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 Right Fielders

Shin-Soo Choo (CLE):  Wonderful hitter – 20/20 guy with patience, and he happens to play a fine right field.  I admit it – I knew very little about him but he’s the most productive right fielder in the AL.  (128.5 Runs Created, 10.0 Runs Saved = 138.49 Total Run Production)

Ichiro Suzuki (SEA):  Slaps 200 or more hits every year, still runs like the wind and has a cannon for an arm.  If you count his days in Japan, Ichiro has a reasonably good chance to have more hits as a professional baseball player than anyone ever.  (123.6 Runs Created, 3.1 Runs Saved = 126.72 Total Run Production)

Nelson Cruz (TEX):  Remarkably good fielder, amazing power.  Had a year that reminds you a bit of Brook Jacoby because he hit 33 homers with just 76 RBI (Jacoby in 1987 went 32 – 69).  Part of that is because he hit 25 solo homers and his slugging percentage tailed off considerably with runners on base (.577 vs. .447).

So I checked.  The Texas Ranger, as a team, hit 224 homers with 145 occuring with nobody on base and 79 driving home ducks.  75.8 of Cruz’s homers were solo shots.  For everyone else on the team, it was 62.8%.  Anyway – it might be a one-year thing…  Until last year, he had 13 homers with men on base and just 9 solo homers.

The other thing is his fielding numbers, which are stunning.  And then you see that he had nearly as many putouts in nearly 367 fewer innings than Nick Markakis.  It’s legit.  He got to a lot of fly balls.  (80.9 Runs Created, 36.4 Runs Saved = 117.30 Total Run Production)

Bobby Abreu (LAA):  Another year just like the rest, though with a little less power.  Still drives in around 100 runs, still gets 30 stolen bases, still gets on base around 40% of the time, actually looked limber in right field.  At what point do we wonder if Abreu is worthy of the Hall of Fame?  (102.3 Runs Created, 2.5 Runs Saved = 104.87 Total Run Production.)

Jason Kubel (MIN):  Not a horrible outfielder – but a legitimate hitter.  He’s not the regular right fielder, but he can play it in a pinch.  (98.1 Runs Created, -0.3 Runs Saved = 97.80 Total Run Production)

Nick Swisher (NYY):  He may not throw many guys out, but he hits for a little power, gets on base, and can still cover ground.  I know he struggled in the post-season, but Swisher kept the offense moving most of the year and the Yankees should be glad he’s still around.  (94.6 Runs Created, 2.6 Runs Saved = 97.21 Total Run Production)

Ryan Sweeney (OAK):  I need to watch more A’s games to see with my own eyes how good he is.  Fast enough to cover centerfield.  Seems to throw well enough,  Gets on base a little but you’d like to see a little more power.  Still – a productive player if his defense is really this good.  (71.2 Runs Created, 23.9 Runs Saved = 95.18 Total Run Production)

J.D. Drew (BOS):  The new George Brett.  Can’t stay in the lineup for 150 games, but when he plays he hits.  Still has a great eye at the plate, but his back is affecting his range in the field.  I wouldn’t let him cover center anymore, that’s for sure.  (89.9 Runs Created, -2.8 Runs Saved = 87.13 Total Run Production)

Alex Rios (TOR/CWS):  Hit .199 after arriving in Chicago’s south side – and we hoped the change in scenery would help get him back to where he was a year or two ago.  And yet, he’s not really a bad player.  Some power, a lot of doubles, good speed, decent defensively.  He just gets paid a lot for what seems like mediocrity.  (73.9 Runs Created, 10.1 Runs Saved = 84.00 Total Run Production)

Michael Cuddyer (MIN):  Good power, fair bat and eye, miserable defender.  Based on the stats, maybe Kubel should play in right and Cuddyer become the DH…  (100.7 Runs Created, -22.64 Runs Saved = 78.10 Total Run Production)

Nick Markakis (BAL):  From what I can tell, he’s overrated.  He doesn’t really hit for power – more doubles than homers, not that it’s a problem.  He doesn’t have an exceptionally high batting average.  He doesn’t run very well.  He can throw, but he doesn’t get to many flies.  On the other hand, he turns 27 at the end of this season, so he could be one of those guys who is ready to have his career year.  If not this year, maybe next year.  (101.8 Runs Created, -28.7 Runs Saved = 73.11 Total Run Production)

Jermaine Dye (CWS):  Like Alex Rios, he struggled mightily down the stretch.  I can still remember when the Royals acquired Dye from Atlanta and the fans were upset about losing Michael Tucker.  Um…  Which player still has a major league job?  It’s a season showing signs of decline, but still productive.  (75.4 Runs Created, -3 Runs Saved = 72.41 Total Run Production)

Magglio Ordonez (DET):  He rescued a poor batting average after that lousy start, but he’s still just a miserable outfielder.  If he doesn’t put 100 – 120 runs on the board offensively (and he’s still not half bad), his lack of range just kills you.  Time to move on, wouldn’t you think?  Maybe make him a DH?  (75.3 Runs Created, -17.85 Runs Saved = 57.47 Total Run Production)

Willie Bloomquist (KC):  Played a lot of different positions and that makes him Alfredo Amezega.  He’s better than Jose Guillen, but that’s not much.  (49.1 Runs Created, 3.8 Runs Saved = 52.97 Total Run Production)

Jose Bautista (TOR):  Not really a right fielder, but he got some time here last season.  He’s at least a slightly better than replacement level player.  (50.4 Runs Created, .8 Runs Saved = 51.27 Total Run Production)

Two Gabes (TB):  Gabe Kapler and Gabe Gross split time in right field for Tampa and combined 14 – 68 – .235.  Kapler was a slightly better hitter or fielder, but combined weren’t really enough.

Jose Guillen (KC):  Now THAT was a good use of limited money.  Can’t hit, can’t stay healthy, can’t field.  Less production than EITHER Gabe…  (30.9 Runs Created, -14.8 Runs Saved = 16.05 Total Run Production.)

Lee is Unhittable; Other Baseball Topics…

Cliff Lee made it look easy, whether it was mowing down Yankee hitters, catching pop ups, or fielding grounders behind his back.  (Bummer about not landing Roy Halliday, huh?)  Game One goes to the Phillies…  Sabathia was solid enough, but Chase Utley pounded two homers – one a gargantuan shot – and the bullpen let the game get away in the eighth inning.  (On the other hand, Damaso Marte struck out Chase Utley looking in that inning without throwing a single pitch in the strike zone based on the Fox strike zone box…)

Tonight the Phillies send Pedro Martinez to the hill against A.J. Burnett and the Yankees.

For a nice breakdown of the two teams, depend on Sports Illustrated.  Ted Keith does a nice job here.  For 15 other interesting aspects of the series, check out John Heyman’s article, too.

For a really cool breakdown of how the Yankees and Phillies assembled their teams, check out this MLB article.  It covers salaries, trades, and what not.  Proof that you need money and a diverse plan for acquiring talent…

Suzyn Waldman is the first woman to call a World Series as a radio broadcaster.  I occasionally listen to John Sterling and Waldman broadcasts while driving home in my car; I like her better than Sterling.  Let’s start with Sterling having scripted all of his home run calls.  Sheesh.

And in other news…

The sale of the Chicago Cubs to the Ricketts family is complete.  Chairman Tom Ricketts says he’s going to set upon “…building a championship tradition the fans so richly deserve.”  [ESPN]

They wanted Manny Acta, but Acta signed with Cleveland.  So, Houston signed Boston bench coach Brad Mills.  (I think Mills got a Topps card back in 1981 or 1982 when he was with the Expos.  I’ll have to check that out as I am sorting cards later this month.)  [SI]

The Tampa Rays signed utility outfielder Gabe Kapler to a one-year deal.  [SI]

Rusty Greer was loved in Texas, and now he might be a hitting instructor.  I like it!  [ESPN]

Some couples can’t help but have their affairs spill into the public arena, but the McCourts are going to be an interesting diversion for baseball fans who also like reality TV…  Only in LA…  [SI]

Happy Birthday!

Charles Ebbets was born on this day in 1859…  Others celebrating with cake or cards include:  Solly Hofman, Cubs utility player of the early 1900s (1882), Earl Yingling (1889) – I write about him in chapter nine of Rube’s biography, Jim Bibby (1944), and Dana Eveland (1982).

Afterthoughts…

And what would YOU do to get World Series tickets?  This woman got arrested for offering, um, a few of her assets (allegedly).  [ESPN]