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.

Season Forecast: Arizona Diamondbacks

Last Five Years:
2009:  70 – 92    (5th in NL West)
2008:  82 – 80
2007:  90 – 72
2006:  76 – 86
2005:  77 – 85

Runs Scored: 720 (8th, NL)
Runs Allowed: 782 (14th, NL)

The Diamondbacks play in a park that helps the offense – 817 runs were scored in games played at home, against the 685 runs scored on the road – so to be in the middle of the league in scoring tells you that the offense isn’t the eighth best offense in the NL.  It’s actually one of the worst.  One reason for it?  The Snakes struck out 1298 times, more than any other team in the majors.

Season Recap:

The Diamondbacks were the surprise team to win the NL Central in 2007 and then opened 2008 like they were going to stomp everyone.  Instead, they slowly collapsed until finally bleeding away the division on the last weekend of the season.

I don’t know about you, but something told me that the 2009 team would have to start guns a-blazing to feel good about the year, and should have been expected to win 80 – 85 games anyway.  Instead, Brandon Webb blew out his shoulder on opening day and the team never really recovered.  When the offense showed little consistent signs of life, the Diamondbacks fell to the bottom of the league and never really contended.  A losing stretch in early May put them behind the eight-ball, and many other losing stretches contributed to losing 92 games and finishing last in the division race.

That being said, as I see it the problem was tied to two things – losing Webb and replacing him with the ineffective Yusmeiro Petit and Billy Buckner probably cost the team about 60 runs defensively.  Despite that, the rest of the rotation and most of the bullpen were somewhat above average players.  That leaves the offense – and the offense wasn’t good enough to help the pitchers.

Pitching:

Danny Haren was magnificent – saving his team about 40 runs with his low ERA (3.14) in a tough park and pitching more than 229 innings.  Haren also fanned 223 while walking only 38 batters.  Doug Davis and Max Scherzer were league average in terms of ERA – though Scherzer looks to have a solid future as a #2 starter right now.  Jon Garland ate up enough innings as a #4 starter.  The only weak link was having to replace Webb with Buckner and Petit.

The bullpen featured no real aces – closer Chad Qualls had a 3.63 ERA and only 24 saves – but they had no problems, unless you consider a couple of short term players.  No reliever with more than 50 innings pitched was worse than league average.  Three of the four lefties, however, weren’t very good in short runs – including Scott Schoeneweis, Daniel Schlereth, and Doug Slaten.

Fielding:

Arizona pitchers weren’t helped too much here, but a lot of that is the park.

The infield of Chad Tracy, Felipe Lopez, Mark Reynolds, and Stephen Drew were basically average, though Lopez and Drew weren’t necessarily good at turning two.  The problem was that a couple of the backups weren’t very solid in limited innings – including the really poor 2018 innings Reynolds played at first and the 241.2 weak innings Augie Ojeda turned in at short.

The outfield should have been better, but Chris Young seemed to take his problems at the plate with him to the field, costing his team about eight runs.  Gerardo Parra is decent enough and Justin Upton, a pretty good right fielder, also got a lot of extra action with so many right handed pitchers on the staff.

Catchers Miguel Montero and Chris Snyder weren’t awful, though they were pretty easy to run on.

Batting:

The highs?  Justin Upton looks like the second coming of Henry Aaron.  You’d like him to walk a bit more, but he has developing power and hits .300.  Mark Reynolds fanned 223 times (!) to set the major league record but he doesn’t care.  He batted .260 with 44 homers, does draw a few walks, and puts runs on the board.  Felipe Lopez hit .301 at second, which was helpful, and Gerardo Parra hit .290 but didn’t do much else – he will be better with time.  Catcher Miguel Montero hit .294 with some power.  Stephen Drew was league average.

The problem is that the lows are LOW.  Chris Young, the regular centerfielder, hit all of .212, striking out 30% of the time, despite showing a little more patience.  Eric Byrnes came back from leg injuries to hit .226 with only 12 walks in half a season of plate appearances.  Chris Snyder batted .200 in 165 at bats.  Former producers Conor Jackson and Chad Tracy didn’t hit.  When Tony Clark retired – his bat failing him – his replacements on the roster, guys like Josh Whitesell and Brandon Allen didn’t hit either.  The really good teams have six or seven positive run producers and a couple of guys who pitch in.  The Diamondbacks had three and sometimes more guys who weren’t getting any hits and no bench players to write home about when the few that could hit took a day off.

Transactions:

On the way in?  Infielder Tony Abreu, acquired from the Dodgers and can play second or short.  He might well be a hitter, but I don’t see him as the new Rafael Furcal either.  Kelly Johnson was signed from Atlanta to play second – a decision I like – and Jeff Bailey was signed away from Boston, another decision I like because he is a solid bench player.  In January, Arizona added Adam LaRoche, which will pay off in the second half…  In March, the Snakes signed Kris Benson, who actually made the roster…  The Diamondbacks traded Max Scherzer and Daniel Schlereth to Detroit for pitcher Edwin Jackson and Yankees prospect Ian Kennedy in the deal that sent Curtis Granderson to the Yankees…  I’m not sure I’d make that deal, but what the hey.  The other questionable deal was trading for Cubs malcontent pitcher Aaron Heilman.

On the way out?  Yusmeiro Petit was claimed by Seattle on waivers, Doug Davis signed a deal with Milwaukee and Chad Tracy signed with Chicago.  Eric Byrnes was released and called it a career.  Jon Garland was allowed to leave and pitch for the Angels.

Propspects:

At AAA Reno, the two hitting prospects appeared to be former White Sox farmhand Brandon Allen and utility outfielder Alex Romero.  Allen hit like Babe Ruth in 38 games to earn a call, but didn’t amount to much in 104 at bats with the Snakes.  I don’t think he’s THAT good, but he’ll be better in another shot.  Romero has had two trips to the bigs and didn’t hit either time and I think will be lucky to hit .260 in the majors.  The best pitchers in AAA were Buckner and 29-year-old Doug Slaten.  Buckner at least looked like a prospect, but hasn’t yet found his stride in the majors and may run out of time.

Schlereth tore through AA Mobile, fanning 39 in 26.2 innings, which is how he quickly was given a shot at the majors.  He’s a touch wild, but has a live arm.  Bryan Augenstein made nine starts there, finishing with a 0.99 ERA, 36Ks and only 9 walks in 45.2 innings.  Not nearly as successful at Reno, he still earned a tryout with the Snakes.  I think he’s going to be fine but is two years away.  Reliever Josh Ellis had a good year and might make the relief corps by the end of 2010.  A young arm is 2007 first round pick Jarrod Parker, who dominated A+ Visalia before getting sixteen decent starts in AA.

At Visalia, I also like pitcher Josh Collmenter who had a decent K/W ratio (152/55) in his 145 innings and he kept the ball in the park.  Obviously, he’s still a few years away.

Looking ahead for 2010:

The pitching staff will likely be weaker if Brandon Webb can’t pitch – and because I don’t like this year’s rotation compared to last year’s rotation.  I know – Jackson was very good for Detroit, but I think Max Scherzer looks like a solid pitcher.  Call it a wash.  Ian Kennedy won’t pitch as many innings as Doug Davis did and may not be as successful, and even though Jon Garland is just there to take up space, he’s better than most fifth starters.  His replacement may well be a step down and I think he’ll be missed.  As such, I see the rotation falling back by 25 runs.

The bullpen isn’t going to be better with Aaron Heilman – it could be worse by ten runs.

The offense?  I like adding LaRoche and Johnson, which I think could be worth 30 runs, mostly because LaRoche will be solid.  Johnson could come back nicely, but that means being as good as Lopez was last year.  A full year of Parra will be better than Eric Byrnes; if Chris Young can come back at all the outfield will also be better by 30 runs.  Defensively, the changes will not help the team and may make the infield defense a little worse.  However, the outfield defense, with two centerfielders and Upton should be steady.

As such, with 780 runs scored and 810 runs allowed, the Snakes should win 78 games.  That’s an improvement over last year, but not enough to threaten anybody at the top of the division.

Your Weekend Baseball Update: Comings and Goings of the Stars

Already covered the Scott Kazmir trade – so here’s the rest of what was a pretty interesting weekend of baseball, even if the only races worth watching are the Wild Card races.

Jake Peavy was pushing it – trying to use an elbow that had just been nailed by a liner five days back.  Saturday, he left his start early and now he’s going to have an MRI.  Sheesh – if he’d just waited it out, maybe there’s nothing wrong.  If he misses more than just a turn in the rotation, it’s a much bigger problem.  [ESPN]

Randy Johnson hopes to begin throwing again, but if he returns to the Giants he’s coming back to the bullpen.  I’d love to see him one more time, as even Johnson has no idea if he’s got a 2010 season in him.  [ESPN]

Boston’s Tim Wakefield took a cortisone shot to relieve pain in his back, but it will be a few days before it will be known if he’s going to be able to pitch down the stretch.  Wakefield has been out nearly six weeks now.  Meanwhile, somebody finally signed Paul Byrd; it was Boston and he pitched well enough this weekend to offer hope as a fifth starter option.  [ESPN]

Houston’s Mike Hamption is done for 2009, another season ending in injury.  Hampton is scheduled to have surgery on both knees and his throwing shoulder – knocking off three at once rather than pushing out his career DL trip record with two more trips next year.  Manager Cecil Cooper says Hampton should come back as a pinch hitter.  [SI]

Another Astro who won’t be coming back soon – Chad Qualls.  Qualls was twisting out of the way of a liner hit back up the middle when his left leg buckled, dislocating his knee cap.  He got the save (it was the last pitch of the game), but Qualls called for help immediately after he went down.  [MLB]

The Dodgers got a utility infielder, Ronnie Belliard, from the Nationals for a minor leaguer and a PTNL.  Belliard needs playing time to stay sharp because (if you haven’t seen him lately) he’s not the fittest looking guy and if he doesn’t play his timing goes off quickly.  The Nationals get Luis Garcia, who (if I am correct in guessing WHICH Luis Garcia he is) is a pretty good, albeit very young, reliever throwing for the Great Lakes Loons in the Midwest League.  This Luis Garcia has 55 ks and 15 bbs in 71 innings, is just 22, and hails from the Dominican Republic.   [MLB]

The Twins signed two relievers, acquiring Jon Rauch for a PTNL from Arizona, and signing the waived Ron Mahay away from Kansas City.  These guys may be experienced, but I’m not certain they are going to be players who change the course of the AL Central race.  [MLB]

My old Hoffman High School friend Robb Tavill is worried that Rich Harden may be on his way out of Chicago, and according to FoxSports, he could be a Twin if a deal can be reached.   St. Louis did a lot of damage in July – the Twins are loading up in August.  [FoxSports]

On the other hand, Twins third baseman Joe Crede is back on the DL with a sore back – a back that is so bad that it’s now considered career threatening.  Crede’s had epidural shots to help relieve pain, but at some point he’s going to have to deal with the pain that has linked to his last operation.  [MLB]

Back to the Cubs… Alfonso Soriano is hoping that the MRI done on his ailing knee gives him hope, else the Cubs could be shutting him down for the rest of 2009.  After a rather disappointing 2009, those six remaining years on his contract seem like such a LONG time…  [FoxSports]

Mets third baseman David Wright wants to play in September and is scheduled to come off the DL soon, a stint caused by a beaning two weeks ago.  One gets the impression from the news stories that Jerry Manual likes that Wright isn’t around and I’m not sure why that is.  But then again, I don’t understand those guys running the Mets.  [FoxSports]

Seattle’s Ian Snell was drilled in the right wrist by a liner on Saturday, but he’ll be fine – didn’t even leave the game.  Snell thanks milk for his bone not breaking – he put up his right arm in self-defense.  [MLB]

Cincinnati’s Jay Bruce is finally able to swing with his injured wrist – he hopes to get back to the Reds before the season is out.  Bruce broke his wrist diving for a ball in right field on July 11th and has been out since then.  [MLB]

Padres outfielder Kyle Blanks injured his foot rounding the bases on a home run trot and had to leave Saturday’s game – so the plantar fasciitis that he’s been suffering from (similar to the injury that hobbled Carlos Quentin and my running partner Mike Coe) is rearing its ugly foot.  Now, Blanks is on the DL.  [MLB]

Toronto’s Marco Scutaro was drilled in the head by a Josh Beckett fastball on Friday night, suffering a mild concussion, and remains day-to-day.  Scutaro and Aaron Hill have carried the Jays offense this season.  [MLB]

FoxSports reporter Chris Ballard wonders why teams are hooked on the five man rotation.  I think Ballard is even missing a more important point – and that’s why do teams use a five man rotation and not a five DAY rotation?  A baseball season is essentially 183 days, so if your ace started every fifth DAY rather than every fifth GAME, you’d get 36 or 37 starts out of him, rather than 33.  Why wouldn’t you take 16 starts away from your fifth starter and give them to the first four slots in the rotation?  I am also in favor of having rookie starters work on six days rest rather than five.  One year in long relief, one year as a fifth starter – getting 16 starts and maybe 10 – 15 relief appearances in between those starts – and then moving into the rotation.

There are teams that have a ton of young pitching that could just go with a six man rotation, too.   We digress.

Hurry Back! Chris Snyder, D-Backs catcher, heads to the DL with inflammation in his lower back.  Seattle’s Russell Branyan is having his best season, and now goes to the DL with a herniated disk in his back.  Florida sent Chris Volstad to AAA New Orleans – he needs to find his command.

Welcome Back! The Rays brought back Akinori Iwamura, who had injured his knee in a collision with Marlin outfielder Chris Coghlan in May.