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.

2009 Season Forecast: Florida Marlins

Florida Marlins
2008: 84-77 (3rd NL East, 7.5 games back)

At some point, the people who regularly pick the Marlins to finish 71 – 91 are going to finally understand that General Manager Larry Beinfest knows what he’s doing.  Florida has fielded a competitive team every year but one in the last six seasons.  This year, management feels like it has a young staff that rivals the team that won the World Series in 2003 (Burnett, Beckett, Willis, Penny), and returns the core of a batting order that features three players who might all hit 30 homers.  This year, the outfield will be more mobile, the infield will have more experience, and the young arms will have a chance to shine.

Looking Back on 2008

The Marlins were one of the surprise teams in baseball (again), getting off to a solid start in April and May, and finding themselves in first place for a good chunk of the spring.  A weak June, where the hitting slowed and the starting pitching struggled mightily, sent them back to third place.  However, the Marlins wouldn’t fall to the bottom.  Instead, they rifled through July to hang near the top of the division.  After the all-star break, the bats slowed – Dan Uggla, Josh Willingham, Jorge Cantu, Mike Jacobs, and Jeremy Hermida all tanked – just as the rotation was overhauled.  So, despite replacing Rich VandenHurk, Burke Badenhop, Mark Hendrickson, and Andrew Miller with Josh Johnson, Chris Volstad, and Anibel Sanchez (to go along with Ricky Nolasco and Scott Olsen), giving the Marlins a strong rotation and having the best single month ERA, the team struggled to win 11 games.  The bullpen didn’t help either – Kevin Gregg’s balky knee and Reynal Pinto’s return to earth appeared to end Florida’s chances.

Even then, the Marlins wouldn’t die.  In late September, the Marlins won nine in a row and looked like they might suddenly repeat the Rockies Run of 2007 only to lose to Philadelphia and finish in 3rd with 84 wins.  With the strong finish and the improved rotation, the Marlins looked forward to 2009.

Tell me about that offense

If nothing else, the Marlins hit a LOT of homers.  They have one or two guys who can run, they have one or two guys who might hit close to .300, but they have a lot of guys who put the ball in the seats.

The infield offense was a single Jorge Cantu homer away from being the first to have all four starters hit 30 homers.  Hanley Ramirez is an offensive force, a 30/30 man who added 92 walks to his stat sheet, and scored 125 runs.  Dan Uggla had an unbelievable May that was so good (12 homers, .347 average) that it made up for two months of nothing (July, August).  The new Kansas City Royal, Mike Jacobs, hit for power but not much else.  Jorge Cantu looked like the hitter he was for Tampa Bay in 2005 and might be heading into his prime.  No other infield, including Philadelphia’s three MVP candidates, had such a broad impact on the offense.

The outfield, however, struggled to keep up.  Josh Willingham had only one good month.  Jeremy Hermida, coming off a 2007 where it looked like he might live up to his first round draft pick status, lost his way after the all-star break.  Cody Ross was a pleasant surprise and should have played more.  The usual centerfielder was the amazing Alfredo Amezega, who doesn’t do much other than hit a few singles.  The fifth outfielder, Luis Gonzalez, hit like a player who used to hit well.

Behind the plate, Matt Treanor struggled with injuries, Mike Rabelo played indifferently and was sent to AAA.  Part of the team’s success was finding John Baker, who hit .299 and reached base 40% of the time during the last two months of the season.

Defensively:

In 2007, the defense was the weakest part of the Marlins game.  In 2008, they battled it to a draw.

The catching was below average and mistake prone, and neither Baker, Rabelo, or Treanor could stop the running game.  Baker was the worst of the throwers, but his bat makes him the first choice to start in 2009.

The infield was slightly better than average.  Uggla and Ramirez were both slightly better than average in terms of range.  Uggla was especially good making many more good plays than bad, and helping turn two.  Ramirez cut down on his errors and made a few more plays.  If you watched both Jacobs and Cantu, you’d think they weren’t very mobile.  They’re not.  But the statistics show that they weren’t awful.  Cantu was dead even average in terms of range but makes a few too many errors, while Jacobs was just slightly below average at first and not helping in terms of being dependable.  Of the backups, only Andino (at second base) looks like a truly better defender, and since everybody who started hit, the defense provided was gravy.

Amezega is a surprisingly good outfielder; when you see him every day you realize just how skilled a fielder he is.  Cody Ross is mobile enough to play center, and solid in left or right.  Jeremy Hermida is mobile but awkward.  The primary backups, Luis Gonzales and Josh Willingham aren’t mobile, though Willingham gives good effort.  Putting Maybin in center, who looks truly amazing, and moving Ross to right will make what was a reasonably solid outfield even better.

Now Pitching…

The rotation featured only two guys who didn’t miss starts, Ricky Nolasco and Scott Olsen, and rotated out weaker starters once Josh Johnson and Anibel Sanchez got healthy and Chris Volstad was ready to go.

Nolasco started getting his curve over for strikes, becoming the staff ace and winning 15 games.  Scott Olsen kept the ball in the park, appeared to mature on the mound, and kept his team in games.  While Nolasco was 22 runs better than the average starter in his 212.1 innings, he gave up a few homers.  What helped was having stunning control (only 42 walks against 186 strikeouts).  Olsen, on the other hand, was just a good number four starter.  He wasn’t special but he was steady.

The rest of the rotation improved when the Marlins switched out Andrew Miller (-22) and Mark Hendrickson (-18), and no longer needed to use Burke Badenhop (-9) when Josh Johnson (+9) Chris Volstad (+14), and Sanchez joined the rotation.  Sanchez was not nearly as solid (-8), but was still a step up over Miller or Hendrickson.

The bullpen was tolerable.  Kevin Gregg was great for four months, and not so good down the stretch, but Matt Lindstrom picked up some of the slack in September.  For three months, Reynal Pinto avoided problems caused by his lack of control until it caught up to him in August and September.  As good as Joe Nelson and Doug Waechter were, they were negated by Ryan Tucker, Taylor Tankersley, and Eulogio De La Cruz, who were scary bad in major league tryouts.

Forecasting 2008:

There is a lot of optimism in Florida, and I would tend to agree.  Let’s start with the pitching.

Josh Johnson is great, but has never made it to 160 innings.  He potentially could be twenty runs better than average.  Realistically, he’ll be five runs better than average for every 50 innings he pitches.  Nolasco was amazing last year – let’s hope he stays equally solid, but he might fall back just a little from last year.  Volstad could be a pretty solid third starter.  If he keeps his quality for 180 innings, he would be solid and likely 15 runs better than average.  It’s the bottom slots featuring Sanchez and Miller that make me nervous.  Miller hasn’t been that good and seems to be off his game until the third inning.  Sanchez was good as a rookie and seems to have mound savvy, but before his injury wasn’t very good and at the end of last year, he wasn’t all that great either.  Either could improve, but I’m not confident both will.  If both pitch 180 innings, they’ll cancel each other out.  Granted, there will be no Hendrickson, which is a huge benefit, and if they only need to get 10 starts out of Badenhop or someone else, that’ll be good.  The optimist says an improvement of 30 runs over last year.

The bullpen will feature some lively young arms.  Lindstrom hits 100 once in a while, but his fastball is flat.  If his slider stays strong, he’ll be okay.  Former Royal Leo Nunez might be okay here, and Kensing might help.  Badenhop should be better as a long relief option – his pitches moved so much he had a hard time finding the strike zone, something that hadn’t been a problem in the minors.  He may start the year in AAA.  Scott Proctor was signed to a one-year deal.  Last year with the Dodgers, Proctor suffered through elbow tendinitis, having his first off season as a professional, but it was after two strong seasons where he appeared in 83 games each year.  Still, Gregg wasn’t bad and a few othes were really good (Joe Nelson, Doug Waechter, and Arthur Rhodes, all of whom are gone).  Just like 2008, though, there will be a few undependable arms, so the net result will likely be no change.  Jose Ceda looks like Lee Smith, but he’s a year away.

Defensively, there is a chance for improvement just by getting Maybin in the lineup and Willingham or Gonzalez off the field.  Also, if Gaby Sanchez plays first instead of Jacobs, the infield could be even more airtight.  The gain could be an additional ten run improvement.

Offensively, the Marlins have a formidable lineup.  Ramirez, Hermida, Cantu, Ross, Uggla, and Baker will hit.  Sanchez looks like a Mark Grace type, but for all the power Jacobs provided, he hit .243 with a low On Base Percentage.  So, it will be a wash at that position.  The potential for Hermida to improve will probably wash out with any decline by another player (Cantu?  Uggla?), and if Maybin is slightlyover matched as a hitter, it’s not going to be a huge loss since Amezega isn’t a run producer anyway.  I’m not as convinced that the bench hitting will be as strong.  The 2008 Marlins had some depth, while the 2009 Marlins look a little thin offensively.  Emilio Bonafacio and Jay Gibbons are around (Gibbons got a Non-Roster Invite to spring training), Wes Helms is still here.  If the Marlins get someone else – perhaps Dallas McPherson – to contribute, it might be okay.  But I think the offense will lose ten runs from last year.

All things considered, though, it’s a team that should win 85 games and be in the hunt for a wild card spot, and that shouldn’t be a surprise anymore.  They have been in the hunt more often than not over the last six seasons.  (I see that Peter Gammons finally agrees with my assessment, telling a Baseball Tonight preview show audience that they will be in the hunt into the final week of the season as his long shot pick.  It’s a safe long shot pick.)

Down on the Farm…

The Marlins moved their AAA franchise a bit closer to home, leaving Albuquerque for New Orleans.  That means when a prospect hits .300, he’ll be a legitimate prospect.  In New Mexico, everyone hits about .320 with some power.  The best hitters there were guys who had failed in previous trips, including Brett Carroll, who is not an awful fifth outfielder.  Only Eulogio De La Cruz really pitched well there and earned a trip to the bigs.

The AA Carolina Mudcats provided the real home for prospects, such as Gaby Sanchez (17 – 92 – .314) and Cameron Maybin.  Chris Volstad made the roster after a strong start, but Ryan Tucker (5 – 3, 1.58) and William Glen (9 – 4, 2.01 87Ks in 94 innings) actually fared better.  One of these guys will replace somebody in the rotation if he gets a strong run in AAA.  Chris Mobley fanned 70 in 58 innings as the closer and will eventually make a roster in the future.  This year’s AA franchise will be a bit closer to home, moving to Jacksonville, FL.

Logan Morrison was the top hitter for the High A Jupiter Hammerheads (13 – 74 – .332).  Teen Michael Stanton (39 homers) and Bryan Peterson mashed the ball for the Low A Greensboro Grasshoppers, but so did a lot of guys (and the pitchers were equally mauled).  The best lower level pitcher may be Georgia Southern grad Andrew Battisto, who fanned 101 in 81 innings and walked only 11, winning eight and losing just one for the Grasshoppers.  What made that season especially impressive was a strong ground ball/fly ball ratio – so not only did he strikeout a lot of batters, but the batted balls were kept in the park.