007 season.  He’s a gas to watch play – I hope he finds his way back to greatness.  (96.7 Runs Created, -3.8 Runs Saved = 92.89 Total Run Production)

If you are a Detroit fan, you are probably going to want to know more about your new center fielder, Austin Jackson.  The Yankee prospect hit .300 and stole 24 bases at AAA Scranton last year.  Jackson has little power and if he’s a burner, isn’t stealing 60 bases but occasionally hitting the 30 mark – and he doesn’t get thrown out a lot.  He does, however, strike out a bit.  I like Scott Sizemore more than this guy, but he might be okay.  He’ll likely cover more ground than Granderson did – but I think he’ll be lucky to generate 80 runs of offense in 550 at bats without finding a way to get a few more extra base hits.

Adam Jones (BAL):  A poor man’s Franklin Gutierrez.  Great glove, medium range power, would like a higher batting average and OBP, can run the bases.  (73.4 Runs Created, 16.44 Runs Saved = 89.79 Total Run Production)

Jacoby Ellsbury (BOS):  In a year where he had awful defensive stats, he tied the record for outfield putouts in a game.  Go figure.  Led AL in steals with 70…  Gets to play the Monster in 2010…  Let’s say that Ellsbury will look better defensively and maintain his offensive production as a left fielder.  Last year, Jason Bay was worth more than 130 runs of production.  At BEST, Ellsbury will be worth 100.  That’s a three game difference in the standings.  (102.8 Runs Created, -16.5 Runs Saved = 86.28 Total Run Production)

Scott Podsednik (CWS):  Now in Kansas City – and God Forbid the Sox actually put Juan Pierre here.  Podsednik was pretty much an Ellsbury clone.  Ellsbury’s numbers: .301/.415/.358 – Podsednik’s numbers: .304/.412/.354.  Podsednik stole only 30 bases and got fewer total plate appearances – and plays in a slightly better park for hitters.  Still – not much difference.  Podsednik, however, made up for the offensive production with a solid year defensively.  The Royals should be happy with Studriffic Podsednik – but even with that isn’t more than a one or two year option.  (81.5 Runs Created, 4.7 Runs Saved = 86.24 Total Run Production)

Grady Sizemore (CLE):  Tried to play the whole season, but eventually his body broke down and he needed surgery on just about every part of his body.  Must have happened after the pictures were taken…  Anyway…  Sizemore bounced back a little with his range and despite the .248 batting average was able to generate offense because he works the count for walks and hits for some power.  He was a poor man’s Curtis Granderson with a long DL trip.  (75.3 Runs Created, 1.9 Runs Saved = 77.22 Total Run Production)

Alex Rios, if he played a full season in center, would probably rank about here.  Cited by some as having one of the worst contracts in baseball, Rios turned one year in his youth into a multi-year mammoth contract.  Forced to play right field because the Blue Jays insisted on playing Vernon Wells in center (wasting 20 runs a year defensively that their pitchers would like back) – Rios would have been a top flight defender with tolerable offense and, as such, would likely rank near the top of this list.  He’s no longer a GREAT centerfielder – he’s probably league average – and there’s a chance that his bat will bounce back.  At this point, however, he’s likely staying in right for the Sox and one hopes he doesn’t struggle to hit .200 as he did after arriving in Chicago.

Marlon Byrd (TEX):  Look at your new center fielder, Chicago.  For the first time ever, Byrd reached out and hit 20 homers.  He might do that in Wrigley Field if the wind blows out – but more likely he’ll be around 12.  He does hit a few doubles though.  His OBP is league average (.334) and that won’t change next year.  And, he’s miscast as a centerfielder.  Granted – this is still better than having to put Kosuke Fukudome out there or even Sam Fuld, but if Marlon Byrd is a championship level player, I don’t see it.  Jim Hendry, stop getting players from Texas.  (85.5 Runs Created, -11.6 Runs Saved = 73.83 Total Run Production)

The new center fielder in Texas will be Julio Borbon, a burner out of the University of Tennessee who has been a consistent .310 hitter in the minors and even hit .312 in his two months with the Rangers.  He can fly – he’s my early pick to lead the AL in stolen bases.  Not sure if he’ll lead off, too. I DON’T expect him to have the defensive impact that Elvis Andrus had, but playing him there where he has a chance to be league average, as opposed to playing Hamilton or Byrd there will still help the team.

Rajai Davis (OAK):  He ranks pretty low here, but give him 1300 innings in center and 600 at bats.  Unless he gets a case of Jerome Walton disease, he’s going to help the cause a lot.  Decent OBP and batting average but no power, covers enough ground.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s given the lead off spot, gets 180 – 200 hits, and scores 110 runs.  (69.1 Runs Created, 2.4 Runs Saved = 71.58 Total Run Production)

B.J. Upton (TB):  Coming out of the World Series, didn’t you think Upton was on the verge of becoming a superstar?  It didn’t happen.  Injuries sapped his power, his batting average, and his range in the outfield.  He’s an electrifying player – but last year wasn’t his thing.  (73.1 Runs Created, -2.2 Runs Saved = 70.92 Total Run Production)

Vernon Wells (TB):  When I listed Alex Rios as having one of the worst contracts in baseball, it’s got NOTHING on the deal that Toronto gave Vernon Wells.  Slipping with the bat, has been a problem with his poor range in center.  The time has come to find a speedster to take over center field for the last remaining team in Canada.  15 – 66 – .260 isn’t going to cut it if you are costing your team more than 15 runs a season with the glove…  And don’t let the total runs created number fool you.  The average hitter generates 5 runs for every 27 outs made.  Wells is around 4.7 (84.6 Runs Created, -16.8 Runs Saved = 67.83 Total Run Production)

Melky Cabrera (NYY):  The job belongs to Granderson or Brett Gardner now.  Your new Atlanta Brave centerfielder was your league average offensive player (13 – 68 – .274) with slightly below average range.  Unless he has a significant step up left in his body, he’s not going to be a championship calibre player.  He’s better than what Kansas City played out there, but that’s not saying very much.  Gardner has better range than Cabrera (6.6 runs saved in fewer innings) – and if he can push his OBP up near .400, might be a better hitter, too.  (71.5 Runs Created, -6.5 Runs Saved = 65.00 Total Run Production)

Carlos Gomez (MIN):  Now in Minnesota, Gomez was an AMAZING defensive player, but can’t hit a lick.  No average (.229), no power (3 homers, .337 SLG), no walks (.287 OBP), runs a little.  If he hits .260 and gets his OBP closer to .340, the Brewers will get a steal.  As such, they get a #8 hitter who makes all the pitchers look good.  (31.1 Runs Created, 20.0 Runs Saved = 51.02 Total Run Production)

Mitch Maier (KC):  Coco Crisp was mightily disappointing – injured a lot, didn’t hit when he did play, and wasn’t quite league average as a fielder.  Crisp is destined four fourth outfielder status somewhere after this year…  Mitch Maier played the most innings, was pretty good with the leather, and while he didn’t hit much, still produced more than 50 runs.  He’ll be a fourth outfielder in KC and get innings that Podsednik misses.

Josh Hamilton (TEX):  Suffered through a ton of shoulder and stomach and groin injuries – isn’t really a centerfielder to be fair and should be in right field.  Struggled to produce at the pace he did in 2008 – in fact was slightly below average when all was said and done.  Pulling for another comeback as a right fielder.  (45.0 Runs Created, -3.8 Runs Saved = 41.22 Total Run Production)

NOTES:  Having done this, none of the centerfielders had a breakout season the way the other positions had someone who was in the 130 runs produced level…  It’ll be interesting to see if anyone can take a step up in 2010.  My money is on Denard Span.

Jeter Ties Gehrig; Ripken’s Monument Recovered

Cue Tim Kurkjian – it’s time for the Derek Jeter retrospective…  Jeter’s third hit last night (breaking an 0 – 12 streak) tied him with Lou Gehrig atop the all-time list for most hits in a Yankees uniform.  Certainly Jeter is worthy – a heads up player who hustles every night, plays nearly every day, and is nearly universally accepted as the face of MLB.  Congratulations are certainly in order.  [ESPN]

So how many more hits does Jeter have in him?  Averaging 160 hits a year until he’s 40 (not a total stretch; he’d have to stay healthy and near the top of the lineup to do it), he’d have 3500+ hits.  He’d have to change positions or seriously exceed 160 hits per season to make a legitimate run at 4000 hits (not impossible).  Personally, I think Rose’s hit record is likely safe, but if Jeter hits 40 closer to 3750 hits and is still batting around .310 when he gets to 40, he’d at least have a shot.  Is Jeter capable of playing until he’s 44 or 45?

Another player who could make the 3000 hit club is just four hits shy of his ninth straight 200 hit season – Ichiro Suzuki.  Ichiro would pass the record previously held by Wee Willie Keeler, who had 200 hits each year from 1894 to 1901.  Ichiro already has 2001 MLB hits, and 1278 hits while playing in Japan, putting him about 5 years shy of Pete Rose’s career mark if you combine the two leagues.  Now – to be fair, playing in Japan is a far cry from playing in the majors, but they also play shorter seasons.  Rose had another 427 hits as a minor leaguer playing in the Reds chain, so perhaps Ichiro should be gunning for 4683 total professional hits…  [MLB]

One more Tim Kurkjian moment…  Brian Roberts collected his 50th double last night, the third time he has done that, joining Tris Speaker (5), Paul Waner (3), and Stan Musial (3) as the only players to have had 50 or more doubles in three or more seasons.  [MLB]

Dodgers pitcher Randy Wolf thinks he followed in the footsteps of Randy Johnson – injuring his elbow swinging a bat.  Word is that Wolf will miss at least one start with tightness in his elbow, but you never know.  Thankfully, Hiroki Kuroda is back.  [ESPN]

Meanwhile, teammate Clayton Kershaw will miss a start after bruising his shoulder shagging flies during batting practice.  Kershaw ran into an auxiliary scoreboard – with his right (non-throwing) shoulder.  When he can deal with the pain, he’ll pitch again.  [FoxSports]

Phillies pitching woes continue…  Scott Eyre is getting an examination on his elbow, and J.A. Happ will miss a start with an oblique strain.  Jamie Moyer gets the start in Happ’s absence.  [ESPN]

Boston knuckleballer Tim Wakefield will get a cortisone shot to help his ailing lower back, hoping to coax a start out of the 43-year-old pitcher about ten days from now.  [MLB]

Speaking of bumps and bruises…  Cardinal outfielder Matt Holliday stumbled running out a grounder and bruised his knee and is day-to-day.  And B.J. Upton’s ankle is bothering him – he looked slow chasing a Derek Jeter double in the fifth and was pulled by manager Joe Maddon.  [MLB]

Four men were arrested and charged with stealing the aluminum “8” that honors Cal Ripken, Jr. outside of Camden Yards.  While the monument was recovered, it’s not yet known if the monument can be remounted on its base.  [SI]

The Twins activated Francisco Liriano off the DL, but announced that the disappointing starter is now going to be used out of the bullpen for the rest of the year.  [SI]

The Orioles acquired Sean Henn from the Twins for future considerations (cash or a minor leaguer).  Henn is a long-time Yankees prospect who is now with his fourth organization (also San Diego).  The 28-year-old had a few other MLB trips, but hasn’t stuck – so consider Henn “organizational depth”; he’s not a prospect at this stage of his career.  [SI]

A frustrated Jose Reyes still wants to try to play in 2009, and has even offered to play winter ball to be ready for the 2010 season.  Reyes hasn’t played since late May – when the Mets were just one game out of first…  Seems so long ago, doesn’t it?  [FoxSports]

Welcome Back! Those returning from the DL include Dexter Fowler (Rockies), Jeff Karstens (Pirates), Ryan Hanigan (Reds), Brendan Donnelly (Marlins), Donald Veal (Pirates) and Joe Crede (Twins).

Harwell Has Cancer; And Other News (but not nearly as important…)

Legendary Hall of Fame broadcaster for the Detroit Tigers, Ernie Harwell announced today that he has incurable cancer of the bile duct.  Doctors told him that surgery wasn’t really an option, and so Harwell’s days are likely numbered (well – all of are, he just has a better idea of his).  I listed to Harwell on a transistor radio at nights as a kid, and while his impact on my baseball life wasn’t that of Jack Brickhouse, he was one of my favorites.  Harwell spent 42 years at the mic for Detroit, and was Brooklyn’s replacement for an ill Red Barber.  [FoxSports]

In other Tigers news, Jarrod Washburn will miss a start to rest his ailing knee…  [FoxSports]

A move I will always support, Boston closer Jonathon Papelbon was fined $5000 for slow pitching.  Now, if they would only fine batters for the same thing…  [FoxSports]

Mets 3B David Wright is back to his old helmet, days after trying the newer Rawlings helmet, which is rated to 100 MPH, but is bulkier and 50% heavier than the standard model.  [FanNation/SI]

Rays centerfielder B.J. Upton rolled his ankle when he collided with Carl Crawford chasing a fly ball last night.  He’s day-to-day.  [MLB]

Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton has a pinched nerve in his lower back and will miss a couple of games, but he’s listed as day-to-day.  [MLB]

Trade News… Texas acquired pitching prospect Danny Gutierrez from the Royals for two minor leaguers: Tim Smith and Manual Pina.  Gutierrez has been reasonably successful, getting better every year with good control and decent strikeout numbers.  He missed part of 2009 resting a tender shoulder – which would be problematic over time.  Tim Smith is an outfielder with good speed, understands the strike zone, and has shown a little power.  Manuel Pina is a catcher – kind of a slap hitter who makes contact, but doesn’t necessarily have patience (Miguel Olivo with less power).  But if you read the news article, this seems like a very Royals type trade.  Get rid of a decent minor league pitcher for two injured players…

Welcome Back! The Marlins activated Nick Johnson off the DL (hamstring), and St. Louis pitcher Todd Wellemeyer returns from the DL…

Race Watch! At least the NL Wild Card race is interesting; the division races are about over.  With Boston taking two from Tampa, the best AL race might be the tightening AL West race…

2009 Season Forecast: Tampa Rays

Tampa Bay Rays
2008: 97-65 (1st AL East, League Champions)
Runs Scored: 774
Runs Allowed: 671

What a ride!  A team that had never before approached .500 made a series of impressive moves, getting younger and more talented, adding a key veteran as necessary, and getting skilled guidance from a manager who looks like a science teacher and believes in winning.

At the outset, many people predicted that they would be improved.  A few people, including me, thought they would be above .500 and possibly competitive – and the Rays went further than that.  They held down the high powered offenses of the AL East, held off Boston not only for the division crown but also for a trip to the World Series, and look to be a team that might be among the best teams in the AL for the foreseeable future.

Looking Back on 2008

To anyone who really studied what the Rays did, you really have to start with the defense.  In 2007, there were a TON of holes.  You had two outfielders who couldn’t find their way to the ball in Delmon Young and Elijah Dukes.  You had weak play at second and short, especially Brendan Harris – who really is better than he played in 2007, but wasn’t very good that year.  The bullpen was atrocious and a few starters were not long term solutions but just warm bodies, which meant that there were too many people on base.  Batters would walk or the ball would find holes or even leave the park.  The 2007 Rays allowed more than 900 runs.

The trade of Harris and Young to Minnesota for Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza immediately improved the team by 70 runs.  Bartlett is an amazing shortstop, acrobatic and sure.  Garza is a legitimate starter – an upgrade over Casey Fossum.  Getting Evan Longoria to the big leagues and moving Akinori Iwamura to second put a tremendous defender at the hot corner, and Iwamura was solid at second.  Not especially rangy, but good on the double play and not prone to errors.

What this did, of course, by strengthening the infield defense (Strengthen? It was air tight!) was give the Rays pitchers confidence that no matter where the ball was put in play, it was going to be turned into an out.  So, pitchers just needed to throw strikes.  If they did that, they would strike a few more people out and the fielders would turn batted balls into outs.  Stress free pitching.

When it was all over, the Rays pitchers were near the top of the league in strikeouts.  They cut the walks down – they allowed fewer free passes than the league average.  The high strikeout count meant fewer balls in play, but even there it didn’t matter because no team in the American League was even CLOSE to the efficiency of the Rays defense.  Nobody turned more balls in play into outs than Tampa.  And, those that got on base were removed by double plays at a well above league average rate.  Oh, and the catching was above average against the run, and with hardly anyone on base anyway, nobody allowed fewer stolen bases than Tampa.

Oh yeah.  The offense wasn’t horrible either.  About as good as the Yankees last year.

One other quick thing before we talk about the specifics – the pitching staff was remarkably healthy.  Scott Kazmir was out a little early in the year, but after that you had four guys make at least 30 starts and Kazmir had 27 starts.  Troy Percival injured his hamstring at the end of the season, but the rest of the staff was pretty stable.  And that didn’t hurt either.

Tell me about that offense

Looking up and down the lineup, what you see are no superstars, but no weak sisters either.  The average hitter can be expected to put about 4.7 runs per 27 outs on the scoreboard, no regular on the Rays was below that.

Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena serve as the power bookends.  Pena dropped a bit from 2007’s peak season numbers, but still hit 32 homers and knocked in 102.  He strikes out a lot (166 times), but he draws walks.  Longoria, for a rookie, hit like Mike Lowell in his early years – good power, RBIs, and a decent .272 batting average.  Had he played a full season of games, he would have cleared 30 – 100 himself.  In between, Iwamura and Bartlett weren’t huge run producers, but slapped the ball around enough to contribute.  Backup Willy Aybar had a decent season – mid range power, a few walks, and above league average production in 300-plus at bats.

In the outfield, B. J. Upton’s power numbers were down – he and Carl Crawford had similar power numbers – but both contributed offensively.  In Upton’s case, he’s still young and the Up(ton) side is scary high.  A collection of helpers played in right and the designated hitter role, all being productive when called upon.  Cliff Floyd, Rocco Baldelli, Ben Zobrist, Gabe Gross, and Eric Hinske all contributed – giving the Rays a variety of options for the daily scorecard.

Behind the plate, Dioner Navarro just missed .300 by a couple of hits – and had a number of game changing hits.  His backup, Shawn Riggans, was one of only two players with at least 80 at bats who was a below average run producer (Johnny Gomes was the other).  However, neither was WAY below average – they just didn’t have big seasons in about 150 at bats.

Defensively:

I discussed the net results before – but here are the details.  Longoria had a positive range factor of 6.3 – meaning he made six plays more than the average third basemen for every 800 balls in play.  He also started 26 double plays while making only 12 errors, which means that he helped save his pitchers some 15 runs over the course of the season.  Iwamura was average in terms of range, but well above average in his double play ratio (109 DPs, only 7 errors), so he helped save another three or four runs.  Bartlett’s range is slightly better than Longoria’s (6.5); he was saving his team twelve runs.  Despite all three fielders making more plays than expected, Pena continued with his solid defensive play, making an above average number of plays after taking out the assists of his fielders.

Crawford and Upton were better than average fielders, each saving his team more than 10 runs with above average range.  Hinske was great in right, not so good in left, but the net was okay.  Gabe Gross came over and gave the team seven above average fielders behind the pitcher on a day-to-day basis.  Johnny Gomes and Hinske were the only regulars to show below average defensive numbers.  Willy Aybar and Ben Zobrist were decent fielding options.

Dioner Navarro was a pretty good catcher, though slightly mistake prone and not necessarily very mobile.  Riggans is a solid number two, and even better than Navarro against the run.

Now Pitching…

Knowing how good the defense was, you have to look at the pitchers a bit differently.  Both James Shields and Scott Kazmir are good pitchers – but they are not GREAT pitchers.  They had a lot of help.  Matt Garza was actually slightly below average once you remove the help of his defenders, and both Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnestine were below average.

The average ERA in the AL last year was 4.34.  For Tampa Bay, the team finished at 3.82.  However, by my count, the team’s defense was 109 runs better than the average AL squad.  That means that, on the whole, the Rays pitching was actually slightly WORSE than average.

Pitcher Innings Runs Allowed Modified Runs Allowed RA/9 MRA/9
Scott Kazmir 152.33 61 73 3.60 4.31
James Shields 215 94 112 3.93 4.69
Matt Garza 184.67 83 99 4.05 4.82
Andy Sonnestine 193.33 105 125 4.89 5.82
Edwin Jackson 183.33 91 108 4.47 5.30

Looking at it this way, only the top two starters were better than league average (and Shields only barely), Garza was at league average (slightly below, actually), and Jackson and Sonnestine will be fighting for a job once David Price is moved into the rotation.

The bullpen had a couple of great performances from Grant Balfour and J.P Howell – but the rest were average to below average performances.  (Okay, Dan Wheeler was above average, too.)   The good news was that, with five guys logging more innings than any Rays staff before, the bullpen wasn’t usually exposed.  And, they got help from the defense behind them.  The weakest reliever in a key role was Troy Percival.  Balfour’s season, even after taking the defense into consideration, was truly remarkable.  Less than a hit allowed every HALF inning, 82 strikouts in 58.1 innings, only three homers allowed.  One of the greatest seasons by a middle reliever/set up man ever.  By the way, moving Price to the closer role in the playoffs was a necessity – the rest of the bullpen after Balfour and Howell weren’t all that good anyway.

Forecasting 2009:

Last year, the Rays scored 774 runs and allowed just 671.  So, to remain at 90+ wins, they have to keep things the same – outscore their opponents by 100 runs. 

The only real change on offense will be replacing Cliff Floyd and Johnny Gomes with Pat Burrell at the DH position.  Burrell is a consistent hitter and if he can stay involved in games (and not have to play the field), that could be worth 10 or 15 more runs.  The rest of the offense (and defense) is relatively unchanged.  While the players might be a little better, the only ones who have a chance to be REALLY improved are B. J. Upton and Evan Longoria.  Upton is coming off of shoulder surgery in November, so he might not be ready on opening day.   Longoria could step up, too, but his replacement (Willie Aybar) had a good season last year anyway – so it might only net to about five runs.  Longoria might have a sophomore slump for a short period of time and have to get his bearings.  If he doesn’t, though, he could have a Matt Williams type season.  Maybe a peak Troy Glaus season.  If so, that’s a ten to fifteen run increase.  Since so many bench players had solid seasons, it’s not unreasonable to think that one or two of them might not have a good run in 150 at bats – so that would negate that benefit.  I think the Rays MIGHT get to 800 runs, but more realistically, they’ll be not too far off from where they are now.

Defensively, the team will remain solid if everyone remains healthy and Pat Burrell isn’t asked to play the field.  If so, life is good and the pitchers will benefit.  If not – especially if the lost player is Bartlett or Iwamura, or even Upton, that means trouble – ten to fifteen runs of trouble.  The one real opportunity for immediate improvement is the addition of David Price to the rotation.  Price will certainly be an upgrade on Edwin Jackson or Andy Sonnestine, so that could make up for 20 runs of potential decline in other areas.  Howell, Wheeler, and Balfour were so good last year that they really can’t be expected to turn in the same seasons, and if Percival really is the closer, this could be a problem because the defense hid the fact that he really wasn’t all that good.  Jason Isringhausen got a non-roster invite to spring training, and I hope he isn’t pressed into closer duty.

Throw in the fact that the Rays were actually a little bit over their heads last year (the Blue Jays had essentially the same differential in runs scored and runs allowed, but finished with an unlucky 86 wins), and one wonders if the Rays might actually decline a little bit.  A slow start or small slump, and the team struggles with expectations – next thing you know it’s 85 – 77 and not 95 – 67.  My best guess is that the team will win 92 games and be right in the thick of the playoff hunt.  If Las Vegas odds makers have the Rays winning 92, though, I’m playing the under.

Down on the Farm…

Justin Ruggiano was the best outfielder and hitter at AAA Durham, hitting 11 homers with 20 steals – a good combination of speed and power – in just half a season.  However, he doesn’t walk much (22 in about 280 plate appearances).  Still, he’s as good as Gabe Gross, just as mobile in the field, though learning at the plate.  Mitch Talbot might get a shot as a starter or long reliever after going 13 – 9 for the Bulls, with good K/W data and few homers allowed.  Jeremy Cummings and Dale Thayer had good years, but are too old to be considered as prospects.

The best player at AA Montgomery (the Biscuits!) was David Price, and he’s not going to be heading back unless it’s a rehab assignment.  Chris Nowak might be a future third base prospect, but not in Tampa Bay.  Cesar Valdez led Visalia (A+) posting a 10 – 3 record with good control.  Jeremy Hellickson ripped through Vero Beach (A+), going 7 – 1 in 14 starts, with 83 Ks against only 5 walks (!) in nearly 77 innings.  He was quickly moved to Montgomery and held his own.  Hellickson will be on the major league team if he keeps at this rate – though probably not until 2010.