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 Right Fielders

Jose Bautista – TOR (131.3 Runs Created, -7.3 Runs Saved = 124.0 Total Runs Productivity)

Earned a long term contract by having the greatest fluke season in the last 50 years.  An historic improvement over his previous career.  Let’s get to what he can do…  He’s a pretty good infielder and wasn’t very good as a right fielder.  He MIGHT be able to stay around 30 homers for a couple of years.  One fears for him, however, if he gets off to a really slow start in 2011 and it starts to get into his head around June.

Ichiro Suzuki – SEA (115.6 Runs Created, 5.8 Runs Saved = 121.4 Total Runs Productivity)

Fell off a little in 2010 and was still a remarkable hit machine.  Still can fly, still can throw, still can slap singles all over the place.  3678 hits in professional baseball means he’s probably three to four years away from Pete Rose – and four to five years away from 3000 hits as a major leaguer, which would likely assure his place in the Hall of Fame, not that he should have a problem racing in there when he’s done.  Can you tell that, at 37, he’s lost a step?  I don’t see it.

Nelson Cruz – TEX (86.8 Runs Created, 25.9 Runs Saved = 112.7 Total Runs Productivity)

Imagine how good Cruz would have been had he played 154 games instead of 108.  Totally capable of a 30 homer, 100 RBI season, batting well over .300, stealing 25 bases, and with eye popping defensive stats.  2010 season projected to 162 games, we’re talking 160 or more runs of value – MVP type numbers.  Scary good.

Nick Swisher – NYY (95.9 Runs Created, 14.5 Runs Saved = 110.4 Total Runs Productivity)

A decent outfielder in a position where he’ll get a lot of fly balls because teams occasionally load up the lineup with guys who try to hit homers over his head.  A decent power hitter who, if he played in Minnesota, might have stats that look like Jason Kubel’s instead.  And yet, even after you adjust for things like that, he comes out looking like a VERY valuable player.  He is.

Torii Hunter will be playing in right field for much of 2011 and had started that process at the end of 2010.  As a right fielder, Hunter would likely be ranked right here (109.8 Total Runs Productivity).

Shin-Soo Choo – CLE (114.9 Runs Created, -7.2 Runs Saved = 107.7 Total Runs Productivity)

A truly impressive player; 20/20 club, with 90 RBI, .400+ OBP, though his defensive range fell off in 2010.  Deserves a chance to play where people can see how good he really is.  At the age where he could have a truly break-out season, so he might be worth eying in your fantasy draft.

Ben Zobrist – TB (79.9 Runs Created, 14.4 Runs Saved = 94.3 Total Runs Productivity)

His batting average fell way off, as did his power, in 2010 and yet he was STILL very productive because he can run, he drew 92 walks, and can play every position on the field except, perhaps, catcher.  One of my favorite players, in part, because he’s the type of player I wished I could be when I was a little leaguer.

Nick Markakis – BAL (97.9 Runs Created, -7.1 Runs Saved = 90.8 Total Runs Productivity)

Durable player, below average range but a big arm, seems to be losing power though he hits a lot of doubles (45 in 2010).  Has gone from a number three, four, or five hitter to a number two hitter.  Like Choo, just turned 27, so this could be his big year.

Michael Cuddyer – MIN (88.9 Runs Created, 1.2 Runs Saved = 90.1 Total Runs Productivity)

The right fielder for the first half of the season, and the first baseman after Morneau went down to an injury.  Actually played slightly better defensively as a first baseman, but wasn’t awful in the outfield either.  Power fell off with the move to the new Target field and, when he turns 32 in March, will have reached the point in his career where he will leave his peak years and head into his decline phase.

Bobby Abreu – LAA (99.9 Runs Created, -13.3 Runs Saved = 86.6 Total Runs Productivity)

His batting average fell to .255, but he still created just shy of 100 runs.  A defensive liability, so perhaps it’s time to become a DH.  People see the stolen base numbers and assume he can cover ground in the outfield – until they see him try to cut off a fly ball.  Is Abreu a Hall of Famer?  Let the discussion begin.

Jason Kubel – MIN (73.4 Runs Created, -5.0 Runs Saved = 68.4 Total Runs Productivity)

A poor fielder, who is usually asked to DH, but had to play in the field more after Justin Morneau’s injury.  He did the best he could and remains a productive player.

Brennan Boesch – DET (64.0 Runs Created, 4.0 Runs Saved = 68.0 Total Runs Productivity)

Also played in left field – nearly full time combined.  He’s got mid-range power, can cover some ground, a bit better eye than Ryan Raburn.  If nothing else, when the Tigers kept Damon or Ordonez as a DH, they had a young and mobile outfield.  Damon is gone now, so both Raburn and Boesch will get 550 at bats rather than 400.

J.D. Drew – BOS (72.1 Runs Created, -7.0 Runs Saved = 65.1 Total Runs Productivity)

Still a productive player, despite a body that has never really been able to take a 150 game schedule, much less 162.  Now 35 and in his decline phase, the Red Sox will need to be looking for his replacement.

I don’t know if you remember how his career started.  When he came out of Florida State, he was the big deal – but he never signed when drafted in 1997 because he and the Phillies couldn’t agree as to the value of such a high draft pick (#2).  After playing a year for free as a member of the St. Paul Saints, he was drafted again by the Cards and immediately became the top prospect in MLB.  In his first cup of coffee, he hit .417 with five homers in 36 at bats.  His rookie season was off, he never stayed healthy, and for a couple of years, he was a nomad.  Only once has he hit .300, or hit 30 homers, or driven in 100 runs (okay, he also hit .323 but in only 109 games and wouldn’t have qualified for a batting title).  And, he never did any of those in the same season.  Considering how he was viewed then, and now looking back after playing in nearly 1500 games, he seems like a disappointment.

Magglio Ordonez – DET (58.9 Runs Created, -0.5 Runs Saved = 58.4 Total Runs Productivity)

Another player in his decline phase – missed half the 2010 season.  Still hits when he’s in the lineup – and that near-league average defensive rating is a half-season accident.  He’s not that good.  Now 37, his career won’t long after he hits his 300th homer (he’s at 289).  I just got done calling Drew a minor bust.  Magglio hit 30 homers four times, cleared 100 RBIs seven times, and his career average is .312.  I’ll miss him when he’s gone.

Carlos Quentin – CHI (70.3 Runs Created, -13.5 Runs Saved = 56.8 Total Runs Productivity)

Still has prodigious power, is losing his range.  That being said, his 2010 season is exactly the kind of player he is.  He hits about .250 with good power and has a decent idea of the strike zone.  He is more like his 2010 season than his breakout 2008 season.  At 28, he is still young enough to have slightly better seasons, but I wouldn’t be counting on .270 as much as just hoping for it.

David DeJesus – KC (60.4 Runs Created, -7.1 Runs Saved = 53.3 Total Runs Productivity)

As a hitter, a poor man’s Carl Crawford.  Defensively, he plays well in left, but he was moved to right field in 2010.  Injured his thumb, requiring surgery, crashing into the wall at Yankee Stadium.  Will help the Oakland As next year, but is nearing the end of the peak phase of his career (31).  It may take a couple of months to find what little power he has, and isn’t in a park where he can hit homers anyway.

Matt Joyce – TB (42.1 Runs Created, 4.9 Runs Saved = 47.0 Total Runs Productivity)

Plays a lot of right field because Ben Zobrist will play everywhere else to give someone a day off.  Has some power, respects the strike zone, and is a solid defensive player.  He could start for a lot of teams and be an immediate improvement.

Ryan Sweeney – OAK (41.2 Runs Created, 3.9 Runs Saved = 45.1 Total Runs Productivity)

Chronic knee pain required season ending surgery on his right knee, but his left knee isn’t always 100% either.  A fourth outfielder type on a good team because he hits for a decent average, though with absolutely no power, can play both corner outfield positions well and, if necessary, won’t embarrass you in center – which reminds you of Greg Gross.  Could be a pinch hitter for another decade, or more.

Andruw Jones – CHI (45.0 Runs Created, -5.7 Runs Saved = 39.3 Total Runs Productivity)

An old version of Carlos Quentin.  I thought I would never write that, for sure.

2010 Top AL Shortstops

Alexei Ramirez – CHI (76.7 Runs Created, 32.1 Runs Saved = 108.8 Total Runs Production)

After an odd year where his bat fell and he couldn’t hit any doubles, Ramirez had a stunning 2010 season.  He slugged .431 thanks to 18 homers and 29 doubles, his batting average was a more than acceptable .282, and he scored 83 runs.  His glove work was spectacular, really – a ball magnet who also helped on the double play.  He earned the new contract…

Cliff Pennington – OAK (66.6 Runs Created, 26.9 Runs Saved = 93.5 Total Runs Production)

Would you have believed he was the second best shortstop in the AL?  His bat is marginally better than average, he played a lot of games, and his defensive range is stunning. His replacing Marco Scutaro was one of many reasons the As moved up in the standings last year.

Elvis Andrus – TEX (63.8 Runs Created, 26.0 Runs Saved = 89.8 Total Runs Production)

Has NO power, but slaps a few singles, draws some walks, and can scoot a little around the bases.  Oh – and he’s probably the best glove in the AL.  Robbed of the gold glove again, but will start winning it probably this year.  The voters are weird about these things…

Alex Gonzalez – TOR/ATL (77.3 Runs Created, -0.4 Runs Saved = 76.9 Total Runs Production)

The wind was blowing out, huh?  Had a great first half, which allowed Toronto to trade him while his stock was up to Atlanta for Escobar.  I always liked him when he was a Marlin – did a lot of good things.  Still can play enough, but isn’t a long term solution for anyone anymore and he can’t seem to stay somewhere longer than a year…

Yunel Escobar – ATL/TOR (53.5 Runs Created, 18.3 Runs Saved = 71.8 Total Runs Production)

Struggled mightily last year with Atlanta, came to Toronto and started to show signs of life.  I think he’ll rebound in 2011 and is going to be worth a late round draft pick in your fantasy leagues.

Jhonny Peralta – CLE/DET (69.7 Runs Created, 2.1 Runs Saved = 71.8 Total Runs Production)

Moved to third base in Cleveland, then brought to Detroit in hopes that he could solve the shortstop problem and keep Detroit in contention down the stretch.  He’s really not a very good defensive shortstop (he was a pretty good third baseman, though), but there are plenty of guys who are worse than him still getting chances to play.  And Peralta can put a few runs on the board, too.

Yuniesky Betancourt – KC (65.3 Runs Created, 5.3 Runs Created = 70.6 Total Runs Production)

He actually had a pretty good season on the surface…  Some power, he cut down the strikeouts, and fielded his position pretty well.  I can’t tell if anyone thinks he’s a championship type player, but he isn’t hurting you either.

Reid Brignac – TB (40.3 Runs Created, 14.3 Runs Saved = 54.6 Total Runs Production)

Hits like Ben Zobrist and played well enough in the field to allow Jason Bartlett to hit the road in 2011.  The Rays will be just fine.

Derek Jeter – NYY (80.0 Runs Created, -27.4 Runs Saved = 52.6 Total Runs Production)

Was the top shortstop last year because his offense made up for his total lack of defensive range.  He got a lot of at bats at the top of the Yankee order but was a league average hitter – which knocked him well down the ladder in 2010.  He can bounce back a little offensively, but he may not have a position with this team – except as captain.  The Yankees were in a tough position in dealing with Jeter, who really is a superstar as a personality, but no longer as a player.  Realistically, he only has a couple of years left unless he bounces back a lot in 2011.

Erick Aybar – LAA (62.0 Runs Created, -9.7 Runs Created = 52.3 Total Runs Production)

Not his best season –  has little power, doesn’t get on base or slap a bunch of singles, and didn’t play his best shortstop last year.  Can do better, and will have to if the Angels want to win the division again.

Ramon Santiago – DET (36.0 Runs Created, 11.6 Runs Saved = 47.6 Total Runs Production)

Four players got time here, including Adam Everett (some glove, no bat at all) and Danny Worth (not yet ready for the majors).  Santiago was nearly effective in the role last year, but it was a fluke and he really isn’t the answer.

Jason Bartlett – TB (61.6 Runs Created, -16.4 Runs Saved = 45.2 Total Runs Production)

No longer the rangy shortstop of two or three years ago, still contributes with the bat even when his average slips to .250.  Hits a few doubles, gets on base, and can still run smartly around the paths.

Marco Scutaro – BOS (79.9 Runs Created, -35.1 Runs Saved = 44.8 Total Runs Production)

That didn’t work out, did it…  Scutaro wasn’t blessed with great range when he was younger, and after signing the big deal in Boston, he really fell off the map defensively.  Offensively, he’s still pretty good, with a decent eye and a bit of power.  But if you are looking for reasons that the Boston pitching struggled in 2010 it starts right here.

J.J. Hardy – MIN (44.3 Runs Created, 0.2 Runs Saved = 44.5 Total Runs Production)

Only played 101 games, but was reasonably productive when he played.  Not appreciably different from Betancourt – just less playing time.  Alexi Casilla is currently listed as the new starter – a slap hitter with some range, but to be honest – might be a step down from Hardy.

Josh Wilson – SEA (33.5 Runs Created, 8.9 Runs Created = 42.4 Total Runs Production)

Does a good Jack Wilson impersonation – a bit less offense and a bit less defense (a little less range, a bit more error prone), but also a bit younger.  Not the answer without a serious upgrade in his output, which isn’t likely, and will have to be replaced if Seattle is going to compete.

Asdrubal Cabrera – CLE (45.6 Runs Created, -9.5 Runs Saved = 36.1 Total Runs Production)

Not a championship level player at this level – unlike his solid 2009.  In fact, Jason Donald made more plays per nine (though he committed a few more errors), and is a bit stronger offensively.  (I discuss Donald with the second basemen…)  Cabrera had a tolerable batting average, but – again – if you aren’t going to contribute more than 60 runs with the bat, your glove has to be solid – and Cabrera’s has not consistently been above average.

Jack Wilson – SEA (19.4 Runs Created, 12.9 Runs Saved = 32.3 Total Runs Production)

His best days are behind him; he can’t hit as well, can’t stay healthy, but he still does play a mean shortstop.

Cesar Izturis – BAL (35.0 Runs Created, -9.1 Runs Saved = 25.9 Total Runs Production)

If you’re going to hit like Mark Belanger, you had better field like him, too.  Izturis disappointed, putting up just 2.5 runs per 27 outs thanks to a .230 batting average and just 15 extra base hits in 150 games.  Now a utility player, with J.J. Hardy moving in to play short.

2010 AL Second Basemen

Robinson Cano – NYY (118.3 Runs Created, 33.3 Runs Saved = 151.6 Total Runs Productivity)

Orlando Hudson is a very good second baseman.  Robinson Cano was nearly TWICE as productive as Hudson.  Power, range, doesn’t swing at bad pitches…  My pick for AL MVP, and he might get better.  Just entering his prime…

Orlando Hudson – MIN (65.9 Runs Created, 16.3 Runs Saved = 82.2 Total Runs Productivity)

Did exactly what you would expect – hits well and can bat first or second in the lineup (you’d rather have him hit second), fields the position as well as you could hope.  Not an all-star, but right below that line – and the kind of guy who can help you win championships.

Howie Kendrick – LAA (87.7 Runs Created, -10.4 Runs Saved = 77.3 Total Runs Productivity)

A very useful player who played every day, produced enough with the bat (5.1 runs per 27 outs), but needs a little work with the glove.  He’s NOT a top of the order hitter so long as his OBA is .316, but you could bat him from the seventh to the ninth spot and not do too badly with him.

Mike Aviles – KC (61.4 Runs Created, 15.8 Runs Saved = 77.2 Total Runs Productivity)

Came back from a disappointing 2009 to look like his superstar self from 2008.  Batted for average and mid-range power, fields his position extremely well, and remains one of the best players on the Royals.  Needs to stay healthy – if he does, the Royals have a top flight #2 hitter.

Ian Kinsler – TEX (62.4 Runs Created, 8.0 Runs Saved = 70.4 Total Runs Productivity)

The new Mark Ellis.  Hits, has power, gets on base, can run, fields the position really well, can’t stay in the lineup.

Mark Ellis – OAK (62.8 Runs Created, 3.5 Runs Saved = 66.3 Total Runs Productivity)

Turns 34 in June, Mark Ellis’s body may not help him make it to 2014.  Still a decent enough hitter, but his power is leaving him, and his range – once solid – is now a smidge above average.  The A’s are getting better and you’d like to see Ellis get one more shot at the post season.

Sean Rodriguez – TB (49.2 Runs Created, 15.2 Runs Saved = 64.4 Total Runs Productivity)

The kid came up, played all over the field as Ben Zobrist had before him, and proved himself to be a very valuable player.  Sean Rodriguez settled in at second base and was rock solid there, and with his decent power earned a chance to be the starter for all of 2011.  I like him.

Dustin Pedroia – BOS (55.4 Runs Created, -0.8 Runs Saved = 54.6 Total Runs Productivity)

Missed half the season after fouling a ball off his left foot and breaking it, requiring surgery.  On pace for 25 homers and 50 doubles, despite a brutal May, Pedroia is one of the best offensive forces in the league.  Bill Hall played a lot of second base after Pedroia went down, and not badly.  However, even with Hall’s power, he’s not the run producer that Pedroia is.  Jed Lowrie is a better fielder, but he can’t hit like DP either.  In the years Dustin plays 130+ games, the Sox make the playoffs – so you know what Boston is rooting for…

Reid Brignac – TB (40.3 Runs Created, 14.3 Runs Saved = 54.6 Total Runs Productivity)

A very good season defensively and a pretty good season offensively, he earned a chance to be the regular shortstop and allowed the Rays to trade a declining Jason Bartlett.  With Evan Longoria and Rodriguez throwing to a dependable first baseman, this could be the best defensive infield in baseball for 2011.

Gordon Beckham – CHI (51.0 Runs Created, 8.4 Runs Saved = 59.4 Total Runs Productivity)

Offensively, Beckham was off, barely creating four runs per 27 outs.  Defensively, having switched over from third base, he was fantastic.  For Beckham to really help the White Sox, he needs to create 75 or more runs, the way he seemed to be capable of in 2009.  Otherwise, he’s rather ordinary.  He is, however, better than Chris Getz.

Chone Figgins – SEA (78.4 Runs Created, -33.3 Runs Saved = 45.1 Total Runs Productivity)

Never really looked comfortable with the switch to second after spending much of the last few years at third base, and his batting stats predictably fell off after his remarkable 2009 season.  I think he’ll be better in 2011, but still isn’t one of the five best second base options in the AL.

Aaron Hill – TOR (55.2 Runs Created, -14.5 Runs Saved = 40.7 Total Runs Productivity)

Chone Figgins without the position change.  Fell to earth, crashed really, after an amazing 2009, and brought his struggles to the field with him.  I think he’ll bounce back, but looking at his baseball card, you’ll always do a double take comparing the two seasons.

Carlos Guillen – DET (35.3 Runs Created, 4.3 Runs Saved = 39.6 Total Runs Productivity)

A stop gap option after Scott Sizemore skidded to Toledo, at least until his body broke down, Guillen used to be a good shortstop, a good left fielder, and could be a good second baseman.  On the other hand, he’s 35 and is really best suited to be a DH – and Detroit has DH options.  So, Guillen – assuming he has a good chiropractor and trainer – could be a utility guy, getting 450 productive at bats all over the field.  In the last year of his contract, so let’s see if he can keep it together and help the Tigers…

Jayson Nix – CLE (35.0 Runs Created, 1.8 Runs Saved = 36.8 Total Runs Productivity)

He could be a new Dan Uggla if the Indians wanted to go that way – he hits for power, doesn’t do badly at the position, and I’d let him play there if they found a good option at third base.

Will Rhymes – DET (28.0 Runs Created, 6.2 Runs Saved = 34.2 Total Runs Productivity)

The best of the Tigers three second baseman, Rhymes hit .304, had an acceptable slugging and fielding percentage, and played the position well – all the things Detroit thought that Scott Sizemore could do.  Should have first dibs at the position in 2011 – though he’s a bit old for a rookie, turning 28 on April Fool’s Day.

Luis Valbuena – CLE (20.2 Runs Created, 6.5 Runs Saved = 26.7 Total Runs Productivity)

A disappointing season with the bat, batting under the Mendoza line.  I think he’ll be a bit better, but he’ll never be much of a run producer, limiting him to a career as a utility infielder.

Julio Lugo – BAL (20.0 Runs Created, 5.6 Runs Saved = 25.6 Total Runs Productivity)

He’s still around, can help by playing four positions, but can’t hit enough to be more than a good utility guy.  Might have one more year left, but I wouldn’t bet on 2012.

Jason Donald – CLE (36.7 Runs Created, -11.9 Runs Saved = 24.8 Total Runs Productivity)

If he had a more discerning eye, he could be the new Brian Roberts.  Offensively, Donald doesn’t hurt you, but he didn’t show the type of range needed at either second or short.  Both could improve, however, and the Indians would be finding a way to move the team in the right direction.  I’d be surprised if he doesn’t get a better chance in 2011.  Working against him, he’s rather old for a rookie and will turn 27 when the season is over.

Brian Roberts – BAL (32.6 Runs Created, -17.1 Runs Saved = 15.5 Total Runs Productivity)

Injured at the beginning of the season, then perpetually on the trading block.  I know he’s not a very good defensive player, but how many really good leadoff hitters are out there?  I’d make him the new Paul Molitor.  If he can stay healthy, and at 33 his back is going to bother him from time to time, he’s got a shot at 100 runs scored – and that’s a valuable commodity.

Mark Grudzielanek – CLE (10.5 Runs Created, 3.3 Runs Saved = 13.8 Total Runs Productivity)

Had 30 hits and all were singles.  At 40, not sure if he’ll be back, but he can still play second base a little bit.  He MIGHT be your favorite team’s next manager one day.

Chris Getz – KC (21.1 Runs Created, -8.4 Runs Saved = 12.7 Total Runs Productivity)

An alleged glove man who hasn’t shown that at the major league level, and he can’t hit.  Will be a short term utility guy, but you’d rather have someone who does SOMETHING.  Maybe someone who plays four positions well defensively (Alfredo Amezaga), or someone who can play the positions poorly, but hits enough to let it slide from time to time and can pinch hit (Jeff Treadway).  Getz can’t do either.

Scott Sizemore – DET (14.4 Runs Created, -10.9 Runs Saved = 3.5 Total Runs Productivity)

This wasn’t what Detroit had in mind – the man chosen to replace Placido Polanco didn’t hit and didn’t field as well as had been hoped and wound up back in Toledo for 2010.  Compared to Rhymes, he has always been a bit better hitter with a better eye, comparable speed, and a bit more power. He’s also 26.  However, Rhymes did the job.  Sizemore will likely get another chance, but at this point, he can’t afford to blow it.

2010 AL Gold Glove and Dirty Brick Award Winners

My fielding ranking system is a method that looks at the number of plays made per 800 balls in play.  In effect, if someone makes one play more than another person at the same position, he reduces the batting average of the hitter by a point.  The best fielders occasionally make a run at 15 plays per 800 balls in play more than average, the worst can go 15 in the other direction.  Then, I convert those plays made into runs saved (or not saved, if the number is negative) based on the types of hits allowed on balls hit toward that fielder.  I also convert double plays and errors into runs based on Pete Palmer formulas found in the old Total Baseball encyclopedias.

Does it work?  Actually – yes.  It passes the eye ball test (Elvis Andrus, when you watch him, looks like an impressive fielder), and the system is comparable to other methodologies.  I’ve used this for about ten years, when I was first trying to rate fielders to make player cards for the old Superstar Baseball board game.

I try to remove biases for groundball/flyball tendencies, and for lefty/righty balls in play.  If there is one position where I am always concerned, it’s first base because much of that is based on the rest of the infield – so I essentially remove infield assists from the first baseman’s putout total.  Even with that, there is usually a greater range between the best and worst fielders.  However, after doing this for years, I have reached the conclusion that the reason for this has more to do with the fact that the worst fielders are, indeed, the least mobile athletes on the field and if you get someone at first base who is young and still fleet of foot, that person is going to make GOBS more plays than a big lumbering first baseman whose first move is to start heading to first to catch a throw on almost any ball hit to his right.

Mighty Casey generally doesn’t rank pitchers individually, but the best team in this regard was probably Cleveland.  Cleveland pitchers had a positive ratio of double plays to errors (19/13, where the league pitchers participated in 180 DPs and made 181 errors) and also handled about 5 chances more than the average team per 800 balls in play.  The worst was easily Detroit (17 DPs, 18 errors, 6.4 plays below average per 800 balls in play).

I also rank catchers differently, choosing to score them as a team.  There are seven categories for which a team of catchers could be graded:  ERA, Winning Percentage, SB%, Fielding Percentage on plays not including strikeouts, Mistakes per Game (passed balls, errors), Plays Made per Game (or Mobility), Other Assists per Game (not including Caught Stealing).  The catchers get a point for each category in which they are above the league average, and lose a point if below league average.  The highest score, theoretically, is seven and the lowest would be -7.  Nobody was that good, nor that bad.

Catcher:

Toronto had the best rankings, being above average in six categories and dead even on Mobility.  John Buck did the yeoman’s share of the work, but his backup Jose Molina was also exceptional against the run, tossing out 15 of 34 runners.  That being said, I don’t think that John Buck is the best catcher in the AL, it’s Joe Mauer.  But the rankings say that Toronto’s catchers held their own collectively.

Behind Toronto, the White Sox scored at positive four, failing only in mobility categories, and then a tie between Boston, Detroit, and Minnesota at positive three.

The worst catching was a toss up between three teams that all scored at -3: Seattle, Los Angeles, and Kansas City.

First Base:

For the first time in several years, the stats matched the reputation.  Mark Teixeira earns the nod, saving his team nearly 32 runs with his range and ability to avoid errors and turn double plays.  I was surprised at how good Ty Wigginton was, showing even better range, but then again – he’s an infielder moving over to first – and frequently those guys are used to straying as far as possible to get grounders where many first basemen will give up on balls to the right and let the second sacker get them while moving to first base.

I’m not totally certain that Teixeira would have won the award had Kendry Morales not gotten hurt.  Morales, in just 51 games, had a slightly higher range and was on pace to save just as many runs as Big Tex.  Two others who didn’t get 1000 innings at the position also scored well here – Kevin Youkilis and rookie Justin Smoak.

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Mark Teixeira    1291.2    10.2    31.7
Ty Wigginton    787    12.5    18.7
Justin Smoak    807.2    10.3    17.5

The Dirty Brick goes to Cleveland’s Matt LaPorta, whose poor range didn’t help a season where his bat wasn’t very strong – negating half of the runs he created offensively.  The other two shouldn’t be a surprise.  Miguel Cabrera is looking less and less lean, and Mike Napoli is a catcher playing first.

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Matt LaPorta    791.1    -13.5    -25.0
Miguel Cabrera    1285.1    -5.6    -19.9
Mike Napoli    586.1    -12.7    -19.2

Dishonorable mentions go out to Daric Barton, Justin Morneau (on pace to match LaPorta, but he missed half the season), and Paul Konerko…

Second Base:

Robinson Cano had an amazing year with the bat, and was equally strong with the glove.  His range factor was nearly 11 plays per 800 balls in play more than average, and he made just 3 errors while turning 114 double plays.  As such, he not only saved his team 26 runs just by eliminating hits, but he took more than seven more runs off the board by avoiding errors and helping with the DP – the most at his position by far.  Orlando Hudson provided value for Minnesota, and KC’s Mike Aviles returned and made a positive contribution with the bat and glove, too.  Regular leaders here, Ian Kinsler and Mark Ellis, fell back as both missed about 500 innings at the position due to injuries.  Honorable mention to Sean Rodriguez at Tampa who nearly made the list in just a half season of innings, and to Gordon Beckham who switched over from third and was solid for the White Sox.

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Robinson Cano    1393.1    10.9    33.3
Orlando Hudson    1067    7.4    16.3
Mike Aviles    765.2    14.8    15.8

The Dirty Brick goes to a position switch as well – Seattle’s Chone Figgins.  He was a decided bust at second base, making 19 errors and making an adjusted 4.11 plays per nine – 11.9 plays fewer per 800 balls in play than the average second baseman.  Seattle signed him as a third baseman, switched him over to let Jose Lopez play third.  Thankfully, Lopez was fantastic over there – else it would have been a total loss…  Brian Roberts, a regular to the brick list, was abhorrant in a shade under 500 innings, 20 plays worse than the average second sacker per 800 balls in play, and Aaron Hill took his struggles at the plate with him to the field.  Dishonorable mentions to supposed glove man Chris Getz (-7 runs) and rookie Scott Sizemore (-11 runs in must 314 innings).  So much for replacing Placido Polanco…

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Chone Figgins    1417    -11.9    -33.3
Brian Roberts    498.1    -19.5    -17.1
Aaron Hill    1188    -6.1    -14.5

Third Base:

As poorly as Chone Figgins played second base for Seattle, converted third baseman Jose Lopez was a decided success.  His range was superior, and he didn’t disappoint in terms of errors or double plays.  Evan Longoria remained in the 30 runs saved range – a remarkable player, really – and Adrian Beltre continued to field his position remarkably well.  An honorable mention goes to the reluctantly converted Miguel Tejada, who had greater range than even Longoria, but played just 808 innings before being shipped out.  Nick Punto played an out shy of 345 innings there without making an error…

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Jose Lopez    1252.2    13.3    36.9
Evan Longoria    1330.2    8.7    31.1
Adrian Beltre    1342.2    6.6    19.0

The dirty brick goes to a part-timer, Royals infielder Wilson Betemit, who must have had ball repellant on him, making barely 2.2 plays per nine and having a range about 17 plays worse than the average player per 800 balls in play.  Another halftimer, Omar Vizquel got close to 600 unnecessary innings at third base for the White Sox – he’s an ancient shortstop who hadn’t played there for his entire career.  You want to know why the White Sox lost the division – look right here.  Of the regulars, Michael Young was, again, a lousy third baseman – but he did make improvement over last year.  No wonder he volunteered to be a DH.

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Wilson Betemit    455.1    -16.9    -18.4
Omar Vizquel    582.1    -19.4    -17.4
Michael Young    1370.1    -3.3    -10.3

Shortstop:

Nobody was more surprised to see this than I, but Alexei Ramirez had a remarkable year at shortstop, showing great range – as good as he ever played.  He was one assist shy of 500 – a great season by any measurement.  Cliff Pennington helped out the young A’s staff by making his share of plays, and Elvis Andrus remained among the best fielders of his time.  Seattle’s Jack and Josh Wilson, if combined, saved Seattle more than 20 runs.

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Alexei Ramirez    1376.2    12.8    32.1
Cliff Pennington   1304.2    12.0    26.9
Elvis Andrus    1291.1    10.3    26.0

At least the reigning gold glove winner didn’t finish last, but he did have the worst range amongst the regulars.  This year, Marco Scutaro’s 18 errors and only contributing to 57 double plays made up for making slightly more plays than Derek Jeter, who had just 6 errors and 94 double plays.  The 11 run swing gave the brick to Scutaro, who killed the Red Sox infield.  He’ll need to be replaced soon if the Sox want to be competitive.  Third place went to Jason Bartlett who no longer looks like the slick fielding shortstop he was before all the ankle injuries in 2009.  Thankfully for the Rays, they have other options for 2011.

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Marco Scutaro    1166    -13.2    -32.0
Derek Jeter    1303.2    -15.0    -27.4
Jason Bartlett    1104    -8.9    -16.4

Left Field:

A centerfielder playing left who also had his best offensive season heading into free agency, the gold glove goes to the perennially amazing Carl Crawford.  Crawford was the only left fielder to save his team more than 10 runs, but only because the next closest guys played too few innings to save enough runs.  Only three left fielders played 1000 innings there in 2010.

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Carl Crawford    1260.1    4.2    13.1
Michael Saunders   647.2    6.3    9.6
Alex Gordon    486.1    7.6    9.0

One of those three was Dirty Brick winner Delmon Young, who abused left field until he cost the Twins 25 runs out there.  At least he found his bat last year…  Fred Lewis played a disinterested left field for Toronto, and Daniel Nava was the Boston representative of the list of bad outfielders who played between 200 and 500 innings in the AL.

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Delmon Young    1277.2    -8.5    -25.0
Fred Lewis    726.1    -7.8    -13.2
Daniel Nava    380    -12.9    -10.4

Center Field:

The Angels are rightfully excited about the defensive capabilities of their new centerfielder, Peter Bourjos.  The man can fly – reminding you of a young Gary Pettis.  He can throw, too – ten assists in what amounts to a third of a season in the field.  This allows Los Angeles to move Torii Hunter, who is now a slightly below average centerfielder to right (where he was really good), and makes room for another below average centerfielder, Vernon Wells, to move to left.  As it was, there isn’t a whole lot of difference amongst the starting centerfielders, except for Bourjos, in terms of overall range.

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Peter Bourjos    449.2    12.0    12.4
Adam Jones    1298.1    2.9    7.9
Alex Rios    1246.2    2.8    7.1

The Dirty Brick goes to a guy whose body and game are falling apart, and that’s Grady Sizemore.  One hopes he can heal and start to put his career back in the right direction, but it’s probably going to have to be at a different position.  Sadly, his replacement (Brantley) doesn’t look much better, and among those who played at least 1000 innings, Vernon Wells, who was healthier than in recent seasons, is still the worst of the lot (costing his team about 7.5 runs).  Thankfully, he’s done as a centerfielder.

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Grady Sizemore    269.2    -17.5    -11.2
Michael Brantley562.2    -6.9    -9.4
Gregor Blanco    347    -11.2    -8.4

Right Field:

For the second year in a row, Nelson Cruz was a remarkable outfielder, though he threw hardly anybody out from right.  I was surprised to see how well Nick Swisher did, but that could be because opponents may allow more lefties to bat in the new Yankee Stadium.  Honorable mention to Ben Zobrist, who has to play everywhere but looked solid enough in right.  I wonder if there isn’t some form of statistical bias in Texas, though, as even Vlad Guerrero showed up as above average in his 118.2 innings there.  Not WAY above average, but slightly.

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Nelson Cruz    799.1    15.2    25.9
Nick Swisher    1102    6.1    14.5
Jason Repko    226    16.4    9.3

The Dirty Brick goes to the surprise hammer of the league – Jose Bautista, followed by a bunch of guys who are either ill-suited for the outfield, aging, our out of position (David DeJesus).  The worst right fielder who played at least 1000 innings was Shin-Soo Choo, who barely edged out the immobile Nick Markakis and the aging J.D. Drew, and were all between -7.02 and -7.17 runs in the wrong direction.

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Jose Bautista    982.2    -6.8    -14.6
Carlos Quentin    897    -5.3    -13.6
Bobby Abreu    805.2    -3.4    -7.9

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 Second Basemen in 2009

Robinson Cano (NYY):  A graceful hitter and smooth second baseman who has power and a keen batting eye…  Edged Hill in the closest race for top billing at his position.  Something tells me that, offensively, Cano can still be better.  Just a shade below Teixeira in total production, but a touch more valuable overall.  (120.2 Runs Created, 16.4 Runs Saved = 136.61 Total Run Production)

Aaron Hill (TOR):  Came back with a vengence – had his career year as a comeback season.  I would never have guessed 36 homers and I don’t know that it will happen again.  To be fair, his 2007 season left room for a potential breakout like this – if you remember it: 47 doubles and 17 homers in 74 fewer at bats than he had in 2009.  Still – a remarkable season and I’ll root for him to repeat.  (117.7 Runs Created, 18.8 Runs Saved = 136.46 Total Run Production)

Ben Zobrist (TB):  Speaking of breakout seasons – took over when Akinori Iwamura went down and played a solid second base while hitting like an outfielder.  Would you have guessed this when he hit 5 homers in 388 at bats in A Ball?  Or in 2006 when he hit 5 homers in 567 at bats at three different levels?  He started showing flashes of power in 2007 at Durham, cranked it up as a reserve in 2008, and launched his career with power, patience at the plate, and an amazing season.  Like Hill, however, I don’t think he’s going to repeat it…  Turns 29 in May.  (114.8 Runs Created, 9.8 Runs Saved = 124.63 Total Run Production)

Ian Kinsler (TEX):  30 – 30 member (31 of each, actually) and someone ANY team would be proud to have.  He and Andrus seal up the middle defensively like nobody’s business.  First season of 140+ games, in his three previous seasons he had missed a month somewhere…  He’s the new Joe Gordon – if anyone is old enough to remember the original.  (92.7 Runs Created, 14.8 Runs Saved = 107.46 Total Run Production

Placido Polanco (DET):  Doesn’t have the power of the top four guys, but gets his share of hits and still makes all the plays defensively.  To hear it at the end of the year, though, people were saying Polanco had lost a step.  By my calculations, he was the best defensive second baseman in the AL – and it was the best season of the last four that I have tracked.  I don’t think he’ll have the same impact in Philadelphia – he’s not quite the same hitter and he’s moving to a less familiar position.  Detroit will be hard pressed to get similar production in 2010 at this position.  (82.4 Runs Created, 23.4 Runs Saved = 106.15 Total Run Production

By the way, the guy who might have the top shot at second base is Scott Sizemore.  Sizemore hit .308 last year in AA and AAA with 17 homers, 21 stolen bases, and has a .383 OBP in his minor league career.  He’s been a top ten prospect each of the last three seasons after being drafted in the fifth round out of Virginia Commonwealth in 2006.  We’ll see if he’s got the goods defensively, but the Tigers took a reasonable gamble in letting Polanco go to give Sizemore a shot.

Dustin Pedroia (BOS):  Still a solid performer offensively, but took a step back with the glove.  I don’t think anyone was serious about moving him to short – Pedroia doesn’t look like he has that kind of throwing arm.  He’s such a high energy guy, I worry about him running out of gas earlier than other guys because he’s going to run himself into the ground; but you never know.  (105.2 Runs Created, -14.50 Runs Saved = 90.68 Total Run Production)

Jose Lopez (SEA):  Good power, but little patience at the plate.  And, he’s not as good a fielder as the top guys.  I have him below average in three of the last four years and I don’t think he’s going to get better.  I don’t see Lopez getting replaced anytime soon – but his window of productivity might be smaller than other guys and the Mariners talk about moving him to first base.  (89.9 Runs Created, -10.7 Runs Saved = 79.17 Total Run Production)

Brian Roberts (BAL):  Fantastic leadoff hitter – a bit of power, gets on base, steals bases at a decent rate.  Offensively, he’s one of the five best second basemen.  And then you have his glove, which took a step back last season and affected his rating.  Like Paul Molitor, maybe he should become a first baseman/DH in a couple of years…  (106.6 Runs Created, -31.2 Runs Saved = 75.49 Total Run Production)

Adam Kennedy (OAK):  Played shorstop and second but not as the regular; slightly below average at both positions defensively but wasn’t a total loss offensively.  Mark Ellis had the job most of last year (see below), but if you were looking for options Kennedy might be worth a look.  Uh – Minnesota, can you hear me?  (80.7 Runs Created, -10.37 Runs Saved = 70.36 Total Run Production)

Alberto Callaspo (KC):  Got a full season and hit enough but was a disaster in the field.  In his defense, it was his first full season, but he had 365 innings there in 2008 and they weren’t necessarily pretty.  Still – mid range power and a .300 batting average is a good starting point.  Turns 27 this year, so he COULD break out and push 15 to 20 homers and have a Dustin Pedroia type season.  (89.8 Runs Created, -22.97 Runs Saved = 66.82 Total Run Production)

Luis Valbuena (CLE):  I think he’ll be okay if he gets a full shot at the job.  Some power, could use patience and more contact, but plays second base well enough.  Acquired in the deal that sent Franklin Gutierrez to Seattle, he’s just 24 and on his way.  If you are in a keeper league, scoop him up.  (50.2 Runs Created, 14.9 Runs Saved = 65.11 Total Run Production)

Howie Kendrick (LAA):  Better contact hitter than Valbuena, but not the fielder Luis is…  I did a study some time ago where long time second sackers were out of gas if they couldn’t generate at least 60 runs of offense – no matter how good a fielder.  In Kendrick’s case – he needs to step up for a full season and put his career in gear.  Howie has the tools to do it.  (56.9 Runs Created, -6.0 Runs Saved = 50.93 Total Run Production)

Mark Ellis (OAK):  On the downside of his career, but able to help out because he still has some power, patience and range.  His body may not cooperate much longer, but as long as Ellis can get to the playing field, he’ll contribute.  (49.2 Runs Created, 1 Run Saved = 50.17 Total Run Production)

Chris Getz (CWS):  Now in Kansas City because they can’t get enough utility middle infielders…  Getz doesn’t hit for a high average, and he while he has some patience, doesn’t have a really high on base percentage either.  He can field a little bit.  That makes him Tim Foli.  The White Sox have decided to move Gordon Beckham to second – which may not help the defense but will help put a few more runs on the board.  (45.5 Runs Created, 3.8 Runs Saved = 49.25 Total Run Production)

Nick Punto (MIN): Shared the position with Alexi Casilla and Matt Tolbert, and neither of them was really good enough.  None of the three can hit – Tolbert and Casilla can play the field, and Punto is the new Mick Kelleher or Steve Dillard.  We’ll see him coaching in a few years.  As of 2/4, the Twins still haven’t resolved this hole but if Orlando Cabrera or Orlando Hudson are still available, get him.  The closest thing to a middle infield prospect might be Brian Dinkelman, a AA infielder who looks like Jeff Treadway with a bit better glove but is still a year away and already 26 years old…

Notes: Like the first basemen, the median second baseman is producing about 75 runs, which means that Cano and Hill were worth about six extra wins each to his respective team.

Free Agents Filing at Torrid Pace…

‘Tis the season for teams to decide on what members will remain on the 40-man roster, and which players will not get tendered offers based on existing options, and for other players to test the market.  So, for the next several days, the list of players on the MLB Free Agent list will grow and the number of players officially on the 40-man rosters will likely shrink for a little while.

The Rumor Mill

FoxSports reports that the Cubs are considering a three-way deal to move Milton Bradley.  The Cubs would get Luis Castillo from the Mets, the Mets would get Lyle Overbay from the Toronto Blue Jays, and Toronto would get Bradley.  Other deals suggest the Rays getting involved and offering Pat Burrell for Bradley.  [FoxSports]

The Mariners are looking to keep Felix Hernandez around (which means starting the process of a long-term deal now), but understand that there are many, many suitors for the AL Cy Young candidate.  [SI]

Thanks for Playing!

Carl Crawford remains in Tampa as the Rays honored his $10 million option.  Meanwhile, Brian Shouse and Greg Zaun were both bought out and will become free agents.  [ESPN]

Boston picked up the option for catcher Victor Martinez ($7.1 million), signed Tim Wakefield to a two-year deal loaded with incentives, but declined an option on Jason Varitek.  Varitek has the option to sign for $3 million to be a backup next year, else join the free agent market.  For Wakefield, he’ll have a chance to break the team record for pitching victories (Young/Clemens have 192) and win his 200th career game.  [ESPN]

Free Agent Filings…

The most interesting story is that a Japanese fireballer, Ryota Igarashi of the Yakult Swallows, owner of a 98-mph fastball, wants to play here.  Japanese players have to wait nine seasons before they can come to the states and Igarashi is already 30 but could be a viable late inning pitcher for somebody.  [ESPN]

The Dodgers declined a $2.2 million option on reliever Will Ohman, while Mark Loretta and Juan Castro also filed.  [ESPN/MLB]

Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui, Yankee World Series heroes, joined the current list of 151 free agents.  Other Yankees on the list now include Eric Hinske, Jose Molina, and Xavier Nady.  [MLB]

Houston’s Jose Valverde, as good a reliever on the market, filed for free agency yesterday.  At least five Astros players (Erstad, Tejada, Brocail) are on the list now.  [MLB]

Octavio Dotel not only filed, but learned he was a Type A free agent, which means the Sox have to offer arbitation if they hope to get compensation should someone else sign Dotel.  [MLB]

Rockies pitchers Joe Beimel and Jose Contreras filed for free agency.  If Beimel is healthy, he’s a good pickup, but I’d be surprised if Contreras gets a lot of interest from teams.  [MLB]

Cubs closer (well, former closer) Kevin Gregg filed for free agency, and – like Dotel – was graded as a Type A free agent, meaning the Cubs have to offer Gregg arbitration to get the compensation draft pick.  [MLB]

Twins infielder Orlando Cabrera joined the list of free agents, alongside Mike Redmond, Ron Mahay, Carl Pavano, and Joe Crede on the list.  [MLB]

Toronto catcher Rod Barajas is a free agent, though he noted that he’d love to stay a Blue Jay.  [MLB]

You know who has a lot of free agents?  St. Louis.  Todd Wellemeyer became the ninth player (Holliday, Ankiel, Pineiro, Smoltz, Glaus, Greene, DeRosa, LaRue) to file.  [MLB]

Gary Sheffield also filed for free agency, trying to find ANYONE who might give him a chance to play.  He’s at eight teams and counting…  [MLB]

Free Agent Discussions

Jerry Crasnick met with a number of executives and put eight questions before them.  Want to see the answers?  [ESPN]

SI’s Ted Keith identifies his list of the ten riskiest free agents.  Well, nine + Rich Harden!!!  [SI]

Old News…

Something else I missed last week…  With several infielders on the horizon (Reid Brignac, Tim Beckham) and Ben Zobrist having blasted his way into the starting lineup, the Rays had less need for Akinori Iwamura.  So, the Rays shipped Iwamura to Pittsburgh for reliever Jesse Chavez.  Chavez probably appreciates the change of scenery, joining a contender, but he’ll need to step up his game to be a contributor.  I like this move for Pittsburgh.

Happy Birthday!

His 1961 season put him on the map, and for much of the 1960s, he was a great Tiger slugger – Norm Cash would be 75 today…

Also celebrating with cards and cake (or rememberances):  Jimmy Dykes (1896), Birdie Tebbetts (1912), Gene Conley (1930), Mike Vail (1951), Larry Christenson (1953), Larry Parrish (1953), Bob Stanley (1954), Jack Clark (1955), Kenny Rogers (1964), Keith Lockhart (1964), and Shawn Green (1972)…

Afterthoughts…

For the first time in nearly 30 years, it looks like all 27 members of the U.S. Appeals court will review the “drug list” case, determining the fate of the list of 104 players who allegedly failed the 2003 anonymous steroid survey.  [MLB]

Prospect Week in MLB!

This is prospect week, if you were paying attention. David Price was brought up by the Rays and given a start on Monday. Injuries to just about everybody on the Mets means that their top prospect (according to Baseball America), Fernando Martinez, will get a shot at the outfield. And, the Orioles announced that catcher Matt Wieters will be on the big league roster on Friday.

Price’s first outing wasn’t much to write home about – he couldn’t get through four innings and 100 pitches, but he left with a lead. Wild as all get out – but he’ll be fine.

Wieters – I saw him play and he’s the real deal. Big, strong, good catching instincts. He’ll catch for a few years and then become a first baseman DH hitting a ton. I think Steve has him – he’ll be an impact player. Think Joe Mauer, but bigger (and probably not as good defensively).

Fernando Martinez I know less about. He’s 20, though, which means there’s upside. He’s shown improving power and hits well enough (.282 in the minors, .294 in AAA Buffalo) and he can run a little – though he’s not asked to run much. I can say this, though, if some kid is 20 and performing well in AAA, he’s a prospect. We may not own him this year (but you might consider it), but somebody will own him by 2011.

The Mets keep winning, though. Last night was 1997 Marlins retro night – Gary Sheffield (roid!) homered in support of a Livan Hernandez complete game. Earlier in the day, the Mets finally put Jose Reyes on the DL (calf), and they put Ryan Church on the DL (hamstring). And, Carlos Beltran is day to day – won’t play until the weekend at the earliest. Delgado is already out with a bad hip. So, that’s four of the top six batters in the lineup??? Wow.

Tommy Hanson is expected to join the Braves this week – Hanson is the top pitching prospect for the Braves and is mowing down AAA pitching. 446Ks in 376 minor league innings, good control, and could be Rookie of the Year material if he gets 20 starts. (Nice pickup, Steve.)

I forgot – another prospect got a start last night – Jason Berken of the Orioles. Just 25, has great command and keeps the ball in the park. I think he looks good, and he won last night in his MLB debut. If you are rotating pitchers and he comes up, you might consider giving him a shot.

Too bad Andy couldn’t have taken his kids to the Royals game last night. Another Greinke gem.

Cubs finally win (rain stopped it in six), Padres finally lose (but nearly pulled it out with a ninth inning rally). The days of a Jays pennant seems a distant thought now.

Ryan Braun was hit by a pitch on his right wrist last night; x-rays were negative for the Brewer Bomber.

Roy Oswalt has a bruise on his throwing hand, hopefully won’t miss a start.

People who will miss a turn? Scot Shields has a left knee injury and joins the DL – the Angels can’t keep a pitcher healthy.

Jason Bartlett’s sprained ankle is enough to head to the DL. The Rays infield is now Brignac and Aybar (or Zobrist) instead of Bartlett and Iwamura – which might be a big decline in skills. Bartlett is one of the best, and Aki was playing great this year. Called up? Utility player, Joe Dillon (former fish!).

Lou Montanez, Orioles DH/OF prospect, is now on the DL with his thumb injury. Hope surgery goes well; he can hit.

Brian Bruney, Yankee Reliever, goes to the DL with elbow discomfort – and Joe Girardi was not happy with Bruney’s communication skills.

Braves pitcher Buddy Carlyle heads to the DL, back comes Jorge Campillo. The Reds activated Nick Masset from the DL. The Giants get back Andres Torres, a CF burner, and send Jesus Guzman back to Fresno (AAA).

Hurry Back! Matt LaPorta, Indians 3B prospect, heads back to AAA – which was surprising…

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.