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 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.

Trade Analysis: Angels get Kazmir from Rays for Prospects

The stunner of the waiver wire trading period (August), the Angels bolstered their rotation by adding one-time Tampa Rays ace Scott Kazmir to the pitching staff.  Tampa gets pitcher Alexander Torres, third baseman Matthew Sweeney, and a player to be named later.

Angels Get: A legitimate rotation ace with a history of beating the Red Sox and Yankees, two teams that the Angels would likely face in the playoffs.  Kazmir isn’t without his issues…  He’s had a couple of nagging injuries and his control isn’t what it should be.  But, he has a live arm, strikes batters out, and was a winner back when the Rays weren’t.  Kazmir is signed through 2011 and the club would hold an option for 2012 – all at very reasonable prices for someone of Kazmir’s ability – especially if he can make 30 starts a year for the next three seasons.

Rays Get: Alexander Torres is a 21-year-old arm who looks a bit like a minor league version of Kazmir.  He gets strikeouts, he walks a lot of guys, and he just got promoted to AA where he was figuring things out there.  I like that in addition to the peripheral stats, he has a winning record.  Matthew Sweeney is a 21-year-old third baseman who is two or three years away, but has power and is figuring out the strikezone.  Of course, his future is blocked at third base by Evan Longoria, but he could move to first base by 2012 when Carlos Pena might start running out of years.

Winner? Hard not to like this as more beneficial for the Angels – but since it’s a pitcher, you just never know.  Kazmir is a known quantity, he’s still young, and he’s successful.  On the Angels, he could win 20 games in 34 starts.  My fear is that the inability to control the strikezone might derail either Rays prospect – but in the case of the Rays, they also save some dough which will be needed to pay James Shields or David Price or Tim Beckham one day…  I’ll give the slight edge to LA.

Price is Right; Did Somebody Tell Whisler’s Mother?

David Price earns his first MLB win last night, with 11Ks in just shy of 6 innings work. Matt Wieters tripled for his first MLB hit. Good day for propsects yesterday…

I watched a little of the DET/BAL game yesterday and Joel Zumaya hit 101 on the gun according to pitchfx data from MLB. The TV monitor said 98. I’m glad it’s not me in the batter’s box.

I also watched the STL/SF game and realized that Barry Zito is the new Scott Sanderson, only left handed. He’s 1 – 6 this year, but he was left out there a little too long and he got no help with his batters unable to hit Chris Carpenter. If Zito were on the Cards, he’d probably win 20 games.

Man, I watched a lot of baseball yesterday – and yet was still productive (somewhat). Among the games I flipped by and watched was a DIV II college championship game between Emporia State (KS) and Lynn University (Boca Raton, FL). I didn’t watch much, but still thought it was cool. Andy – Wilson Kilmer and Dave Bingham both came through Emporia State…

Casualties yesterday? Boston outfielder Rocco Baldelli slid to catch a foul ball yesterday, but jammed his left knee into the wall. Baldelli is another guy who can’t catch a break, but is a pretty good ballplayer when healthy.

Cincy’s Joey Votto is now on the DL citing personal reasons. That can’t be good.

Indian Victor Martinez fouled a ball off his left knee and is day-to-day.

The Indians are not confident that Travis Hafner will be back soon. Apparently his shoulder began hurting again during his rehab stint – frustrating to Pronk as well as the Indians management. The Indians owe Hafner more than $50 million through 2012.

Speaking of injured Indians, Grady Sizemore has a sore left elbow, but has been the DH in recent games. If Pronk were to return and Sizemore still couldn’t throw, he’d be a DL candidate.

Speaking of rehab assignments going awry, Oliver Perez has patellar tendonitis and will likely miss more time. His mechanics are apparently more messed up than the economy.

Chad Tracy had his best day this year for Arizona – three hits and a homer, only to injure a leg running out his last hit. He’s on the DL…

Welcome back: Cliff Floyd is back with San Diego. Guess who was sent down? Drew Macias. Matt Joyce, an outfield prospect, is up with Tampa Bay again. This time, it might stick. He’s got power and patience and has gotten better each year. In a half season with Detroit last year, he did okay. He’s NOT Ryan Braun, but he’s pretty good. Brian Schneider returns to the Mets, which combined with the fine play of Omir Santos, is why Ramon Castro became expendable.

Matt Kata returns to Houston in place of the injured Kaz Matsui. You won’t notice the difference either, except that Kata can’t run like Kaz. He’ll be okay, but won’t make any of our rosters… Sergio Romo is back with the Giants.

Hurry back: Travis Buck, Oakland slugger, has a strained oblique.

On the mend: Elijah Dukes gets a rehab stint with Harrisburg.

Finally, Wes Whisler gets the call for the White Sox. He’s not much of a pitcher, but he can hit some. Should be in the NL as a 13th pitcher, pinch hitter type. Micah Owings with less skills…

NOTE: MLB Transaction Wire provided brief notes for posts here.

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…

Cards Getting Healthier; David Price is Back!

Rick Ankiel made it back to the lineup on Sunday, sending Tyler Green back to AAA Memphis. Colby Rasmus was so good in his callup that Ankiel is going to move to right field for the time being. This coming weekend, Ryan Ludwick returns. This, coupled with the hopes that Chris Carpenter could stay healthy is the type of thing that baseball writers will look at and wonder if this means that the Cards will win the NL Central.

X-Rays show a broken bone in Brandon Phillips’ thumb, but the Reds second sacker hopes that he will not require a DL stint and will be able to play when the swelling goes down. His teammate, Joey Votto, remains day-to-day with dizziness tied to an inner ear infection. Saturday, Votto hit a pair of homers. Yesterday, he sat.

Rockies catcher Chris Iannetta’s hamstring injury is bad enough to require a DL stint. Yorvit Torrealba gets the starts while AAA Catcher Paul Phillips gets the call to the big leagues. Phillips can play a little, but at 32 isn’t really a long-term prospect. You Royals fans may remember Phillips in any of four stints with the parent club between 2004 and 2007.

Yankees reliever Brian Bruney remains sidelined with elbow pain, but tests have shown no damage. He’s day-to-day and slightly nervous. Joba Chamberlain won’t miss his next start after getting drilled with a liner in the first inning of his last start.

Welcome to the majors (again), David Price, who gets the start on Monday for the Rays.

Meanwhile, the Rays had both middle infielders dinged up on Sunday. Jason Bartlett injured his shin and ankle in a collision at second base with Dan Uggla and will sit a day. Akinori Iwamura injured his knee when Chris Coghlan barrelled into him to break up a double play. Aki gets an MRI and possibly a DL stint.

Coghlan’s slide was hard – Aki had stepped to the inside of the bag after taking the throw from pitcher Dan Wheeler, so Coghlan leaned over and into him right as Aki planted his left foot – didn’t look bad and he looked like he felt bad about it right away. What was amazing about the play, however, was that John Baker saw what had happened and never stopped running around third base. Don’t the umps usually call time when this happens? They didn’t, and Jason Bartlett alertly took the ball out of Aki’s hand, threw home, and nailed Baker at the plate for a rather odd 1-4-6-2 DP.

K-Rod’s back feels much better. Could be pitching by mid-week. Apparently, he’s a big fan of the muscle relaxors and pain killers.

A fun play yesterday… Indian Grady Sizemore tripled, but the throw from right field got past third base. So, Sizemore headed home. Reds Left Fielder Johnny Gomes had raced in to back up third (way alert), saved the ball before it got to the dugout, and fired home. Sizemore juked right and dove over the reach of the catcher but was ruled out.

However, the third baseman Adam Rosales was sort of still in the baseline, and because he pulled his leg out of Sizemore’s way (not sure that Sizemore would have hit him either way), the third base umpire ruled that Sizemore was entitled to home because of interference. Dusty Baker argued – but to be honest, the home plate umpire was on the wrong side of the play at the plate anyway – Sizemore had eluded the tag.

So, the right result, the wrong call, and all you get to see is Baker getting angry and Gomes getting nothing for a really alert and smart play. Baker, by the way, looks like he’s lost a little weight.

Anyway – the run tied the score, but the Reds won in extra innings.

One last Reds note – Homer Bailey was awful in his start and was dispatched back to AAA. Granted, it’s tough to stick in the majors when you only get one start, but Bailey has a 7.01 ERA in 18 MLB starts and hitters like him to the tune of a .311 average. Cincy called up catching prospect Wilkin Castillo, a mobile Dominican who might have a chance to stick in the bigs if he gets a chance. He looks like a Miguel Olivo type.

Rehab assignments? Rick VandenHurk (Marlins) off to Jupiter; Chad Bradford (Rays) off to Charlotte.

Marcus Thames is back in AAA for the Tigers, and the Giants chose to call up some catching reinforcements, bringing up Eli Whiteside. He’s a defensive wizard, I guess, because he can’t hit. Off to AAA Fresno? Pat Misch, who was allowing hitters to bat .375 against him. His days as a prospect are likely over.

Interleague Baseball is Fun!

Lots of fun stuff going on in baseball right now – wish I had more time to chase it all down for you…

Michael Cuddyer hit for the cycle – the fourth of 2009 and second for the Twins.

Jake Peavy stayed home, and trashed the Cubs last night. For the Cubs, Carlos Zambrano came off the DL and was decent – looks like he’ll be fine. However, Zambrano was replaced on the DL by Rich Harden (big surprise) with a back injury. Zambrano drilled David Eckstein with a pitch in the first inning, though, when Eck squared up to bunt. The pitch nailed Eckstein high on the chest. He stayed through the inning, but left when he said he was light-headed on the bases.

Daisuke Matsuzaka returned to the Red Sox last night and was okay – threw a lot of first pitch strikes, but was pulled after 80 pitches in his first start. He was topped by Johan Santana, who was fired up after a little tussle with Kevin Youkilis. Youk yelled loudly when plunked in the fifth inning and made it a little dicey – but it only made Santana focus more. By the way, J.J. Putz has a stiff neck, so Bobby Parnell pitched the 8th. Did you know Parnell could hit 100 on the gun? Me neither. Suddenly, I’m a fan. Meanwhile, outfielder Ryan Church left the game with a sore hammy.

Texas won in extra innings, but not without a price. Michael Young has a strained foot and may not play today.

How about Ricky Nolasco? After another bad outing last night (he ruined my ERA), he was shipped to AAA New Orleans. Ouch. The Marlins, who were clocked 15 – 2 by the Rays, called on Ross Gload to pitch an inning. Apparently Cody Ross was unavailable. Continuing to try and find anyone who can pitch, the Marlins designated David Davidson for assignment, then called up Sean West and Christopher Leroux from AA Jacksonville. West, who has stuff but may not be ready, gets the start today for the Fish. He was a 1st round draft pick in 2005 – looks to be wild and a flyball guy. Baseball America calls him the #4 prospect on the team, but I can’t tell. Leroux doesn’t look like a prospect yet. The kid hails from Wintrop University and hasn’t been bad, but he’s maybe 80% the pitcher West is, and West doesn’t look ready.

Seven more homers in Yankee stadium last night – A.J. Burnett gets the loss to the Phillies. Chien Ming Wang allowed two runs in three innings of relief, his first game since returning from the DL, and dropped his ERA to 25.00.

David Price may get the call by the Rays. The Ripped Hydes have been holding him all year and may finally get to use him!!! Scott Kazmir, who hasn’t looked the same, was placed on the 15 day DL with a quadriceps strain. It may last longer than that, though, as his mechanics are fouled up. Also, Troy Percival’s shoulder problems put the veteran reliever on the DL – though the stories coming out of Tampa suggest that Percival may actually hang up the mitt for good. Percival helped two teams get to the World Series, and has been a VERY good reliever since coming up in 1995.

Add J.J. Hardy to the Day-To-Day list… Back spasms.

The Transaction List for 5/22 in MLB was ENORMOUS. Here are the highlights:

Welcome back! Magglio Ordonez (personal), Juan Uribe (bereavement), Nomar Garciaparra (calf – DL). Billy Buckner got the call from Arizona and got a win for the Snakes. Johnny Gomes gets a trip back with Cincy with Joey Votto’s illness.

On the Mend: Kelvin Escobar (arm) gets a rehab stint in Rancho Cucamonga, along side Vlad Guerrero. Hiroki Kuroda was assigned to Inland Empire for his stint.

Hurry Back! Travis Snider (Toronto), whose bat stopped working. Wilkin Ramirez (covering for Maggs), Ramon Ramirez (Reds) – replaced by prospect Carlos Fisher. Eugenio Velez (SF) who wasn’t hitting as well, and the Giants like Kevin Frandsen better. Hunter Jones (BOS), who was replaced by Dice-K. He can pitch, will be back with somebody. Maybe, when the Sox decide to replace David Ortiz, they’ll package Jones and Brad Penny in a trade for someone…

Is it over? Adam Eaton was (finally) released by the Orioles.

Afterthoughts… Jerry Koosman may land in jail following a conviction for income tax evasion over a three year period. Sad story, really. Sounds like he became a radical conservative!!!

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.